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Strickland and Van Boening go double hill, before “The Pearl” prevails in 10-Ball Challenge

Earl Strickland and Shane Van Boening (Photo courtesy of Ricky Bryant)

Strickland and Van Boening go double hill, before “The Pearl” prevails in 10-Ball Challenge

There are those who insist that luck plays no role in billiard sports. None; that every shot, every roll, every pocket that seems, at times, to physically intervene to keep a ball from dropping in, is the result of some sort of design, good or bad, as the case may be. Those who insist that luck is an unavoidable component of the game, operating under the principles of Murphy’s Law, have a lot of anecdotal evidence to support this opposing point of view. Add to that anecdotal evidence the highly anticipated matchup between Earl Strickland and Shane Van Boening played out on Wednesday night, July 25, at the $10,000-added Diamond 16 Man Invitational 10-Ball Challenge, part of the First Annual Southern Classic, being held at Harrah’s Casino and Hotel in Tunica, MS.

“The Pearl” won the race-to-15 match, coming back from two down after Van Boening reached the hill. It was a typical Strickland match, accompanied by his running commentary; to himself, to Van Boening, to the packed house in the arena, and to the 1,500 (at one point) viewers who watched the free, live stream from  InsidePool TV. At various times during the match, Strickland appeared to be on both sides of the ‘luck’ debate. “See what I did?” he seemed to say when things were going his way. “Did you see what that ball (bank, pocket) did?” when they weren’t. 

Strickland couldn’t seem to buy a shot after any successful break. In fact, it wasn’t until he broke the 23rd rack (to eventually go ahead 12-11), that he found himself looking at a viable, follow-up shot, and you could see how much it surprised him. For both players, balls seemed to roll just a little too far, or secure a location directly behind another ball, or just plain refuse to enter a pocket. Van Boening chalked up the higher number of unforced errors (difficult to calculate exact numbers, because the term is subject to interpretation),  and Strickland made him pay, usually at critical junctures in the game. Down by two at 8-6, Van Boening won four straight to take his own two-point lead at 10-8, but in the 19th rack, rattled an 8-ball in a corner pocket, allowing Strickland to run the last three balls and pull within one. Four racks later, an unforced Van Boening error, shooting at the 9-ball, allowed Strickland to knot things at 12.

You could see the luck (or design, if you see it that way) play out on their faces with alternating expressions of frustration and laughter. Strickland executes a difficult shot, but frowns when the cue ball rolls a little too far. Van Boening misses an easy shot and smiles when the cue ball rolls just far enough to deny Strickland a follow-up opportunity. Strickland, of course, was much more dramatic about these mood swings, though Van Boening was the only one who, on two frustrating occasions, banged his stick on the table, which he was technically, not supposed to do.

Even J.R. Calvert, publisher of Inside Pool magazine, host and game-savvy commentator for the live stream, made note of the unusual amount of luck (good or bad, depending on the moment) that was at play on this 10-ft. Diamond table.

“Two world-class players,” he said, with a smile in his voice, “being controlled by the rolls.”

Back and forth it went, at a decent clip, all things considered. After Strickland tied things at 12-12, Van Boening won two straight to reach the hill first. This, in spite of a Strickland scratch in the 26th rack. Van Boening made another unforced error to return the table to Strickland, but Strickland missed a shot that gave the table and in a Mississippi heartbeat, the hill game to Van Boening. 

In the potential victory-sealing game, Van Boening chalked up yet another unforced error that allowed Strickland to close within one. “I was playing great, and they (the live audience) just heckled me right out of the game,” said Strickland, as he stepped to the table and ran the balls to make it 14-13. Rack 28 saw Strickland make a rare unforced error, but Van Boening returned the favor with (another) one of his own, allowing Strickland to join him on the hill. Strickland finished things quickly and joined Charlie Bryant, Johnny Archer, Dennis Orcullo, Phil Burford, Alex Pagalayun (who defeated Darren Appleton 15-5, in a live stream that followed the Strickland/Van Boening match), Landon Shuffett and Jeremy Jones as the final eight standing in the Invitational 10-Ball Challenge. 

Congratulations and thanks to the InsidePool TV staff for an excellent, five-camera, live-stream free-to-all broadcast of the match, without which this report could not have been written. As always, Calvert provided excellent commentary, executing that tricky, delicate balance between saying too much and not saying enough. His knowledge of the game, and the participants in the match kept viewers informed and listening without distracting from the match itself. 

As might be expected, the live stream’s accompanying chat screen, which, as noted, was accommodating over 1,000 viewers (plus) throughout the match, was lively. This interactive component of a live stream is likely underestimated in terms of its ability to maintain viewers. Though it’s difficult, at any given stage of the proceedings, to engage in anything resembling a reasonable discussion with thousands commenting simultaneously, the chat offers occasional snapshots of the attending audience; comments on the varied styles of play, running commentary through to the last minute, regarding the likely winner, and in general, a sense of shared experience, absent from the incredibly more expensive broadcasts offered by major sports networks. You just don’t get that sense of (sometimes, rough and tumble) community from watching your more or less standard sports broadcast, of any sport.

There’s a lot more to come, and most of it will likely further fuel the debate about luck, much to the entertainment delight of those of us in attendance, on-site or via live stream.