The Scorpion wins tight, entertaining race to 30 over The Pearl in benefit for Tommy Kennedy

Photo courtesy Ron Park

Two of pool’s certified legends – Johnny “The Scorpion” Archer and Earl “The Pearl” Strickland – squared off against each other in a 9-ball race to 30 at Smokin’ Cues in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, September 13. Archer and Strickland played 58 of the possible 59 games that could be played in a race to 30. In the end, literally, Archer won it, 30-28, in an entertaining, mostly drama-free four-plus hours of terrific pool that towards that end was drawing about 2,000 viewers to UpState Al’s Facebook page to watch the live stream.

“It was a well-played match,” said Archer a few hours later. “It had everything in it. We each had our momentum swings, went through spells where things didn’t go so well. There were some tactical games and some great shots.”

“As a fan of pool,” he added, “I’d watch that match on video.”

Both players were mic-ed for the game, and while Archer was typically quiet and Strickland was typically talkative, the resultant ‘sound track’ was never distracting. Unlike other times, when even without a microphone, Strickland can get a little vocally boisterous, he stayed within himself and restricted commentary to the occasional gripe about his inability to get any luck or help from the actual table. Most importantly, Strickland didn’t distract himself by elevating any given moment into unnecessary drama that often, in his storied past, had led to contentious battles and distracted play that over the years had cost him a game and even a match or two. 

Though he couldn’t pinpoint when he’d last played against Strickland, Archer guessed that it might have been at a Turning Stone event four or five years ago. He also couldn’t remember exactly when or where he’d first played against Strickland, but figured that he (Archer) was a teenager at the time. He recalled, over the years, being on the wrong side of a few verbal incidents with Strickland.

“I used to take it personally,” he said. “I don’t take it personally anymore.”

The two-day event began on Saturday with a narrated, trick shot exhibition by Strickland, in which he dedicated a number of shots that he set up to historic players like Steve Mizerak and Willie Mosconi. It was Strickland at his best. Joking with the small crowd of about 30-40 people seated in chairs that ringed the two tables designated for Strickland’s ‘show’ and then, he and Archer played in one-on-one, best-of-three matches against spectators, who donated money for the cause that led to the organization of the whole event by Ronny Park, a lifelong friend of Tommy Kennedy. Many commentors in the stream’s chat room were unaware of the benefit aspect of the two-day event, asking repeatedly how much money was at stake in Sunday’s race to 30 challenge match.

Tommy Kennedy and Ron Park

The basic story was that on March 14, after participating in a Tony Crosby pool tournament in Tallahassee, FL, Kennedy slipped and fell in a hotel bathroom and hit his head. He was hospitalized and learned that he’d suffered a concussion that led to, among other things, an inability to eat. As neurologists attempted to learn the extent of his injuries, which proved to be severe and potentially, of long-lasting duration, Kennedy began losing weight. He was down to 87 pounds before there was a reversal and little by little, he began to gain that weight back. It took nearly four months. He still figures it’ll be a while before he can get back to any pool tables outside of his home.

“At least a month or two,” he said from his home on Sunday. “When I bend over, I still feel a little off-balance.”

“The impact was to my head, my neck and my upper spine,” he explained, noting further that a difference of couple of inches could have killed him on the spot. 

All the while, the medical bills for this unexpected and traumatic injury were putting a severe dent in the Kennedy household’s finances. It was clear, almost from the start, that he was going to need some help to weather this personal storm. Enter Roger Long, another long-time friend of the family, who set up a GoFundMe page (on behalf of Tommy’s wife, Denise Kennedy. To date, that page has received just over $28,000 in donations, with a goal of $75,000.

Ronny Park joined the cause of helping Tommy out and enlisted Archer and Strickland’s help in the organization of this past weekend’s event. According to Park, between on-line donations (Loree Jon Hasson donated a cue, which was the prize in an on-line raffle at $20 per ticket) and in-person donations at Smokin’ Cues, the event raised almost $5,000. 

“I am so grateful for all of the support,” said Kennedy, his voice echoing the sentiment. “It’s just unbelievable.”

Mid-way, a slow start turns into a tight race

In the early going, the race to 30 did not look as though it was going to be memorable. The two of them had to get to the 6th rack, before either of them sunk a ball on the break. Oddly enough, ahead by one at 3-2, Strickland was the first to make a ball on the break, but when he was forced to ‘push,’ Archer made a tricky combo and ran out to tie the score.

Archer returned the favor by breaking dry on the 7th rack, allowing Strickland to run and go ahead by one. The first signs of the ‘talkative’ Pearl showed up in the eighth rack when he sunk three balls on the break and did not have a shot on the 1-ball. He complained about bad luck, loudly. After a few safeties, Strickland was awarded ball in hand and sunk the remaining six balls that he probably would have dropped if he’d been able to see the 1-ball after the break. It was 5-3.

A series of dry breaks and a few unforced errors later, Strickland was ahead by four at 7-3. Archer checked in with one and Strickland ran two more to make it 9-4. Back and forth they went, with Strickland having the longer runs, until he got out in front by six at 13-7; as it turned out, his largest lead of the match. And then, as they say, the tide turned.

The plan was for a break when either player reached 15. At that 13-7 mark, Archer went on a run that saw him win eight of the next nine racks and take his first lead – 15-14 – at the break.

Upon their return, Strickland let everyone know that the match was far from over because Archer had taken a lead. Strickland won the 30th rack to tie things up at 15. They went back and forth to ties, including, but no limited to 20-20, 25-25 and 28-28; 56 down, potentially only three to go in a race to 2.

There some ‘nerves’ involved at this point. In rack 57, Strickland sunk a ball on the break but scratched. Archer ran to the 7-ball, but attempted a long rail-runner that rattled in its intended corner pocket. Strickland dropped it for him but got ‘a little close to his work’ positioning for the 8-ball. He missed and Archer finished to be on the hill.

At this point, with nearly 2,000 people watching on the stream, Archer sunk a ball on the break, but didn’t have a clean look at the 1-ball. He played safe, Strickland safed back, and Archer played safe a second time. Strickland’s second shot missed the 1-ball completely and before Archer could pick up the cue ball, Strickland used his stick to sweep the balls across the table and conceded.

“I started out missing a couple of shots and my speed was off in the first few games,” said Archer, “but overall, it felt pretty good.”

“I played well to come back on him in that first half,” he added.

Ronny Park and Upstate Al thanked the ownership and staff at Smokin’ Cues for their hospitality, as well as sponsors Lite Systems, JB Cases, Aramith Balls, Kamui Tips, HI Impact Tips, Simonis Cloth, Billiard Engineering, Thomas Grimaldi Pool Tables, and Byrd, Byrd, McMahon and Denton, Attorneys at Law. Upstate Al gave a shout out to his commentators for the event – Joe Torres, Chris Miller and Ronnie Park and thanked everyone who watched the stream and contributed to the cause of helping Tommy Kennedy.

“That’s what this (was) all about,” said Al, who assured that people watching the stream were made aware of why the match was being held by putting the varied means of contributing to the cause on-screen between every game of the 58-game match.

Kennedy has a lot of friends in and out of the pool community and they continue to come to his assistance when now, he needs it most.