by Jul 16, 2001, 1:02 PM EST
There's this old saying: "Be careful what you wish for. It may come true." Without trying to appear heartless, Matchroom Sports promoter Barry Hearn secretly had to be hoping Earl Strickland would not be elected into the Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame. Induction would have meant that Strickland, still the game's top drawing card, would have taken a reluctant pass on Hearn's $300,000 Admiral World Pool Championship in Cardiff, Wales, in July.
Hearn's wishes came true when Strickland missed out on the 2001 Hall of Fame. But, as Hearn will quickly learn, getting the enigmatic 9-ball superstar back into the field comes with mixed blessings. The Cardiff field now includes the pre-tournament betting favorite, and Strickland's presence will assure packed stands and a riveted television viewing audience. But "Earl the Pearl" rarely shows up quietly, and shortly after coming to grips with the disappointment of his Hall of Fame snub, Strickland began to limber up for Cardiff.
"Certainly I'm disappointed," Strickland said. "But my time will come. Now I can focus on Cardiff." And Strickland's "focus" immediately turned to the expanded field and shortened preliminary races that Matchroom is employing for the 2001 tournament. With this year's jump from 96 players to 128, the preliminary flights that will pare down the field to its final, single-elimination 64-player board will consist of eight-player groupings. The preliminary groups will consist of round-robin, race-to-five matches. "That's ridiculous," railed Strickland, who tied for third in the 2000 event. "A race to five is way too short. Anyone can win a race-to-five.
"And why does every promoter have to try to get 400 players? That isn't what I want as a player. I always thought that as the game got more professional, we'd play once a day. You can't prepare for the players when you play three or four times a day. And you can't prepare at all for a race to five. We'll never be able to build icons or have dominating players with races to five or seven. Top players are getting beaten by bums because their talents are being equalized. Why do we want that?"
According to Matchroom spokesman Luke Riches, the field was expanded for several reasons. "The demand from other countries to send representatives was there," rationalized Riches. "At the same time, we wanted to assure that the best players from Europe and the U.S. and Asia had spots in the field." True to Matchroom's hunches, demand for inclusion in the event from around the world has been staggering. At least 44 countries will be represented in the 128-player field. More countries could find their way into the fray through five pre-tournament qualification events. Ten positions in the 128-player field will be determined by the five qualifiers, which will be held at the Stars & Stripes Pool Club in Bristol on each of the five days leading up to the World Championship. To date, more than 100 competitors have signed up for the qualifiers, representing 26 countries. The top two finishers in each event will earn a spot in the 128-player main event.
"As for the short races," added Riches, "a race to five is short, but each player plays seven matches in his group, and the top four from each group advance to the last 64 knock-out [single-elimination] stages. The top players may not win all seven matches, but they should all win through."
At stake in the no-entry fee, invitational tournament, of course, is more than simply the claim of World Champion. The 2001 World Pool Championship will boast the largest prize fund and biggest first prize in the history of the sport. With Cardiff-based insurance company Admiral Insurance joining as the title sponsor of the World Pool-Billiard Association-sanctioned championship, a whopping $300,000 will be doled out. The 2001 champion will earn a staggering $65,000. Last year's $250,000 World Championship awarded $60,000 to Taiwan's Fong-Pang Chao.
Chao will once again be among the favorites in Cardiff, having a
third-place finish in 1999 to go with his 2000 title. The Americans, led by Strickland and super-hot Cory Deuel, will feature a 14-player contingent. Perhaps most importantly for pool, the nine-day 2001 championship will once again receive more than 60 hours of live coverage throughout the United Kingdom on Sky Sports. The event is also scheduled to be carried live in Taiwan and the Philippines, with post-tournament syndicated coverage in dozens of countries around the globe.