AUBURN — Professional pool players Earl “The Pearl” Strickland and Dennis “The Hatchetman” Hatch will face off Sunday afternoon in a friendly exhibition game at Legends Sports Bar & Grill at 128 Center St.

They’ve been drawn to the Auburn spot by the bar’s 10 Diamond brand pool tables, preferred among professionals because of the single slate bed rather than the more common three-slate beds found elsewhere. The split beds experience some movement during play, which “creates inconsistency to the game,” according to Legends co-owner Melinda Small, and pros much prefer the single slate.

Small and her husband, Dan, met Strickland and Hatch in September 2013 when they went to the Turning Stone XXI 9-Ball Championship in Verona, N.Y. — a tournament won by Strickland.

The Smalls were preparing to open Legends and were shopping for tables.

The tournament was being played on 16 new Diamond tables, the very brand the Smalls were interested in buying, so they arranged to buy 10 of them after the tournament. Once a tournament is played on a table, Melinda Small said, “they’re considered used tables.” And, she said, “they had already been shipped to New York, so it made sense to continue shipping them to Maine.”

Small said, “We’ve been told we’re one of the only places in New England that has 10 Diamond pool tables in one location. It’s a very unique opportunity” for pros and locals.

When the couple was at the Verona tournament, Small said, they mingled among the pros. “I was bold enough to go up to Strickland for a photo,” she said. That led to a conversation about why the Smalls were in New York, and Strickland was intrigued by their hefty purchase.

The Smalls asked Strickland to autograph one of the tables, which he agreed to do, as did five others there, including Hall of Famer Karen Coor.

The table has since been autographed by others, including pro player Mike Deschaine, a Maine native, and the table is set up at Legends so patrons can easily see the signatures.

Weeks ago, Small said, an acquaintance mentioned Strickland was going to be on tour and suggested he might be interested in making a trip to Maine, so the Smalls sent an email to his tour organizer and “they responded immediately and were very interested,” Small said.

Based on that interest, the Smalls set up the exhibition match and Hatch agreed to participate.

Strickland was inducted into the Billiard Congress of America’s Hall of Fame in 2006.

Melinda Small said he’s known as the “Muhammad Ali of pool” because he tends to challenge his opponents and “is not afraid to get under their skin. You never know what to expect, which makes it interesting.”

According to various media reports, he’s also known for being combative with fans, referees and tournament officials, and he can get a little grumpy when he’s angry.

Last year, the New York Times published a feature story on Strickland’s work teaching pool to young people in Astoria, Queens, describing him as a “professional pool legend.”

According to the Times story, Strickland is considered one of the best nine-ball players of all time, learning some of his most skillful trick shots from the likes of champs Willie Mosconi, Steve Mizerak and Mike Massey.

Strickland holds the most U.S. Open Nine-ball Championships of anyone in history, winning nine times, and is the only pro player to have won back-to-back WPA World Nine-Ball Championships. He won his first tournament in 1983 at Caesar’s Tahoe, and has since won 57 titles and tournaments, including nine U.S. Open Championships, most recently in 2000.

Hatch started playing professionally in 1990, and has frequently appeared with — and tangled with — Strickland over the years.

According to matchroompool.com, Hatch was a member of the winning 2009 Mosconi Cup Team USA, and was the first rookie MVP pro tour players champion in 1993 in nine ball, and then in eight ball in 2006, making him the only player to win that title twice in different games.

According to Melinda Small, the pros will perform trick shots during Sunday’s event, will face each other in an exhibition match and will pull people from the audience to participate in the games.

Small said the exhibition offers special VIP seating for 40 people around a pool table, and most of those tickets have already been sold, including some to people from out of state. On Tuesday, there were still seven VIP seats, each costing $30, and there will be plenty of general admission tickets available for $10 in advance and at the door, Small said.

For more information, or for tickets, call 241-0051.


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