Have cue, will hustle

He worked his way up from the streets of England to respectability and financial success with just a cue stick. Meet Dave Pearson, pool player extraordinaire.

DAVE Pearson is a helluva guy. I had thought I was just going to meet a record-breaking sportsman with a knack for knocking in pool balls and getting off snappy one-liners with equal speed. What I got instead was an insight into a charming man with a fascinating tale.

What’s more, despite a bona fide rags to riches story, Pearson still seems to be searching for his happy ending.

Known affectionately as the “ginger wizard”, Pearson has been a phenomenon all his career. He first picked up a pool cue in the early 1990s, at the age of 19, and promptly potted the first six balls he attempted. Within three months he’d reached the finals of a major tournament, and before a year had passed, he was the British Open champion!

He was also able to do it faster than anyone else: Pearson was 21 when he broke his first world record. He was able to pot 15 balls, waiting for the cue ball to stop in between shots, and pocketed the eight ball last, in 43 seconds. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, he has subsequently lowered the record four more times to an extraordinary 26.5 seconds!

His life soon became a whirlwind of record-breaking successes as he travelled the world sweeping all before him. However, Pearson soon found that competitive pool was not as lucrative as he had hoped it would be.

“There’s never been much money in pool, really. There are a handful of big tournaments, but the choice was easy for me. Most pool players aren’t exactly business orientated, and there are elements of the lifestyle that I was trying to escape to begin with.

“Once I got a major sponsor in Bass Ale, I was doing a tour of 250 shows a year solid for two years. Now I do maybe 50 Fortune 500 companies a year, and that’s big business.”

The key elements of “a Dave Pearson show” entail a mixture of incredible trick shots, attempts to break speed pool world records (quite often his own), and his own zany humour. (Speed pool, by the way, is a game in which a single player plays against the clock, trying to clear a table of 15 balls as quickly as is possible.)

“Humour is really important in keeping things going. I remember when I just got started I was asked to do an exhibition at a place called Stephanie’s. But when I arrived it turned out that Stephanie was actually Steve and the place was a drag bar!

“So there I am in a room full of transvestite and gay men, and sure enough when I lean over to pot a ball, I felt a hand on my behind. I just turned around and said ‘If you find anything, let me know!’, and everyone just cracked up!”

Living la vida loca

His sense of humour was a key factor when Pearson was growing up in the rough and tumble world of north-east England (when I ask his age, he quips, “younger than Tom Cruise but older than Britney Spears!).

His childhood in Sunderland was cut short dramatically when his mother passed away from cancer when he was only 11. Amazingly, Pearson left home soon afterwards.

“I left home before my 12th birthday, and I became a street hustler. My father died 15 years later actually, also from cancer. I did a lot of things to make money as a street hustler that I feel ashamed of, but I’ve never had alcohol or drugs or cigarettes in my life.

“My mother was strict with me and taught me pretty good. My father and brothers liked to drink. But, as some sort of reaction I guess, I just avoided it. I think as the years went by I saw what it can do to people.”

In effect then, pool saved Pearson from a life of crime. I wondered what he’d have done if it hadn’t been for pool?

“I don’t know what I would have been. Now I can say I’d like to have been a teacher maybe, but I left school when I was 11 so that’s not very realistic. I guess I would have been an electrician or some sort of craftsman.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that life for Pearson really did change the moment he touched a pool cue.

“I honestly didn’t touch a pool cue until I was 19,” he says, “And the way I played, it was unheard of. I was just such a natural and it was always very easy for me.

“Pool changed my life, the first week itself. Then I saw it as an easy way to make money. Back home in England, it was always through bets. At first a pound, then when they saw how good I was I had to give them odds. Next thing you know I was playing 50 games a night and it was easy money.”

But as soon as word got around about how good this teenager was, all the wrong sort of people came crowding round. While these people made sure the lad didn’t come to harm, they also saw him solely as a source of income – and that led to Pearson finding himself in many a hoary situation in the 1990s.

“There were so many ways I used to hustle. At one point I’d be getting £10,000 a night and within three to four days it would be gone, because we’d party like rock stars. The guys I knew back then, many of them hung around me ’cause of the money. I had no idea of the business dealings but normally I’d make sure I had my protection.

“I once went out without my ‘bodyguards’ and got my arm broken in Derby. I lost five games for £20 a game, and then came back and won 10-1 when there was serious money. They broke my arm by bashing it with a pool cue!”

Pearson’s early days in pool seem to be a mine of half scary, half hilarious incidents, and he’s ever ready to share them.

“There was once when I was playing in front of hundreds of Jamaican gangsters, and I was doing really well even though I couldn’t see the audience for all the ganja (marijuana) smoke!

Dave Pearson showing off a trick shot

“Anyway, during a toilet break, I’m doing my thing when this big Jamaican guy approaches me and pulls out a flick knife ... I’m just about saying my prayers when he whips out a slab of dope and offers to cut me a batch!

“I also had my car petrol bombed once. I had a heckler at an exhibition who just wouldn’t stop; he’d obviously had a lot of alcohol. At one point, he said something, I made fun of him, and the whole theatre was laughing at him.

“He couldn’t take it. He disappeared, and about half an hour later hear we heard this huge explosion. I ran outside – and my car’s been petrol bombed!”

Lonely at the top

Still, the crazy life couldn’t go on forever. The fateful change happened when Pearson moved towards full time exhibition status.

“I was hustling so long it became my mindset, but once you get into the exhibition market you have to be squeaky clean. I realised that with my pool skills I could go in, play trick shots, and within five minutes, people would think I was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

“But I had to develop that into an act to properly do exhibitions. That’s when I brought my personality and humour into the picture.”

A change of environment helped.

“I’ll never forget when I went to America for the first time ... I was at the Mall of America (the nation’s largest retail and entertainment complex, in the state of Minnesota) with some of the biggest stars in US baseball, people like Ken Griffey Jr, Cal Ripken Jr, Frank Thomas, and Kirby Puckett – except I didn’t know who they were.

“But I did my thing, and the place just erupted, and I started thinking ... I could get used to this!”

In fact, Pearson enjoyed life in the United States so much that he moved there, initially to San Diego in California, before taking up residence in Las Vegas, Nevada, 10 years ago.

“Las Vegas really is something. I liked it so much I bought a house there within a week of first arriving there. It is Sin City, a place where anything goes. Not a place maybe to raise your kids, but it has a big airport with hardly any weather-caused delays due to bad weather.”

Ah, kids – is there a wife or girlfriend in the picture, we wonder? No, Pearson says, and he reveals that, despite the financial success, his is a lonely life.

“I do 1.2 million air miles a year travelling for all my exhibitions, which is double what many pilots do. It is very hard to build friendships. I meet so many nice people but, nine out of 10 I never see again.

“At one stage, I was booked 14 months in advance, and in the last three years, I’ve spent maybe seven months in Las Vegas.”

His hectic lifestyle means that it is difficult for him to build relationships of any sort much less get married.

“That is one of my regrets, not having anybody to share my experiences with. Girlfriends are hard to find because I’m never in one place long enough. It’s not fair to them.

“People think I get to see the world, that I’ve got a glamorous life with the fancy houses and flash sports cars, but I’d trade it all in to be able to settle down with a wife and two kids and a nine to five job.”

Indeed, Pearson does seem a little unmotivated at this time about his attempt to break the world record.

“It really doesn’t affect me too much if I don’t break a world record. I don’t take it personally. At the same time I don’t like the feeling of letting everybody down – besides, having a crowd cheering for you will naturally make you want to go out and do your best.”

So what keeps him going if the thrill has gone?

Hmm, could this be why the man can’t keep a girlfriend? Pearson demonstrating a verytricky trick shot at an exhibition in Kuala Lumpur in 2004. – LAI VOON LOONG / The Star

“The only joy I get these days is if I do something for charity (he supports the Children Cancer Society of America and Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International) and occasionally an incredible trick shot.

“But, trust me, a lot of the time, it’s just a job. I never play fewer than 15,000 games a year.”

That’s about 40 games a day! No wonder the man’s thinking of hanging up his cue stick....

“I do want to get out as quick as I can now. If pool was anything like golf, I would have retired seven years ago. But the sponsorship is much less. I have a line of cues and I’m focusing on that more. It thrills me to see someone come down to KL from Penang and they are using my cue.”

Having broken so many records, I wondered if he was ever accused of stretching the record-breaking process out like the legendary Ukrainian pole vaulter Sergei Bubka?

“Ha, ha, there’s a name I haven’t heard in a while. I used to do that, ya know, stretch it out. In those days I used to get bonuses every time I broke the record, and there’d be times when I would hold back a bit and still feel like I’ve got a lot left in the tank. But now it’s really tough, you need the perfect break every time just to get close.”

Pearson does try to fit in as much as he can when he’s not shooting pool.

“I work out, but not as hobby, just to cope with getting older. I enjoy all types of movies and would actually like to play a lot more tennis than I do. I still watch football, but only during the crunch time of a season.

“And, I think, most of all nowadays, I write. I’m writing my life story, which I’m thinking of calling ‘Street Hustler to Pool Hustler’. I’m halfway through, and I sent it to 25 different types of people I know and they all said it was incredible to read.”

If he writes anywhere nearly as entertainingly as he talks, he’ll break more records with sales of his book....

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