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Who was the best nine-ball player of all time?

Who was the best nine-ball player who ever picked up a cue? Perhaps it depends on the circumstances. In the famous (or infamous) Johnston City pool hustler tournaments, playing on regulation tables, Luther Lassiter was the nine-ball king. But playing on a bar box, it would be sheer foolishness to bet against Keith McCready or Dave Matlock. And in his prime, gambling for cash on regulation tables, Buddy Hall was spotting top pros the seven and winning. But then a young Earl "the Pearl" Strickland showed up with bobby pins holding back his flowing mane, and gave "the Rifleman" some serious grief. Then a few years later, Efren "the Magician" Reyes arrived from the Philippines with a Merlin-like wand ...

complied by Mike Burch

Here are my picks for the ten best nine-ball players of all time, with a few ties that make it a baker's dozen:

#10 Nick Varner, the "Kentucky Colonel"
#9 Jose Parica, the "Giant Killer"
#8 "Saint Louie" Louie Roberts (a great and fearless shotmaker)
     Keith McCready ("Earthquake" was another great shotmaker and run-out king)
     Richard "Richie" Florence (according to Ronnie Allen, no one could beat Richie Florence at nine-ball when he was in stroke; Allen ranked him at the top along with Buddy Hall)
#7 Efren Reyes (they don't call him the "Magician" for nothing)
#6 Johnny Archer (great form and precision pool were personified by the "Scorpion")
#5 Mike Sigel (Efren Reyes once complained "He never misses!" and Buddy Hall made a similar observation about "Captain Hook," whose nickname suggests his defense was even better than his offense)
#4 Buddy Hall (the only player Efren Reyes said that he feared; the "Rifleman" gave top pros like Louie Roberts the seven ball and still won)
#3 Earl Strickland (Mike Sigel preferred to avoid the "Pearl" because an 8-2 lead wasn't safe when he was breaking)
#2 Luther Lassiter (the first great nine-ball shark, "Wimpy" dominated the legendary Johnston City pool hustler tournaments despite being in his 50s)
     Don Willis (see the quote below by Luther Lassiter)
#1 Harold "the Best" Worst (he beat Willis and Lassiter dodged him; when Worst died of terminal brain cancer at age 37, none of his main competitors would play him even for money)

"If I ever had to have someone else shoot pool for my life, win, lose, live or die, the man I'd want shooting for me is Don Willis." Luther "Wimpy" Lassiter, who may have said this before Harold Worst busted Willis

Harold Worst was not just the best and most-feared nine-ball player of his era when he died prematurely in 1965. He was also the three-cushion billiards champion of the world, a combination the world has never seen before, or since. He had also recently won an English snooker tournament, according to Ronnie "Fast Eddie" Allen. And Worst was the best one-pocket player, despite having only learned the game in his mid-thirties by throwing money at Allen. Worst had also won the all-round championships at the two major pool tournaments he entered in 1965: the Johnston City and Stardust tournaments, against formidable competition. Worst has been called the best pool/billiards player of all time by knowledgeable insiders like Minnesota Fats, Ronnie "Fast Eddie" Allen, "Champagne" Ed Kelly, Jay "Toupee" Helfert and Freddy "the Beard" Bentivegna. But perhaps his greatest endorsements came from Luther Lassiter and Eddie Taylor, the champions of nine-ball and one-pocket, respectively, in the mid-1960s. They both dodged Worst at the games that made them famous. To learn more about this remarkable player, please click here: Harold Worst, the Best Billiards and Pool Player of All Time.

Honorable Mention: Ronnie Alcano, Ronnie "Fast Eddie" Allen, Darren Appleton, Joe "Meatman" Balsis, Jean Balukas, Billy "Cornbread Red" Burge, Francisco "Django" Bustamante, "Machine Gun" Lou Butera, Jimmy Caras, Fong-Pang Chao, Wu Chia Ching, Yang Ching-shun the "Son of Pool", Jack Cooney, Karen Corr, Irving "Deacon" Crane, Wade "Boom Boom" Crane, Steve Davis, Vernon "Burnie" Elliot, Allison "the Duchess of Doom" Fischer, Norman Hitchcock, Allen "Young Hoppe" Hopkins, "Little" David Howard, Mikka "The Ice Man" Immonen, Larry "Boston Shorty" Johnson, "Handsome" Danny Jones, Loree Jon Jones, "Champagne" Eddie Kelly, Yi-Che Kuo, Jimmy "Pretty Boy Floyd" Mataya, Mike "Tennessee Tarzan" Massey, David Matlock, Jimmy Matz, Danny Medina, Steve "the Miz" Mizerak, Rodney Morris, Dennis Orcollo, Oliver Ortmann, Alex "the Lion" Pagulayan, Daryl Peach, Andrew Ponzi, Utley Jim "U.J." Puckett, Jim "The King" Rempe, Leonard "Bugs" Rucker, Greg Stevens, Ralf Souquet, Mark Tadd, Shane Van Boening, Rob Wolfe, Raj Hundal, Imran Majid, Nick van den Berg, Niels Feijen, Thomas Engert, Thorsten Hohmann, Marcus Chamat, Tony Drago, Fabio Patroni, Radoslaw Babica, Ray "Cool Cat" Martin, "Kid" Cole Dickson, Dan Louie

Mike Burch:

These are my observations about the best nine-ballers that I saw play myself:

Michael Coltrain had the best stroke I ever saw: pure pool precision, although he sometimes struggled with shape
I saw Alex Pagulayan play the ghost at ten ball, and hold his own
David Howard was called "Little" but he was a giant-killer at nine-ball
Mike Massey was a gentleman, an entertainer, and a helluva shot when he was on
Allen Hopkins had a quirky stroke, but he was a hard man to beat with money or a championship on the line
Dave Matlock was a bar box champion
Nick Varner was a great nine-baller, although I never saw him play at his absolute best
Keith McCready was a fabulous shotmaker, and an even better talker and intimidator; he wasn't acting in The Color of Money, just playing himself
Efren Reyes really is a magician with a pool cue, although I have seen him miss shots that Buddy Hall never missed in his prime
Johnny Archer has perfect form, and when he is in stroke, it is a wonder to behold
Mike Sigel never missed a shot when he was in stroke, and yet his nickname "Captain Hook" suggests that his defense was even better
Buddy Hall was able to spot great players the seven ball; what else do we need to know about the "Rifleman"?
Earl Strickland gave the "Rifleman" serious grief when I saw them play; Hall may have been more consistent, but Strickland would get out out his jump cue and pull off the impossible ...
Louis Roberts was the best nine-ball player I ever saw, when he was on, because he was fearless and unpredictable; he was also charismatic and a great entertainer

Who was the best nine-ball player of all time? According to history it was Harold Worst, because Louie Lassiter, Don Willis, Eddie Taylor and Ronnie Allen ended up refusing to play him, or demanding outrageous spots. Since Worst died, Buddy Hall has been the most consistent shotmaker, but Efren Reyes and Earl Strickland have been more spectacular when firing on all cylinders. Still, give me Saint Louie Louie Roberts when there is an impossible shot to be made. Louie could get out from anywhere, disdaining defense in pursuit of offensive perfection. I still remember that magical night in Chatanooga, in 1981, when he came through the losers' bracket to defeat his idol, Buddy Hall, and win his second U.S. Open nine-ball championship. I have never seen such brazen courage with so much on the line. I have never heard a crowd cheer so loudly and uproariously for a pool player. For me, Louie is the best because he would fling caution to the winds and no one could beat him when he was really "on." If you doubt me, ask Buddy Hall about that night in Chatanooga, when he was shaking his head at the sheer audacity of Louie Roberts, and his otherworldly shotmaking. For me, Louie Roberts is the greatest shotmaker ever, and isn't that really what nine-ball is all about: making the impossible shot and running out? No one ever played better run-out pool on a bigger stage than Louie Roberts did, that magical night at the Downtown Sheraton Hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with Mike Massey playing host and the rest of us watching in wonder, wishing we could shoot like that. But only Louie could summon such magic.

Terry "Loop-Lock" Ardeno, PHD (Pool Hall Degree):

Now, in my opinion, three things make a GREAT player:

1. Tournaments won
2. Gambling prowess
3. Longevity
 
In my opinion, Luther Lassiter was the greatest nine-baller to ever play. Earl [Strickland] was the the best tournament nine-baller, but Luther beats him in gambling ability as well as longevity.
 
As for background on Luther Lassiter, he was born on Nov 5, 1918 and died at age 69 on Oct 25, 1988. He was a great player by the time he was in his 20s, but, in the 1940's and 1950's, there were hardly any major 9 ball tournaments being held. By the time the Johnson City tournaments came into being starting in 1961, Lassiter was already a legendary road player. Starting in 1962 (the 1st Johnson City 9 ball tournament) Lassiter dominated the field and won the first of his 6 World 9 ball championships. These Johnson City and Stardust tournaments were the de facto World Championships and they had fields that included Harold Worst, Ed Kelly, Irving Crane, Joe Balsis, Ronnie Allen, Danny Jones, Eddie Taylor, Larry Johnson, Jim Marino, Buddy Hall and many other great players. Lassiter won titles in 1962, 1963, 1964, 1967, 1969 and 1971. Keep in mind that at this time, he was 44 in 1962 and 53 in 1971....His peak as a player was arguably past, yet he still beat very, very talented players.
 
Now, not only was he a great TOURNAMENT player, he was also one of the greatest MONEY players that ever lived. His favorite game was "money pool", any game he could bet on. Believe me when I tell you this, his game went UP several notches for the cash. Some players play better in tournaments than they do when they gamble, and others, visa-versa. Lassiter was a better money player than a tournament player.

So, put those two facts together, add in his longevity at the top (30+ years) and I can make a very strong case for him. This of course does not take into consideration his 4 outright World Straight pool Championships, PLUS 5 Straight pool Championships at Johnson City, 5 World All-Around Championships and 1 World 1 Pocket Championship and you have a very gifted player indeed.
 
As for Strickland, I call him the greatest tournament 9 baller since Lassiter and he may in fact be Lassiter's equal at TOURNAMENT 9 ball. His 6 World Championships and 5 U.S. Open 9 Ball Championships is a record that I believe we will not see broken, ever. Look how hard it is for anyone to repeat or win those majors more than once. But Strickland, even though early in his career he did gamble at pool, at GAMBLING he was no match for Lassiter. So, you have two very special tournament players and one of them (Lassiter) also excelled at gambling 9 ball, so the edge, I believe, has to go to Lassiter.
 
As for Efren Reyes, he also has a special title. The greatest All-around player to have ever played pocket billiards. He was a great 9 baller, but not "the GREATEST" and here is what I base that opinion on. In the two major championships at 9 Ball, Efren has 1 World 9 Ball Championship in 1999 and 1 U.S. Open 9 Ball Championship in 1994. Sigel has 5 WC and 3 US Open's, Varner has 3 WC and back-to-back US Open titles. Archer, Hall, Souquet and Allen Hopkins have combined major 9 ball titles greater than Reyes' 2. BUT, Reyes also has 6 World 8 Ball Championships, he is the greatest Rotation player ever, in my opinion the greatest 1 pocket player ever and he is super at Straight pool. Overall, Reyes is better than Lassiter and Strickland, but not at 9 ball.
 
Consider this....Lassiter won 6 World 9 Ball Championships from the age of 44 till he was 53. He would have won how many more had there been 9 ball tournaments in the 2 previous decades. But there weren't any. So, if he won 6 World Championships 20 years after his prime, what would he have been like from the 1940's to 1960's?
 
Compare that to Reyes, who has one (1) World 9 Ball Championship, in an era where for 10 plus years, there were 2 "World 9 Ball Championships" available every year! And Reyes has a total of 1. Lassiter, who didn't have tournaments to compete in until he was 44, still won 6 of them.
 
These are just MY opinions and many other fans and historians who love and study the game as much as I do may have differing opinions. But, once I collected & reviewed all the info that I have on these great players, I feel very confident in my selections of who was better at what.

Bobby:

Earl Strickland's top speed is sick! 5 U.S. Opens is an amazing feat. I was in the audience at the 2000 U.S Open (Earl's 5th title) and I watched the entire event from start to finish and Earl never lost more than 6 games in any match. He just plowed through the field like it was nothing. You know what it looked like? You ever see a pro player play in a regional event with a weak field of amateurs? that's what it was like, no one looked like they had a chance.

Let's not forget that Lassiter still played in 9 ball events now and then right up until 1987 or 1988 when he died and still played well even though he was WAY past his prime and nearly 70 years old. I believe in 1986 and 1987 Lassiter still managed to finish 7-8 or 9-12 in a couple of major 9 ball events in which ALL the top players played. He finished as well or better than some really big names in their primes! Names like Keith McCready, Efren Reyes, Danny Medina, etc.

Knifemaker:

If you had been around Shreveport in the 70'S and watched Buddy give everyone the 7 and take the cash and win so many tournaments and then in the early 80's. What about at the Reds tournament? In the early 80's Buddy took all the money. Efren said he plays better than anyone he had ever seen. I watched Buddy beat them all, give St Louis Louie the 7 three times in Shreveport and win them all. Give Siegel the last two and win. Buddy Hall was the best 9 ball player to ever live and he has proven it, on the juice and off the juice too. I watched Earl in the early 80's in Houston and he still could not get the cash from Buddy. At certain times there have been a lot of great players that lasted a little while but Buddy outlasted them all over a longer period of time playing 9 ball. He has also been one of the best to talk to and learn something from. He would tell you anything you needed to know to help your game, and never mind doing it. He was an all round great guy. Just my opinion and I watched Buddy's and Earl's game first hand for several years.

Jay Helfert:

No one made running a tough rack look easier than Keith [McCready] did. He scared his opponents with the ease at which he made difficult shots and difficult run-outs. And when he was right, everything went in, EVERYTHING! He may have been the scariest opponent for the top players to draw in the 80's. They knew he feared no one and felt like he could beat anyone. Keith would make a side bet on any match regardless of his opponent; Sigel, Hall, Mizerak, whoever. At his beat, he was a very tough opponent for Earl. He was for everyone else too. Keith could make a very good player look like an amateur! His weaknesses included; missing matches, being unprepared and not being in condition to play. Remember Earl would be in the practice room all day and go to his room after a match to rest. He would go through entire tournaments playing great in every match. Big difference! And despite Keith's many talents, he couldn't string racks like Earl (no one could) and didn't have Earl's cue ball control. Keith's game was a little more wild and he was forced to shoot many more tough shots because of it. And he lost his cue ball (scratched) more often as well. Kind of Like Arnold Palmer against Jack Nicklaus. Once Earl got in line, he never strayed out of line. Keith could get out of line on a hanger. He would just pop in the bank and continue his run. But shooting hard shots will eventually take its toll on you. One or two misses (or scratches) in a match was all it took to get beat by another top player. I saw Keith lose matches where he made the most spectacular run-outs and did the majority of the shooting. He just slipped up once or twice (or three times) at critical junctures, like on the six, seven, eight or nine.

Mark Twain, Was Minnesota Fats Overrated?, A Brief History of Billiards, Pool/Billiards Record High Runs, The Sexiest Sharks, Johnston City Sharks, Nashville Sharks, Dick Hunzicker, "Saint Louie" Louie Roberts, Earl "The Pearl" Strickland, Who was the best nine-ball player?, The Best NFL Players by Position

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