During the time barrage 9ball open 2015 took place in Athens, between 17th and 21st of June at barrage club, we had the pleasure of interviewing one of the greatest Pool players of all times, three times World Champion (among his numerous titles) Mika the “Iceman” Immonen. The “Iceman” got to the last 16 in the tournament, before losing to the current 9ball world champion Neils Feijen 9 to 7.
Mr. Immonen hasn’t visited Greece often so this was kind of a rare opportunity for his Greek fans to watch him perform live, and a great honor for us to talk with him about Pool. We tried to open the discussion, giving him the chance to develop some of his thoughts on the game, and we believe there’s a lot to learn in his words about it.
We hope you enjoy this interview as much as we did taking it!
Note: questions are written in bold, answers in plain writing.
Let me first thank you for taking the time to talk with us, and congratulate you not only for your achievements on the table but I think – and most of the guys here in Greece think – that you are a very good role model as a player for the young generation. I mean you are a hard working player, a good athlete and this is a good example – players like you – for young players and Pool in general.
So, Pool: is it more of a game or a sport? This discussion takes place some times, some people think of it as more of a sport, some people think of it as more of a game, what do you think?
“Well, it’s a good question, it’s the “eternal” question, but I think it has both aspects because think of chess: chess is probably a game, but it requires a lot of mental discipline and it also requires stamina. But then Pool is very physical: you need to have hand – eye coordination, you need to be prepared mentally and physically for every match and you have to be in good shape. I mean maybe you don’t “have” to be, but it helps. So, I’ve learned that throughout the years and always part of my training is to stay physically strong because it helps, it affects positively the mental state.”
Yes, we see that most of the modern era champions are “well fit”, it’s not like some of the old era ones.
“Yes, I’m not “Minnesota Fats” (J), so for me Pool is a sport, I consider myself an athlete, and I try to represent myself and the game in that manner. It’s very important for me, and I’m a very hard competitor. I mean I’m very intense and sometimes it shows up, I’m not like easy on myself if I miss a ball or play a bad shot, maybe I’m a little bit “ok” but I can be tough on myself.”
If I may point out, there’s a kind of a “contradiction” between your nickname – the “iceman” which is supposed to come from your mental discipline – but you’re quite emotional when you play, I mean you are not the “Asian type” of player showing no expression.
“I know what you’re saying, I’m going to cut through the chase here and say yes: sometimes I feel I could be better in terms of controlling my emotions, but sometimes if you are really frustrated and upset maybe it’s good to let it out, or maybe I could still improve. I used to be more calm, maybe I got some bad habits from some American players (J), but I don’t strive to have a bad behavior, I don’t distract anybody and I will never try to cheat or disturb somebody.”
That is why I said in the beginning that you are a good example as a player, you don’t take it on the opponent and there really isn’t any criticism on that. Personally I like the fact there are emotional expressions even in world champions. Everybody has their character.
“There’s a lot of characters, and especially in Pool there’s more characters than any other game. A lot of characters “show” themselves and some of them try to play mind games, they try to bully you, and it’s not like you can just sit there and take a beating. Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire, and that’s an unfortunate part of the game.”
And at the same time keep concentrating on the game, really hard…
The next question that comes to mind is: what is Pool to you? What is Pool personally to Mika Immonen? Is it an art? Something you love?
“Pool is sport, it’s science, it’s philosophy and it’s art, all in one package. For me it’s a beautiful game, to be able to express yourself on the table and have control of the game elements. I think it’s quite beautiful and I try to be graceful when I play and I try to make it beautiful. I think that’s one of the reasons I still play, I get encouraged from my fans. They like the way I play and my style, they like the way I can make the cueball dance.”
Yes, and for sure what your fans like too is that your knowledge of the game is complete, it shows you have really worked hard on that. You know all the details about hitting the ball, it’s not like only your talent comes into play. It shows that players like you or Neils Feijen have really worked your way to the top.
“I learned a lot from everybody, I learned from different styles and I adapted to that, saw what works for me.”
Are there any persons you consider important in your learning curve? Is there somebody you could consider as a teacher to you? Somebody that has really helped you with your game?
“Well, I never really had a teacher in the game, I just had some technical coaching when I was younger, basic things like staying down on the shot, footwork, etc. I started when I was 15 years old, and by the time I was 19 I was already traveling on European Tour, and in 1992 I actually won the first Eurotour ever, it was quite an achievement for a young player like myself. I was still a rookie, I turned 20 in December of the same year. So it was quite nice, but I had to move on.
At that time, in the mid ‘90s, Pool was still young in Europe. A few talented players, you had the “German machine” with players like Oliver Ortmann, Ralf Souquet, Thomas Engert, those were the “powerhouse”. Then you had a few great Swedish players like Tom Storm, Nicholas Bergendorff. Those were the guys I kind of learned from, but I also watched a lot of videos. And then Earl Strickland visited Finland in 1993, and the opportunity to watch him play some challenge matches and do some trick shots really helped. Actually I also had a challenge match against him, and I think his style of play was very powerful and very inspiring for me, I was able to set myself a different goal than before. Everybody else that played in my eyes looked like just kind of pushing balls around.
Earl inspired me to go further beyond because he has a really power game, he can really stroke the ball and you know what? When I watched Earl play I was thinking to myself I “This is all nonsense, I have to set my goals really further” because he made everything look so easy, he played the right patterns every time, he made the cueball go around the right way, always chose the right pattern to approach next position. It’s really imaginative, powerful and confident style of play. I learned a lot by just watching his style.”
Yes, Earl is definitely a living legend, but your achievements as well are surely no small deal, you’ve won so many international titles, been inducted to the BCA Hall of Fame which is a great honor, etc. Really, how does it feel to be “The first” in 6 billion people, to be “Champion of the World”? Does it bring a sense of uniqueness?
“Yes it was special, especially around 2008 – 2010 when I was number one in the world for two years in a row and I was like “untouchable”. But until people would stop me and ask me “how does it feel to be the best in the world?”, I didn’t even realize it.”
So you felt it then, and not in 2001 when you won your first World title in 9ball?
“No, not in 2001. I was still young, my game was still developing. When you win the world championship, it doesn’t mean that you are the best in the world. But when you win like eight to nine major titles in two years, then you can say it. My ranking was like 900 points and the next guy was around 600, I was really far. At that time I was looking at the numbers and I was thinking “Ok!” I didn’t realize how great it was until later, maybe two years later. I was just doing my thing, trying to stay humble, trying to do the things that got me to the top. But in all fairness I have to say I had a burnout. I got bored, and this is a mistake. I should have stayed hungry but it’s hard to do it.”
This is something I wanted to ask you. How do you keep motivating yourself after getting to the very top, I mean how does a world champion keeps going on, breaking routine?
“I distracted myself, maybe that wasn’t very smart. I felt like I wanted to challenge myself, break the routine, exactly. But maybe I shouldn’t have, maybe I should have just kept doing what I did. It’s hard to know, hard to understand.
When I was younger I knew I had a lot of talent, and there was a point, there’s a point actually in every champion’s career when you have to break the fear of winning. Everybody has fears and one of them is the fear of winning. I broke that and moved on, and then I got tired of people expecting things from me. It wasn’t too much pressure, but if I wouldn’t pay attention to people asking me so many questions about “how are you doing this?” maybe I could have just kept doing my thing and keep winning. It’s hard to say, I actually have no regrets, I have a very good life and Pool is always a very challenging game. There’s a lot of good players who can run several racks and know how to stay in the game when it really matters.”
Since we are still talking about you, what are the major lines of your mental approach to the game, what does it do it for you? What do you find helpful in getting maximum concentration?
“Well, it’s quite simple. It’s not simple to produce, but the idea is simple. You have to come to the table well prepared, have adequate sleep, you have to be as ready as you can be in practice, have the right practice, and when you come to the table you have to know you’ve done everything that needs to be done in terms of preparation. But nothing matters if you don’t get enough sleep. It doesn’t matter how confident you are, if you’re tired you can lose to anybody in this game.”
Yes, perhaps even more after the change in rules over the last years, the game is so much different now. I wanted to ask you, what is your opinion about alternate break format vs winner break format?
“I don’t like alternate break, I never liked it.”
So you think we should go back to the old days?
“It’s different, if we had the opportunity to play several sets like in tennis where you have your serve and the other guy has his serve and you try to break his serve, but there you come down to five sets. In one set it’s really unfair. Let’s say for eg, today against Feijen I scratched on my first break, 1-0, 2-0, 3-0 and then suddenly it becomes impossible to win the match, he just keeps holding his “serve” and…”
Yes, it was a nice set though because you kept fighting, a bit of bad luck in the end with no ball on your breake..
“Yes, I really don’t like alternate break, I prefer watching players run several racks.”
Some fans prefer that too..
“I mean seriously, why don’t we make it longer races and winner break?”
Or use a box, make conditions more difficult..
“Yes, make it difficult, avoid easy conditions, big pockets with easy cut and narrow shelf which allow “missed” shots to go in. For eg, Neils today had a couple of shots like that and the balls still went in. I like long races, tough conditions, winner break format.”
What do you think about the general current situation of Pool? How would you describe it, good or bad?
“Well, Pool is not doing very well right now. The world economy is not doing well right now. This doesn’t really reflect why Pool is not doing well, I think we need a different approach.”
What kind of approach?
“To have Pool as a sport we need to get rid of some things we are doing. For eg, if we play in bar conditions, which is fun no problem, I’m having more fun though than playing the game. It’s more like a game environment. That’s fine, but then if you want to take Pool to another level you need to play in appropriate venues with good seating for spectators. We have to promote the game where kids will look up to us thinking “wow that is professional”, and the parents will be comfortable with their kids aspiring to become like us.”
What would you keep and what would you change in Pool? What would you do if you were part of decision making regarding Pool?
“I don’t know, it’s a big question. Everything in the industry is quite smaller than it could be. There are millions of players out there. How do we make benefit of this? How do we make benefit from the social aspect of the game? And make people actually excited about the sport? There’s a gap between professional players, amateur players which is like a serious hobby and casual players which love the game and play perhaps every week. So how do we categorize this and how do we actually make money out of it? How do we promote the sport financially?”
As we know in US for eg there is a developed amateur league along professional play. I wanted to ask you what is your opinion about forming a professional league?
“We need that. We have to bring Pool to a different level than it has ever been, because otherwise it will always going to be like just fun and games.”
I always thought about that, you could do it like in Snooker, but the companies involved in Pool would have to organize you guys, separating professionals from amateurs in order to give an “upwards” direction of motive.
“Not only the companies in Pool, they are used to “one idea”, we have to bring sponsors outside pool. We have to sell Pool to a big sponsor that would be interested in inventing to the sport, and maybe even “own” the sport. Big companies outside of Pool industry, that’s our best chance. Pool is a beautiful sport and it’s played by millions of people, in America alone 35-40 million people every year play Pool.
So, if it’s marketed the right way, we take advantage of the social aspect, use networking, look at the demographics, who plays pool, how we can advertise and sell Pool to them, look at what companies may be involved, bring Pool to the right venues, that would be the way to make some serious money as professionals.”
Do you think that professional players you could get together and form kind of a union which could negotiate with companies about forming such a league?
“No, I think a small group would need to come together and form a business plan, and present it to a company that is looking to invest in the Sport which is in the the “bottom” right now, so it’s a “cheap” investment with great potential. The players are going to come when the money is there.”
I see. There is though a difficulty for bringing the Sport live to large audiences, there’s a lot of talk about Pool – and Billiard Sports in general – not being spectacular enough for people “outside” of Pool. We players love watching the game, and we understand what you professionals are doing on the table, but still it’s considered not spectacular enough like others sports, for eg football or basketball etc.
“We need to have programs that educate people about the game, in school or college level, but that’s part of the sponsor’s marketing package, getting Pool into the subconscious of young people. And that’s also why we can’t be involved with cigarettes or alcohol like in most bar conditions, because then the parents are not going to like it and it’s not good for the sport. So we have to get rid of cigarettes, alcohol and gambling.”
And gambling, which is part of pool’s history though.. Not saying I’m in favor.
“It’s Pool history yes, but if a professional league is big enough the professionals don’t have to gamble.”
So this way it will eventually extinct.
“Not only, listen. Take for eg golf players, they have strict rules, they don’t gamble. They are not allowed to. We have to elevate our sport to the level of golf PGA and BA, ATP etc.”
So personally you would gladly sign a contract in a professional environment for players like you.
“Yes, and it only works if we make enough money, right now we’re just surviving.”
Perhaps the change in rules that we talked about – alternate break etc – has made this (surviving) even more difficult, letting professional players “unprotected”.
“Yes, and we need to keep the game exciting, you know what? If somebody runs 8 or 9 racks in a row, that’s fine!”
And mixing of professionals with amateurs perhaps makes it kind of a “parody” game.
“Look at 3 cushion, they play races to 40 – 50 points. An amateur is never going to beat a professional. But in Pool we play short sets, alternate break etc. At that point it’s a game, not a sport. It’s fun, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not like inspiring.”
Coming back to you now, which one would you consider your greatest achievement, if you could pick one title which one would it be? Maybe one of the world titles?
“I think actually in 2009, when I lost in the 2nd round in the 9ball US open, and then I came back and won 14 matches in a row to defend the title. It showed a lot of character, a lot of physical stamina, a lot of power. In many matches I was trailing, I was down like 8-2, 8-5, 8-4, and I came back and closed the door on all of those guys. I think that’s my biggest achievement as a far as resilience and the will to win is concerned. Staying in the game, surviving.
Seriously, I don’t even know how was I able to do that, I mean physically. I had 6 matches in one day, and I had played my last match from the previous day past midnight, so I started at 11am, then I had a match at 1pm, 3pm, then dinner, then match at 7pm, 9pm, 11pm, all that before the finals day. Nobody’s done that, nobody in the US open.”
Most players know what equipment you use, I wanted to ask which criteria play a role in choosing your equipment. For eg do you use LD (low deflection)?
“Yes, I play with Mezz cues – my cue sponsor – since 2004 and I’m very happy, it’s part of my biggest achievements. I use a wx700 shaft which is LD but also powerful.”
So it’s not the lowest deflection shaft of the Mezz series of shafts.
“No it’s not. They produce a new really low deflection shaft called EX Pro but I’m not used to it. So I use wx700 which works for me, I play with MI series 1 to 3 with united joint – 19oz – and I’ve requested for the new one coming, MI-4 to have a wavy joint. This new cue model, coming around the end of this year, will be a “hall of fame” one, part of the top Exceed series. The wavy joint is a wood to wood one with more feedback, I like the feeling of it.”
I’m sure your fans will be looking forward to this. Before finishing with your contact information, I wanted to ask you: what advice would you give to young players? If you would talk to a talented 17 year old kid, what would you say to him or her?
“From my experience, you have to be hungry, stay disciplined, have a healthy life style, be in good physical shape because it helps your mental state as well. Also maybe don’t put too much pressure on yourself, be excited to play instead of being nervous, just be thankful that you’ve got the talent to play. And be humble. Be confident about yourself, play for the beauty of the game and have your own artistic expression on what the game is to you.”
So where can Pool fans “find” you?
Do you teach? I’ve seen your DVD series of “Mastering Pool”, really nice.
“I do. I do private lessons, and I’m looking forward in making a next edition for “Mastering Pool”. It’s been very popular, actually it’s the best selling series in the history of Pool. Regretfully it’s all over youtube which is like free and that’s not good for me unless I was the one getting the hits from youtube but…”
That’s similar to what happens in the music industry.
“Yes, I like the feedback coming from people watching the videos, but I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. Hopefully when I make the next series I’m going to actually put it myself on youtube, let them know it’s the official one and ask them not to let anybody else use it. When you get hits you may have revenues and that should be ok.”
Unfortunately hackers seem to find new ways of overcoming this all the time..
“Yes, but at least I will have tried to make the most out of it. So I’m looking forward in making another DVD series, other than that I just want to say to the young players again, try to learn from everybody but don’t listen to everybody. You have to be careful about who you listen to and trust your instinct/feeling, be able to sort out what is good for you and what is not, have a filter on that.”
I think these last words of you is a fine way to close up this interview, once again I want to thank you for honoring us with your presence!
“My pleasure, thank you! Before leaving you, I just want to thank barrage club, everyone involved, great tournament, fantastic atmosphere. I had a great time and I hope to come back next year. Now it’s time to take a holiday, I’ve heard so much about the Greek Islands and I’m going to check them out.”