World Pool Champion Mika Immonen: This Finn has Flipped over the Philippines

Finish pool player Mika Immonen at the Mosconi...

Finish pool player Mika Immonen at the Mosconi Cup 2008 in Malta. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mika Immonen is undoubtedly one of the world’s best pool players. Mika was thrust into the game’s highest ranks when he won the World Pool Championship in Cardiff, Wales in 2001 after a perfect week-long pool-playing streak. He was voted MVP at the 2003 Mosconi Cup in Las Vegas and chosen as the European team captain in 2005. At the first ever Philippines Open in 2003, he came in from behind to beat home-town favorite Efren Reyes and emerge as champion.

His many victories include the 1992 Inaugural EuroTour, 1996 Taipei Peace Cup, 2000 Sudden Death 7-ball championship, 2003 Pro Tour Championship, 2003 National Championship, and the 2004 World All Stars Cup.

As it turns out, Mika’s introduction to the cue and table was kind of accidental. “They opened up a pool room just two blocks from my home,” he relates. “And it was conveniently on the way to school. So on the way back I’d be stuck there. We were going to play ice hockey once but it was an exceptionally cold day so we just went to this new place which was warm and cozy and there were a lot of games and a billiard table. At first I didn’t even play billiards that much, like any youngster I was playing video games at that age. And then as soon as I started playing a little bit, I was really fascinated and got hooked easily. I felt like I had natural talent.”

Mika won his first tournament, a small one in Helsinki, when he turned 16 that same year. Alas, no trophy remains as a memento of that fateful triumph. “The winner got a ham because it was Christmas and there are a lot of tournaments in Finland in December,” Mika explains. “But my family is not into ham that much. We prefer turkey. So I sold it. I made over a hundred US dollars at the time selling this huge ham.”

Mika earliest inkling of the Philippines was while following a game played by pool great Earl Strickland. The legendarily temperamental champion was up against a Filipino and was getting really mad and frustrated, even flinging a few memorable vocal barbs. But Mika didn’t get to actually see Stricklands’ nemeses, Efren Reyes and Francisco Bustamante, in the flesh until 1992 when they played the Challenge Cup tournament in Sweden.

Mika Immonen, 2001 WPA World Nine-ball Champio...

Mika Immonen, 2001 WPA World Nine-ball Champion, July 22, 2001 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mika first visited our country in 2002, the year after he won the World Pool Championship. “I was really pleasantly surprised about everything, by how many people knew me here, the hospitality and the fact that almost everybody speaks English,” he states effusively (for a Finn). “There was literally no language barrier. It was just a nice place to be.”

Thanks to the unifying power of pool, Mika has sort of become an informal goodwill ambassador for our country. “I like that there are so many nice holiday destinations even just a short distance from Manila,” he states. “Like Boracay, Subic Bay, Tagaytay, Baguio. Palawan. I wouldn’t mind having my semi-retirement in the Philippines eventually. It’s my long-term plan. And I can always play pool here.”

Mika can’t seem to get enough of our warm weather, but also more importantly, of our warm reception of him. “The hospitality of the people here is just amazing. It’s really outstanding, I think it’s the best in the world,” he gushes. “Finns have a lot to learn. In restaurants or any service industry I think that Finns should come here first and see what it’s really supposed to be like. Filipinos are proud of their work but still humble. They always seem to want to make the best of the situation, to make you feel comfortable, like you want to come back again. That culture of hospitality really is a big asset of the Philippines.”

Over his many visits, Mika has learned to accept and admire our distinct Filipino quirks and qualities. “Filipinos like to party. They’re kinda laid-back people,” he observes.

“It’s funny this thing that Filipinos do with their eyebrows. In Finland, that is kind of like a flirtatious thing. When a girl does that it sort of means: Hey what’s up? You wanna do something? So I was a little bit confused.” For sure, the Finn’s fervent Filipina fans were all too willing to set him straight on this. But he just takes this all in stride with straightforward Scandinavian stoicism.

“Filipinos are always late,” gripes Mika (after we were 10 minutes late for the interview). “But it’s cool with me. I’m used to it. I almost expect it,” he says reassuringly. He has gotten so familiar with Filipino manners, he’s even started taking a few of them on himself.

“I noticed usually when I stay here for a week or so, I start speaking like a Filipino, I start emulating how my friends talk, the accent. I don’t even notice it. I use the gestures you do here like the eyebrow thing, pointing with lips. I guess I get acclimatized.”

Although Mika may praise us and put up with some of our foibles, there are still a few things he hopes could be improved. “I wish there would be more awareness about the environment,” he states. “Some of the thinking is very short-term. Creating trash and pollution and maybe throwing them in places that otherwise would be very beautiful. There’s a lot of nature here that is really untouched but people are taking some of it for granted. I hope some political power would start focusing on it because that’s part of the richness of the Philippines.”

This declaration reveals Mika’s sincere affection for our country, beyond just being the place from where his respected rivals hail from. “I’ve always dreamed about having a world championship over here. I know it’s good for the country and it’s good for the pool community. If a Filipino does well here it may boost the national pride and confidence. It may trigger some other things. If I don’t win I hope it’s a Filipino.”

“I think this world championship will give a big boost to an already pool-crazy country,” he predicts. “Maybe there would be a wellspring of new talents. A couple of years down the line I can expect a lot of really good players from here. I can already see a very strong next generation.”

When asked what advice he could share with local cue-men, Mika just smiles and shakes his head “They don’t need advice, they’re too good already,” he yields. This is high praise indeed from “the Iceman”, whose steel-cold stare has unnerved many a champion.

“They tell me I look mean on TV,” shrugs Mika. “But I just say that’s the way I play. It’s serious business. Like in any sport I think you can see many characters that are just really intense when they play. They let their guard up. I think I’m a little bit more relaxed in real life.”

“Finns in general are a more quiet people,” he goes on to explain. “They don’t say much. That’s just a fact. Even I know it. I might be in that category. I would like to warn Filipinos that when they meet Finnish people that they shouldn’t be taken aback by this. Small talk is not a part of our culture. It’s just the way things are. I’ve been traveling the last 14 years so experiencing different cultures has affected me in the way that I’m more approachable, or not that Finnish. There’s still a lot of that rooted in me anyway. Sometimes I can’t help it. Sometimes maybe it’s nice to be quiet,”

As a parting shot, Mika extends his gratitude to all those rooting for him, whether Finn or Filipino. “I’d like to thank the Filipinos for all their support. I’m very touched by it. I even have this fan club with a yahoo group. So I’d like to say thanks to them for hanging in there. They have a lot of great players from their own country but I’ve heard them say if a Filipino isn’t going to win the tournament then they hope it was me. So that’s very cool.” Thus speaketh the Iceman.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in What’s On & Expat newspaper, 2006.

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