Billiards: Attractions of the masse men cannot entice the masses

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The Independent Online
For the followers of snooker's elder brother, billiards, the thrills are of a distinctly cerebral variety, but three-ball mind games, as Greg Wood discovers, are failing miserably to win over those many converts to the pot black bonanza.

Geet Sethi has spent the first nine minutes of his UK Billiards Championship semi-final compiling an apparently effortless break of 80, and is rapidly closing in on a century. It is at this early stage that a dilemma presents itself: at what point in a billiards break is one expected to applaud? Is it 100, like in snooker? Possibly, but then it all seems so easy. Five hundred, then? Ten thousand?

The shame of it for Sethi is that in the time it takes him to progress from 85 to three figures, you could hand out voting slips to the entire audience, conduct a secret ballot and get the definitive answer from the returning officer with at least a minute to spare. There are no more than 20 of them, in an arena at Preston Guild Hall which will pack in several hundred for the afternoon and evening sessions of the UK Snooker Championship later in the day. Some, no doubt, are fascinated by the play, but others would be dozing quietly in the local library's reading room were it not for the free admission and comfy seats.

Five minutes later the score is 147-0, which on the same table in a few hours' time would make Sethi both rich and famous. At 10.15 in the morning, the best he can hope for is the pounds 4,000 which will be guaranteed if he reaches the final (the winner of the second most important event on the billiards circuit will receive pounds 7,500). As he and the other three semi- finalists try to concentrate on their play, assorted members of the Guild Hall staff plod in, out and around, preparing for the serious attraction of Doherty, Hendry, and 19 extra balls.

Sixty years ago, it would have been the billiards that packed in the crowds. Players like Walter Lindrum took scoring to astonishing heights, using not the three-point shots of potting or in-off the red, but the two-point cannon. Lindrum's speciality was the nursery cannon, with the balls arranged within millimetres of each other on a cushion. With gentle nudges, he would slowly move the balls around and around the table, until his opponents either surrendered or expired from boredom. The reaction of the audience was much the same.

Eventually, the rules were changed to force players to vary their shots, but the damage had been done. By the late 1940s, fans of the green baize had embraced the gaudier delights of snooker, casting aside its more cerebral elder brother. Watch billiards for 20 minutes, and you will begin to fancy that you can understand why.

The trick is to stick it out for another 10, which is as long as it takes to realise that billiards cannot be judged by the pot-happy standards of snooker. Instinctive, machine-gun break-building is fine when you only have a cue ball to worry about, but billiards players face a more serious mental puzzle. "It's about the control of all three balls, not just one," Sethi says, "and it's really a game of knowledge. You have to play with a soft touch, which takes a long time to develop, and because of the intricacies involved, it takes much longer to master billiards than it does snooker."

There are no Whirlwinds here. Mark Russell, the best player in the world and all but unbeatable for the past five years, might just pass muster as a stiff breeze, but with 72 square feet of baize and just three balls, careful thought will still be essential in many situations. The best break so far this week is 466 by Roxton Chapman, a surprise winner against Russell in the other semi- final, which took a little over half an hour to compile.

"In snooker, no one's ever on the table for that long, so you've got to concentrate much more," Chapman says. "Also, it's a timed game [matches last two hours], so if somebody makes 400, it might mean that you can only just win which means there's a lot of pressure and you don't get a second chance. In snooker, the balls are racked up and you start again, even if you're 8-0 down."

Chapman sympathises with the spectators, both those who come and those who do not. "It's hard to appreciate the skill if you don't really know the game," he says, "that's why it struggles to take off.

"You can be at the top of the table, with all three balls within an inch of each other, and play a very good shot, but the balls haven't moved anywhere and it doesn't look like anything special. But in snooker you just keep potting and then re-rack, whereas in billiards there are so many shots, like masses, which come into the game."

Sethi executed one perfect masse, the outrageous, 180- degree swerve which is played with the cue held almost vertically. But what, you wondered, was the point, since there were so few people there to see it?

"It is somewhat demoralising," he admitted later. "As a performer you like to play in front of an audience, and it's sad that there isn't one in this country. In India, there is a rich billiards tradition, and we get crowds of four or five hundred. But what can you do about it? The irony is that the better a player plays, the more monotonous it gets to watch, and that's sad."

India has hosted the World Billiards Championship for the past five years, but there was no tournament this year after its sponsor - a tobacco firm - switched its money into tennis. The skill and efforts of Sethi, Chapman and the other keepers of the billiards flame deserve better.

Tomorrow morning, you can only hope, they will at least get an audience.

The final of the UK Billiards Championship takes place tomorrow between 11am and 1pm at the Preston Guild Hall. Admission is free.

CANNONS AND BALLS: THE RULES OF BILLIARDS

Billiards is played with just three balls: one red, and a separate cue ball for each player. There are four basic scoring shots. Potting the red scores three points. Sending your cue ball into a pocket off the red also scores three. An in-off from your opponent's cue is worth two. So, too, is a cannon - striking your cue ball against both the other balls. You also score one for potting your opponent's cue ball, but it is not returned to the table afterwards, which will end a break fairly abruptly. It is also considered to be very bad form. A pocketed red is re-spotted on the black spot, unless it has been pocketed three times without any other scoring shots intervening, in which case it goes on the blue spot. No more than 75 consecutive cannons are permitted. An in-off cue ball can be placed anywhere in the "D", but the player must then play up the table.

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