Greg Wood assesses a sport aiming to become top of the pots.
People who play snooker can be very snooty when it comes to pool. It's the flash Harry who moved in next door and lowered the tone of the neighbourhood, a pub game with ideas above its station. Ponder, then, the opinion of one snooker player at this week's Mosconi Cup, a nine-ball tournament between Europe and the United States which is billed - somewhat inevitably - as the Ryder Cup of pool.
"I love this game," he said. "The rules are brilliant, very strong, much stronger than the set of snooker rules. Nine-ball is like a shoot-out, the safety has got to be rock-solid, and when you get in, you've got to clear. If you don't, it's one against the head. I've played lots of different table ball games around the world, and this is just a great game."
The snooker player in question, as it happens, is Steve Davis, whose enthusiasm for nine-ball is unstinting. Even he, though, can see where misunderstandings might occur. Most people think pool means eight-ball, the game played in thousands of British pubs. And while a nine-ball table is much bigger, 9ft x 41/2ft, so too are the pockets, which to anyone brought up on snooker look more like bin bags.
"Eight-ball is a babies' game," Davis says, "this is the one for grown- ups. Eight-ball is quite fun, but the weakness, especially on a pub table, is that the pockets aren't that big, and the game is all strategy, cover the pockets and take control. In nine-ball, the table is effectively crowded, because the balls are big and table is small. It's easy to pot a ball and then cover yourself up, which is fatal, and so it's all about positional play."
As is so often the case with intriguing games, the rules are deceptively simple. They use standard American pool balls, numbered one to nine, and whoever pockets the nine-ball wins. The balls are racked in a diamond, with the nine in the middle, the one at the front, and the others arranged randomly. You must play the lowest-numbered ball on the table first in any shot, but so long as any ball drops, your break continues. When breaking off, therefore, you smack the one-ball as hard as you can, and hope that something - anything - drops (except, of course, the cue ball).
If it happens to be the nine - unusual, but not unheard of - you win immediately. Otherwise, you keep potting in ascending order, before rounding off with the nine - or take advantage of a situation which allows you to play the lowest ball first and pocket the nine too. After a foul, a player gets the ball "in-hand", and can place it wherever he likes. There is no two-shot rule, as in eight-ball, but then, when the professionals are playing, one is almost always enough.
A single rack can thus last anything between three seconds and perhaps 15 minutes or more, though about five minutes is average. This, of course, makes it ideal for commercial television and, in particular, more-ads- than-action Sky Sports, which is giving the Mosconi Cup exhaustive coverage, not to mention the enormous boost of Sid Waddell in the commentary booth.
In terms of the number of players, nine-ball is already the most popular cue game in the world, and anecdotal evidence at least suggests that while many British snooker centres are struggling for customers, nine-ball halls are springing up everywhere. Forget surfball - if Peter Mandelson wants a sport for the millennium to go in his Dome, nine-ball could be the one.
Davis - or rather The Nugget, since nicknames are almost obligatory in pool - is part of a six-man European team for the Mosconi Cup, along with Rocket Ronnie O'Sullivan, and four dedicated nine-ball experts (The Machine, The Kaiser and The Disher among them). In opposition are six of the 300 or so players who make a living on the pro-pool circuit in the States, including Jim "King James" Rempe, Johnny "The Scorpion" Archer and one of the finest players in nine-ball history, Earl "The Pearl" Strickland.
The Pearl once won 10 racks in a row during a tournament without missing once, an achievement which makes a 147 break at snooker look commonplace, winning a suitably cool million dollar bonus in the process. The reason such a streak is so difficult to compile is another of nine-ball's attractions - luck. "There's a lot of chance in the break, and in the whole game," Strickland says. "It's a skill game, but at the same time, a lot of funny things can happen to you. It's fickle, and it's not conservative, like snooker, because you're never safe."
Play Steve Davis at snooker, in other words, and you will lose every frame. Play 11 racks of nine-ball, though, and you could hope to win one or two, but rarely, if ever, the majority. Whatever your standard, there will be plenty of moments when you look - and feel - much better than you are.
Ronnie O'Sullivan, of course, would look good if was using his cue to swat flies. In partnership with Ralf "The Kaiser" Souquet, he won his opening match on Thursday night to wild rejoicing in a partisan crowd in Bethnal Green, and the atmosphere should be better still as the Cup reaches its climax this weekend.
Many great boxers have started out at the York Hall, and snooker too may have a fight on its hands. As The Nugget says: "Anyone who thinks that just because snooker is a great game, it will be the only game, is living in a fantasy world."
The Mosconi Cup continues today and concludes tomorrow at York Hall, Bethnal Green. Sessions start at 3.0pm and 7.0pm, admission free.