'Future updates of the game will perhaps include virtual beer monsters whacking your cue as you are about to take a shot'

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The Independent Online
Ronnie O'Sullivan, the laddish snooker genius, was having problems with the virtual world. There he was at the launch of the "Ronnie O'Sullivan and Steve Davis Virtual Pool" computer game at the HMV store on London's Oxford Street on Thursday and he had lost all control of his mouse. Instead of addressing the baize in the manner he was used to, he was staring at the underside of a pool table displayed on a computer screen in front of him.

"Look 'ere," he said, flailing around with his mouse. "Anyone know how to work this thing? I'm under the table, here, look. And I've not even had a drink."

Steve Davis, on the other hand, you will not be surprised to hear, is something of a computer games fan, he spends hours poring over the keyboard.

"Yeah," O'Sullivan said. "He's well warm at the old anorak stuff."

But Steve was otherwise occupied on Thursday afternoon, leaving Ronnie to promote the product on his own by playing members of the public, most of whom appeared far more familiar with a mouse than a cue.

"Anyone taking bets?" asked Ronnie's manager, watching as his protege stared forlornly at the screen in front of him. "They should open a book on how many points the punters are going to beat him by."

"Virtual Pool" is the baby of Barry Hearn. He owns the rights for the European Pool Championships, to be shown on Sky TV, and, seeking to evangelise the game, decided it was cheaper to flog it as a computer game (pounds 34.99) than to try to sell tables. So he persuaded the most marketable members of his snooker stable to put their names to a product expected to sell 50,000 copies this year. Not that Ronnie knew much about pool.

"Nah, hardly played it," he said.

Was it a bit like tennis players avoiding squash because it messed up their technique? "Nah," said Ronnie. "Just never got round to playing it."

And was he any good when he did? "Yeah," he said. "Oh yeah."

Virtual pool, however, presented a different proposition. The idea is to use the mouse to manoeuvre your cue around a 3-D table projected on to your screen. Then, when you are in position, move the mouse rapidly forward or back, thus striking the virtual white ball with the virtual cue. The harder you move the mouse, the harder the contact with the virtual ball, enabling the player to do all sorts of things like kisses, double-backs and reverse spins. In fact it is so realistic that it is possible to collide with a virtual bar stool as you make your way round the virtual table.

Future updates of the game will perhaps include virtual beer monsters whacking your cue just as you are about to take a shot, the white ball leaping embarrassingly off the table into someone else's pint as you line up a crucial pot and subsequent virtual cloth-tears. Also virtual blokes sitting by the side of the table claiming the house rule is winner stays on and that since they won the last game you will have to play them and that the challenger always pays.

But as yet all you have to master is the mouse. And once O'Sullivan had done that, he was unstoppable, playing the game with more flourish than the half-dozen or so computer fiends who had turned up to challenge him. Which shows it probably has a built-in skill factor not unlike the real thing. When I gave him a game - each of us sitting in front of a computer screen - he became decidedly competitive (maybe it was my name). He addressed the screen as he would his cue, studying his angles, resting his tongue on his upper lip to aid concentration. Soon he was potting balls at will and freely offering advice.

"What you want to do there, mate," he suggested as I stared at half a dozen virtual balls bunched together in the middle of my virtual table, "is smack it. Go on, give it some."

So I did.

"Oops you potted one of mine. Deary me."

The success with which Hearn's engineers have translated pool into a virtual world suggests a lead for other sports. You could have "Virtual Wise", for instance, in which you have to hail a taxi without landing in court. Or "Virtual Seaman", the object of which is to avoid ending up in an embarrassing tangle in the back of the net under pressure from a lob travelling at roughly half the speed of a Skoda. Or maybe "Virtual Carling", in which the England rugby union team win the World Cup by slinging the ball around, breaking at speed and scoring breathtaking try after breathtaking try. Or maybe that is taking virtual reality a little far.

In the meantime, you will have to make do with "Virtual Pool". If you can get O'Sullivan off the keyboard.

"There, done it," he said as he potted his black with an expert cushion shot, leaving me with all but one ball remaining on the table. "Nice one. What no trophy? Oh, yeah, I've got to imagine one."