Keith Elliott at Large: A pot-pourri of fudgers and dishers: A growing interest in the game of pool will be boosted by significant increase in exposure on television

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The Independent Online
HOWARD MILLER'S career as a salesman had an unusual blip in the mid-1980s. Hidden among a bootload of rep jobs on his CV (at present he's flogging ads in Yellow Pages) is one of those quirky career moves they used to love on What's My Line? For Miller once made his living by his skill on the pool table.

'It fed my vanity, calling myself a professional pool player,' he admitted. 'Everyone asked about it when I went for a job interview. The only trouble was, it didn't pay the rent. There just wasn't the money in it.'

With a wife, small son and a mortgage, you would think that Miller, now 35, wants to forget those days of empty pockets and waiting for breaks that never came. On the contrary. Despite his amateur status, he is deputy chairman of the Professional Pool Players Association (futuristically nicknamed 3-PO). This weekend, he has high hopes of leading his St Albans pub team to victory in the Skol Golden Cue Classic at Great Yarmouth. And he is even considering turning professional again.

Pool. . . surely anyone can play that? With that tiny table and enormous pockets, what's so skilful in belting those silly striped balls around? You don't even have to pot them in the right order. No wonder you can never get near a pub table; it's a game you can play even when you're seeing 30 balls instead of 15. Even bar billiards, with those funny wooden mushrooms, needs more expertise.

Or does it?

Last week, Barry Hearn's Matchroom organised a televised pool tournament that featured the sport's best players, along with Steve Davis and Jimmy White. And guess who won? Not the snooker stars, but the pool men. 'Top pool players will always beat snooker's best,' Miller said. 'It's a very different game, pool is much more precise. Because you have a restricted playing surface, you must be exact. Often you have to put your ball within a quarter of an inch.

'All our top players are very good at snooker. They have all made century breaks and some have made total clearances. My best break is 128 - but I prefer pool. The pub games you see are very different to competitive play. Hour-long games are not uncommon. It's like poker with balls.'

A typical game between two pros will see them ignore obvious pots, manoeuvring their balls into a favourable position (fudging, in pool parlance). 'There's no point in potting unless you can pot the lot,' Miller said. But the fudger doesn't always win. Some players, such as the United Kingdom No 1 Ross McKinnock, of Glasgow, cannot resist the challenge and the risk. They are called dishers, and it's fascinating to watch a contest between a disher and a fudger. When things go right for a disher, the game is over in seconds. One top contest of six games was complete in just 18 minutes.

Pool is also Britain's largest participant game, with an estimated 5.4 million regular players. The teams in this weekend's Skol tournament at Great Yarmouth, which has pounds 20,000 prize-money, will have been involved in an estimated 10,000 qualifying heats. So how come we never hear anything about pool in our newspapers, or more relevantly, never see it on television?

The latter is a tender point for Miller. 'We are talking about a multi-million-pound business here, a sport almost everyone has played at some time. It's a great visual sport and big matches often attract 500-600 spectators. It can be very fast and it's easy to see what is happening. When it was shown on World of Sport a few years ago it attracted an audience of 6.5 million. I think the BBC has a duty to put it on television. Pool certainly makes better viewing than canoeing, squash or dressage.'

In fact, his demands may soon be partly answered. Sky is set to film at least 30 hours of pool next year. Hearn believes it will be the growth sport of the 1990s. Already there are 31 professionals, including Eddie Charlton, and three more join the ranks on Monday. A couple are already earning around pounds 50,000 a year. With a dozen tournaments now carrying at least pounds 10,000 prize-money, it could become as popular in television terms as snooker once was. And that's why Miller is dusting off his cue.

'Things are starting to happen,' he said. 'I want to be part of it. I would also like to play a part in changing pool's image. There's a spit-and-sawdust perception of pool players. But our professionals are fined pounds 50 if they don't wear a tie. We want to give the game a new image. I would love to see pool players wearing silver and gold to make the sport really glamorous.'

If he decides to walk around in apparel more appropriate to American-style wrestling, he will get full support from his wife, Yvonne. She has been British women's champion and was the first captain of the women's team. They even metE while playing in pool tournaments.

Meanwhile, Miller hasTHER write error been given free use of a table by his local landlord to train for this weekend, and he is playing daily, though only against himself. 'The trouble is, I don't really enjoy pub matches any more. When you are at my standard, you just can't lose if you play properly.'

The Skol Golden Cue Pool Classic takes place at Vauxhall Holiday Camp, Great Yarmouth, tomorrow and Sunday.

(Photograph omitted)