New tempo for an old game

Billiards in this country has for decades been overshadowed by snooker, but is fighting to regain ground. John Roberts reports from the British Open in Wigan
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The Independent Online
After winning the British Open billiards title here on Saturday night, Roxton Chapman acknowledged that the achievement hardly qualified him for celebrity, even in his own Peterborough household. "My mother is better known then me," he said. Mrs Jacqueline Chapman has appeared on television and starred in a video as a professional belly dancer.

We are in the midst of the Strachan Festival of Billiards, seeking the pulse of a noble old game which has been snookered by snooker. The UK Championship, the second leg of a double-feature, began yesterday.

The Bellingham Hotel is cosy and friendly. Its main function room is spacious enough for the average wedding reception and business conference and more than adequate for Britain's biggest billiards event.

Pay-for-view here bears no relation to television. There is not a camera in sight. It means turning up and handing over pounds 2.50 for a day's play or investing pounds 15 to see the whole of the two tournaments over 10 days. Audiences have varied from a handful to 80.

Total prize-money for the British Open was pounds 14,000, with pounds 4,000 going to Chapman. The UK Championship offers pounds 20,000, with pounds 7,000 for the winner. When Stephen Hendry chalks his cue for next month's Embassy world professional snooker championship, his sights will be on a first prize of almost pounds 250,000 from a total pot of more than pounds 1m.

While snooker prospered, capitalising on the introduction of colour television and the advent of the brilliant Alex Higgins and finding a perfect venue in Sheffield's Crucible Theatre, billiards nodded off to sleep.

The rhythmic clicking of the three balls, which had so delighted Louis XI of France, Napoleon Bonaparte and Queen Victoria and had helped Mozart compose the odd masterpiece while at the table, became monotonous during the 1930s. Four players, Walter Lindrum, Joe Davis, Tom Newman and Clarke McConachy, made a difficult skill look easy, and killed the game as a public spectacle.

Lindrum was the chief culprit. The Australian mastered outwardly repetitious methods of scoring so well that he could accumulate breaks of a thousand or more almost at will. In 1932, he made a record break of 4,137.

The World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association has endeavoured to resuscitate its senior partner. The latest move to make the game spectator friendly was to introduce a rule that the cue ball had to cross the baulk line, against the nap, at least once during a break of 100.

"Initially, the players had great difficulty crossing baulk once every 100 points," Alan Chamberlain, the tournament director, said, "but now they've overcome it and they put themselves in certain positions, deliberately, to get across the baulk line."

The knack was evident as Mike Russell accumulated a break of 713, a world record under the new rule, during the British Open semi-finals. Russell, a 26-year-old Teessider who is the world No 1, was unable to reproduce his touch in the final. Chapman dominated the table, particularly during the opening session, to win, 1,616-772.

Russell's consolation was that he went into the UK event as favourite to win a pounds 12,000 Honda for the highest break of 600-plus during the back- to-back championships.

The youthfulness of the finalists was gratifying for the organisers, whose image-raising efforts were not helped in the days, little more than a decade ago, when tournaments were virtually monopolised by wrinklies.

Chapman, 23, is a protege of Mark Wildman, a former world champion, and he had no hesitation in choosing billiards over snooker. Nor does he appear to have any regrets.

In common with most full-time professionals - there are 40 billiard members of the WPBSA, compared with 800 who play snooker - Chapman supplements his prize money by playing exhibitions and challenge matches.

He was fortunate in his early days to be able to count on the financial support of his parents. His father, Douglas, is a former estate agent who leases properties and oversees his wife's belly-dancing enterprises, which include teaching classes in London.

Although billiards has dwindled into an esoteric pursuit in Britain, the game is booming in India, a vibrant legacy of the Raj. The country hosts four tournaments, including the World Championship in Bombay, which boasts an estimated audience of 200m for the closing stages.

Interest there led to a cosmetic change, a yellow ball replacing the spot-white to make identification easier for viewers, spectators, players and referees.

Chapman has sampled the upbeat atmosphere, winning an event in Hyderabad. "Yes," he smiled, "I'm bigger than my mother out in India."