Pool puts its pub image on ice: Guy Hodgson on a sport that has come a long way in a short time

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The Independent Online
THERE might have been a smoke-filled room that rang to the sound of swearing and the clink of beer glasses somewhere in the Midland Crowne Plaza Hotel, Manchester, yesterday but it was not on view to the general public. The sport of pool was on show, but it was sanitised pool.

It was all Queen Vic, of course, but in this venue we were talking architecture and not a set from East Enders. Pool, the archetypal pub game, had transplanted itself from its normal place among the ashtrays and empties into the splendour of Mancunian Victoriana.

'We don't like to think of the sport as the poor relation of billiards and snooker,' George Harwood, the tournament director for the Embassy World Pool Championship, said between interruptions as finals night approached. 'But we can't deny that was its root. I like to think this event and setting prove we have grown up.'

It was an important night for the eight-ball version of the game that sprang out of the enthusiasm for snooker in the 1970s and was nurtured by publicans wanting a table that consumed less space. Hence pool and, two decades on, a tournament with pounds 16,700 in prizes and 16 hours' coverage on Sky Sports for September.

It was an important evening, too, for Sue Thompson, who for 10 years has been Britain's best woman player but was denied the chance to play in the World Championships last year by the lack of an invitation. The 24-year- old from Runcorn met Linda Leadbitter, the champion, in the final and you could say a little bit of grudge had entered the match.

'People have asked me how I feel about Linda being the world champion and I say, 'How can she be when I wasn't allowed to compete last year?' I've played Linda about 10 times and I think she's beaten me only once.'

Thompson is a cause celebre in the sport because it is partly through her efforts that women have been allowed to join the paid ranks. Denied the right to make a living by the Professional Pool Players' Organisation, she took it to an industrial tribunal three years ago and won around pounds 25,000 in damages. Instead of the money, however, she took a work ticket.

'I didn't want to ruin them,' she said, 'that kind of sum could have left them bankrupt. I love this sport and didn't want to damage it, and once I was allowed to turn professional I told them they could keep the money. I think they were surprised.'

A protege who was winning tournaments within a year of picking up a cue at 14, Thompson would probably be ranked in the top 10 even if males were included but yesterday, grudge or no grudge, she fell short of being a shark in the pool and was beaten 6-3. Leadbitter, five and a half months pregnant, had fortune on her side in the first two frames but once she was ahead she clung tenaciously to the advantage. At this level one slip is usually enough and she was ruthlessly efficient at punishing her opponent's mistakes.

'She proved herself didn't she?' Thompson said. 'I think most people expected me to win but you can't fault her, she was the better player on the day. It was like it wasn't me out there, I couldn't get hold of my nerves. I think I wanted it too much.'

Harwood, en route to preparing for the men's finals, basked in the atmosphere. 'They were talking like sisters afterwards,' he said. 'They had just played a world final but they were chatting away as if they'd just had a quick frame in the local.

'That's typical. We don't ever want to forget where we come from, we want to maintain the informality and friendliness. We're a pub game and we mustn't forget it.'

(Photograph omitted)