Richardson takes the fast rack to glory

Andrew Baker is easy target practice for a pool player with his sights on America
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Next week, Andy Richardson teams up with Steve Davis, Jimmy White and the best of Europe's players to take on the United States in the Mosconi Cup, nine-ball pool's equivalent of the Ryder Cup. Last week, in the Northern Snooker Centre, next to a dual carriageway in Leeds, he took on me. Nice guy. Lent me a cue. "Don't worry," he said, as I bent down to break off. "It's only worth pounds 800."

Nine-ball, or "American" pool is the coming thing in leisure, by all accounts. The attractions are obvious: it is easier to play passably well than snooker, but harder and classier than the facile eight-ball game found in pub basements the length and breadth of the country. And that is just the sporting side of things.

The fact that it is an American game makes it doubly attractive to leisure operators: get in the American pool and you theme it with an American bar, and in no time you are shipping premium-price beers and high-tab hot dogs, at a healthier return than the traditional snooker club punnet of chips. Cynical, certainly, but that is the way these things are done. And on the evidence of the empty snooker tables at the Northern, and the fact that even Richardson, a national standard-bearer, had to wait to get on a table, nine-ball is ready to boom.

Boosted, naturally, by the Mosconi Cup. This event has a typical modern sporting pedigree, being by Barry Hearn out of Sky, and this is its third year. The Americans won the first event, the Europeans the second. This year, the experts say, the Yanks will be stronger than ever.

The game itself is straightforward. The table is nine feet long, two feet longer than the eight-ball pub table, and correspondingly wider. Balls, numbered one to nine, are arranged in a diamond formation, and must be potted in order. They can be potted out of order by cannons or from the break. Whoever pots the nine-ball wins.

There are refinements concerning fouls and "pushouts", pool's version of a snooker, but essentially it is a game of speed and aggression - and fortune. Remember the opening line of The Hustler, the ultimate pool movie? Andy Richardson has it off by heart. "Nine-ball is a game of luck."

But you can make your own, and the break is all-important. Power is the key. Richardson lines up his angle with care, sighting along his cue, forefinger hooked over it to keep it steady. Then he throws himself into the shot, following through so hard that he kicks a leg into the air behind him. One or two balls down from the break and you are well on your way to a clearance.

Richardson, who is 29, has been a professional pool player since 1992, playing mainly in France, where the game is very popular, and supplementing his income by humping cues at the House of Billiards in Leeds. "I've shifted 54,000 in the last couple of weeks," he said with wince. "Not great for the back."

But his main activity is practice, hour after hour playing rack after rack with proficient friends at the Northern. He'll be ready for the Mosconi. "I'm used to playing in front of big crowds," he said, pulling on an un- American Fanta. "That doesn't worry me in the least. I'll be a little nervous about the TV cameras, but I'll soon settle down. I'm likely to be the underdog in all five matches that I play - the pressure will be on my opponents."

Sid Waddell, the hyperactive darts commentator, will be describing the action next week at the Goresbrook Leisure Centre in Dagenham. He reckons the Europeans could be in for a rough ride. "The Americans have this amazing cue action," Waddell said. "A really powerful transfer of momentum, particularly on the break, which they stab like a sword. They're always after the golden break - all nine balls down. And they're so aggressive."

Golden break . . . all nine down . . . aggression . . . try and forget that the bloody cue is worth pounds 800. Arm back slowly and - whack. Well, it wasn't golden, barely pewter, in fact no balls down at all. But it left Andy unable to pot the one-ball, which was a victory in itself. Pool sages around the table scratched their chins, thinking: "This guy - the Canary Wharf Kid, he calls himself - he's got something."

What I had, after Andy's next shot, was a chance to sneak the one-ball into the centre pocket and creep down for position on the two. In it went, and in, too, went the cue ball, having failed to connect with the two. This was all that Andy needed, and balls two to eight flew in from every angle, leaving him an easy pot on the nine. "Oh, come on," I said. "Set yourself a challenge." "Okay," Andy said, lining up a complex triple - which he missed. I was in. Nine-ball into bottom right-hand corner, and my career as a hustler would be launched. Careful, careful - oops. Maybe next year.