I like history. It’s interesting to trace human endeavour across the ebb and flow of time. England, for example: The Empire upon which the sun once never set exerted tremendous influence over the years. Of course, most of those were for ill, but there were some that could be argued to have been merely borderline evil.
The British are rabid sports fans – entirely out of proportion to their individual or national ability to actually play sports. Once they decide they like a game, they become literally obsessed. Witness soccer hooligans or the boisterous explosions of rapture in the pub when a man in a tuxedo yells, “ONE hundred and EIGHTYYY!”
For a country whose most accomplished athletic endeavour is standing in queue, this passionate love of games bears closer examination.
Look around the world. India, Pakistan, Australia and South Africa are not places you would expect to naturally develop games that require loitering in the hot sun for long periods of time and yet they’re all mad about cricket – a British game that can last more than a day, features less action than baseball and pauses for tea. In World Cricket, all of the noted countries routinely stomp the living daylights out of the pasty, wheezing Brits at their own game, but the stout Anglo love of cricket steadfastly continues.
There may be no greater testament to the truly unbalanced nature of the British obsession with sport than the presence, throughout the Commonwealth, of snooker tables.
Snooker is an uniquely English game of pocket billiards, played on a table that appears (to those used to “pool tables”) about the size of a football pitch. The balls are smaller, the pockets are tighter and the players on television dress rather well. Snooker requires a greater degree of accuracy than pool, places a premium on strategic play and is altogether a more refined game. If you don’t play snooker, it’s unwise to attempt watching it on television. It’s unbearably boring for the uninitiated, unless Ronnie’s at the table.
There are three main reasons why the Brits love snooker.
First, one of them thought it up. They later made him Prime Minister, which goes to show how much the English love anyone who can think of a way to distract them from the ugly business of living in England…or, God forbid, the Colonies.
Second, and most importantly, snooker can easily be played while drinking…or, rather, it’s easy to drink while you play. Anything easily associated with drinking is sure to be a winner in England. Just ask Big Bill Werbeniuk – he moved to England on much the same reasoning.
Third, being a pasty white, overweight, alcoholic smoker without any athletic ability whatsoever is no bar to participation. Nor, arguably, is being stoned out of one’s gourd on drugs, if the Canadians are to be taken seriously. This third element is clearly the clincher.
In any case, the nature of this British obsession with sport expresses itself in many facets of snooker. It’s regularly televised in Britain and has been for years. In fact, at one point in time, a snooker match held rank as the most watched television event in the country’s history. In the rest of world, televised snooker is regarded as only slightly more interesting than the weather channel. Most of the time. Not so in England.
Imagine the joy of BBC viewers at the advent of colour television. Suddenly, they could tell the balls apart! It must be noted, however, that British snooker fans religiously and in huge numbers watched televised games in black and white. This says something about the British and their love of games.
“What’s he on, son?”
“I don’ know, Pa, but tha was a helluva pot, eh?”
While media exposure certainly helped to popularize the game in England, it is a relatively recent development and cannot, therefore, explain the presence of snooker tables in far flung corners of the world.
Snooker tables are ungodly heavy things. Really very weighty. Solid oak frames, turned legs, huge pieces of slate. I used to own one and have moved a few of them. You don’t just pick one up and carry it around like a deck of playing cards. In fact, you are exceedingly unlikely to ever hear anyone say, “Please pass me that snooker table.”
The degree of obsession required to cart snooker tables around the globe is almost incomprehensible.
It is this level of manic compulsion that defines the shallow edge of the British passion for games.
The French may have invented billiards but they were either too lazy or too busy surrendering to someone to be bothered hauling heavy tables around. The Brits, on the other hand, are rather fond of moving heavy things.
Stonehenge is a fine example of this. Snooker tables are another.
You will find tables in Hong Kong, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Bermuda, Jamaica, Sri Lanka, Belize, Thailand, India, China, South Africa…anywhere The Sun Never Set.
One can imagine the conversation:
“So, Charles, you’re off to the colonies, eh what?”
“Yes, Minister. Greater glory, honour, tradition, all that…you understand.”
“Of course…of course. Fine things. Have you packed everything you’ll need, then?”
“Yes, yes. Change of clothes, medical kit, sensible walking shoes, snooker table…”
A secondary question is thus raised: If there exists a compulsive English desire to move heavy things about, why were the snooker tables commonly left behind upon the repatriation of Her Majesty’s loyal servants?
That there were already plenty of snooker tables back in England was undoubtedly a factor, but certainly the least of the reasons the tables remained.
Quite obviously, in many instances, the Queen’s departure was altogether too hasty and unplanned to make arrangements. It is, after all, difficult to outrun angry natives while carrying huge pieces of Italian slate.
“Bugger the snooker table, Maplethorpe! The locals have taken to arms!”
One theory suggests that having endured the pure aching hell of dragging the behemoth onto and off of the ship and getting it properly set up, they realized that the French, while being lazy, cheese-eating, surrender monkeys, were not necessarily stupid.
The most likely explanation, however, is that the boys were simply too laden with plundered booty to squeeze the bulky slates aboard for the return trip. They would have loved to have moved it. After all…it’s heavy, isn’t it?
In any event, the baize remnants of Mother England’s global love fest were left behind – the bastard children of the Queen’s colonial bedhopping, breeding pockets of fans who obsessively root for Jimmy to finally win it all.
Despite a sordid history of being passed about from colonial bedchamber to imperial harem, Taiwan never cut a notch on the Queen’s bedpost. She was too busy dressing up like a naughty schoolgirl for Japan and thus never contracted snooker. She did wind up with a bad case of sashimi, but that’s another matter entirely.
Taiwan, while lacking snooker tables, is one of the best places in the world to play pool. You get an idea for the popularity of the game from the sheer number of pool rooms you see while driving around the city. They’re not quite as common as 7-11’s, but there’s no shortage of giant neon 9-balls lining the roads.
Pool is an American game and like many things American, the Taiwanese love it long time. That and the fact that it can be played in an air-conditioned environment. The Taiwanese don’t stand around in the hot sun, and they don’t play cricket.
The level of cue skill on this tiny island is truly remarkable. The former and two-time World #1 9-ball player, Chow Fong Pang, is Taiwanese, along with four or five serious contenders and a few thousand guys who practice every day and have plans about it. On the women’s side Taiwan is no less competitive, fielding a couple of players capable of challenging for a spot atop the global rankings and a few hundred who will embarrass the hell out of you in a pub. Walk into any pool room and grab a stick off the wall…guaranteed there’s someone knocking balls about who will be happy to give you a lesson.
It was, therefore, very surprising to walk into a room last week and see a regulation snooker table, complete with rests, extensions and a selection of proper snooker cues (even a John Parris!). Why they had five sets of snooker balls for the single table, I didn’t ask. It was almost surreal…like walking into Mr. Honda’s garage and finding a 1977 Chrysler New Yorker – with five sets of floor mats. Not just a bit out of place and strangely odd on top of that. The fact remains: Snooker has arrived in Taiwan.
There was an old Taiwanese guy knocking the balls around, but as soon as he finished up I played a few frames with my buddy, Frank. In a flash of former glory I knocked in a stunning three blacks and a blue, and rattled a few long reds with a satisfying degree of inaccuracy. Being from South Africa, Frank has seen snooker before and knows where to spot the colours. This made him useful to have around rather than merely amusing.
I couldn’t find any markings on the table, but it looked like an old Riley that had seen hard times but still retained her quiet, English dignity…stiff upper lip.
Manufactured in Burnley, you know. That’s Lancashire, of course. Nothing to do but carry on. The gene for moving heavy things thrives. That’s what matters.
Players from the UK have consistently dominated professional snooker – mostly because the rest of the world finds it painfully boring to play, much less watch. Canadian Cliff Thorburn is the only non-UK snooker player to ever win the world championships. Once, over twenty years ago. It was a controversial moment in British sport. Perhaps Ben Johnson wasn’t the first Canadian to use performance enhancing substances in competition. So what?
If the performance of China’s Deng Jun Hui at the recent worlds is any indication, the appearance of snooker tables in Taiwan cannot bode well for continued British mastery of snooker. Given the talent and success of the Taiwanese at pool, it’s only a matter of time until history pots another black and snooker – like cricket, rugby, golf, football, tennis and pig-sticking – becomes just another thing at which the British USED to be the best. Well…perhaps they’ll always have pig-sticking.