Why I Watch Snooker, by Kenn Fong

As those of you who regularly drop in on my live chats here at PSB may be aware, Kenn Fong is a snooker fan from the United States of America and given the relative lack of snooker presence across the Atlantic, I asked him if he would be interested in writing a guest article as to what attracted him to the sport. Over to Kenn….


by Kenn Fong

Matt must be intrigued as to why a 57 year-old Yank in the San Francisco Bay Area would all of a sudden take a liking to snooker, to the point of watching streams and studying YouTube videos. I’ve tried his patience a number of times with some elementary questions – though not the kind I could find my own answers to using the Internet – and along the way he got curious about me. So he’s asked me to write about my impressions of the game, and to say a little about the game in America.

First, you have to know that until a couple of months ago, I have never been to a snooker tournament and only touched a snooker table once for about an hour when an Internet buddy, Nick Prinsloo, came to San Francisco a dozen years ago. It’s pretty difficult to find a regulation snooker table around here, let alone a billiards parlor. So far as I know, there isn’t a single snooker table, regulation or smaller, available for public play here in Alameda, which is across the Bay from San Francisco.

I’ve seen snooker tables before, but never looked closely at them or even saw anyone playing. I knew only what I could see: that the table was much bigger (a regulation professional pool table is 4.5 x 9 feet compared with a 6 x 12 snooker table), the balls were smaller, and there were more of them. What’s more, there were a lot of red ones, and none of the balls had numbers on them.

He showed me the very basics, and in the course of instruction, tried to get me to abandon the closed bridge I used in favor of the standard open bridge.

After pushing the balls around a few times, I put my house cue back on the wall and let Nick finish out the frame. He instructed me on re-spotting the colors. I don’t remember if he had any big breaks, but if he’d had a “century,” I’m sure he would have told me, because he knew I love slang.

This was back in the late 90s. There was no YouTube and broadband Internet was only a rumor a guest had told me about in a syndicated technology public radio program I’d created and produced.

There was no Wikipedia, so I had to rely on books I could find in the library and passing references to snooker in pool and billiards encyclopaedias. Regulation pool tables were not all that common either. You could find “bar tables” everywhere, not just in watering holes, but in bowling alleys and occasionally in a pinball arcade. If you found a regulation table outside of a pool hall, most of the time it wasn’t level, and the cushions were mushy, the felt bald, and the house cues were warped.

So my impressions of snooker were based on a tiny sample, and even at that, weren’t impressions so much as misconceptions.

In recent years, the men’s national professional 9-ball tour is limping along (although several regional circuits are doing well), and you rarely see any men’s pool on ESPN, which is the only channel that had any pool. Several times a month you can see the women’s tour, which is much easier to watch anyway. A tall slender woman bent over the pool table has a similar appearance and posture to a swim suit model. Need I say more?

A good number of female snooker players came over and are making a reasonable living at it. Allison Fisher is the best known, but Karen Corr, Kelly Fisher (unrelated), and Gerda Hoftstatter also moved to the States and play on the tour full-time.

Because of the absence of men’s pool on television, I started trolling YouTube to find some videos of some of my favorite players, particularly Efren Reyes. Reyes is known as “The Magician” for his artistic safety play and his baffling escapes from what look to be impossible snookers.

Among the YouTube results, I saw some Mosconi Cup matches. I recognized the name “Steve Davis” and remember him for his gracious interviews and easy smiles, so I watched a few. As I searched for more of his matches, the snooker matches started coming up.

Remember, I’d not seen any snooker except for that one time Nick came to San Francisco. So I didn’t know anything about it, but I thought I might not like it because I knew the matches took a long time.

I was not prepared for what I saw. At first, I thought snooker players were more timid, because they seldom tried four-foot cut shots down the rail. I also saw that there were very few shots where the object ball travelled for more than 75% of the length of the table.

Then I noticed that the corner pockets were cut like an “H,” so it requires laser-sharp accuracy or the ball will rattle in the mouth of the pocket and remain there for an easy “duck.” (When I played 8-ball, my friends and I used to call them that, short for “sitting duck.”)

This was my first major revelation. Not only were the pockets disproportionately smaller than those on a pool table, but they’re cut to be much less forgiving.

I’m a bit of a math geek, so I got fascinated by calculating the remaining points left on the table and what would be the “frame ball.” As a fan of slang and jargon, I got caught up in “side,” “stun,”and “screw” (“english,” “stop,” and “draw”). From watching the Mosconi Cup coverage on ESPN, I’d already known that “pot” means to “pocket” but I loved finding out about a “cannon” (carom), a “plant” (“combination”), a “double” (“bank shot”), and “dead weight” (“pocket speed”).

I’d had a misconception that snooker was a very slow game, but I was glad to be proven wrong. Some players are a bit more deliberate than others, but generally they get down over a shot quickly.

As did many, I fell in love with Ronnie O’Sullivan. He plays the game like he’s on roller skates, and as I too am battling depression and am an alcoholic (sober for 25+ years), I have a natural empathy for him. I watched all of his maximums that are on YouTube, and have favorited the most complete and highest quality videos. I’ve watched his 2010 maximum in which he asks ref Jan Verhaas if there is a prize for the maximum after he’s potted the first black at least thirty times. The first time I saw it I thought it was arrogance and poor sportsmanship, but then I heard Dennis Taylor say he’d already scored eight, so it’s a legitimate question. Taylor’s description of the cue ball path and John Virgo’s anxious call (“He’s got the line, has he got the pace? He’s got the line, has he got the pace?!!! Absolutely superb!”) goes down in my memory as one of the best calls I’ve heard from any sports announcer, ever. It’s a perfect combination of description, analysis, and excitement.

Something I love about listening to a snooker match is just how good your announcers are. Now, mind you, I don’t know the game like you folks do, being born into the game, being taught by your fathers and uncles, but to me, your snooker announcers have just the best combination between description, analysis, instruction, summarizing the tournament situation, anecdotes of the players, and history of the game that I’ve heard. As a class, your fellows are better than our (American) football and baseball announcers.

American announcers sometimes make me feel as if they’re getting paid per word. With one notable exception, American announcers seem to be allergic to dead air. Your announcers must have been fans of Count Basie, who also understood the power of silence between the notes.

Random things I noticed:

  1. No one uses the closed bridge.
  2. No one puts the chalk on the table, except for Rory McLeod. (I like the look of a waistcoat, and if I join a pool league, I’ll get one for myself, although I’m going to have to lose about a stone to make myself look less like an overstuffed sausage.)
  3. Sometimes it appears to me that the referee is more of a butler than official.
  4. Players only carry one cue and one shaft. Pool players carry at least three butts and sometimes twice as many shafts. It doesn’t make any sense to me that a player would not carry a second shaft.

Players all seem to be very good sports, at least at the table. When a player is on the wrong side of a maximum, he is genuinely happy for his opponent. Sometimes it makes me laugh when the balls are respotted after a foul because each player will direct the referee to position the ball in a more favorable spot for his opponent, which seems to contradict human nature!

All my snooker interest became a reality a few weeks ago, when the United States Snooker Association sanctioned a tournament near me at the Ace Snooker Club.

Ajeya Prabhakar, SnookerUSA President, with the owners of the Ace Snooker Club in San Mateo, California. Ace Snooker Club hosted the SnookerUSA tour event

The Ace Snooker Club in San Mateo is the single snooker-only club in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s an intimate little place with three full-size Rileys and lots of room around them, with a comfortable lounge area off to the side. You can buy equipment and light refreshments, but this is a place for serious players. You won’t see a big-screen TV or hear loud music.

I felt a bit like a bug under a microscope. Apparently, the players are not used to seeing spectators, and certainly they weren’t used to having journalists come to visit!

It’s clear they take a lot of pride in their tables. Eric Ng, one of the owners, told me they were installing new cloth after the tournament, and were going to level the tables again. (This is a hazard for those of us who live in earthquake country!)

The players were all pretty genial, although very serious about their matches. Between frames, the idle players stopped to converse with me, and I was surprised to find myself chatting with the president of the United States Snooker Association, Ajeya Prabhakar, who was playing. (He went on to win the event.)

I stayed through a few frames and left. But before I left, I interviewed Mr. Prabhakar for PSB, and he dropped a tantalyzing tidbit on me: a new club was opening just a few minutes away from me with 12 new Rileys!

Perhaps by this this time next year I’ll live up to my Twitter avatar of Andy Capp!

The icing on my snooker cake came a few days ago, when I got to see my first World Championship. I loved everything about it, except the time difference. I saw most of the frames from the Quarter-Finals on, and I cleared my schedule and made gallons of black coffee to watch the Semis, because the 10 AM sessions started at 2 AM here. I’m lucky my clients let me reschedule a few meetings.

As if it couldn’t get any better, I got to see Ronnie lift the trophy and re-enact Alex Higgins’ triumphant moment when he lifted his child up in celebration.

What a wonderful few months of snooker I enjoyed, and it was made all the better by the friends I made on Matt’s live chats and Twitter. It’s early days, but I get the feeling I’ve made some lifelong friends.