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….

WHY I WATCH SNOOKER

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.

 

  • Kenn Fong

    Thanks, for giving me my 15 seconds of fame.

    I wish Efren Reyes would play snooker. His safety play is immaculate, albeit on a 9 ft. table. And his escapes are Ronnie-esque. But Reyes makes too much money with on the 9 ft. tables.

  • Francis

    Excellent article. Loved reading it, thanks for contributing Kenn.

    Will you now try to learn to play snooker when the new club opens?

    • http://KennFong.com Kenn Fong

      Sorry I didn’t answer you sooner, Francis. You betcha I’m gonna push the balls around. I’m not sure if he’ll have coaches there, But I intend to give it a go. I’m serious and intend to even play in tournaments, although I’m certain I’ll be fresh meat.

      The one thing I will be certain to do is get new glasses. I’m overdue for a new prescription, and I’ll be sure the optometrist gives me a special prescription which help me with the 2.5 to 3.5 meter range. I’m right-handed and I know I’m left-eye dominant.

      Any advice and coaching tips? I’m serious! I can use all the help I can get! Francis (and everyone else) please gmail me. Kenn01Fong. That’s a zed-one.

      • http://KennFong.com Kenn Fong

        But they won’t be like Dennis Taylor’s glasses!

    • http://KennFong.com Kenn Fong

      Well, Francis, I finally got to play a few frames. A new restaurant/sportsbar opened in Oakland near OAK airport. The place is huge and 90% of it is sportbar/sushi restaurant.

      Because it’s in an industrial area near the Oakland Coliseum (where the Oakland Raiders, Oakland Athletics, and Golden State Warriors play), real estate is cheap, so the owner, who is a snooker player himself, put in a very large back room with four regulation tables and 17 regulation pool tables.

      The tables were completely new, and probably didn’t have more than six hours of play on them before we got there. It was the opening weekend. I played with the president of US Snooker, Ajeya Prabhakar, who was a strong youth player (he represented India in the 1990 World Juniors that Ronnie won) and he’s been a five-time finalist for the US Championship, which he won in 2001.

      I managed to pot eight or nine balls over the four frames. My high break was 9 (red-black-red), but it was a lot of fun! Having that cue in my hand felt very natural. i will need new eyeglasses though, because my alignment was poor for anything over four feet.

      I wear no-line bifocals, and the near focal length was perfect for all the 4 foot or shorter shots, although I missed a couple of them because I don’t have any sense of proper weight. I either shot with too much speed or not enough and two shots died clean in the middle of the jaws.

      But any pot longer than four feet I missed by a wide margin, both left and right.

      I hope you read my interview with Ajeya. He’s a tremendous ambassador for the game. We agreed it was counter-productive for him to give me any instruction except to describe what he was attempting with his shots. He has been very busy with work and family after he was runner-up in this year’s US Championship, so he only practiced once since then. Although we didn’t keep score, he ran a dozen pots at least three times in the three or four frames we played.

      Thanks for your comments.

  • zabaks

    Interesting, I came to snooker from other side – from trying to play the game to more and more spectating options.
    I had played some pool and didnt particulary like it. The feeling was – there is nothing to it in any billiards. But then, probably around 1995, I saw a snooker table in billards hall in central Riga. It was simply magnetic. I rented a table and kicked balls around for a while. That was simply fascinating! Then I proposed the friend of mine to play – and I would pay for the table. Well, we didnt know all the rules, like possibility to put oponent back in after a foul, or that at minus 10 on final black its not OK to try keep forcing a foul shot from oponent…

    And then the viewing possibilities slowly followed the playing aspirations. There were trick shots on Eurosport… Then there was Dr Martins snooker league (which I took for major event on pro tour, LOL). And then they started with live snooker. I was especially fascinated by safety battles, because the previous -best of- selections consisted from mostly centuries only.

    I cant say I havent witnessed good level live snooker. Riga was a host for various U21 U18 U16 World and European events about 10 years ago. I became a referee, largely helped by the fact that I was rather fluent in murmling in English.
    Ding won one of his junior titles one year, he was 0-4 down at midsession, then he turned it around in that final. Cant remember his oponent, he had red hair…
    Jamie Cope, Carrington, M White, Woollaston, Wells; Jamie Jones are the few who immediately spring to mind from those events. There was also some sort of -regular- tournament a week prior to those junior events, I recall refereeing Hull´s first century of the tournament.
    Actually, 4 or so years I m down to watching only… OK, bring it on, qualifiers start June 5th, right?

  • http://www.cuetracker.net Ron

    I always found it strange that pool players have additional shafts. I see the point of a break cue, and while I don’t like the jump shot I can see you really need a different cue, but multiple shafts for the same cue is just silly to me. Anyway, there’s rumors of a snooker event in Vegas, I’ll be curious to see what happens.

  • Wayne

    While there may not be a great deal of snooker played in the USA, snooker is the game of choice in Canada. Years ago a bunch of us would cross the border on the weekends and use our snooker skills to beat the Americans at their games of “bang-ball” pool. Not much skill required for most players of American style pool with their small tables, big pockets and baseball bat cues.

  • http://KennFong.com Kenn Fong

    @Ron: I agree, the jump shot is an abomination which makes escapes just too easy. If you play a great safety shot which snookers your oppponent, he should then have to return the favor with a terrific escape shot.

    I hope you’re right about the event in Las Vegas, although I’d wonder who the sponsors would be. Stateside there are fewer than 400 listed public tables on FindSnooker.com. Even if that figure’s inaccurate by a factor of two or three, that’s still a very low profile. I know the USSA is working hard behind the scenes looking for sponsorship. If you read my interview with US Snooker president Ajeya Prabhakar which appeared last week, you’ll see his answers to my questions on this topic.

    It’s puzzling to me why snooker has waned in the US. I have a friend who grew up in the 50s in a tiny market town in Nebraska where he earned his pocket money on a snooker table. This fellow grew up to be a television producer and one day he was shooting a promo in Fred Astaire’s home. As he was packing up, he spied a full-sized table in Fred’s parlor. He mentioned it and Fred challenged him to a game, which he narrowly lost to his childhood idol.

    In his autobiography, “The Garner Files,” actor James Garner says after he was discharged from Korea, he worked in a pool room. He said he made money racking the balls and hustling snooker.

    I also have heard from some of the locals that snooker was thriving in the 50s in San Francisco and here in Alameda also. I’m assuming that like a lot of other pastimes, including bowling, snooker couldn’t compete with television.

  • http://www.maximumsnooker.com Steve K

    Brilliant article Matt and thanks Kenn for your insights. Think if more American’s were introduced to snooker it could take off in the same way that 9-ball has. One benefit you guys have is a lot more space than us so finding places to hold events and build new snooker halls shouldn’t be a problem. All we need now is Barry Hearn to get an invitational event held in somewhere like Las Vegas and get one of the major networks to at least show highlights.

    • http://KennFong.com Kenn Fong

      Thanks, Steve. When I wrote the article, I worried that I was being entirely too personal and long-winded.

      As he said in the interview I did for PSB, US Snooker President Ajeya Prabhakar shares your admiration for Barry Hearn’s innovation, but acknowledges that there’s still work to be done on this side of the pond.

      This week’s video coverage of the US Nationals is a huge step. I hope you, Wayne, Ron, Zabacks, and Francis will all look in… Viewership numbers help so if you could get a friend to look in for a few minutes, that would help U.S. Snooker.

  • ali

    Nice piece.
    Enjoyed reading.

  • Witz78

    Interesting read Kenn

    Can i ask why there are so few “true” Americans playing or aware of the sport though?

    I go on vacation to the States every year and ive never came across a snooker table or club yet, albeit its usually the East side i hit, the likes of Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, New York etc

    Usually come across billiards halls (pool tables only) which are fun to do some hustling with the natives, cant say im a fan of some of the rules though. The Yanks i talk to when playing pool are usually amazed to hear me tell them about snooker and the 12×6 tables, ive never came across anyone whos even heard of snooker come to think of it.

    • http://KennFong.com Kenn Fong

      Thanks for the comments, Witz.

      I cannot tell you exactly why there are so few snooker tables in this country. I do know that in the 50s, there were many more. My friend Lew Hunter grew up in Superior, Nebraska, a small Market town of 3,000 in Nebraska.

      He said there was a 10×5 snooker table in town. (By the way, he told me they called the balls by the point number, not the colors.) He said Guide Rock, the next town over of 1,000 had a 10×5. And in Red Cloud, the tiny town of 500 where he was born had a 10×5. He said he thought you’d find a snooker table in nearly every town.

      i also know there were a lot of snooker tables here in the San Francisco Bay Area. There used to be two snooker halls on Market Street which faced each other. They had 22 tables between them. On Saturday night I had dinner with a fellow who played against jazz player Thelonious Monk in the early 60s in San Francisco. (They played on a 9×4.5 pool table.) He said Monk made some amazing safeties and snookers.

      All of that said, from what I understand, snooker was never really a big game here. Of the cue sports, 8-Ball was a much more popular game and Straight Pool was also played. In Superior, Nebraska, Lew Hunter said they also played 3-Cushion Billiards, and Lew said it was not unusual to see billiards tables.

      I think that snooker suffered a lot, as did bowling and pool, from the invention of television. Once people had a free source of entertainment at home, it hurt all the pastime sports. There were also more chess clubs at that time too.

      It’s sort of a chicken/egg thing. If there are no tables, it’s hard to be a player. But without the tables, how is anyone going to learn the game and how are former players going to pick it up again. No one is going to take up the game if he has to drive two hours to find a naff table.

      Witz, if you want to play some snooker, you could try three sources to find a table.

      Find Snooker is a list maintained by the same webmaster who runs SnookerUSA.com for the US Snooker Association.

      <a href="http://Yelp.com&quot;Yelp.com also will bring up a list of locations in your area, but only if the reviewer said a table was there.

      Finally, use Google Maps. Put in your location and then search for snooker.

      I would caution you to call each location before you went there, though. I have found results in all three which were outdated and the tables are no longer there. And if the reviewer used “snooker” as a verb for “trapped, misled, conned, deceived,” you will see that result too, so read each result carefully.

      I hope this helps. If you come to the San Francisco Bay Area, I can help you find a local club and perhaps you can give me a lesson or two. Or at least I will spot the balls for you. There is a new club coming in Oakland, near the airport, which will have 12 full-sized professional standard tables. In my article I said they were Rileys but I’ve now learned they are Chinese tables, although I’m not sure if they’re Stars. If you are in San Francisco, BART, the rail system, and one bus will take you there.

  • Witz78

    cheers for the reply Kenn

    i doubt id go out of my looking for snooker when on a US trip as play enough in the UK and when over your side of the pond, im more interested in sampling the US sports among other things.

    Of course if i came across a club id have to dive in for a look. Im due to visit California in 2014 doing a roadtrip of L.A and over to Vegas then back to visit an uncle in SF so may well drop by for a game if i have time in my schedule. I go to the Crucible every year, have followed snooker for 30 years and have even been on the drink with Alex Higgins so im sure id have a few tales youd be interested in haha.

    Thats a fair point you make about the vicious circle almost in terms of why snooker hasnt really taken off in the States.

    As for the pool you mentioned earlier, my fave player prob has to the Lou Butera, love his rapid style. Mike Massey and Earl Strickland other faves down the years id say..

    • http://KennFong.com Kenn Fong

      Witz, No doubt Strickland is an outstanding player, and I’ll leave it at that.

      Mike Massey and Buddy Hall are both great showmen. Of the old guard, I like Nick Varner and Johnny Archer, and, of course, Efren Reyes. Reyes makes it look easy, like Ronnie, and he doesn’t play a lot of needless power shots. (A lot of pool players will power the white ball three rails to come back to a position within a a few cms. of the starting pt. Reyes is like a snooker player in that he will use a softer stroke to get back to that same position without flying around the table.) I’m not familiar with a lot of the younger players, so I can’t pick one.

      Tweet me a DM if you’re coming to San Francisco. Hell, any of Matt’s readers should tweet me if they’re coming to the City.

  • londoncalling

    Nice article. Here’s hoping that the major tournaments will get an airing somewhere on TV in the US. Americans could come to appreciate the stupendous difficultly of the game and marvel at the jaw-dropping skill of the great players.

  • Iuliu Ciupe-Vaida

    Must say, I love your article, because I have fall in love for snooker just 4 years ago, in 2011 when I already was 44y “young”, so… I 100% agree with you! :))))

    Here in Romania snooker is also in his first years, our Federation was founded just 8y ago. Our local club in Arad is 1y old and guess what? We now have 4 tables and organize regular tournaments with players from all over the country! And thank to Youtube, we can broadcast them in Hi-def all over the world, live! (You can check our youtube channel: “Snooker Club Seven”)

    Altough the comment provided by me is in Romanian, have a look at this 83 break from our last final! We are so proud that the games and our live transmissions are so close to what we get to see on BBC Sports or Eurosport! :)

    Enjoy 11 min of great snooker: http://youtu.be/bFOPtijJ5ak

    Take care!

  • Kenn Fong

    Thank you both for your comments. I am only seeing yours, London Calling, now, please forgive me.

    LondonCalling, since I wrote the article I’ve learned that snooker was once a popular game in this country. My friend who grew up in Nebraska played when he was a boy in the 40s and 50s and he told me that every market town had a snooker table when he was growing up. He later became a television executive and he said one of his biggest thrills was filming a promotional spot in the home of Fred Astaire and spotting a gorgeous, 12 foot tournament-quality table in Fred’s home in Beverly Hills. He had the nerve to ask to play a frame against the great Astaire and said “my boyhood idol (also from Nebraska) beat me.”

    I have also met a writer who said he played snooker against Charlie Parker in San Francisco on Market Street. The actor James Garner talked about playing snooker in Oklahoma in his biography. It seems that snooker and pool and bowling all suffered when television took America by storm and became he dominant recreational activity.

    The real issue today is the price of commercial real estate is so high in most places that it’s impossible to put a pool/billiards/snooker club anywhere safe.

    Iuliu, I am so glad for you that snooker is growing in Romania. You have much to be proud about. I am going to your YouTube channel now.