Thai Snooker: A Night At The World Cup

Friday night and at a loose end in Bangkok, I decided to pay a visit to the World Cup. With The Wife and small son in tow, I reckoned the venue would be ideal because the Convention Center is attached to the huge CentralWorld shopping complex so the family would have plenty to keep them occupied if they didn’t fancy an evening following the fortunes of Fergal O’Brien.

You may remember seeing CentralWorld ablaze on television a little over a year ago, as red-shirted anti-government protesters set fire to it when the military attempted to clear their Ratchaprasong Intersection rally site. I was on the outskirts of Bangkok that day, and from the elevated expressway I watched the plume of smoke rising above the city centre skyscrapers, while the radio advised of an impending curfew until order could be resolved. I have to admit I don’t get out much so I never actually saw for myself the state the site was in after those events, but I was interested to see how things look today.

The evening began with dinner at Mos Burger – a Japanese version of McDonald’s but with superior quality. The Thai branches aren’t quite as good as the Japanese original, but they’re still highly recommended if you’re ever in the region and looking for a cheeseburger. I was also quite impressed with the selection of restaurants now available in the rebuilt version of CentralWorld. The prices were less appealing though; there are parts of Bangkok that are far, far removed from the rest of Thailand and the image of a third-world country. You could drop CentralWorld into the middle of London or Paris and it wouldn’t miss a beat. In fact you might even have to downgrade it slightly to blend in with London. Anyway, after dinner, we then had to make our way from the shopping area into the Convention Centre, which involved a maze of corridors, lifts and escalators – none of which had any snooker-related signs. You would have thought a few posters and arrows would have been the least you could expect, but there was no sign of a major snooker tournament anywhere.

Once into the venue itself, I discovered that we had to buy tickets. Other Thai events like the International Six Red tournament have been free for spectators, so it came as a surprise that I’d have to fork out 260 baht (£5) to get in. They actually had two price categories; if you wanted you could pay 510 baht for a supposedly better seat. I was lucky I didn’t because the better seats appeared to be the ones in the front row behind the baulk end of the table, which wouldn’t be my first choice under any circumstances, and once I got into the arena there was nobody actually checking who was sitting in which section anyway.

With the imposition of an entry charge, The Wife decided that Fergal simply wouldn’t be worth it, and decided to head back to the shops – but not before Mark Selby made her day. He appeared in the foyer, heading back towards the hotel to get changed. “Look!” cried The Wife in excitement, melting at the knees. “It’s that snooker player, my favourite! The really handsome one! John Murphy!”

Handsome devil: John Murphy

I left her outside, still drooling, and went into the arena. The door staff offered a choice of tables – there was no way to see both at the same time – so I opted for Scotland v Hong Kong on the grounds that if Hong Kong lost 5-0, Thailand 2 would qualify. Time to support Scotland then. First up was John Higgins v Marco Fu.

The last time I’d seen Marco was almost a year ago when I saw him play Stuart Pettman in a PTC event in Sheffield. That occasion had a rather surreal feel to it as I’d been the only spectator in the cubicle while a professional sporting encounter was played out for my private benefit. I remember thinking it must have been a little unnerving for Marco knowing that the entire crowd wanted him to lose, but he held himself together very well. Indeed, at 3-1 down he made a lovely 127 clearance, which put me in a very tricky position over whether or not to applaud? I didn’t want to seem openly disloyal to Stuart, but if Marco was going to take the trouble to clear the table then the least the crowd could do would be to show some appreciation for his efforts, so I sort of nodded politely and tapped my leg with one hand, which put the onus squarely back on Marco to acknowledge my insincere support, which he did with an awkward return-nod.

This time the crowd was a lot bigger. I counted around ninety spectators gathered around Table 2, in an arena which had seating for about 250. I should add that the convention centre’s main hall is quite large, and they’d set up a kind of mini auditorium around each of the tables, separated by black curtains. With a black carpet and black ceiling, it left darkness all around, so the playing area actually felt quite cozy and intimate.  I was a couple of minutes late so I had to watch the first frame from a standing position in the darkness with the seating area cordoned off until the end of the frame. I finally got to sit down for the second frame between Stephen Maguire and Fung Kwok Wai, in which Stephen made an entertaining 129 including two or three great positional shots on what looked like a very quick table. That put the Scots 2-0 up going into the doubles, which was the bit I was most curious about watching.

A couple a backstage staff quickly brought out two extra chairs, and John Higgins ambled in and sat down with Stephen. Meanwhile Fung, (and I shall refer to him as Fung until someone corrects me) had left the arena for a break, and eventually reappeared with Marco a few minutes later.  I hadn’t seen any of the doubles on TV, and I was really looking forward to seeing how the players worked together – and it was quite a surprise that Fung was to break off given that a) he broke off in the previous frame and b) he’d made a complete mess of the shot on that previous occasion. He did better this time though, and was rewarded when Stephen played a poor safety and walked back to the World Champion’s corner knowing full well he was to blame for what might follow. Both the Scots appeared to pretend nothing was amiss.

With a red available, Marco leapt up to take it, while Fung remained firmly in his chair, possibly because he had no great faith in Marco’s ability or perhaps simply because he didn’t want to stand up and jinx him by counting the colour before the red had hatched. With the red safely potted though, Fung marched to the table and prepared to take the blue, sparking a lengthy debate about to leave the white next. Clearly Marco was the professional, and Fung the amateur seemed happy to defer to his partner and accept his guidance. Marco made a couple of suggestions for the shot, gesturing with his cue for the benefit of the hard-of-hearing, and then Fung played a disappointing shot which neatly combined all the disadvantages of the two original options and left Marco nothing but a tricky red to the baulk corner. Head down, he shuffled back to his corner, probably feeling in no position to now try to tell Marco where he wanted the white for the next colour. Surely they’d got this the wrong way round. Playing with a major ranking event finalist, Fung should have been telling Marco to smack the red in, screw back off the cushion with bags of reverse side to open up a few more reds and leave the white just right, stopped on a sixpence, for the black.

The break and the discussions continued with Fung testing his partner with ever more difficult reds until Marco finally missed one and left it resting in the jaws, and so John came to the table ready to use the rest to drop the red in and hopefully control the pace of the shot to leave pink or blue for Stephen. In contrast to the Asian pair, Stephen was on his feet  to agree with John on which colour should be played for next, only to see John overhit the shot by a good six feet and leave the white on the baulk cushion. This shambolic execution evidently tickled John no end – it was so bad he had to laugh – and he returned to his chair chortling at the predicament he’d left for his partner. Stephen took it very stoically, faced with a potentially nasty roll-up to the yellow, and played a decent shot to put Hong Kong in trouble.

Partially snookered, Fung summoned the assistance of Marco, and they considered their options for a while before Fung, at the second attempt, managed not only to escape but also to put John in quite a bit of trouble. This time as John headed for the table, Stephen merely yawned, and looked entirely uninterested in helping John out given the results of John’s last visit to the table. It wasn’t long before the Chinese pair were back in the balls, and added enough points to see themselves over the line, coincidentally ending the involvement of Thailand 2.

At that point I opted to take a look at Table 1 and the match between Wales and Ireland. Quite a few people were switching tables between frames, and luckily I was able to get a seat immediately as the other match was also between frames. Amazingly however, given that Scotland v Hong Kong hadn’t exactly been quickfire action, the Welsh and Irish had only just completed frame 2. At least that was a chance to see another doubles game, though with four top professionals playing, we didn’t have the senior/junior partner roles that might be the case in other teams.

As four hands replaced two, the pace of the match didn’t pick up. I did note that Mark Williams and Matthew Stevens chose to sit next to each other rather than on either side of their drinks table, and that the crowd around this table numbered approximately 150, which wasn’t too bad, but the snooker wasn’t inspirational. I got the impression that Wales felt the same way, because when Ken Doherty came to the table and potted the penultimate red to make the frame safe, Mark and Matthew broke convention and immediately leapt to their feet to shake hands with Fergal before he could reach the table and continue the break. The match had been going for two hours and the score was only 2-1.

I opted to leave at that point. It’s never a good idea to leave The Wife unattended for too long in an upmarket shopping centre with a credit card, and although I’d wanted to see Thailand 1 v China, I didn’t want to sit through any more of Ireland before they appeared. I suppose I could also have seen the start of England v Northern Ireland on the other table, but I had to get up at six the next morning so enough was enough.

Overall, I did enjoy the evening, and although I only saw four frames, the fact that I could have seen ten, including quite a selection of big names – John Higgins, Mark Williams, Ding Junhui, Mark Allen, Matthew Stevens, Stephen Maguire, Ali Carter, Ken Doherty and John Murphy – made it a worthwhile venture for any snooker fan.  I particularly liked the doubles, and the only thing that detracted from my enjoyment was the simple fact that the matches were pretty much meaningless, with the group qualifiers all but decided already. I was surprised at the size of the paying crowd, which included quite a few foreigners, and I think it augurs well for the future of snooker in Thailand. The venue’s location was by far the best I’ve seen in Thailand in terms of convenience and suitability – plush hotels in remote corners of the city don’t work – and I think a full ranking tournament properly marketed would probably be a success, especially if one or two of Thailand’s youngsters break through to the top of the rankings in a few years’ time.

Regular readers may have seen an earlier article here about the Thai players at the World Under-21 Championship in Montreal. The latest update is that all three players are well on course for the knockout stages, and the highest break of the event so far is a 127 compiled by Akani Songsermsawat.