Snooker > all other forms of pool

Anyone that knows me knows that I’m an incredibly huge fan of billiards in any form. If there wasn’t a time that I was studying in college, I was playing pool, and I actually do believe I spent the better part of my four years at UMBC playing pool than looking over material. Of course, as much as I love playing the classic American staples like 8-Ball, 9-Ball, straight pool, one pocket, and all of the others, I’ve always had a weakness for a particular form of billiards.

In 2004, way before I was actually into shooting pool, I went to the United Kingdom to visit my sister, who was studying abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland, and when I was sitting in Heathrow for my transfer flight, There was televised coverage on BBC of two people playing on what had to have been the single biggest pool table I’ve ever seen in my life. Also, the balls on the table were literally like marbles on a putting green by comparison, and there were too many of them: 15 red balls, and 6 other colors strewn out in designated spots on the table. When I finally touched down in Edinburgh, and we all got settled into the hotel, I remember watching another match on Sky Sports, where my sister and I were trying to make sense of the game.

That game turned out to be snooker – one of the granddaddys of the game, and notoriously one of the most difficult disciplines of pocket billiards played today. I remember the childlike enthusiasm I had when I was watching that match on TV for the first time. There was a pig-faced man playing who I later found out was Shaun Murphy, who ended up winning the World Snooker Championship the very next year. I thought the mechanics of the game were awesome, but at that point, I didn’t even think about picking up a cue the same way that I do now. Being that it was 2004, the advent of YouTube hadn’t come about yet, so I didn’t have the luxury of watching footage of some of the best matches and learning about people like Ronnie O’Sullivan, Stephen Hendry, John Higgins, Peter Ebdon, and Steve Davis until much later.

Of course, fast forward to junior year, where I was already playing competitively at my school in pool tournaments. I met a guy named Hythem, a very well-to-do guy that came to UMBC who was originally from the United Arab Emirates. I saw him around the pool hall, looking relatively awkward, and really working hard on the fundamentals of the game to a degree that I haven’t seen anyone put themselves through. He then told me that he was an avid fan of snooker, and really wanted to get the mechanics down. Snooker players are well-known for being extremely obsessed with mechanics, while still emphasizing the importance of touch and stroke. Everything has to be picture perfect: the posture, the motion, the shotmaking, the breakbuilding, all of which are important to all modern pocket billiards disciplines.

However, modern-day poolplayers in America aren’t always as articulate with their approach to the game. Americans tend to emphasize the feel of the stroke more, with mechanics being a little more of an afterthought. You’ll see poolplayers in America with their feet all over the place, bending at their knees, using all sorts of wacky bridges, and with chicken-winged, flying-elbowed arm positions. But in spite of all of these technical imperfections, some of these prospects still play phenomenally well, with millimetrically perfect positioning. This is a sharp contrast to that of the snooker player, who have a much more textbook-style of play, and really emphasize proper body lines to deliver the cue ball (they call it the white ball) to the intended target.

One night in the Spring of 2008, I went with Hythem to a place in the middle of nowhere in Maryland to play at Bill & Billy’s, a hustler’s pool hall that had snooker tables in the flesh (well, not really in the flesh, to be politically correct. It’s more in the wood). Seeing the monstrosity of a snooker table for the first time was a really daunting thing. It literally looked like a football field with holes on the ends of it. The balls were about 1/8 smaller than that of the typical American billiard ball, and the cues were much smaller – about 5-7 ounces lighter, and substantially shorter. The table was also a bit higher than most regulation pool tables in America, so figuring it all in, you have a 100-yard table that’s 11 feet high with 22 golf balls and two toothpicks to shoot with. And to be honest, it was incredibly intimidating.

The pool table is really 12 feet long and 6 feet wide, and is surfaced with baize, which is a carpet-like material. It’s also worth noting that the baize also has a nap, meaning that the fabric can actually be brushed in one direction or the other. This meant that, for the first time, I actually had to worry about the conditions of the table apart from the table not being level. It was a disheartening prospect in the beginning (one game took us about half an hour to play), but after a while, I began to discover the magic of why some of the top poolplayers love playing this game. It is, in fact, a departure from the typical American game. It’s like the clay courts of Roland Garros, links golf in the United Kingdom, or racing the Grand Prix through Monte Carlo – it’s a difference that you just don’t find anywhere else, and it makes the game that much more captivating.

Also, since the game was arguably much tougher than the games I was used to, by the time I stepped back into the pool hall on campus later that night, I was clearing tables of 9-Ball without much thought – something I wasn’t able to do before. Playing snooker, with all of its intricate land mines, actually made me play better games. The accuracy necessary to pocket snooker balls makes shooting 8-ball feel like throwing rocks into the Grand Canyon. Since that night, Bill & Billy’s was shut down, and the snooker tables were gone. I’m still actively looking for places that carry them, in hopes to get back to playing the game. Hopefully, one of these days, I’ll get my chance to play again. Hopefully it isn’t after a foul and a miss.

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