I recall Rex Williams once soberly informing me that “there is no such thing as a snooker table, only billiard tables.”
Rex won the World Billiards Championship seven times so who was I to contradict him?
The point he was making, of course, is that the three-ball game predates snooker. By some distance, actually, as it is believed to have been invented in the 15th century, whereas snooker came along, and was partly derived from billiards, in the late 19th century.
Barry Hearn, the gregarious manager of Steve Davis and notable others, best summed up why billiards failed to match snooker’s appeal on TV in the 1980s.
“Not enough balls,” was his verdict.
To put it another way, billiards is a game of considerable skill. It consists of cannons, pots and in-offs and requires pinpoint accuracy.
Where it falls down as a spectacle is that the top players are simply too good. In snooker, the variances of the game mean that players miss or suffer bad luck or call on the greater retinue of shot options to make one frame different to the next.
To the untrained eye, billiards is the same thing over and over again.
There have been changes over the years and needless to say they haven’t all gone down well with traditionalists. Some of them are obvious – changing the white ball with a spot to a yellow ball.
There is also a rule about having to cross the baulkline after a set number of points to stop players playing the same few shots in a particular area of the table.
It was long before this restriction was introduced that Tom Reece compiled the highest break in the history of billiards in 1907.
Making heavy use of the anchor or ‘cradle’ cannon, Reece made a break of 499,135 over the course of five weeks.
His opponent, Joe Chapman, would arrive each day, take off his coat, sit in the non-striker’s chair and watch as Reece went further and further ahead.
Talk about soul destroying.
The first World Billiards Championship in 1825 consisted of a challenge between Edwin Kentfield and Jack Carr.
Kentfield took the title after only one game. Carr could not continue as he died shortly before they were scheduled to play the second.
Billiards is particularly strong in India, where Geet Sethi and Pankaj Advani are regarded as among the country’s top sportsman.
Snooker Scene editor Clive Everton this year won his 15th Midland amateur title a mere 46 years after he won his first.
Clive also won a billiards event in Canada in the early 1980s that had a field of variable quality. He beat Long John Baldrey’s pianist in the first round and Steve Davis in the final.
Mike Russell is the best player of the last 20 years and will be aiming for a ninth world title at the Northern Snooker Centre in Leeds from tomorrow until Sunday.
Professional billiards has declined to such an extent that this is now the only tournament on what can hardly be called a circuit.
The ‘B’ in WPBSA refers to billiards, which is possibly the only reason the World Championship is on at all.
There is a thriving amateur scene in England but the three-ball precursor to snooker has, sadly, been allowed to wither and almost die.
Even so, it is good to see billiards just about surviving.
The game is a link to the past. If you needed any further convincing: the quote in the headline is taken from Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra.