A Sniper in China

By Johnny ‘Sniper’ Williams – Living in China

Chinese ‘Pooker’ Star

The competition at one of the local clubs.
The competition at one of the local clubs.

When I came over to China at first, I literally expected to see snooker tables in every casino or amusements type venue. I was soon to find out this was not the case. I had taken my snooker cue over as well, which cost me around 100 euro, but this didn’t bother me as I expected to be playing top class players on a weekly basis.

I live in a “small” town outside Beijing, population bigger than Dublin, and the only cue sport that I can find in my area is what I can only describe as pool, being played on a half-size snooker table, with pockets cut like snooker tables. it’s not an easy game at all.

I have a club right across the road from me. The place is covered in posters with professional snooker players – Trump, Ronnie, Hendry, Ding and Doherty are all up on the wall. They even seem to play on Star tables. They are just no snooker tables.

When I walked into my club for the first time I expected to get a few lessons off the local talent but once again this wasn’t the case. I’ve been to the club nearly every weekend since I arrived in September and I usually play the owner who seems to be the best player around. The usual scoreline is around 10-3 to me before I pay 20 yuan (3 euro), and leave. That’s for about 1.5 hours of play and a bottle of water. The owner often puts players off the table if I come into the club and want a game, then he rings a few locals to come over and watch “the foreigner” play. They all sit around drinking beer and smoking the night away, watching me play “good” pooker, we’ll call it – a mixture of pool and snooker.

There are a few other clubs like this around my town, all with average players. One club beside my local Wal-Mart (yes they have Wal-Mart here), is very nice. It has lots of tables which are newly covered. I entered one Saturday tournament, costing me around 30 yuan (a fiver) and I won it without even dropping a frame, not to mention I was using a house cue. I won 300 yuan (50 euro) and since then I have not been allowed to enter a comp since, so yeah as you can imagine the talent isn’t great.

Now I know Ding has a club the far side of Beijing about a two-hour drive from me, but to be honest I’m not really bothered and I’m working too much to head in every weekend. I will go in for a look before I come back home though.

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

I headed over to meet Davy Morris in his hotel on the Sunday before the China Open started. The hotel was nothing short of amazing, well for me anyway. When I pulled up to the hotel at first, I was behind Marco Fu getting out of a World Snooker jeep. Lots of photographers were snapping him, then their gaze turned to me and started snapping me as well until they realised I had no cue and passed no remarks after that.

Johnny at the Birds Nest in Beijing - scene of Usain Bolt's record-breaking sprints.
Johnny at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing – scene of Usain Bolt’s record-breaking sprints.

I waited around for about two hours whilst Davy was off with a few high-profile snooker heads doing trick shots and promoting the game at the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium. By chance, I had just come from there an hour before as I got a lift with my friend who is in charge of putting down the new running track for the World Athletics Championship in August. I wasn’t to know that Davy and the crew were there or I would have tried to locate him and maybe scab a lift. We even compared photos we had taken inside the stadium back in the hotel.

During my wait for Davy I was floating around the hotel, dressed up to the last to be on the safe side, and I had people bowing to me and some even following me. I noticed people point and then look at the match program before realising I was no one they should be concerned about. I also managed to get up to have a look at the practice tables which were lovely. I managed to walk past lots of workers and no one batted an eyelid. They just assumed all foreigners that looked trendy are here to play snooker! I even got up to what I think was for hotel guests only and sat down and had a lovely cappuccino before Davy arrived.

All the players arrived at once and they were swarmed with people asking for autographs. I was quite starstruck myself. Davy brought me up to his room to have a look around, which was amazing. It had a huge hot tub style bath, glass shower area, huge TV and bed – the whole thing was just very luxurious. I was highly jealous and had many flashbacks of the days I used to play (and nearly beat Morris), reflecting on how I could have had all this if things were just a little bit different.

We then met Joe Swail and had a lovely Italian dish in the hotel. We had some good banter about snooker for a while. Some very cool stories from the lads. Joe saying how he lost interest a few years back and wanted to leave the

One fancy cappuccino!
One fancy cappuccino!

game for good to go into coaching full-time, and Davy telling me about the costs that go into travelling all over the world as well as how hard it is to make good money in the sport. Not to mention the boys are taxed quite highly on all their winnings. In saying that, they do get treated very well wherever they go and they get to see some amazing parts of the world.

Leaving the hotel, all the groupies were still hanging around. I went down and asked for a taxi to be ordered for me – because I’m a bollox like that – and decided I’d play the part. They got me a taxi and even opened the doors and all for my exit. A few Chinese lads noticed this and rushed over to me to ask for my picture before I was getting into the taxi. So I stood like a pro, smiled and told them they were welcome after all was done. Afterwards, me and my smug head went off down the street to the subway so I could get home and sleep before a day’s full of stressful teaching lay ahead.

The China Open Final 

All week I was pestering Ken Doherty and Davy to see if they could get a hold of any freebies. It wasn’t to be and I ended up buying tickets for my girlfriend and I. The tickets cost 700 yuan or about 100 euro each. We had nice seats, though, in fairness. Ken did say I would have been able to get in free if I waited until he knew who was left in the final and then I could have used the finalist’s spare tickets that they usually get given for guests. As it turned out, there weren’t many guests for the players.

Anyway, for the opening session the place was only about three-quarters full, but a nice crowd and what appeared like a very nice venue. Not that I’ve been too many – I was only ever in City West. They made what was a very large sports type centre into a nice cosy atmosphere. There were steel railings everywhere but somehow they manged to pull it off. The table looked immaculate also. There were cameras everywhere and for me I was close to the table with the commentators booth in sight. It was a nice set up for me. Unless of course you paid small money and you were way up at the top, that would not have been an enjoyable experience.

A big let down for me was the fact that there was not one bit of alcohol to be seen. Not even a square of chocolate, a few crisps, nothing! It was all juices and water but nothing that interested me anyway. So before the second session me and herself went down town and got as many drinks into us as possible as it certainly adds to the atmosphere. I was the only foreigner I could see in the crowd so we were shouting both players on.

On the way back in I noticed that the entrance to the venue was pretty fancy. Tall Chinese, leggy models, wearing little skirts, was a nice sight it must be said. A few shiny cars from the sponsors were on display and posters and banners of the players were draped all over the place. I thought it was a nice touch.

A great view of the final, which Selby won easily 10-2.
A great view of the final, which Selby won easily 10-2.

The final session was a lot better and the Chinese fans got more into the game, willing Gary on to find a bit of inspiration. However, Selby was just too good and took all his chances. Shouts of “Piaolang” (beautiful) were called out after every good shot by a player. It reminded me of all the Chinese lads sitting around my local pool club watching me harass cushions for two hours at a time. When Selby potted the winning ball the crowd erupted, and everyone stormed to the front to see the prizes being given out. They are crazy for taking pictures and putting their status up on their (wechat) profiles and I must admit it seemed like they really genuinely think these snooker players are god-like figures.

Overall I enjoyed the final and, of course, I really enjoyed my fifteen minutes of fame at the hotel. Yet, the jury is still out for me as to whether the game is as popular as they say over here. The venue didn’t look to me to be as big as the World Championship – although I wont experience that special arena until next year – and I expected the capacity to be twice that of the Crucible. That said, I could be wrong as I was a little tipsy by the end!

I have yet to see a full-size snooker table either which annoys me. It has, however, given me my buzz back for the game. As I’m probably the best cue player in this town, it’s just a shame no money can be made from it where I live.

I’ll explore the snooker world a bit more over here and get back to you at the end of my journey. Maybe I’m just in the wrong location!

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