Following on from the interview with Pankaj Advani, I went along to watch him in the final of the 2012 World Billiards Championship (time format) against the billiards legend and 11 times former World Champion Mike Russell. Russell hails from Middlesbrough but now plays under the flag of Qatar having moved there to take up the position of head coach for the Qatar Billiards and Snooker Federation (QBSF).
Advani of course had qualified for the International Championship in China but somewhat controversially pulled out due to the clash of dates with the biggest billiards event on the calendar.
After the match report I end this blog with a crash course in billiards for all you snooker enthusiasts who want to learn more about the game.
The final was held in the Northern Snooker Centre, Leeds, on 28th October 2012 and was over 5 hours: from 11am till 1:30pm and then 2:30pm till 5pm. The time format is the more prestigious of the two, 150 up being more a series of sprints similar to the difference between test cricket and 20/20. Advani explains the difference between the two formats in more detail in the interview.
I arrived a few minutes after the start to find Advani at the table and on a break of around 80, with Russell on 24. He went on to make the famous snooker score of 147 before running out of position, but from that point on he maintained the lead right to the finish where he ended up the winner by 1895 points to 1216.
Advani’s highest break of the match came early on when he put together a truly mesmerising contribution of 298 which came to an abrupt end with a misjudged cannon which left all 3 balls along the top cushion; a position with a recurring theme in ending billiards breaks (see below).
At the time it meant he lead by 450 points to 46 which seems a lot, however this was still the first hour of five, and his opponent had constructed a 740 break the previous day in the semi-final against Australian Matthew Bolton so the lead was by no means unassailable. Sure enough, Russell clawed his way back to within just 7 points at 450-443 following a superb lesson in touch play during a quick fire break of 397 which ended with a missed red off the spot from close range. This proved to be his highest break of the match coming immediately after the 298 from Advani, and it was also the closest he would get to the Indian for the rest of the day.
A missed pot red from Advani on 51 handed the table back and Russell was within 16 points of catching his man when he suffered a thunderous kick on an attempted in off. Advani wisely had the balls cleaned and controlled the rest of the session with runs of 79, 143 and 92. The alarm signalling the end of the first session came (coincidentally) immediately after Russell missed a cannon due to the roughed up cloth of two and a half hours play causing his cue ball to drift off line on a delicate shot. With the scores at 872-614 this proved to be a significant point in the match as it meant Advani could have lunch in the knowledge that he would be coming back to the table with a good scoring chance.
On resumption and on a freshly brushed and ironed cloth, Advani scored 128 to lead 1000-614, ending with a loss of position and a safety shot. The shrewdness of Advani’s game was more evident in the second half of the match as he held on to and then increased his lead to over 500 points. He kept Russell frustrated by barely giving him a chance for the opening hour. One thing was clear however, and that is that in snooker terms Mike Russell is not a potter. He missed a sitter of a red to middle with ball in hand, and then a few shots later accidentally potted Advani’s cue ball clean to middle when focussing more on a screw back in off to baulk pocket.
Advani was taking no risks, and nor should he with such a lead, however with still well over an hour to go he entered defence mode and resorted to potting the white, scoring a few more with pot and in off reds, and then leaving the balls awkward for Russell.
He was very nearly caught out however as inevitably on one occasion Russell made the initial difficult cannon, and then entered speed mode in constructing a brilliant 243 break which ended with another finger mark drift on a dead weight cannon. During the break he held Advani’s cue ball to within an inch of the red spot and kept it there for over 200 points in a master class of billiards break building (see diagrams below). With that break he had cut the deficit to under 400 points – still well within his grasp – however Advani put the hammer down with another cool century to increase the lead to well over 500, and this signalled the end of the match with not enough time left for a dejected Mike Russell to realistically come back and win. His body language changed and the errors crept in; he knew it wasn’t his day.
Advani however was buzzing, he was on fire! The last 20 minutes of the match were pretty special as he dazzled the crowd with his natural ability, sending his white flying into the corner pockets from all angles. He knew the title was his and he was on his lap of honour, and boy was it great to watch!
So the final score was 1895 points to 1216 and Pankaj Advani was once again World Billiards Champion.
The venue and conditions were far from ideal in snooker terms for such a big event, taking place in a busy snooker club as opposed to a hushed auditorium. The last hour of the first session was during the lunchtime rush so there were regular food calls from the bar staff shouting out orders, and the players had to contend with the constant noise of club snooker tables and occasional banter between the members oblivious to how loud they could be heard by the players on the main table.
The elderly referee in the first session kept forgetting to call “baulk line warning” when a player’s break reached the 80 mark (to remind the player he needs to cross the baulk line before the next century mark) and needed reminding from the scorers desk, which usually resulted in the player standing up off the shot from the distraction.
There were distractions from the audience to contend with as well. One elderly gentleman sitting tableside was determined to eat boiled sweets throughout and as is usually the case he was taking several minutes to get the wrapper off each time in an attempt to be quiet, which had the opposite effect. Advani gave him a stare which was met with a bewildered look suggesting he was oblivious to the annoyance he was causing.
During an important break by Mike Russell (the 397) the referee called out the wrong score which forced a discussion between marker and referee, and as Russell was about to play on an elderly lady got up and walked out right across his line! Russell let out a sigh and walked back to his chair for a sip of water before carrying on and scoring over 100 more points.
This is not a criticism of the Northern Snooker Centre and is maybe more a sign of the popularity of billiards at the moment that its biggest event is held in such a place. As the multiple use of the word “elderly” here suggests, the average age of the onlookers was into free bus pass territory but that said, if billiards were to make it onto television I’m sure it would prove to be a popular minority sport worthy of broadcast and would take a lot of people by surprise as to how watchable it is.
As previously mentioned, Pankaj Advani withdrew from the International Championship which he qualified for by beating some very good professionals in the best of 11 qualifying format: Craig Steadman, Steve Davis, Alan McManus and Michael Holt.
After the final I managed to have a word with him between the many congratulatory phone calls he was receiving from back home. To put it in perspective, he was trending on Twitter in India and is somewhat of a national hero over there.
He told me that he felt a massive sense of relief that it was over and that he had suffered a lot of criticism from within the snooker world about his withdrawal from the International. He felt vindicated and that he had made the right decision.
His feet are firmly planted on the ground. He refuses to get carried away with the exceptional start to his snooker career, which it must be said is surely one of the best ever by a rookie professional. Billiards is his bread and butter however, and for the moment snooker is the risk.
Having watched him at close quarters it is clear that he has truly exceptional natural ability coupled with a very wise head on young shoulders – he is only 27 years old. I defy anyone who can play billiards to the level he can not to want to play in the World Championships, no matter what the alternative.
Many people in the billiards world still believe Mike Russell to be the best player in the world. Pankaj won the same title in 2009 defeating Russell by 2030 points to 1253, a very similar scoreline to this year. Had he chosen to play in the snooker, Mike Russell would be the World Billiards Champion for the 12th time and the billiards world would still believe him to be the best player in the world. How would that make Pankaj feel?
To be a World Champion in any discipline is a very special achievement, and billiards is a very skilful cue sport. The snooker world now has the best billiards player in the world on the main tour for the first time in a very long time (since the days of Ray Edmonds, Mark Wildman, Rex Williams and Fred Davis). These are exciting times for snooker because Advani is a special talent and we are yet to find out how good he can be at snooker. My guess is very. World Amateur Champion at 18? Enough said!
Hopefully this victory has now drawn a line under the episode, and by that I mean hopefully he will not suffer any disciplinary action from World Snooker for pulling out of the International. He has been vindicated and I hope next year the authorities do right by him and ensure there is no clash of dates, because I fully expect him to want to defend his World title.
Now for all you snooker readers here is a crash course in billiards, along with some of my observations from studying the best players in the world. As you may have gathered from the interview, I have gone from a novice to being able to write this article in a short space of time so it can’t be that hard!
The Game of Billiards
* Each player has one cue ball. One player is white, one player is yellow.
* A cannon scores 2 points. This is where the player’s cue ball makes contact with the red and the opponent’s cue ball in the same shot.
* An in off scores 2 points from the opponents ball, and 3 points from the red.
* A potted red scores 3 points. If a red is potted 2 times in succession from the spot without another scoring shot (cannon or in off) it is spotted on the blue spot for one turn, before returning to the black spot (in snooker terminology).
* Potting the opponent’s cue ball scores 2 points but that ball stays off the table until the break ends, whereupon the incoming player has ball in hand from the D.
* With ball in hand the player must strike away from the baulk area. Therefore if another ball is in baulk, the priority is to send it out of baulk as soon as possible. This is because a major scoring shot in billiards is the in off which results in ball in hand, and a ball in baulk limits the options open to the player.
* When a break reaches 80, the player must send the cue ball past the baulk line before the break reaches 100 otherwise the break ends. This is applicable to 180, 280, 380 etc.
* A foul shot has a 2 point penalty. The incoming player has the option to have the balls spotted.
* The players lag to decide who starts. The game starts with just the red on the table so the idea is to position cue ball and red so that the opponent doesn’t have an easy chance to score on his first visit. This may be a “double baulk” which as the term suggests leaves both balls in baulk, or by leaving one ball in baulk and the other close to a side cushion making scoring difficult.
So with the basics out of the way, it’s time for a few Shotmaker diagrams:
The player who wins the lag starts the game and will attempt to make it as difficult as possible for the opponent to score at their first visit. One option is to “double baulk” likes this:
An alternative opening shot is to leave one ball in baulk and the other close to a side cushion like this:
This will make it as difficult as possible for the incoming player to start with a scoring shot.
One scenario which crops up occasionally is when the balls are “spotted” which means the red is spotted on the black spot and the opponents’ cue ball on the blue spot. This scenario occurs after a foul (at the incoming player’s discretion) or when the cue ball is touching an object ball. The standard way to play this shot is the in off to corner pocket sending the opponents ball towards the top cushion, then follow up with a slow cannon to start the scoring game:
The key to scoring big breaks in billiards is to get the opponents cue ball close to the top cushion.
In the scenario below, the yellow is in an awkward position so the player will try to engineer a scenario where they can send the red towards the yellow to set up the cannon and bring the yellow into a better position. By a succession of pot reds the player can leave the cue ball in such a position that this becomes possible, in this case high on the red to play the in off and send the red towards the yellow:
Then the cannon, in this example (which is pretty typical) the player can bring the yellow away from the side cushion and leave the red close to middle pocket:
As the red is not pottable to middle, a simple in off played with enough pace to bring the red up past the middle pocket will be ideal. This is another shot you see a lot in billiards. Be careful not to overcook it and leave the red in baulk. If you finish short then you can play another in off until the red is where you want it:
An in off to middle sending the yellow towards the top cushion and the job is almost complete:
Potting the red to middle leaves ideal scoring position where the player can fill their boots!
One ideal scenario is to have the second cue ball pinned to the top cushion behind the red spot. With good touch, the player can send the red towards the corner pocket and play the cannon in such a way as to double kiss the yellow and leave it in place. Then a simple pot red and if the cue ball finishes high the process can be repeated. If the cue ball finishes low, potting the red direct will leave it high for the next shot, and if straight then screwing back off side cushion to leave it high is the shot. Of course only the very best can keep this going for many repetitions without moving the yellow into a different position or leaving the red too close to the side cushion to pot, and have to revert to an in off to keep the break going thus ending the short game.
If the balls land such that the cannon cannot be played in the ideal fashion, or if the red is left too close to side cushion to pot following a cannon, a frequent rescue shot is to play the in off on the red to send the red into a pottable position to middle pocket from baulk in order to come straight back down to the red spot area. If the red hasn’t come far enough up the table for the pot or in off to middle, then the cannon or in off to top corner are the preferred options.
All the time in billiards the player is considering where he wants the object balls to land and will play the shot accordingly. From the same starting position the in off shot can be played a number of different ways by varying pace, stun, side etc dependent on where the player wants the object ball to finish. This in part explains why billiards player are good at laying snookers and judging safety shots in the game of snooker because they are more practiced in sending object balls to areas of the table other than pockets.
Another common shot is the distance cannon. Obviously there are an infinite number of variations depending on where the balls are, but this is a pretty standard example. The player has ball in hand so can set the ideal angle up to send the first ball off side cushion and back into the scoring zone, and play the cannon at such a speed that a full ball contact on the second ball moves it to or keeps it in the scoring zone.
I spotted many recurring patterns during the final, one of which was when the long cannon goes wrong and leaves all 3 balls along the top cushion. As you can see from this example, the cannon is not possible in the next shot because the red would move the yellow before the white could get to it. This scenario usually results in a safety shot, probably sending cue ball to baulk cushion and red to side cushion. If the red in this example was off cushion far enough to squeeze past, then a cannon is possible by using the cushion between contacts. If the opponents cue ball is pushed close to the corner pocket after such a shot, the preferred option is to play in off the opponent’s cue ball to get it away from the pocket. Unless the situation dictates, you always want to keep the other cue ball on the table.
The previous example shows the ideal scenario in which the cue ball contacts the baulk cushion immediately after the side cushion. Obviously this involves a lot of side spin and screw, and can go wrong. The most common way for it to go wrong is to hit the opposite side cushion first, in which case the cue ball checks off the baulk cushion killing the pace and leaving the next shot from distance. A lot of breaks which end in the 80s or 90s are due to this:
Advani often gets around the baulk line rule by potting the red enough times to have it spotted on the blue spot, and by leaving the cue ball low he is able to pot red to middle and send it in and out of baulk. Snooker fans will recognise this as finishing low on the blue; only in billiards there are no baulk colours to collide into making the shot a thousand times easier!
What makes Mike Russell special? Well apart from his cannoning and in off ability, he is a genius at setting up and retaining the following scenario. During the last hour of the final he held Advani’s cue ball to within an inch of the red spot for over 200 points. Had the yellow covered the red spot, the red would have been spotted on the pink spot which would ruin the situation so it shows even more how good he is that he consistently avoided this. So the repeat and fade scenario starts off with a delicate cannon pushing the red towards corner, but played at such weight that the yellow hardly moves.
After so many cannons the yellow inevitably moves slightly closer towards the top cushion. So what does he do? Simple. He attacks from the opposite side and plays the cannon cushion first to nudge the yellow back towards the red spot, leaving a simple pot red to start over. Of course all the top players know the strategy, but Russell has the touch to execute the tactic to perfection, which is why he scores so many big breaks and so quickly relative to the other players.
So in summary the difference between the two players on the day came down to the fact that Advani managed to keep his breaks going playing a larger variety of shots of considerable intrinsic difficulty, and when he ran out of position he played safe. He consistently scored 80+ breaks with almost every visit. When Russell came to the table, many times Advani had left him a tricky opening shot and he failed to score, handing the table straight back. When he did get in he didn’t always manage to set up his ideal scoring scenario and he also missed a number of pots. On at least 2 occasions when he did have his ideal scenario, due to the delicate nature of his scoring game the break ended with his cue ball drifting on the finger marks on the cloth. In many ways this is similar to the risks that Mark Williams takes with his style in snooker and his reliance on the balls to run true when played at pocket weight. Unfortunately for them, there is no such thing as perfect conditions and finger marks on the baize can get in the way of delicate touch shots.
So that in essence is the game of billiards. Now it’s your turn to try it out, maybe for half an hour as a warm up before a session of snooker. It is bound to improve your touch play for situations such as the slow roll up to baulk colour, as well as judgement of cannons which is crucial to good break building.
Here are a couple of videos of Pankaj Advani in the group stages. He plays nearly all of the shots discussed above. In the first clip he demonstrates the scoring game. It may look boring to the uninitiated but it is made to look easy, just a slight lapse in concentration and you will see the ways it can go wrong, along with the rescue shots to recover the situation. In the second clip Advani is showing more of the long game and plays a lot of in offs from baulk. The clip start on 98 as he sets up the baulk line shot. These two clips show the two sides to his game pretty well. Note the touch shot run through at 170 in the second clip (around 5:20).