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Tuggeridge Coxe's acquaintance, Baron von Punter, who when defeated for shillings on a provincial table remarked, "Id is de horrid dables; gom viz me to London and dry a slate-table, and I vill beat you"?—which he effectually did, having bet what he called "bonies" on the game.
Again, when writing on the importance of a knowledge of strength, Mardon tells the following story, which has a distinctly humorous side, though that did not apparently present itself to him. He was playing with an acquaintance, and had so learnt the strength of the table that his antagonist had no chance, and said he would play no more:—
"The proprietor of the room, fearing his departure, thus addressed him : 'Try once more, sir; I will endeavour to prevent it.' After the play for the day had ceased, he removed the lower cushion, and, placing it for the night before the kitchen-fire, so softened it and increased its speed and power that the strength which had previously only taken the object - ball to the centre-pocket carried it into the baulk! I remember perfectly well frequently exclaiming, 'Why, what ails the balls?' but many months had elapsed ere I was informed of the dirty trick that had been played."
In those days the feather-stroke was much practised; Mardon calls it extremely serviceable, and thus describes it: "When either of the balls is so near the baulk-line as to be pronounced playable, the player's ball must be placed as near to it as possible without touching, and then by a push the striker can hole his own ball in the corner pocket as often as he pleases." This stroke is sometimes called the "quill," and is forbidden by the rules of the present Billiard Association, -a somewhat useless prohibition, we are inclined to think, for the position is so seldom attainable in a
game that the practice necessary for making a considerable break from it is unlikely to be undertaken.
It is unnecessary to say much concerning the strides made by players since Kentfield's time. It should, however, be recollected, when one is disposed to contrast to their disadvantage the modest breaks of old days with the great ones now common, that not only are implements improved, but the tables are often much easier. John Roberts of Manchester, who succeeded Kentfield as champion, was a marvellous player. He had a genius for the game, great physical powers of endurance, and for about twenty years, from 1849 to 1869, he could give any one a third of the game. He may be said to have been succeeded, and doubtless surpassed, by three men, Cook, Bennett, and his son, the present champion. Of the first and the
last there is no doubt of the
superiority; opinions may differ as to the second-named, though it can scarcely be contended that he ever was really in the class of the other two. Still, each in turn held the championship on the pattern of table and under the rules devised when the first match was played, till at length the younger Roberts so completely passed all rivals that since 1885 no candidate has been found adventurous enough to challenge his position, which has been unconquered since 1875.
Now, though the chief interest of a spectator in a billiard-room should be the play, yet it often happens, the performance with the cue being so poor, that compensation must be sought elsewhere. And to tell the truth, though a player of experience who happens to be looking on can learn little in the way of instruction, yet if he keeps eyes and ears open he may
obtain a vast amount of amusement. The antics of the players, not to mention the running conversation they so often affect, displaying an appalling ignorance of the elements of the game, are passing strange, and they vary with different types. Of these let us try and recall a few. There is the very careful man who seems to derive more satisfaction from seeing his opponent in difficulties than from scoring on his own account. He is fearfully slow and deliberate, with a strong propensity for potting his adversary's ball and playing a double baulk. When he succeeds in this enterprise his satisfaction is ineffable and his port is lofty; if he wins the game, the company may not improbably be favoured with a few words on the beauties of defence, and on the rashness of attempting difficult strokes. He is exasperating to play with, especially if favoured with luck, but he is never really formidable; the games he wins from better players are secured not by his skill but by their irritation. He is seldom a popular opponent, and spectators generally welcome his discomfiture the more heartily should it proceed from the next type, who may be called the fluker. A greater contrast there can scarcely be-carelessness opposed to cushion-crawling. Any cue will do for this gentleman—the heavier the better; and he does not spare the balls. He calls his strokes shots, and is surprised if people complain of his luck, which, he explains, is in the long-run the same for all. Not satisfied apparently with the fluke positive, when in the full bloom of his career, if he does not score he secures the fluke negative by contriving to leave to his opponent a position of complete safety. The flaker is sometimes a happy-golucky good-humoured fellow, who,
when some impossible event is achieved, looks round with much complacency, and eventually comes to believe that he played for the stroke or for safety, as the case may be. When the extreme improbability of his having tried for something is brought home to him, as likely as not he will explain that he played for two strokes at once, knowing that if he missed the one he must get the other! Occasionally, however, and very often if deserted by his luck, the fluker is cantankerous enough,— the boisterous and somewhat oppressive good-humour being quickly changed for an uncommonly sulky gloom.
Another contrast is to be found between the old hand and the novice. The former need not be a good player, but he is acquainted with the ways of the place, and is able to take care of himself. Sometimes he is an old officer, not wholly deserted by the ways and manners of the service, of few words, and attentive to his game. On the other hand, he may be some one who has retired from business, fond of a game though not skilful, and full of anecdotes, which he will relate with gusto between the puffs of his cigar or pipe. The old hands are generally courteous, and have a reasonable respect for the etiquette of the room. The novice is apparent at every movement; if alone, he generally contrives to enter the room at the wrong moment, to saunter about when he should stand still, and to talk when he should be silent. There are many varieties, some genuinely anxious not to offend, and others careless in that respect, but both generally before long very keen to play. And in that stage they have the satisfaction of manifest improvement, which gradually vanishes as each comes to his best.
There are many varieties of the nervous player—indeed, in the most extended sense it may justly be said that every player is occasionally nervous; still, some men have less control over their nerves or are less liable to be upset than others. It shows differently in different people. With some the body seems chiefly affected, with others the mind. We are all familiar with the man who can control neither feature nor limb when watching the progress of a ball, who brandishes his cue to the imminent danger of spectators, of whom for the moment he is completely oblivious, or of the lamps, and who, as a ball approaches a pocket, pirouettes in front for its encouragement, and should it seem to draw off, immediately backs or walks gently in the other direction, as if some subtle influence passing from him could induce a deviation from its path. Sometimes these antics are very amusing, but too many of them soon pall. We also know the person who plays steadily enough and in correct form so long as success lasts; but if unlucky and just missing his strokes, he gives vent to a prolonged whistle, intended, we suppose, at once to relieve his own feelings and to indicate to the spectators his intense surprise at a phenomenon so remarkable as his failure. A variety of this type consoles himself, when things are going wrong, by whistling a tune or even singing sadly to himself, and he usually is destitute of all ear for music; whilst another gentleman, seeing his ball approach a cannon or a pocket, cannot contain himself, but adjures the ball in terms of tender endearment to come on and not be afraid, whereas his opponent, alarmed at the encouragement thus given, and perhaps not without an
impression that it is unfair, shouts to the ball, "Stop, you fool!" or words to that effect. Then there is the player who cannot help giving a violent kick at the critical moment, or making some other grotesque contortion. These habits are bad, and can be controlled; they are not natural, but are generally imitated by the novice from some person whose style he admires. The form of nervousness which affects the mind is far more difficult to cope with, and even to describe; for the player may have sufficient self-control to appear fairly calm, yet at a critical moment of the game he will surely break down. He is often a very good player, but he is a very bad man to back.
There are many other types, such as the conceited player, who is always ready to give any amount of points, and whose bounce occasionally seems actually to command success: if defeated, he will explain that he had nothing to play for, was not up to his old form, or has other equally valid excuses to offer. Then we have met men who did not care to play unless they had 6 to 4 the best of the game at starting, and who generally proved to be very bad losers; others, pleasant cheery fellows, who somehow have imbibed a notion that the game is nothing without a flow of conversation, which they supply according to their ability. It often takes the form of criticism or inquiry concerning the last-played stroke, and an explanation, for the most part very ridiculous, of the causes of failure. The man who plays for exercise because ordered to do so by his doctor may almost be considered a type. He is generally stout, seldom a superior player, but very often develops great fondness for the
game, and is an agreeable oppo
A terrible nuisance in the billiard-room is the spectator who feels it his duty to make remarks on the game. If he is alone in the room with two players, he selects one to whom he extends his sympathy; he expatiates in the most ignorant and gratuitous manner on the excellence of that one's strokes, and the hard lines meted out to him when failure is the result. Not improbably this servile adulator of the one player may be discourteous to the other; and as no person with a real knowledge of the game would be likely to act such a part, the value of his criticism may readily be appraised.
Passing from the billiard-room and its occupants, let us return to John Roberts and matters concerning the championship of the game. In 1885 he defeated first Cook, then Bennett, and since that year he has never been challenged under the conditions in force when he won his title. That being so, one would imagine that he is still indisputably champion, and must remain so till defeated on a 3-inch pocket table, all-in, or till he resigns. Nevertheless, on this point there has recently been a great deal of controversy, not always conducted in such a way as to induce great respect for the views urged, or for the judicial capacity, discrimination, and courtesy of the writers.
The question seems to have arisen thus. Whilst no one approached Roberts's form on a championship table, several players acquired an extraordinary power of making the spot-stroke on an ordinary table with 3-inch pockets. But it so happened that for exhibition matches-in other words, in order to get the largest gate
VOL. CLXI.-NO. DCCCCLXXVIII.
money from the public-Roberts preferred the easier table, but barred the spot-stroke, and in both acts his judgment was probably sound. The majority of spectators, not understanding the beauties of that stroke, considered it monotonous, but at the same time they liked to see large breaks rapidly scored, and this combination was possible only in the way Roberts selected. Hence he abandoned spot practice, not because he could not play that stroke, but because he thought it would not pay.
Now in 1885 certain persons interested in billiards formed themselves into a body which was named the "Billiard Association of Great Britain and Ireland, India, and the Colonies." Their committee consisted chiefly of professional players and reporters of the sporting press. Their bestknown work is a set of rules compiled by some of the players, with Roberts as chairman. Though the code is faulty, the billiard world is no doubt indebted to their labours. The Association also made a laudable endeavour to secure uniformity in the matter of ordinary tables, calling their design "standard Association tables." They instituted matches on them, all-in and spot-barred, of which Peall gained the former and Mitchell the latter, so that on this pattern of table Peall became the all-in champion, and Mitchell the spot-barred champion.
In course of time, and on several occasions, Peall challenged Roberts to play, all-in, on the standard Association table; but the latter, secure in his position as champion on the championship table, always declined. From this certain persons argue that Peall, not Roberts, is entitled to be styled champion, whilst others treat that claim as ridiculous. The question, as far
as we can judge, lies in a nutshell. We may be wrong and are merely gossiping, but it seems to us that the whole controversy turns on the issue whether the Billiard Association is recognised as the final authority in billiard matters. Is there anything to warrant such an assumption? Roberts scoffs at the notion, and whilst stating, we believe correctly, that the championship table was not finally abolished by the Association, he adds that even if it had been, no one concerned with the championship would have cared a straw. In other words, he distinctly disallows the claim of the Association to represent and legislate for the billiard world. And he has good grounds, we think, for doing so, because as now composed it is not sufficiently representative of every class of player. Still, in the absence of a better chosen body which shall be to billiards what the M.C.C. is to cricket, the Association may reasonably claim to exercise some influence in matters concerning the game.
From this controversy as to who is champion there arose a challenge to Peall, under which Roberts agreed to give him 12,000 points out of 24,000 for £500 a-side on an ordinary table, spot-barred. The match was played at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, during the fort night from February 15 to 27, and, throughout, the public interest never flagged. Lords and ladies, statesmen and legislators, attended, sharing the excitement with humbler folk, and the papers were full of details. It will suffice to say that, as is not infrequently the case, Roberts lost ground at starting, thereby greatly diminishing his chances of winning; but in the later stages of the game he scored
with such rapidity as to recover the arrears and place success within his reach. Indeed, Peall won only by the small margin of 310 points, about equal to 1 point in 80, and owes his victory to a very fine break of 395 played at a critical moment during the final stage. Now this, though a most meritorious performance, and one which no doubt was a severe strain and test of nerve, is not the sort of event on which it is safe to rely. Breaks and opportunities do not always come when they are most wanted, and with but 310 points to make, and Roberts to make them, all must agree that Peall's margin of safety was dangerously small. Nothing_can more conclusively attest Roberts's extraordinary powers than the game in question; for he has conclusively shown that he did not greatly overestimate his ability to give so sound and good a player as his antagonist undoubtedly is, a start of half the game.
As a final subject of gossip, it is worth thinking for a moment of the return or money made by the players. The figures must be considered as approximate only, but they will serve to enlighten many persons as to the possibilities and prospects of players at the head of their profession. The Hall was generally crowded, and the receipts have been stated at £3000, which is no doubt considerably too sanguine an estimate. Taking half that amount as nearer the truth, and deducting £120 provided for expenses, Roberts would get about £900 or a little more, and Peall about £450, for a fortnight's work. In less fortunate professions these amounts would be considered respectable incomes for a year.