What is Chinese 8-Ball?
May the 2nd, 2012. A monumental day for cue-sports participants and enthusiasts alike. For most interested parties at the time, the most news-worthy thing being talked about was the retirement of the King of the Crucible: the seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry, the man who revolutionized the way in which snooker was played and had come to embody that which was positive and modern about the sport. Post-interview interviews and apparently detailed analysis of Hendry’s own words and actions from so many armchair psychologists would reveal many theories as to the likelihood of a volte face from the Scot, but what flew under the radar might be the most well-concealed white elephant of them all, hiding as it was in plain sight.
“I want to do other things now. I’ve got a lot of commitments now in China, which I’ve signed up for and I can’t do that and play snooker because I would never be at home,” said Hendry right after his 13-2 mauling at the hands of compatriot Stephen Maguire in the quarter final of the World Championship. The timing of such an announcement and the shock which permeated all present when it was made seemed to prevent anyone from asking: “Just what kind of commitment are we talking about?” It was the logical question to ask, the kind of question which would immediately have been posed were the man announcing his plans a key player in any other sport. Yet here, such a query seems conspicuous by its absence.
“I want to do other things now. I’ve got a lot of commitments now in China, which I’ve signed up for and I can’t do that and play snooker because I would never be at home”
The answer, were Hendry to deign to provide one, is one which has at its foundation the most basic motivation of all. News and rumour, indistinguishable in the face of so many unknowns and the absence of any kind of official word on the matter, began to filter through that Hendry had been approached with a view to becoming the face of Chinese snooker: exhibitions, public appearances, some coaching, a few small tournaments, they said. It was a huge amount of money for some pretty routine work, they said. Nothing too taxing, it would be almost the equivalent of playing Major League Soccer at the twilight of a career, they said. Who would turn down the chance to become the face of a nation, even one which already boasts Ding Junhui as one of its more recognizable celebrities? It would take some man to turn down such an offer, they said.
They were almost right.
Hendry’s deal with Joy Billiards was ‘announced’ months earlier on some lesser-known news outlets, and as with most of these types of story, was almost universally disregarded. It seemed too far-fetched; what with the money he was still making at snooker, plus the upturn in his form coming into the World Championship, culminating in a destruction of defending champion John Higgins in the round of 16 which would bring a tear to the eye of Hendry loyalists from the Nineties.
Despite recent rumours to contrary, and behind-the-scenes efforts attributed to Barry Hearn aimed at enticing the much-loved former champion back into the fold, Hendry has stayed retired from ‘tournament snooker’, a phrase he stressed several times upon his retirement. But the endorsements keep rolling in, and Hendry’s face is still the foundation upon which Chinese 8-ball has been built, despite his relative lack of success in the organized tournaments.
These tournaments have become an almost immediate success, in terms of their popularity, prestige and standing amongst players. Social media has been awash with commentary from luminary players such as Darren Appleton and Gareth Potts, who have praised everything from the tables to the administration of the event to the crowds who have made the journey to watch live.
“Everything about Chinese 8-Ball for me right now is pure ‘Hollywood’ – the players I’m up against are the best, the prize money is top-dollar, the audiences are packed to the rafters and the viewing figures on TV stretch into the millions” wrote IPA World Champion Gareth Potts, shortly after coming through the field to win his second successive International 8ball Masters event in his new discipline. Such high praise, and comparisons with his former career which don’t cast much positive light on the sport he’s been participating in for the best part of three decades, reveal both a zealous determination to succeed in the relatively new sport, and also a legitimate sense of gratitude for the opportunity to attain the rewards for his efforts thus far in his career.
“Everything about Chinese 8-Ball for me right now is pure ‘Hollywood’”
Top-level pool players in the United Kingdom simply do not attain the degree of wealth or glory which seems to go hand-in-hand with becoming a top snooker player. Elsewhere in the world, major pool events in America and Asia also fail to provide the sort of fiscal security which one would associate with a professional sportsman. By way of example, the US Open 9ball competition, widely regarded amongst pool players as the toughest pool event to win, generally pays out a sum of around $30,000 to the winner. The entire prize pool for the event in 2014 was listed at $165,000, which was roughly equivalent to 80% of the amount received by the runner-up in the World Snooker Championship the same season. The champion, Mark Selby, took home a cheque for £300,000, an amount nearly three times the size of the whole prize fund for the US Open.
The World 8ball Championships, held in Blackpool, England, fare even worse. The winner rarely receives a figure above £10,000, and the division in the sport, which Potts also alludes to in his personal blog, has meant that even this figure has become increasingly rare. Small wonder, then, that players such as Appleton and Chris Melling made the transition to the more lucrative American discipline, where they could earn more with their talents than they ever could on these shores. Furthermore, the sheer volume of cue-sports enthusiasts playing these rules alone (Potts cites participation figures in China of approximately 60m players, close to the entire population of Great Britain) seemed to logically dictate that the natural destination for pool players in the long-term was China.
“Cuesports, to the Chinese, is like football to us, they are absolutely mad for it. People treat you like superstar, finding out what hotel you’re staying in and then mobbing you for autographs. It is unbelievable.” One cannot imagine such sentiments being expressed in Great Britain, with even the elite snooker players attaining the status of minor celebrities at best, with Ronnie O’Sullivan being the notable exception. Small wonder many took to alternative shores for the sake of their careers, but no wonder at all that Gareth Potts headed for China.
The game itself is one which would be largely familiar to any pool player in the world. It’s 8ball, with spots and stripes. The game we all grew up with, on slightly different equipment. Except that it isn’t; not quite.
With such controversy and faux-political machinations prevalent, aimed at the advancement of this set of rules over another, it would be easy to greet the advent of another rule-set with a Picard-esque facepalm, or at the very least with an attitude of foreboding. ‘American’ 8ball rules are different from ‘English’ 8ball rules, which seems even stranger considering that there is not, and it seems there never will be, one codified set of universal rules accepted within Great Britain. Some prefer being able to exercise freedom, some prefer call-shot, some would allow tactical fouling, some would rather you didn’t have to hit a rail. House rules can vary depending on whether you’re a patron of the Kings Head or the Dog and Duck just down the street.
“It’s 8ball, with spots and stripes. The game we all grew up with, on slightly different equipment. Except that it isn’t; not quite.”
All of this manoeuvring and debate makes it all the more amazing that a country with the population and sheer size of China has managed to implement one rule-set, with the aim of advancing a sport beyond its seemingly natural limits. It seems to have worked: Chinese 8ball has transcended its limitations in a way which will have certain members of the English 8ball fraternity alternately glancing across with envy and then scratching their heads. Rumours abound of a meeting between Barry Hearn and the powers-that-be within the English variant of the game, whereby Mr Hearn is alleged to have offered to throw his considerable weight behind the sport and take it global, in much the same way he did with darts when he subsequently took his influence in that direction. Some argued that it mattered little, that the sport lacked the characteristics to capture the imagination in the way darts did. Joy Billiards, it would seem, did not listen.
Their promotion relied on several key points, most of which will have become immediately obvious to any pool players reading this article. Firstly, the money had to be there to entice the type of player Joy were looking for. This wasn’t to be a small operation, and they needed the participation of superstars, both current and potential, to make their product as big as they desired. It was also important that this wasn’t perceived to be another IPT-type promotion, which ended with players tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket and with nothing to show for their time and investment other than yet another pool-related hard-luck story. The IPT would make for an interesting topic in and of itself, what with the collapse of its infrastructure despite the claims of self-professed billionaire Kevin Trudeau, and his subsequent convictions for fraud and criminal contempt.
This was the context within which Joy Billiards were making their move, and they needed to ensure that this attempt at moving the game forward was based on more than the patter of a snake-oil salesman. Thus far, with the audiences they attract and the schedule they’re putting together, the future looks to be bright, with almost uncapped potential.
Second on the list of key components of a successful pool promotion was the equipment. As of the time of writing, there remains only one known Chinese 8ball table within the United Kingdom; that which resides within the venue owned by Gareth Potts. The reviews of such tables have led some to speculate that this will become the first of many, with the game expected to expand exponentially over the coming years.
‘Amazing’ and ‘fantastic’ are some of the terms being used to describe the equipment, and Darren Appleton has gone as far as to state on his own social media page that these tables are the best he’s ever played on. The build quality, according to others, is superior to anything short of a tour-standard snooker table, with the weight of the table itself not representing a priority in the eyes of the designers. While English 8ball tables are built with mobility in mind, requiring a light build and easy to dismantle design, the Chinese 8ball tables are built with top-class players in mind from the outset, and this means that consistency is king. Cushions, cloth, pockets and the bed of the table all share this preoccupation with precision, and the result is that Chinese 8ball is seemingly less inhibited by kicks, bad bounces and balls rolling off-line than its English cousin. The influence of snooker upon the conception of the equipment is self-evident, with the characteristics of the table including tight pockets cut to snooker-like dimensions, cushions which react more like those on a snooker table than a pool table, and reasonably quick cloths.
The third major component is the audience. Without a consumer, there is no-one to sell a product to, and therefore all the rest of the investment would be no more than a lesson in futility. While American audiences for events such as the US Open remain acceptable (and tournaments in Asia also attract a number of non-participant spectators) these numbers regularly exceed anything seen on the other side of the Atlantic, where the World Championship final is watched live by around 300 people, and regularly fails to make an appearance on Sky – and when it does it’s always on tape delay; never live. For the second most popular participation sport in the country (behind fishing) to have fallen to such depths relative to a heyday which included pool being shown live on the BBC illuminates a stark contrast to the Chinese rendition of the game, and begs the question about pool’s place within such a market. Is English pool under-performing, or is Chinese pool riding the crest of a wave? Or worse, a bubble?
For the present, Joy Billiards have a product which is second in popularity with television audiences only to Ding Junhui’s appearances in major events, and this may in part be due to the simplicity of the product, undiluted as it is by schisms and bastardizations of the rules of play. This brings us back nicely to the on-table product: the game itself.
This is the fourth, and some would say most important, key component of the recent success Joy Billiards have had. The rules of any sport have to maintain several of their own key protocols in order to make the game a success: they have to reward the best player, they need to make the game sufficiently complex as to allow for uniqueness in every rack (lest the game become boring), and they need to be simple enough in themselves to allow the spectators, even casual spectators, to understand the game immediately.
For those in the know, the rules would look remarkably like an amalgamation of Blackball rules and generally accepted 9ball rules, with a rail mandatory, ball in hand on a foul (behind the line on a foul break), skill-shots allowed and the wonderful or catastrophic (depending which seat you’re sitting in) prospect of being able to win by potting the 8 from the break, reminiscent of the American ‘power’ games. For those who just tune in to the television to watch something interesting, these rules allow for an easy transition from ‘observer’ to ‘fan’ with experience of any related disciplines no prerequisite to enjoyment of the spectacle.
It is said that a lie will make it all the way around the world before the truth has got its boots on, and the same can be said for rumour. The same ‘sources’ who professed to know that Hendry was being paid £100,000, or £1 million, or £5 million, to be the face of the newest game in town, were out in force to claim that this player or that player had been approached with a view to consulting on the rule-set being constructed for this series of events. Whether or not this is true seems unlikely, given that the rules existed in China long before Gareth Potts became a household name over there, but what can be noted without hesitation is that the rules seem to be meeting all the criteria they need to. Audiences continue to grow for each event, both live and on television, and the players themselves couldn’t be happier. No quibbles here about one technicality or another: both Appleton and Potts have been effusive in their praise of the rules in use, describing them respectively as a ‘great’ set of rules, and ‘the best I’ve ever played’. Such high praise is rare in the pool fraternity, and indicates that Joy have gotten yet another thing right.
With the upcoming and inaugural World Championships being staged for this discipline, and the sport going from strength to strength in terms of exposure, the garden looks rosy for Joy Billiards and their events. Hard work in relation to every key aspect of development has been put in, due diligence has been observed, and the sport has the backing of luminaries across the globe, with Stephen Hendry still at the forefront of these. With this in mind, it remains a shame that promotional issues have prohibited Hendry from playing in this tournament, since he remains the promotional property of Joy Billiards, while the World Championships are being hosted and promoted by rival table manufacturer Star. The clash has resulted in the Chinese Billiards and Snooker Association (CBSA) refusing to invite the Scottish legend to their event.
The same can be said for Potts, whose own promotional contract resembles that of Hendry, resulting in the same prohibition. This state of affairs hasn’t had an effect on his enthusiasm, though. In a short message he sent when approached for input into this article, Potts responded in a way which seemed to make it right that he be given the final word: “Everything about Chinese 8 ball makes sense. The rules and tables are the most important. The game even has the highest respect from the top snooker players and some even say that it’s harder than snooker. At English 8ball I could lose a frame to almost anyone, and this is far from the case at Chinese 8ball, because the game is unbelievably difficult and to compete, a player’s skill level needs to be incredibly high. This is another reason why this game is going to get bigger and bigger.”
Thanks are due to Darren Appleton, who helped with attaining information crucial to the composition of this article, and also to Gareth Potts, whose input and insights into the promotional aspects of Chinese 8ball have been invaluable.
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