Hardballers jostle for European snooker title

  • 2001-05-31
  • Jorgen Johansson
RIGA - The first European Snooker Championship to be held in Central and Eastern Europe is under way in Riga. Top players from 26 countries are battling it out on the green felt at a pool hall in the Old Town. In all, 56 men, 20 women and 24 seniors are fighting for medals.

Snooker has been described as the ultimate in cue games. On the technical side there may only be small differences between the players, but sheer experience and strategy can make all the difference in the world.

Vladimir Sinitsin, the founder of Latvia's Billiard Association and a combatant in the seniors tournament, said that Latvian success may not lie in the hands of the Latvian players, but simply in the honor of hosting the European championship. It was decided two years ago that Latvia would host it.

Snooker is the Rolls Royce of pool games. It is played on a 12-by-6-foot table with six pockets. It's a points game, where different colored balls are worth different amounts of points ranging from one for each of the red balls to seven for the black. In between, from two points to six, are the yellow, green, brown, blue and pink, respectively.

The rules are simple. Put a red ball in a pocket using the white cue ball and you are allowed to play any of the other colored balls for extra points. The player with the most points wins.

Bjorn Haneveer, from Belgium, has been in the European championship final every one of the last six years. Of these he's won four. Last year he had to be content with second place, which makes him even hungrier for the gold this year.

He lost 7-3 to Craig Butler from Bradford, northern England, in the Scottish city of Stirling 12 months ago. Butler is also playing, keen to defend his title.

"I have never been to Latvia before, and I am really surprised how good it is here. I mean, this used to be the Soviet Union," Haneveer said.

Snooker is anything but a power sport. There's no need to spend hours in a gym. Haneveer said what signifies a good snooker player is that he/she can remain calm under pressure and the ability to play a good safety game.

To play safe is important. Whenever a player has confidence in a shot, the cue ball is played so that the opponent will not have too many choices or is even forced to miss the next shot.

This is something the Latvian players are struggling with, Sinitsin said, and repeated the importance of experience on an international level.

"In 10 years it is possible we could have a European champion," Sinitsin said. "There are upcoming talents here.

In the women's tournament there will probably not be many surprises. Britain's Kelly Fisher is one of the few professional female snooker players in Europe, and she was the reigning world champion from 1998 until last year.

This year she lost the world title to Sharon Dickson of Wales. She has won the European championship four out of five times since 1996 and is currently the queen of snooker in Europe.

"I guess you could say the snooker table is my office," Fisher said.

Fisher started playing as a 12-year-old in her parents' pub. Her talent was quickly discovered and she has kept her very first coach to this day.

Fisher's personal record, her highest break, is 143 points in a match and 147, the ultimate, in practice. So far in the tournament she hasn't lost a single frame. Every match is played to the best of seven frames.

"I don't think Latvian women players have been playing for a very long time," Fisher said. "They don't seem to have much experience and I think they need tougher competition."

Snooker is a male-dominated sport, but Fisher said more and more women are starting to show interest. But, she added, it is more difficult for women to improve their game since it is very difficult to practice and work at the same time.

This is hard for some of the seniors, too. The senior title is held by Joe Delaney, a bus driver from Dublin.

Some of the best male players don't have this problem. They earn enough money in prize winnings just playing the game. Fisher said she trained for about four hours per day, so she feels about ready to give it her best shot at this year's gold medal as well.

Most players said the Latvians have managed to organize the championship to a high standard, but there were also complaints about the space around the tables being too small.

Sweden's top-ranked player, Mattias Wiberg, said he was disturbed by the fact that he had to, "Kick spectators out of the way. It's a terror on the concentration having them so close to the tables, but they just don't seem to get it otherwise."

The finals in this year's European championship will be played on June 2 at the Vernisaza nightclub in Riga.