Pool has always had an identity crisis.
More than one, in fact.
The billiard industry has long struggled with how to market the game to the masses. Is it a sport? Or is it recreation? Should pool be marketed as a wholesome, family activity? Or would the desirable younger demographic be better served if the industry sells the sexier high-stakes gambling side of the game?
But pool's identity crises aren't limited to the business side of the industry.
In the 35 years I've been at Billiards Digest, competitive pool has struggled to determine what game best showcases the sport. I can't think of another sport that has this problem. Straight pool was still the "game of champions" as late as the early '80s. But anyone who has ever watched straight pool, as beautiful as it can be, knew that television and the ever-elusive corporate dollar was never going to buy pool if that was the game the sport was selling.
The argument back then was that 90 percent of the country's league and recreational players were playing 8-ball, and good old Stripes and Solids would be most recognizable to the masses.
Of course, the pros were having none of that. "Pros" back then basically meant players who travelled the road matching up for money. And in those money matches, 9-ball was the most common game. Sure, one-pocket and bank pool were always a part of the gambling fabric, and tournaments in the Midwest occasionally included them in competition.
But 9-ball was pool's primary game, and was the exclusive game of the pros during pool's television heyday, the '90s and early 2000s. But, as luck would have it - "luck" being the operative word - the pros tired of 9-ball and insisted that 10-ball is the fairer contest.
Players are tripping over themselves trying to figure out how to get Chinese 8-ball tables shipped to the U.S.!
No, really. I'm serious.
Chinese 8-ball is the latest "next big thing." For the uninitiated, Chinese 8-ball is a hybrid of American-style 8-ball, British 8-ball and snooker. It is played on a 9-foot table with a standard set of balls. The fun starts when you add in tight rounded snooker pockets (which spit out imperfectly hit balls like a pinball machine!) and lightening-fast napped snooker cloth. The game requires precision pocketing and eschews daring cue-ball movement.
The game has come to light recently because the Chinese billiard business wants to take the game global. To that end, competing Chinese billiard table manufacturers, Joy and Star, each promoted high-profile international tournaments to promote the game. Both tournaments featured international fields, massive television coverage and huge prize funds. The Star tournament, produced by the Chinese Billiard and Snooker Association (CBSA), and sanctioned as a world championsip by the World Pool-Billiard Association (WPA), included pool and snooker stars from 23 countries. (See Chinese 8-Ball World Championships coverage, starting on page 28.)
To a player, the pros that attended the tournaments have been singing the praises of Chinese 8-ball. Scottish pro Jayson Shaw has posted online that he wants to get a table. "I'm a massive fan of the game, as I grew up playing English 8-ball," added Karl Boyes. Canadian Simon Pickering said, "I think Chinese 8-ball is the game of the future. It brings players of all disciplines together to compete on one playfield."
Billiard Congress of America Hall of Famer Jeanette Lee called the game, "extremely challenging," adding, "Combine tight pockets, 8-ball, one-pocket and snooker, and Chinese pool is what you get."
Of course, what's really driving the enchantment pool's pros have with Chinese 8-ball is money. Toss around a few $90,000 top prizes and top players would trade in their Gold Crowns for an eight-sided table with 12 pockets.
Pump the brakes, kids.
I don't blame players for being excited. In truth, Chinese 8-ball appears to be the challenging hybrid everyone says it is. And $90,000 is nothing to sneeze at.
But let's be honest here. Sure, the Chinese are known for throwing a lot of support behind sports at which their athletes can excel. But this sudden influx of money and support for Chinese 8-ball is just as likely to evaporate in an instant, as it is to grow into a massive international sport in the coming years.
As for the United States, don't expect poolrooms to start changing out standard pool tables for Chinese 8-ball tables. How many snooker tables did you see roll into America's poolrooms after professional snooker started making millionaires of its players?
And how many American pros are really going to start devoting all of their practice time to Chinese 8-ball at the expense of their 9-ball, 10-ball and 8-ball games?
I love a new toy as much as the next person, and Chinese 8-ball is an enticing toy, to be sure. Even I emjoyed watching the Chinese 8-ball tournaments. And we're happy to devote space to its big events.
But I think I'll wait awhile before I change the name of the magazine to Chinese 8-Ball Digest.