Pool in Britain
Pool is a universal game. Across the world, it is played with numbered 57mm balls, on fast cloth, into big pockets, with a variety of rule variants. All of which encourage a fast, open game. Only in the UK and countries like Ireland, France, Spain and former colonies has the small ball or English pool game become popular. Essentially, this dates back to the late 1960’s, when machine operators attempted to introduce pool tables into British pubs. They were expensive to import, not very reliable, rather big for traditional pubs and not wholly popular with the male dominated pub clientele who were more used to the tactics and tools of snooker, or even bar billiards. Consequently, with the assistance of Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins, a table was developed that was scaled down in size, used snooker style cues, cloth and pocket to ball ratio, and rules that encouraged a tactical, more measured game. Heavily supported by brewers, in house and national tournaments fuelled the explosion of pool in British pubs, led to the establishment of leagues and ultimately established the ‘sport’ we have today.
The English pool network is hugely important to community and local houses, in the same way as darts and quiz nights. It breeds loyalty and regulars can be relied on for steady trade with league nights filling the pub on wet Tuesday nights. The current retail landscape has changed however. The number of ‘locals’ has declined, particularly in rural areas. Many pubs now feature increased food offerings. All this has led to a stagnation and even decline in the numbers of traditional English pool houses. Modern pubs and bars are looking for more contemporary equipment to attract a wider and increasingly fickle customer base. Pub goers want to be entertained in a stylish environment. If venues can offer an all round modern experience with drink, food, music and machines then they will be successful. Cue, if you pardon the pun, American pool. The World’s largest pool league, the VNEA in America would testify to the competitiveness and professionalism of American pool. But in the UK that niche is largely filled. Here, for the most part, American pool means fun and modern design. Even the description American pool is perhaps misleading. Venue design is strictly contemporary and no longer features Hollywood ephemera, stars & stripes and diner style Americana. And the game played on the table is simple 8 Ball, ‘you have spots and I’ll have stripes’. No difficult new rules to get the hang of, just a simple first to pot them all principle with pockets big enough to ensure it won’t take too long.
In recent times, the GB9 Tour has established a Professional network for serious players of 9 Ball in Britain. The success of British players on the world stage is remarkable given the supposed popularity of the big ball game in comparison to the pub game. World Team Champions in 2010, World Champions in several disciplines and regularly dominant in the European rankings. Undoubtedly the higher levels of prize money in American Pool, as the world game, encourages the best 8 ball players and even snooker players to chance their arm. But it will be interesting to see just which cue sports are commonly played at both grass roots and professional levels in Britain in 20 years time.