The Professional Championship (February 1870) – First Contest

Eventually Roberts agreed to meet Cook for the championship in a match of 1,200 up for a £100 a side, at the St. James Hall, Regent Street. The date set was 11th February 1870.

As Kentfield and Roberts had held the title for almost 50 years between them without ever playing a Championship match, there was great public interest in the announcement. At this time there was no governing body for billiards and several variations to the rules existed between billiard rooms around the country. It was therefore agreed that a committee would be established to draw up a set of rules specifically for the championship. This committee was selected from those deemed most likely to compete for the title and representatives from the three leading billiard table manufacturers Cox & Yemen, Burroughes & Watts and Thurston’s. John Roberts (Champion) took the chair of this committee, the other players being William Cook, Joseph Bennett, John Bennett, and Tom Morris. It was agreed that the table manufacturers would provide the championship trophy and take turns to supply the match table. The committee met at Bennett’s Rooms to draw up articles for the championship and Alfred Bowles & William Dufton were given the task of making preliminary arrangements for the match.

However, Roberts was well aware that the young Cook (he was still only 20 years of age) was currently the best player of the “spot stroke” in the country and to reduce this advantage it was arranged to play on a modified table. Roberts convinced the committee that the truest test of a champion would be a table which required the greatest accuracy in the playing of hazards. Drawing on his experience with the special table developed by Jonathan Kentfield for this very purpose, he proposed that a virtual replica was constructed by Thurston’s for the match. A model was set up for the players to try. Cook made a sequence of 30 spots and gave his approval for the design. However the cut of the pockets was again changed before the match with the result that the spot stroke became virtually impossible. The pockets of this “Championship Table” were 3″ wide instead of the then normal 3 5/8″ and the Billiard Spot would be nearer the top cushion (121/2″ instead of 131/4″) designed to limit Cook’s superiority. The baulk-line was set at 28″ from the bottom cushion and the radius reduced by 11/2″ to 10″. Despite his input to the committee decisions, young Cook evidently did not fully appreciate that the smaller pockets would handicap him to a greater extent than his opponent who did not rely so heavily on this specialist stroke. Conditions were also laid down that the winner must respond to future challenges within two months and any player who held the championship for a continuous period of 5 years would retain the trophy.

Although he was champion, Roberts was not favourite for the match. Cook’s brilliant play in recent months had encouraged the gambling fraternity to back Cook regardless of the type of table to be used. “Bells Life of London” reported “Many considered the result a foregone conclusion for Cook, nevertheless it began at the outset to excite the most lively interest. When the match was announced the odds laid on Cook were 5-2; but after Roberts had subsequently defeated Joseph Bennett at the Prince of Wales Club, with the spot stroke barred, the price fell to 9-4 and 6-4 was accepted in some quarters at the beginning of the week in consequence of Cook having come off second best in more than one of his late exhibition matches.

So brisk was the demand for tickets, of which 500 were initially issued at £1 each, that the players were obliged to engage the larger room at St. James’ Hall. They were thus able to accommodate another 300 and yet from the commencement of the week no tickets were available from advertised sources and enterprising speculators, who bought up two or three dozen with a view of making a quick profit, were able to command exorbitant prices. In fact it no sooner emerged that the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) would witness the match than the tickets, even the back seats, rose immediately in value and seats in the front row were being offered at £5 each.

From 7 o’clock the hall began to fill and soon every seat was occupied with some spectators in the farther seats coming equipped with opera glasses. It was estimated that over 1,000 people had crammed into 800 seat venue. Extraordinary precautions were in place with the entrance to the grand hall being barricaded and police stationed at all the pay stations. The table was in the centre of the vast hall with a cordon of scarlet rope about three yards all around. In one corner was placed a chair which would be the official post for the referee. Interestingly, the referee for this match was Joseph Bennett who would himself become Champion later that same year. Outside the rope the tiers of benches began sloping up to the galleries and constructed to reach up and beyond the ordinary balconies.

The spectators included representatives of all the leading sports with a significant number of bookmakers and general racing fraternity having secured positions immediately surrounding the table. A private box had been allocated to the Prince of Wales at the left hand corner of the chief balcony.

It was common practice in those days for bets to be shouted across the room with odds given and wagers taken not only on the outcome of the match, but often on the result of individual strokes. Indeed, it was by no means unusual to stop an important money match to enable all the bets to be recorded to the satisfaction of the spectators.

Shortly after 8 o’clock the spectators began to grow impatient and calls for a start to the match resulted in the appearance of William Dufton who informed the assembly that the players were only waiting for order and they would make their appearance. He was followed by an official who proceeded to weigh the balls. He managed to keep the crowd quiet as he cleverly managed to spin out this operation for a full ten minutes. However the fascination of watching the perfectly balanced scales raised and lowered eventually gave way to impatience once more and the noise from the hall became louder than ever.

When the players eventually made their appearance at 8.15 pm they were received with enthusiastic cheering. Although both were dressed in black and were without jackets, the portly figure of Roberts’ contrasted very much with Cook whose extreme youth surprised those who had not previously seen him play. Roberts, as usual, was wearing his wide brimmed felt hat.

William Dufton then commenced a brief address in which he announced an interval of a quarter of an hour at the completion of the sixth hundred and gave the assembly some advice on the best means of regaining their seats should they have cause to vacate them. This latter remark caused some unintentional amusement, as with over 200 people standing it was clear to all those present that the chance of regaining a vacated seat would be practically nil.

With at least two thirds of the company smoking, the atmosphere soon became painfully close and oppressive, but with perfect order having been attained with some difficulty, the match started at 8.27 pm.

Shortly after the start the Prince of Wales and his party arrived so quietly that for some time their appearance was unnoticed. The only ladies present were the wives of Cook and Joseph Bennett who were accompanied by several female friends. The young Cook more than once looked up and smiled in confidence at his partner.

The tight pockets of the match table quickly made their effect on the game with both players testing this handicap by attempting reds from the spot. When Cook first gained spot position he was greeted with a round of applause, but he could not fulfill the expectations of his supporters, making only five in succession before breaking down. The Prince of Wales watched this with the greatest interest and there was a general feeling of disappointment when the break came to an end. The red ball needed to be played with the greatest of care or it did not go in. In addition, possibly due to the change in the position of the spot, when the red was made, position for the next stroke was invariably lost. As a result, early play was very close with several small breaks from both players.

Cook’s bearing during the play was reserved and modest, while Roberts performed in his usual jaunty fashion, constantly offering to back himself. Roberts paused early in the match to hand £10 up to Mr. Steel who was seated several rows from the front and had offered Roberts £20-£10. Shortly afterwards one of Cook’s supporters placed £200 to £100 on his man and Steel not relishing this bet too much attempted to lay it off in smaller amounts.

The players were level at about 450 when Roberts got in. With Cook’s ball and the red almost touching, he quietly dribbled them down the table making six or seven very pretty cannons in succession. He followed this with a regular ‘gallery’ stroke, potting the red at tremendous pace, the cue ball striking several cushions before making the cannon. This shot fairly brought the house down for the first time in the match.

The interval was taken at 10.45 pm with Cook holding the advantage 625 -521. During the interval £100-£40 was offered on Cook, but found no takers. It was generally considered that to this point Roberts had played in too off-hand a manner, giving way to a number of indiscreet shots and showing too little respect for his opponent.

With the resumption of play at 11.20pm, they moved along evenly until Cook was 701 to Roberts’ 593. Directly afterwards, Cook with a series of strokes (some of them the most delicate strength) produced a break of 80 points. At the conclusion of this magnificent performance the clapping of hands lasted for two or three minutes, the Prince of Wales joining heartily in the demonstration.

The jaunty air which many though affected Roberts in the early stage of the play had quite disappeared and he now strained every nerve to catch his youthful opponent. With such steadiness did Roberts now play that in spite of a dashing 63 from his opponent, he immediately responded with a break of 62, his best in the match. At 12.50 am the game stood 1,016-899 to Cook, but at this point Roberts turned the game which had run in favour of Cook until this point. He put together breaks of 39, 31 and 41 to take the lead at 1,041-1,037. The excitement at this point knew no bounds, the company being scarcely diminished in numbers and each stroke was loudly applauded, with the betting reduced to 5-4 and evens. Still Cook’s nerve did not fail and while Roberts contributed 7 and played for safety the youngster made 26 and 31 to take a crucial lead 1,132-1,083. Then, starting with a fluke cannon Cook put together an unfinished break of 68, the winning stroke being a losing hazard off the red into the middle pocket.

So it was that at 1.38am and amidst great jubilation from his many supporters, William Cook was proclaimed the billiard champion of England by margin of 117 points. Roberts was bitterly disappointed at his defeat but recovered himself after a little while, receiving much support from his friends who crowded around him to offer their consolations. The Prince of Wales meanwhile, had retired at midnight having expressed the opinion that he would have preferred to see the larger breaks which could be achieved on “ordinary tables”

Cook was awarded with the new championship trophy which had been purchased at the cost of £120. Half a dozen gold enamelled Maltese crosses, at a cost of £5 each were also manufactured, one of which will be given to every holder of the Championship.

Roberts’ son, who also attended the match, had these comments about his fathers defeat “In vain his friends put before him the value of retiring with an unbeaten record. He knew as well as anyone what Cook’s abilities were and could not disguise from himself that it was by no means an easy task. The offer made by Lord Dudley, while the match was in progress, to give my father £1,000 in the event of him winning, rather upset his play for a time and I have little doubt that it defeated its own object by making him too anxious to win. If my father had won this match he would probably have retired. If he had not done so he would only have been putting off the evil day as he must have been defeated within a very short time. After the match he had the intention of trying to regain his title, but his play got worse and with Cook and myself improving daily, he soon saw it would be useless to make the attempt. Had he taken the advice of his friends and retired without playing Cook, he would now, doubtless, be quoted by competent authorities as the greatest billiard player of any time.”

The loss of the Championship marked the effective end of John Roberts career. Although he still played in public for several years and recorded the occasional success, he eventually faded from the scene as he was overtaken by the new wave of younger players.

The Professional Championship (April 1870)

Cook was immediately challenged by Roberts Jnr to a match for the Championship with a friend in the North of England promising to put up the required £100 stake. After an initial scare that his backer would not be able to come up with the money, the match was eventually arranged for 14th April 1870, again at the St. James’ Hall. It was played under the same conditions as the first championship except that the match was reduced to 1,000 up in an attempt to avoid another late finish.

The game was in its early stages when an unusual incident occurred. Roberts was into a break of 22 with the scores standing at 123-122 in his favour when he played for a cannon by gentle strength off the top cushion. Cook thinking that his opponent had not scored walked up to the table. Roberts claimed a cannon and Cook appealed to the referee who asked the marker, who had also been unsighted. As Roberts was standing in front of the referee during the shot it was impossible for him to decide without an appeal to the spectators sitting at the spot end. To this end Cook, urged by some of his supporters, refused to agree, arguing that the game should be restarted or the whole audience questioned on the point. Roberts, who declared that he had scored, refused to do this and the referee proposed a toss of a coin to resolve the matter. The players agreed and Cook winning, followed on with the balls in the position which they were left. Evidently with the intention of gaining nothing from this advantage, he played the balls for safety, which was greatly appreciated by the audience who gave him tremendous applause. The Sportsman Newspaper subsequently took a poll of several impartial witnesses, sitting in the best position for seeing the stroke and they unanimously declared that Roberts had made the cannon.

With the game standing at 714-299 to Roberts, Cook improved his position with a break of 22 but according to the Sportsman Newspaper he “continued to be unfortunate. Either the white found a pocket or one of the balls remained in baulk.” Roberts seeing how things were going took a bet of £100 to £10 from a spectator that he would win by 500 points. But Cook soon after this ran up a break of 53 and Roberts lost his wager. However, Cook manage to score just 522 before Roberts reached game. Exclusive of the interval and the time occupied by the dispute, the match lasted just 3 hours and four minutes. Speaking of Cook the Sportsman said “At the outset he looked haggard as if travelling and too much play had done him no good. When the pinch came and his physical powers were called on, he gave way altogether and only made 100 while Roberts was making 250.”

The Professional Championship (May 1870)

Immediately after his victory, Roberts was challenged by Alfred Bowles and the match took place on 30th May 1870. There was always some doubt as to the ability of Bowles who was generally considered to be 300 in 1,000 inferior to the elder Roberts. The strength of his game was in cannon play and it was probably the small size of the pockets on the championship table which lead him to think he had a chance of winning the match. St. James’s Hall was again the venue, but this time the smaller of the two halls was used. The lack of public interest reflecting anticipation of an easy victory for Roberts. At the outset the betting was 10-1 on the Champion and before the score had reach 300 one spectator unable to secure a bet, offered 20-1 against Bowles, which was immediately taken by Roberts! The match was a pedestrian affair with Roberts taking an early lead and never loosing it. Although the cannon play of Bowles drew much applause, his hazard play was poor and although he improved somewhat after the interval, Roberts seems to loose interest in the contest and in winning by a comfortable margin of 246 points, he did not produce anywhere near his best form. This was reflected in the time taken to complete the match which lasted 4 hours 45 minutes. The best breaks were 57 for Roberts and 47 for Bowles. After this match Bowles seemed to accept that he could not win the championship, for he never challenged again.

The Professional Championship (November 1870)

Roberts was challenged for the title again in 1870. This time by Joseph Bennett and the match was played at St. James’s Hall on 28th November 1870. Prior to his championship challenge, Joseph Bennett had played in a series of matches at the Palais Royal and the standard of play he exhibited gave his backers increased confidence and moreover he showed greater facility at spot stroke striking than he had ever previously shown.

The match was played on a table built for the occasion by Cox & Yemen of Brompton Road which as described as “a beautiful specimen of their handicraft” William Cook officiated as referee and the marker was C. Stanton.

There appeared to be almost as much interest in this match as the first championship between Roberts snr; and William Cook. During the progress of play there was much excitement and an immense amount of money was wagered at all sorts of prices. For some time prior to the match Roberts had been favourite at odds of 5-4, but fine form displayed by Bennett, who had been playing with Cook the previous week on a championship tables at his own rooms, caused him to have many supporters.

Although play was scheduled for a 7.30 pm start, the crowded state of the hall delayed the start until just before 8.00 pm. Play progressed slowly but at the interval Bennett had gradually forged ahead and offers of 7-4 against Roberts found few takers. With the scores standing 718-553 to Bennett, the balls which had broken badly for Roberts throughout the evening, now lay more favourably, and pulling himself together he gradually reduced the gap with his opponent. The supporters of the champion were now in ecstasies and so well set did Roberts appear, that it seemed he would snatch the match out of the fire. But Bennett played coolly and with small breaks reached his ninth hundred 136 points ahead of Roberts. With neither player making any significant contributions from this point, Bennett held his lead eventually winning by 95 points. Major Broadfoot observed that “Bennett with repeated safety misses and double baulks, fairly wore down his opponent.”

After the match Roberts considered that Bennett’s victory was very much in the nature of a fluke and was more due to him having become careless in his play which had deteriorated due to keeping late hours and not taking care of himself generally, than due to the excellence of Bennett’s game. He said that “the strength of Bennett’s game lay in his losing hazard play and though he played what may be described as a splendid mathematical game, he ought not to be classed with those players who have the resource to make a game for themselves when they get into difficulty.” Bennett always regard this win as his greatest achievement and in later life he took out a standing advertisement in the “Sportsman” newspaper which proclaimed him as “The only man living who beat John Roberts for the Championship”

So it was that after 50 years without a match for the championship, 1870 saw four such contests which produced three different champions.

The Professional Championship (January 1871)

Roberts lost no time in challenging Bennett for the championship and the match was once more held at St. James’s Hall on 30th January 1871. Roberts was supremely confident that he would reverse the result of the previous match and this was reflected by the pre-match betting which had him a 6-4 favourite.

The table on this occasion was provided by Burroughes & Watts. Bells Life says “It is one of the most elegant tables we ever saw, treated in decorative gothic manufacture of handsome walnut wood, suitably relieved by ornaments and friezes of light oak, elaborately carved forming a very pleasant combination. The bases of the legs are of walnut, surmounted with richly cut walnut columns and oak niches in which are carved lions supporting shields. The panels are alike varied and full of detail. One of Burroughes & Watts improved illuminated marking boards was used on this occasion. The marker was Mr. C. Stanton.

Bells Life reports the match “The room was very full but not so uncomfortably crowded as on their previous meeting. A great deal of speculation took place on the event, Bennett having many supporters at even money. Notwithstanding that, Roberts had been playing with Cook in Manchester on one of Messrs Orme’s championship tables and had made break of 91 which was the largest break hitherto attained with the small pockets. Bennett who has been unwell for some time, was not up to his usual play, the dash and exquisite manipulation of Roberts almost put him in the shade.”

It was realised shortly after the start that no referee had been appointed and a foul stroke claimed by Roberts was waived in his opponents favour under the circumstances. A well known amateur player was appointed to the office and no further incident occurred to mar the progress of play.

At one point in the match Bennett had his cue knocked out of his hand by a passing waiter just as he was about to make a stroke. Some of Bennett’s backers subsequently asserted that this was done intentionally although it was more probably the result of carelessness.

During to progress of the game Bennett complained that he was playing with a lighter ball than that used by Roberts and it is to be regretted that it was not discovered before the game commenced. Ivory is such a difficult material to deal with that it is almost impossible to avoid such problems. When the balls came to be weighed during the interval, Bennett’s conjecture was found to be correct, there being a discrepancy of 240th part of an ounce. This however, was not considered sufficient to cause a change of balls and the game continued with the original set.

With Bennett trailing 262-173 Bell’s Life report “Roberts whose luck had deserted him for some little time the placed 55 to his account followed by 24 and 26 and presently 33, reaching 401 while Bennett had only gone as far as 199, and offers of £50 to £10 found very few takers.” The game progressed with Roberts gradually drawing further away from Bennett, eventually completing the win 1,000-637 in the relatively fast time of three hours twenty two minutes.

The Professional Championship (May 1871)

It was largely because of the recent poor results by Roberts that Cook started clear favourite when the two met for the championship on 25th May 1871. The venue was again St. James Hall and the match was 1,000 up. The Referee was John Bennett and the marker Mr. T. Hubble.

At the interval Cook was 150 points ahead, but Roberts passed him in the 620’s and the scores remained close thereafter. As with their earlier championship match, there was once again a dispute over a cannon made by Roberts. The referee being unable to decide put the matter to a show of hands from the audience, which resolved the matter in Roberts favour. With the game called at 925-921 to Cook, Roberts took the advantage by establishing a lead of 985-965. At this point he was faced with what seemed to be an easy screw cannon which would leave the balls together and winning a virtual certainty, but he missed the shot and left the balls in perfect position for Cook. This was considered all the more incredible because this type of shot was seen as one of Roberts’ greatest strengths. Amidst scenes of great excitement and encouragement from the capacity audience, Cook proved equal to the occasion and scored the necessary 36 points to land the championship by only 15 points.

The period between 1871-1875 was undoubtedly the zenith of Cook’s career, when he could defeat all comers on any type of table. The strongest part of his game was undoubtedly his delicacy of touch. He was not attracted by the forcing hazards played at “railroad speed” so appreciated by audiences. More than any other player at that time, he seemed to realise the rewards of gently nursing the balls and bringing them together, which he could achieve time after time, with perfect strength.

The Professional Championship (November 1871)

Cook next defended the championship against Joseph Bennett at the St. James’ Hall, Regent Street, on 21st November 1871. It was on the same day that Cook’s wife gave birth to their first son. Attendance was greater than at any championship match apart from the first, when Cook had played Roberts Sen. Large placards had been posted around the building announcing that no betting was to take place. Consequently the traditional shouting of bets across the room was absent. In a slow match, the scores remained close for much of the game, but towards the end Cook forged what seemed to be a conclusive lead of 919-839.

Bennett, whose game had been deteriorating to this point, then rallied and amongst much excitement made a break of 93, which was the highest seen in the Championship to that date. However, Cook replied with a 40 to retake the lead and with an unfinished break of 38, took the championship be a margin of 58 points.

The Professional Championship (March 1872)

On 4th March 1872, Cook played Roberts once more for the Championship. The match again took place at St. James’ Hall, Regent Street and drew a particularly large attendance. John Bennett was the referee and the marker Mr. W. Hunt of Southsea.

Roberts recalls he was “dead out of form on that occasion, while Cook was in very good trim.” Roberts best break was 47, but Cook made the first ever Championship century with a break of 116. When this break stood at 84 Cook brought the balls together near the left hand top pocket and played a sequence of twelve nursery cannons, finishing with an eight shot and a double baulk. When the interval was called at 9.35pm, Cook was leading 501-385. Cook maintained his lead to the end, winning by 201 points. The effect of the championship table on the use of the spot stroke may be gauged by the fact that Cook in winning this match made only one spot hazard!

The Professional Championship (February 1874)

On 24th February 1874 Cook again played Roberts for the Championship, at St. James’ Hall, the pair having been regular adversaries in exhibition matches since the time of the previous contest. The referee was Mr. T. Cook who spotted the balls in addition to officiating and the marker was Mr. D. Ingarfield. At the very start of proceedings Cook made a break of 121, commencing with a difficult cannon and breaking down with an attempted screw back into baulk for another cannon. He gained spot position twice during the break, but only attempted to hold the position for two or three shots on each occasion. This break set a new record on a championship table. Amidst great applause Cook then went further ahead with breaks of 82 and 40, the scores being called at 244-18 in favour of Cook. Although Roberts responded with some fine play which was loudly applauded by his supporters, by the interval Cook held a 537-397 lead. Cook had the best of the running after the interval and completed his victory by 216 points, just before 11.00pm.

The Professional Championship (May 1875)

The next challenge to Cook’s championship occurred on 24th May 1875 and was again made by Roberts. On this occasion the match was played at the Criterion and was as usual 1,000 up, the referee being Harry Evans and the marker D. Ingarfield. Obviously impressed with the arrangements, one journalist reported that the seats for spectators were covered with cushions “for the first time in recollection”.

Roberts started the match well, taking an early lead and at the interval the score stood at 518-375 in his favour. At this point bets were laid of 7-4 on Roberts, although the takers would soon experience some worrying moments. After the interval Cook opened up with a 52, but Roberts immediately responded with 42. Cook’s cannon play then came to prominence and with several beaks in the 30’s and 40’s he took the lead for the first time. There was tremendous cheering from Cook’s supporters when the score was announced at 582-596. However, Cook was having difficulty in containing Roberts who was performing some excellent hazard play and was trailing 844-811 when breaks of 30, 39 and 40 took Roberts well clear. Cook was unable to close the gap on this arch-rival, losing the match by a margin of 163 points. Up to this point Cook was widely regarded by public opinion to be a far better player than Roberts on both “championship” and “ordinary” tables, being the holder of the highest breaks on both types of table. However, this loss to Roberts marked the turning point in both their careers as Roberts would confirm his supremacy and forge clear of his closest rival and all other players.

The Professional Championship (December 1875)

This period had seen a general a decline in public interest for exhibition matches. However, this was not evident when Roberts played Cook once more for the championship on 20th December 1875. The room at St. James’ Hall was packed throughout the match although the presence of the Prince of Wales would certainly have helped box office sales.

There was much complaint from the press due to the absence of reserved seating and the poor lighting. The reporter from Bells Life commented on the conditions of the match by apologising that he was unable to give a description of the “beautiful strokes made by each player, but the room was so dark, the only lights being over the table, that we were not able to write a line, more especially in the ‘black seats’ usually afforded to the press on these occasions.” Many reporters did not manage to gain access to the match at all and with those that did unable to take detailed notes, many newspapers failed to give any account of the match.

The game itself was very closely fought with the lead changing hands regularly. Cook was in front 505-478 at the interval but Roberts with a fine break of 51 eventually took the score to 936-817 in his favour and appeared secure. Cook however was not finished and with the aid of a 38 break pulled up to 961-865, But this was to be his last score as Roberts finished the game at his next visit, winning by 135 points at 11.20pm. Roberts best break was 85 and Cook’s 54 .

The following year Cook wanted to play again for the championship, but as Roberts was intending to leave on a tour of Australia on 6th April 1876, he declined the challenge. Roberts having failed to meet the original condition that the winner must respond a challenge within two months, Cook assumed the title of champion.

The Professional Championship (May 1877)

Prior to his return Roberts had issued a challenge to Cook who had assumed the championship in his absence. Roberts arrived back in England on 6th April 1877 having made about £7,000 from his Australian trip. Although Roberts had beaten Cook in the last two championships, Cook was well fancied, having recently made a break of 156, the highest ever seen on a championship table, during a match for £400 against Billy Moss (Manchester).

The match was played on 28th May 1877 at the Gaiety Restaurant. The room was generally considered too small to meet the needs of the occasion and the heat was so intense that it was uncomfortable for spectators and players alike. Due to Roberts refusal to allow the usual facilities to the press, the match did not receive the coverage which it may normally have expected.

In the match, Roberts took an immediate lead, with the best of the running and some observers remaking that Cook was not looking himself. However, Cook put together a fine 59 break, including a series of nursery cannons and several brilliant hazards, and when the score was announced at “204 all” it was greeted with a loud cheer. When Roberts was leading 515-496 Cook proposed an interval due to the oppressive heat. Roberts whose turn it was to play, did not agree and went on to make a break of 35. When Cook took the table and was also into a small break Roberts himself suggested an hour’s rest. Cook consented without finishing his break and went into the interval at 10.20pm with the score standing at 621-501 to Roberts. Some thought this gamesmanship on the part of Roberts for after the interval Cook never had a look-in as Roberts extended his lead with a break of 118 which was the highest ever made in the championship and this put the game beyond Cook’s reach. Roberts won the match by 221 point at 11.55pm. Bell’s Life reported “the popularity of Cook is so great that if good wishes could have ensured success, the result of the contest would have been different. Cook played nervously and though at time played brilliantly, he seemed to be labouring under the knowledge that he had more than met his match.”

Towards the end of 1877 Roberts left for an extended tour of India and Australia. With the tacit approval of Roberts, Cook claimed the championship by issuing a challenge on 2nd May 1878 and receiving no response within the statutory two months, the title and the cup was passed to him. However, in August of that year Cook left to join Roberts on his tour, and resigned the title, returning the cup to the Billiard table manufacturers who had donated it. The title was held in abeyance until another match could be arranged.

Cook returned to England on 26th January 1880 from Australia, having travelled there from India and separating from Roberts. The tour had not proved to be a financial success as he was unable to find any Australian opponent capable of giving him a worthy match even when conceding 600 in 1,000. As a result, most of his exhibitions were against Yorkshireman Louis Kilkenny who had also been on tour in that country.

John Roberts returned to England in May 1880 and Joseph Bennett immediately issued a challenge to play for the Championship. However, Roberts withdrew his claim to the title in favour of Cook and arrangements were made for a match between these two later in the year.

The Professional Championship (November 1880)

The match for the Championship between Cook and Joseph Bennett was arranged for St. James’ Hall on 8th November 1880. The stakes were £200 and the match, as usual, 1,000 up. It was to be one of the most exciting and closest championships ever seen.

Bennett took an early lead and aided by an opening fluke added a break of 77 to establish a lead of 242-127. At this point there was some dispute over the balls which were changed, but Bennett continued to increase his lead, aided by some general good fortune. At the interval the match stood 508-386 in Bennett’s favour. Bennett maintained his lead to 795-698 the luck remaining with Bennett and against Cook. At this point however, Cook made an excellent break of 107 which took him in front for the first time and with the scores standing at 938-864 to Cook, the betting was odds on for Cook and the match seemed to all present to be effectively over. Bennett however, not to be deterred, continued the match with impressive calmness and resolution. He first made 15 leaving the balls so safe that Cook was forced to play a miss. Then, aided by a fluke, made 37 followed by several small breaks which took the score to 993-941 in his favour. Cook appeared to have a chance but when he had made just 6, the balls were left touching and had to be spotted. This was too much for Cook who added only a few more before Bennett made the points he needed, so regaining the title he held for a mere 2 months some 10 years earlier. The match was completed in 4 hrs 8 minutes, which was almost exactly the same time as Cook and Billy Mitchell had taken to play 2,000 up on an Ordinary table the previous month.

The day after his championship match, Cook played an exhibition 1,000 up against Roberts on the same table at St. James’ Hall. In the course of the game he made a break of 165 which at that time was the highest ever recorded on a championship table. Shortly after this Cook and Roberts left on a tour of India billing themselves as “Ex-Champions”.

The Professional Championship (January 1881)

On 12th January 1881 at St. James Hall a Championship contested was begun between Bennett and Tom Taylor. The match did not command much public attention, for although Taylor was recognised as a capable player he was not regarded in the same class as Bennett who had regularly been conceding 50 points in 500 to the same player in handicap tournaments for several years.

The match was played on a Burroughes & Watts table and started 20 minutes after the advertised time of 7.00pm. Bennett began by displaying the same good fortune that had assisted him to take the championship from Cook. In trying for a cannon he put his opponents ball down and after potting the red gave a miss in baulk, shortly afterwards fluking a white loser. But Bennett did not capitalise on his fortune and the scores remained level to the first 100. However, a break of 125 by Bennett, a new record for the championship, opened a gap of 375-129. At this point the balls were changed at the request of Taylor and the improvement was immediate with his next two scores being 79 and 40. Taylor continued to improve and took the lead at the interval, which was taken at 10.00pm. Play resumed after only 20 minutes in an attempt to compensate for the slowness of the play and the players remained level for some time until Taylor, starting with a lucky 5 shot, rattled up a 53 break followed by a 23, 37 and 16, and looked like going away from Bennett with the scores standing at 678-554 in his favour. The play continued in a very cautious manner and some of the spectators were evidently getting tired of the constant misses and double baulks. At length an opening came for Bennett who drew within 77 of his opponent with the score at 703-626. Further breaks of 70 and 45 Bennett took the lead 743-728.

Licensed premises at that time were obliged to close at 12.30am and with this time fast approaching and the careful tactics of both players being unaffected, it soon became apparent that the match would not be finished. Time was called with the scores at 976-882 to Bennett with Taylor in play on 26 with the balls well placed. The referee, J. H. Smith then arranged for the match to continue at 3.00pm and on resumption Taylor only managed to add 2 points to his break. Bennett then tried for a cannon, missed, but fluked his own ball into the centre pocket and scored the remaining 22 points to take the match 1,000-910.

Shorter’s aborted challenge

Fred Shorter then challenged Bennett for the title and the match was arranged to be played on 13th April 1881 at the St. James Hall. Shorter had made a deposit of £10 but failed to make good his final stake money and so at the last minute forfeited the match. However, as expenses had to be met Bennett offered to play Shorter in a non-championship match, offering 100 points start in 1,000 up with the gate money being split between the players (as was normal at that time). The match was played on the same night and venue proposed for the Championship and Shorter actually won by 193 points although the match was exceptionally tedious with neither player showing good form.

Cook reclaims the title

At this time Delabois Richards looked as though he would be the next challenger for Bennett’s title. Richards was displaying sustained good form, typified by a defeat of Billy Mitchell in a level match of 1,000 up on a championship table during May 1881. Unfortunately, before arrangements for a championship encounter could be concluded, Bennett suffered a severe carriage accident causing him to be disabled for a considerable time. Bennett was very fond of riding and driving, in both of which he was an adept, although that did not prevent his being thrown out of a trap. He broke his arm in two places and never really got sound again. Indeed, he always believed that this led up to the paralysis, which eventually caused his death many years later. Upon his return to England in September 1881, Cook challenged Bennett for the Championship, but Bennett felt that he was insufficiently recovered from his accident and the title passed by default to Cook.

John Roberts asserts his superiority – Cook remains champion

January 1882 saw a significant turning point when John Roberts, for the first time, conceded Cook points in a match of 5,000 up at the Palais Royal. Allowing his opponent 500 start he won easily by 1,658 points for the significant sum of £1,000. This match clearly established Roberts as the leading “all-in” player of the time although some speculation remained that Cook could still mount an effective challenge at the “spot barred” game, or on a championship table. Roberts thereafter called himself “Champion of the World” and although Cook then challenged Roberts to play for the Championship shortly after this defeat, Roberts wrote to the Sportsman newspaper stating that he had no intention of ever again playing for the cup.

Our grateful thanks go to Billiards Historian Peter Ainsworth for allowing us to reproduce this work.