The Long Game

On the eve of the 2019 World Billiards Championship at the RACV Club in Melbourne, Peter Tankard looked back at some of the legendary players of yesteryear, and how a Thursday evening in March 1865 was the start of a sporting contest lasting five generations and still continuing to this day.

For spectators watching these 2019 World Billiards Championships you may have walked past and admired the magnificent ‘John Roberts Trophy’ here in the RACV Club.

Believed to be the oldest world championship trophy in existence, this is the first time it has left English shores. What you may not know is who John Roberts is, his connection to Australia and his continuing legacy in the sport, on display to the keen observer, even to this day.

Some say that learning Billiards is a twenty year apprenticeship, but those who really know the game understand that twenty years is not nearly enough. In truth the game takes more than one lifetime to master. Only by building on several lifetimes of experience and knowledge is it possible to reach the greatest heights of the sport. There is not a great player in this championship who was not shown the core shots of the game by a master player. Most commonly a talented kid was spotted in a club and taken under the wing of someone who had dedicated their lives to the minute and delicate movements of balls on baize. Some were blessed to have been born into a Billiards family like our reigning World Champion Sourav Kothari, who received coaching from an early age by his father Manoj, a former World Amateur Champion, but the Kothari double act is not the first in Billiards.

John Roberts Snr, undisputed World Champion for many years, had a son John Roberts Junior (he of the shining 1870 silverware), who also went on to become World Champion. Most believe that the son surpassed the father in dominance of the sport.

More locally the Lindrum family business was producing champion Billiards players and that business went on uninterrupted for four generations. Walter Lindrum, the man widely acknowledged to be the best player the world has ever seen was in fact one of the third generation of champions in the family.

His Grandfather Friedrich Lindrum migrated from Prussia via Plymouth in 1838. By the time he landed in South Australia, to become an hotelier and one of the first wine growers in the region, he was already schooled in the arts of the continental versions of Billiards and later became a grand master of English Billiards, the game we are playing here today.

It was the pattern in early colonial days that English professional players would embark on “the money trail” visiting the various British colonies and possessions and displaying their art for handsome reward. It was during such a visit that on 9 March 1865 Friedrich met John Roberts Snr in a challenge match in Adelaide and defeated the reigning World Champion.

The South Australian Advertiser reported on the match the following day:

“Thursday evening’s match the fifth and last but one of the series, was in many respects the most interesting that has yet been played. Mr. Roberts’s opponent was Mr. F. W. Lindrum, but on this occasion the points given—725 in 1,000—were enough to have rendered Mr. Roberts’s game a thoroughly uphill one. From the very commencement of the match to the last break that was played the luck was decidedly against Mr. Roberts, and in Mr. Lindrum’s favour; and besides this, the latter played a far better game than has yet been shown here in opposition to the champion. Under these circumstances the especial interest of the contest lay in the steadily persevering game which Roberts played throughout, against the really good play, and it cannot be denied, good fortune of his opponent. But Lindrum played remarkably well, and his score had gradually progressed to within a very few points of the goal, and when at last be reached it the champion’s score was only 887. Mr. Lindrum was applauded when the game was called, but we must confess the masterly manner in which Roberts had contested throughout an uphill and unlucky game, commanded the admiration and won the sympathies of the company.”

This encounter was merely the first chapter in an epic battle which is waged to this day and in this place, because each of these masters personally coached their apprentices and each produced an unbroken line of champions who still clash on the 72 sq ft battlefield. Later that year Friedrich’s wife gave birth to a son Frederick, known to us as Fred II. Friedrich coached his son Fred II who became an Australian champion who in turn produced two sons, Fred III and Walter.

In 1910 a young Fred III did battle with the illustrious John Roberts Junior, who was by then in his 62nd year and recorded some fine wins against the former World Champion. So impressed with his play was Roberts that he invited young Fred to tour the UK, but drink and homesickness burst the bubble and Fred III returned to Australia a diminished figure.

However during his tour he did note that John Roberts Junior had a new young player Tom Newman ‘in hand’ and was setting him up to continue the Roberts tradition. It was 20 years later that Fred’s younger brother Walter would tour England and regularly compete against Newman who had already become a multiple World Champion. Because of Fred’s failed tour there were not many expectations on the younger Lindrum brother Walter. His arrival in the UK was largely unheralded.

However indifference soon turned to adulation as Walter demonstrated a complete dominance of the game which had never been approached before and never since. Walter created over 60 new world records for speed, averages, break scores, total scores, session scores and cannon sequences. All of these records stand to this day.

Despite the floggings, Walter and Tom became firm friends and in fact Tom was best man at Walter’s London wedding, each was the third iteration of that original match back in 1865.

Back in Australia Walter was coaching a young protégé Bob Marshall. Both Walter and Bob were born in Kalgoorlie the frontier gold mining town and were two of the finest nuggets ever produced there. By repute Walter was not a very forthcoming coach and it was largely through proximity and keen observation that Bob Marshall was able to glean a few gems at the feet of the master.

In England Tom Newman was working with a young Jack Karnehm. Both Marshall and Karnehm were to become local legends in their home nations. Marshall holds the unique record of winning his national title 51 years apart, first in 1934 and finally in 1985. Both men became world amateur champions, competed against each other and both coached players appearing today.

Keep a close eye on the draw, especially at the pointy end of the contest. If you get to see a match between Matthew Bolton of Western Australia against Mike Russell from England you will be watching the fifth generation of a sporting contest which has gone on unabated since 1865.

Bolton has already broken Marshall’s Australian National record break and is now running down Marshall’s national titles record, while Russell’s record is unsurpassed since the Second World War, securing no less than 19 world titles.

If you feel a sense of history and a presence in the room don’t be alarmed, these are the smiling and benign ghosts of the glorious Billiards past still watching over their charges and willing them on. Of course this championships is about more than two players, there are seven World Champions in the field of sixty and genius players from the Asian powerhouse nations of India, Singapore, Myanmar and Thailand as well as representatives from Canada, Austria, Ireland, Malaysia and New Zealand, all with serious prospects of competing to the highest level.

However the old rivalry, as in cricket, is between England and Australia so those with a sense of history are hoping for a Russell v Bolton clash.

It could be a battle for the ages.

As featured in the 2019 World Championship programme, published by the Australian Billiards and Snooker Council.