By George J Coelho
Belgaum, with all its small-world charm, was hardly a place which had too many attractions. Apart from the Cinema theaters, where we would go for all the English matinée shows, Belgaum, as the saying goes, was a one-horse joint. During our college days, most of our evenings were spent combing the High Street and Church Street and at times winding up for a Missal’ or Dosa at the Globe Cafe. Around 1955, the adventurous George Phillips of Goje Building, bought the Billiards Saloon at the end of Church Street (opposite M K Swamy bakers) and most of us got hooked on to the game of Billiards like an instant love affair.
I remember it was the late Kevin Pinto, who introduced us to the game. The Saloon was quite close to his house and a peep inside must have enticed him to the game. This was sometime in the year 1958. There was only one Billiard Table in the Saloon and we had to put our names on a blackboard and get to play when our turn came, each session lasting for half an hour. If it was a doubles encounter or a group game like Pool or Skittles, then the session lasted for one hour. Skittles, essentially a gambling game, was particularly popular with the crowd as many players could play at a time and the game required a lot of skill and it provided a lot of fun when a player committed a foul or had his score wiped out through an error.
The Saloon thus became a sort of hang-out for most of us, where it was easy to locate any of our friends. There was a Billiard marker (for marking the scores), who was called Chubbie, who was quite a character himself. I think he was an ex-armyman. He was a small-made man but he was quite skilled at the game and would often act as our coach and advise us on what sort of shot to play. And the game itself had some colourful terms to describe certain shots. For example: A deep screw, when you want the cue ball to come back. Then there’s ‘ Pull back’, or ‘Bottom of the ball’, roughly the same meaning as the screw!
Billiards is a game which offers scope for various types of gambling, Hence most of the games were played with bets and some of us who were spectators used to often put in some side bets on the player whom you fancied to win. Of course, those days we didn’t have much money, so the bets were for a Rupee or even less. However, there were a few with deep pockets who would play higher stakes.
One such chap was Adi Patel a colourful Parsi gentleman who had a ready wit and would always entertain us when playing. He had a lucrative job with ‘Eveready Batteries’ and was always looking out for ‘Bakras’ ! His steady opponent was Moosa – who used to give him (Adi) a handicap in order to entice him to play. It was just like a ‘Tom & Jerry’ encounter, each trying to outwit the other. So, we, the spectators, were kept thoroughly amused.
The Billiard Saloon became so popular that it was almost always full of the young crowd. The game is very addictive and hence many of us got spoilt rotten by skipping college and spending more time at the saloon instead of tackling our studies. Not only that, but to be truthful, the general perception was that the Saloon was not a very respectable place, and that it was frequented by anti-social elements and gamblers, and where a lot of petty brawls took place. Hence many of us had to actually sneak into the Saloon to make sure that we were not seen by the prying eyes of the public. Due to this impression in the minds of the public, you hardly found any ladies entering the place.
Apart from Billiards, the mezzanine of the saloon was often used to play cards such as Rummy or even the 3-card Flush. More stakes and more players meant more lucre for the owner, George Phillips. The Saloon became such a regular haunt that even after leaving Belgaum it had a lot of memories for me and during each of my return visits to Belgaum I would visit the place and see the new crowd and what changes had taken place.
Today, Billiards has been overtaken by snooker which is a much more attractive game. When I look back, I don’t regret having taken up to the game, though at that time I had to face a lot of opposition from home. Today I continue to enjoy the sport and manage to play quite regularly at the Club level. I have even won a few tournaments at the local Club. After a few Indians like Wilson Jones, Michael Ferreira and Geet Sethi started winning quite a few World titles, the game has undergone a major change and it is now viewed as a popular sport of skill and ability and not necessarily a gambling pastime, though the fact remains that at most times the game is played with bets.
Cheers to the game.