An emotional moment to bow out as IPA world champion

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I thought my start to the year couldn’t get any better after winning in China last month – but how wrong was I? Lifting the IPA World Championship crown was another huge cherry on the cake, and it was completely unexpected too, as well as very emotional.

It was a sensational week down at the Lakeside, the home of darts. But this time it was overtaken by pool tables, and the IPA put on a great show for all the fans who were there to watch.

I’d committed myself to taking part in this tournament, even though my future in pool lies away from the IPA, but I’d given my word that I’d compete and I was happy to do so. I just didn’t expect to be holding aloft the trophy at the end of it, and that’s the truth.

It was my first English 8-Ball event in a long time, and I’d not even played the game at any level for five months. The contrast between that and Chinese 8-Ball couldn’t be further apart, and I didn’t hold much hope of doing well.

But you don’t forget how to play the game, and after a couple of matches I soon started to settle in. And what many people probably didn’t realise is that I was playing with a snooker cue!

I’d played snooker the week before the IPAs and then, when I picked up my cue for a practice session at English 8-Ball, it was like using a chopstick. The tip on my snooker cue is 9.5mm, whereas on my pool cue it is 8.5mm. But I’ve been so used to playing with my Chinese 8-Ball cue, which is 11.7mm, that I just couldn’t play with my English cue, the difference was huge.

So I settled for something in between and used my snooker cue at the Lakeside. And look what happened! I think I’ve been missing something all these years!

To have won the title using a snooker cue, having not played for so long and having to get used to another set of rules again, it is certainly up there with my greatest achievements.

But it doesn’t change anything as far as my long-term plans are concerned, I am still very much focused on China. So this was a one-off, a nice little bonus, and a great way to bow out of the IPA.

I’ve been playing English 8-Ball since I was seven and, to play my last-ever match after 23 amazing years and to win, was very emotional. There was no better way to go out.

However, I’ve got to be true to myself and admit that, while I am delighted to be crowned IPA world champion, it doesn’t rank as highly as my three other world titles in English pool. I’m not the sort of person to make out it’s something when it’s not. There were some big-name players missing at the Lakeside and, since the divide in the sport, it has not been the same.

That’s not to take anything away from the players who were there, some great ones indeed. Clint I’Anson, who I beat in the final, is a fantastic player and has improved more than any other over the last 18 months, and I see no reason why he cannot dominate the sport. He’s the future of the game.

The Lakeside was a superb venue, the IPA did a fantastic job, and the fact that the tournament will be shown on Sky Sports Premier soon is of great credit to them. For me, it was the perfect way to bring the curtain down.

Hollywood comes to China

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I could not have had a better start to the year if a Hollywood scriptwriter had dreamed it up. Winning the International 8-Ball Masters in China for the second year running has completely vindicated my decision to leave English eight-ball behind altogether, and it opens even more doors for the future.

It is by far my biggest achievement in pool, I’m still buzzing about it and it’s still sinking in what I’ve done. I know I’ve won three world titles, but this win was huge. Everything about Chinese 8-Ball for me right now is pure ‘Hollywood’ – the players I’m up against are the best, the prize money is top-dollar, the audiences are packed to the rafters and the viewing figures on TV stretch into the millions.

Chinese eight-ball pool is, as you would imagine, massive over there, with something like 80 per cent of pool players – about 60 million – playing these rules. It could go crazy over the rest of the world, too.

Cuesports, to the Chinese, is like football to us, they are absolutely mad for it. People treat you like superstar, finding out what hotel you’re staying in and then mobbing you for autographs. It is unbelievable.

There is a lot of demand over there for me, too. I signed a five-year contract with Joy Billiards last year which so far has seen me play in China four times in the past 12 months, with 10 trips lined up for this year. That involves playing in exhibition matches against the likes of Stephen Hendry, as well as against the top Chinese players, and all live on TV too. I’m playing more big matches than I’ve ever done in my life.

This is definitely the future for me as a pool player, and I can’t rule out going to China permanently, it’s definitely an option. I’ll have to see how this year goes with all the travelling.

Winning the Masters again was an incredible experience. Along with seven other top players invited to take part – Hendry, Chris Melling, Darren Appleton, Karl Boyes, Kelly Fisher, Vivian Villarreal and Shane Van Boening – there were also the eight best Chinese players on the planet. It was a phenomenal standard.

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In front of sell-out crowds of 3,000 at the Qinhuangdao Olympic Sports Center Stadium, and with live TV coverage on CCTV5, as well as live streaming on the internet, it was a much bigger event than last year, with a $50,000 first prize up for grabs.

Each match lasted for 210 minutes and, whoever was leading at the end, was the winner. It was a double elimination format, and I played six matches, losing just one, on the way to the final, including beating Darren Appleton 15-7 in the semis.

The one match I lost was to Han-Qing Shi, and it was him I met again in the final. Only this time the result was 15-6 to me. I wasn’t going to let my title go easily.

Joy told me afterwards that the viewing figures for the final were higher than any other cuesport event in China – barring any time Ding Junhui plays. Like I said, I really believe I made the right choice.

Joy have certainly got plans to take Chinese 8-Ball worldwide, and there’s no reason why it can’t be as popular as it is in China. For one, it’s got the best set of rules in any pool game by a long way. Joy will spend the next few months looking at how to go forward with this, and they hope to bring the first tournament to Europe in the near future.

As it stands at the moment, there’s only on Chinese 8-Ball table anywhere in Europe – and that’s at my club. I had it delivered just a few weeks before flying out to China at the end of December, and it was a huge help being able to get some solid practice on it before the tournament started.

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It’s a hard game, played on a 9×5 foot snooker table with American pool balls, and you have to be good at all disciplines. But it is highly enjoyable and rewarding. My table has got a lot of people at the club interested and curious about it, and I’m sure it won’t be too long before more of these tables start popping up in this country. That’s definitely the dream.

Next up for me is the IPA World Championship which starts at the Lakeside in Frimley Green next week. I will always show my support for IPA, they have been very good to me, but it’s all about China for me from then on.

* There are some video clips of me playing Chinese 8-Ball on www.youku.com

Gareth in China – LIVE!!

You can watch al three matches via the link below:
http://www.fengyunzhibo.com/tv/837654_1382340348823.htm

 

First one is this Sunday (10:20am GMT). The matches are no longer played a race to 11, they are played over 200 minutes, whoever is winning after that time wins.

 

Hope for your support!!

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