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27 November 2014

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A whole different ball game

By Linda Serck
Bar Billiards is a game we could all love, if only we gave it a chance. BBC Berkshire are fans so we headed down to The Hop Leaf in Reading and spoke to expert Charlie Wheeler about why we shouldn't let the game die out.

Charlie Wheeler
Charlie Wheeler at the Hop Leaf pub

Have you ever wondered about that odd-looking table in the corner of your local? It looks ever so vaguely like a pool table, except the pockets aren't on the sides but in the middle, and there are three little skittles on the green baize.

Furthermore you don't walk round the table, you stay at one end, and you collect balls from what looks like a trough. Strange indeed.

See our pictorial step-by-step guide of how to play:
How to play bar billiards >

But in fact bar billiards is a very simple and fun game, and around 50 years ago it was said a pub wasn't a pub without such a table on the premises.

Sitting snug in the Hop Leaf pub in Southampton Street, one of the few Reading pubs to still own a bar billiards table, Charlie Wheeler reminisces on the first time he played the game.

"It's a different world these days. When I first started all the pubs had bar billiards and darts, we didn't have pool tables. "
Charlie Wheeler

"I was on leave from the army and I walked into the Wynford Arms on the Kings Road. The bar billiards captain there came up to me and said 'we're a player short, will you play?', well I'd never played the game before in my life, I didn't even know the rules. But I won."

Charlie, now 76, hasn't looked back since. He's even celebrating 57 years playing the game this month.

In those years he's acquired many bar billiards accolades, winning the Reading house championships twice (winning a staggering 124 out of 126 games played) and in 1968 he captained a winning Reading side in the inter-area cup, beating teams from Oxford, Whitney, High Wycombe and Oxford.

Playing bar billiards
Playing bar billiards

But the once thriving sport is now overshadowed by other pub entertainment. "There's too much opposition these days," laments Charlie "you've got pool tables, you've got jackpot machines, televisions about the size of the pub, there's too much going on"

It may be hard to believe, but Reading and the surrounding area used to be a hotbed of bar billiards action. Fifty years ago 42 teams in the area battled it out amongst each other. "In the Oxford league there used to be 108 tables," says Charlie, whose top score stands at a stellar 14,280 points.

The bar billiards world champion, Bernie McLusky, even hails from Reading, regularly ratcheting up top scores at the Caversham Working Men's Club. And that's not all - Reading's Myra Hawkins is the current ladies individual All England champion, and one of the highest scores ever officially recorded was in Wokingham at more than 31,000 points.

Now the 42 teams have dwindled to just 12, and the 108 tables in the Oxford league have been dramatically cut back to 21.

"It's a different world these days," says Charlie, "when I first started all the pubs had bar billiards and darts, we didn't have pool tables."

Bar billiards has also been overshadowed by snooker, which has motored ahead in the popularity stakes thanks to television. Bar billiards on the other hand isn't a game interesting enough to watch according to Charlie, as often there's only two balls being potted on the table. "The viewing public just wouldn't be interested," he says.

But in many respects it is a beautiful game and above all it's fun and easy to learn. If you can hold a cue then you'll soon master bar billiards.

So next time you eye that table in the corner, pop a pound in the slot and enjoy a game!

The local leagues, currently only in Reading, need fresh young blood to try their hand at the game. There is a Monday and a Thursday league.

See our pictorial step-by-step guide of how to play:
How to play bar billiards >

Interested in joining the league?
Contact Monday league secretary Eileen Britton: 0118 9678221
Contact Thursday league/ All England league secretary Dave Alder: 0118 9612089

You can read the official rules here:

Bar Billiards rules >
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last updated: 06/02/07
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