THE PROFESSIONAL GAME has been on hiatus since the Australian Goldfields Open and returns next week with the first European Tour event of the campaign in Riga, which represents a maiden pro tournament for Latvia.

Meanwhile, Ben Harrison (pictured), a 22 year-old from Wiltshire, has won the English amateur championship, snooker’s oldest tournament having first been contested in 1916.

Among the previous winners are Rex Williams, Ray Reardon, John Spencer, Jimmy White and Nigel Bond. Ronnie O’Sullivan reached the final in 1991 when aged just 15 but was beaten by Steve Judd.

Amateur snooker is in a healthy state worldwide. The International Billiards and Snooker Federation is comprised of around 70 national governing bodies, a vast network of players and competitions.

However, in the UK, the amateur game lacks the numbers it once did because there are fewer places in which to play. Snooker clubs have shut down at an alarming rate in the last decade. The smoking ban was certainly a factor in this. Snooker clubs have never been solely about snooker. They are also social hubs where people went for a smoke and a drink and a chat and, yes, a game of snooker.

Fuelled by television and the novelty factor of being new and different, the game rose to towering levels of popularity in the 1980s but society and fashions change.

I also don’t think a succession of late starts (and therefore finishes) to major finals did anything to help expose snooker to the next generation.

But probably the biggest influence on amateur snooker was throwing the professional game open to anyone with a cue and the money to enter tournaments in 1991. Suddenly, hundreds of amateurs became professionals.

When the pro circuit returned to being about quality over quantity, the WPBSA established the English Association for Billiards and Snooker but, as financial problems hit, they cut their ties with EASB, who now continue on their own without outside funding.

The finals weekends are traditionally where you can spot stars of the future. The 2000 finals in Gateshead was where I first saw Judd Trump play, aged ten. He won the English under 15 title despite looking far too small for the big table.

That same weekend a confident teenager by the name of Shaun Murphy won the English Open. The English amateur title was won by Nick Marsh, who at the time worked in a crematorium and, indeed, was on fire for most of the final.

As well as national events in various age categories, the EASB also organises the annual Malcolm Thorne pro-am, won recently by Gary Wilson. Thorne, who passed away in 2011, was one of those unsung heroes who should have been sung a little more when he was alive, given that he organised scores of junior and amateur events which provided a training ground in competitive for future champions.

And there are still plenty of opportunities in the amateur game in the UK. Scotland went through a vicious civil war but this has thankfully now abated. Wales and Northern Ireland have always had dedicated people running their events.

In June, Peter Lines won the Pink Ribbon pro-am, a large annual event in Gloucester. Just last night, Daniel Wells won a new Snooker Legends pro-am, with more of these to come.

The other big annual amateur event in the UK is the Snookerbacker Classic, now in its fourth year. The winner and runner-up receive free entry into Q School. Details of this year’s event can be found here, although sunglasses may be required for the poster.

When John Spencer was once asked, rather aggressively, what he had done for snooker, he replied: “I played it.”

The amateur game for many is an opportunity to play. Some harbour dreams of future glory, others are content to be competing in a sport they love. For younger players it represents an apprenticeship and one which can often stand a player in good stead for when they do turn professional: Mark Allen won the world amateur, European amateur and European junior titles before entering the pro ranks and joined the top 16 in three seasons, already used to being a winner.

With the closure of many UK clubs, players are often having to travel further afield to find somewhere to play, which doubtless means there are young prospects being lost to the game for good.

But wherever there are enthusiasts, amateur sport will continue and those who keep the amateur flame alive deserve respect and support, ideally from players given the opportunity to play the game competitively.


Photograph courtesy of EASB.