PROFESSIONAL SNOOKER's current hiatus comes to an end with the first European Tour event in Riga, Latvia, which starts with the amateur rounds on Thursday, with the pros, led by world champion Mark Selby (pictured), coming in on Friday.
I went to Riga in 2001 for the European amateur championship, in which Bjorn Haneveer defeated Kurt Maflin for the men’s title. Myself and Janie Watkins were there for 110sport, who were sponsoring the event.
I wrote at the time that the Latvian capital was the sort of city you might never think of going to but, having spent time there, you would want to go back.
This was ten years after Latvia regained its independence after 50 years of Soviet occupation. Unsurprisingly, the premier cue sport had been Russian billiards, a brutally difficult game of potting with heavy balls and narrow pockets. The first snooker tables arrived in 1994 but, without TV exposure, it was very much a niche sport.
When I was there in 2001, snooker was just becoming popular. The World Championship had been shown in full for the first time by Eurosport the previous year. There were photographs in the host club of the leading players of the time and, with Eurosport’s continued blanket coverage, we have now reached a time where Riga is staging a professional event, a proud moment for the country’s snooker enthusiasts.
The club owner for the Euros was Nikolajs Butvillo, an energetic, charismatic businessman who opened his first cue sports club in 1984. A decade later he brought in the snooker tables.
Nikolajs also owned hotels and had converted an old Russian military ship into a pleasure cruiser. I recall he offered me a glass of whiskey which tasted – literally – like fire. He knocked his back in one go.
The good news for snooker players is that drinking is not frowned upon in Riga. Far from it. The Euros were sponsored by a brewery. Its president was called to the stage at the opening ceremony to make a speech and merely grabbed the microphone and shouted “We make beer!” – earning him a spontaneous round of applause from the assembled throng.
The city has much to offer in terms of sightseeing, mixing history with the modern, and there was a relaxed feel to the place, its people friendly and easy going.
Latvia’s snooker fans have been rewarded by an event which features the likes of Mark Selby, Neil Robertson and Judd Trump as favourites for the title. The eventual winner though is less significant than the fact that another new market is opening up.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.