It took five years for billiards whiz Rupesh Shah to prove he is no quitter, but he did it. Shah won the World Billiards Championship in the points format of the game in 2007; his return to form to become only the fifth Indian player of English billiards to be world champion twice happened this year.
Says Shah, “I played many games but the billiards room of the Sports Club of Gujarat was where I got enamoured with cue sports. The plush interiors of a billiards room with smartly dressed players hitting red, black, blue and white balls with well-crafted wooden cues over the green baize cover of carved wooden table were fascinating for me as a child. My brother played billiards and snooker at the club, and he introduced me to billiards. From that time onward, I was more or less self-taught as I strengthened my shots and learnt from watching others.’’ Even today, Shah says the sight of a billiards table excites him. “Watching a match in a fine ambience is like being at a theatre watching a play or a movie for me,’’ Shah says.
Shah says he was fortunate to be from Gujarat as some of India’s top players are from the state. “Geet Sethi is my model and inspiration because he was a world champion I could watch up close. He dominated the sport in the 1990s and constructed a world record break at the World Professional Billiards Championship in 1992. He is also a person who encourages young sportspeople like me,’’ Shah explains. “I would try to spend six or seven hours a day at the table top, playing against good players and watching great ones at their game.’’
While he started playing for fun, Shah says he became serious about the game when he won a club-level tournament in 1990 at the age of 17. His father too, he says, was happy to see him winning locally and encouraged him to play better and at higher levels. Winning the state level, Shah says, became his target. This was achieved in 1993 when he qualified to represent Gujarat at the national billiards championship. “That was a very exciting tournament and can be called the turning point in my cue sports career,” Shah says. “I won both the junior and senior billiard titles in that year, a landmark achievement, and was just 19 when I won the seniors, playing older and more experienced players. The highlight was winning against Sonic Multani, one of India’s highest rated players, in the finals.’’
Shah performed another remarkable double in 1994 when he won the national championships in both billiards and snooker. “While billiards is a game that can be played using one or two major strengths, snooker which involves striking the white cue ball with the wooden cue in such a way that the cue ball strikes another ball and pots it into a pocket either directly, or by ricocheting from other balls or the cushions in a predefined order, to score maximum points, requires multiple skills to win,’’ Shah explains. While he was runners-up in national snooker and Asian snooker quarter finalist, both in 2000, his next major achievement was a bronze in Asian Games 2006. “This was a moving win because I was wearing my country’s colours, representing India for the prestigious Asian Games. I held my head proudly with the rest of the Indian squad for the Asian Games at the opening,’’ says Shah. “This was really exciting as I had to play at an even higher level with players from China, Hong Kong, Thailand. I cried with emotion when the medal was around my neck. The whole ambience of the presentation ceremony at that level was overwhelming.”
While playing the game, Shah found his calling in the Points Frame which is a fast format of English billiards. “I had been winning consistently in India and was very confident when I went for the IBSF World Billiards Championship in September 2007 at Singapore,” says Shah. “A really challenging match was the quarter-final against Thailand’s Paprut Chaithanasakul. My final was against fellow Indian Ashok Shandilya, who is a great competitor and can turn the game around. I think points frame billiards makes an exciting spectator sport. I was now aiming to win world titles in the following years but did not progress beyond a bronze between 2008 and 2011. For 2012, I realized I had to start preparing myself if I was to get back to form. I practiced hard and participated in optimum number of tournaments to hone my skills.”
When he went to Leeds in UK earlier this year, Shah says he was very confident of his form. ”I had a tough draw with many top players but I was on the roll from the first game. When I defeated Mike Russell in the quarterfinal, I felt the world championship was in my reach because Russell is among the world’s best billiards players and holds the record for number of world championship wins in the recent decades. And when I and won the semi-finals against Peter Gilchrist, I felt the championship was within my reach. Finally, beating Australia’s Matthew Bolton 6-2 won me the title. With me winning in Points Format and Pankaj Advani becoming the world champion in Timed Format, it was a golden sweep for Indian billiards in 2012.’’