Saturday, March 8, 2014

Ashley Sterne Punch 1915 The Shirker

A billiard story from Ashley Sterne.

Punch, v149, p. 266
September 29, 1915

[Note: The billiard player Diggle mentioned in the article was Edward Diggle of Manchester, nicknamed "The Mechanical Methodical Mancunian."


A simplified definition of English billiard terms may be found helpful by the reader.  The game is played with three balls: each of the two players has his own cue ball and there is a red ball.  The player who is taking his turn is called the striker.  For the striker's turn, the non-striker's ball and the red ball are called "object balls."  A "cannon" is a shot that hits both the object balls in the same shot.  A "nursery cannon" keeps the balls close together.  A "losing hazard" is the pocketing of the striker's cue ball off another ball.  A "winning hazard" (or "pot") is the pocketing of either object ball.  A foul occurs when the striker's cue ball fails to contact at least one object ball.

From Wikipedia:  "The most famous (but probably apocryphal) anecdote about Sir Francis Drake relates that, prior to the battle, he was playing a game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe. On being warned of the approach of the Spanish fleet, Drake is said to have remarked that there was plenty of time to finish the game and still beat the Spaniards."]

The Shirker

I had never beaten Petherby; not that he is a billiard expert, but merely that I am a rabbit.  A masterly series of two nursery cannons, varied sometimes by (and very occasionally coupled with) a hazard is all I aspire to.  Petherby, on the other hand, can generally manage to score something every time, and not infrequently runs into some of the humbler double figures.  The truth is that I do not possess the discriminating eye of a Diggle for the niceties of angles.  But I have one facility of which I am proud and to which I shall allude later.

A few weeks ago, at Petherby's house, I found him in one of his rare off moods.  These off moods of his generally signify that he beats me by a mere 150 or so in 250 up, instead of by the more customary margin of 200 or more.  But on the night in question Petherby was playing so shockingly and I so brilliantly (on two successive visits to the table I had played for safety and scored a clear board each time), that at length I was 240 to his 247.  It was my turn to play.

My first stroke, though not exactly yielding the result I had in mind, was nevertheless a most satisfactory and comprehensive one.  I made a cannon off the red, and then my ball and Petherby's mysteriously disappeared down different pockets.  Petherby applauded with the butt of his cue upon the floor.  "Good shot, Sir!" he remarked sarcastically.  "What a pity it didn't all come off!"

"All come off! " I said with hauteur.  "Why, it did all come off — much better than I could have hoped for even in my most sanguine moments.  What do you mean?"

"Oughtn't the red to have done something — gone down a pocket, for instance?  Then you would have won the game.  As it is —"

"Petherby," I said sternly, "remember, please, that there are three balls, six pockets, and certain laws of coincidence which must operate at times.  In that stroke I distinctly see the finger of Providence.  You are not intended to win this game.  Just look at the position of the red."

The red was up the table close to the left cushion.  To pot was an impossibility as far as my limited technique was concerned, but I felt that by careful aiming (so as to hit the paint without disturbing the ivory, as I expressively put it when narrating the incident to Pilkington) I could manage to run in.  So I took a deliberate aim and pressed my cue gently forward.  Slowly, slowly my ball trickled up the table, straight as a die all the way.  It was only a few inches from the red and still running true when the electric lights went out.  At the same instant a loud report was heard, followed immediately by a second and third.

"Zepps!" cried Petherby.  "Where's my umbrella?"

"There 's other game afoot," I cried, as I fumbled for my cigarette-lighter.

The wick flamed up. I hurried to the top of the table.  My ball was in the pocket.  "Hurrah!" I shouted joyfully.  "Game to me!"

"On the contrary," said Petherby, craning his neck over my shoulder, "it's my game.  You've given three away!  That red's never budged a hair's-breadth, I'll swear."

"Rot !" I retorted.  "I couldn't possibly have missed.  I was dead on the edge of the red when the lights went out."

"Can you solemnly affirm you heard the balls click?"

"Of course not, you ass"," I replied.  "How could I through that beastly firing? On the other hand, did you see me miss?"

"How could I in the dark?" he answered testily.

"Exactly," I said.  "I couldn't hear; you couldn't see. As you maintain that the red hasn't moved, the fairest thing will be for me to play the shot again.  Do you happen to have a candle on you?"

There was a knock at the door and the servant entered.  "If you please, Sir," she said, "the police sergeant has just been, and said you're wanted at the once at the station."

"I must go immediately," said Petherby, struggling into his jacket.  "What a nuisance these Zepp raids are, interfering with one's amusements in this way!  Really, I —"

"Half a jiffy!" I cried as Petherby moved to the door.  "Wait while I play that shot again.  Anybody would think there was a panic from your positively indecent haste."

"Sorry," said Petherby, edging off, "but duty is duty.  Where would my crest of five oysters rampant gules on a plat du jour argent be if my knightly ancestors had preferred billiards to duty?  So long!"

"There's a precedent for it," I retorted.  "How about Drake's game of bowls?"

But Petherby was half-way down the staircase.  "Shirker!" I yelled after him as I realised that the issue must remain undecided. But stay —

"Mary, "I said, "would you take this lighter and hold it close to the red ball — so?  Now, I want you to watch the red ball carefully and tell me if this white one, which I am going to play, touches it."  I placed my own ball back in baulk, took a long and careful aim, and then . . . somehow I managed to miscue.

"No, Sir, it didn't hit the red one," said Mary, as my ball stopped a few inches from the baulk-line.

I pretended to heave a sigh of relief. "Thank goodness!" I exclaimed.  "Properly to explain the object and effect of that stroke, Mary, would necessitate technicalities which you would probably not understand.  I think, under the circumstances, you had better not mention to Mr. Petherby that I required your assistance.  He might consider it an abuse of his hospitality."

"Very good, Sir," said Mary as she exchanged the cigarette-lighter for half-a-crown.

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