The emergence of professional billiards
By the 1860s professional ‘billiardists’ emerged from among the working-class players. Mostly from Britain or Australia, the professionals played a completely different class of billiards. They were familiar names throughout New Zealand, their games receiving extensive and detailed press coverage. A number of ‘world champions’ (as the British champions were known) and Australian champions travelled throughout New Zealand playing exhibition matches against locals, turning billiards into a spectator sport.
The popularity of billiards created the profession of ‘billiard markers’, who worked at billiard halls. They were in charge of keeping the scores for games, looking after the equipment and collecting fees from the patrons. The billiard marker may also have been responsible for overseeing bets when games were played for wagers. Their duties might also entail coaching learners and playing against patrons. The development of the coin-operated billiard table in 1903 spelt the beginning of the end for billiard marking as a job.
Clark McConachy and the Big Four
In the early 20th century New Zealand produced a professional of real world class, Clark McConachy. In 1915, shortly after his 20th birthday, McConachy defeated Bill Stevenson to become New Zealand professional champion, a title he retained until his death in 1980. He went on to become one of the ‘Big Four’, with Australian Walter Lindrum, and Englishmen Tom Newman and Joe Davis. These players completely dominated billiards from the 1910s to the 1930s. They were so good they killed off billiards as a spectator sport, racking up impossibly high scores through long sequences of repetitive shots.
‘Fit as a buck rat’
Clark McConachy was known for his obsession with being, as he described it, ‘as fit as a buck rat’.1 He was known to warm up for games by walking round the table on his hands. On one occasion he picked up, one-handed, a chair in which his opponent Walter Lindrum was sprawled half-asleep.
Walter Lindrum dominated professional competition for many years but, after Lindrum’s retirement, McConachy finally became world billiards champion in 1951. In 1968, aged 73 and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, McConachy lost the world title in a close match against English player Rex Williams.
Billiards from the 1930s
From the 1930s onwards billiards went into decline as a recreational cue sport, as snooker and then pool became more popular. However, a number of important billiards events did occur in New Zealand. Frank Holz organised the 1964 World Amateur Billiards Championships at Pukekohe, the McConachy versus Williams World Professional title match in 1968 and the 1972 World Open Championship in Christchurch. The World Amateur Billiards Championships were held in Auckland in 1975.