When Pankaj Advani buttons up his waistcoat, takes his cues and walks towards the table, he shuts himself off from the world outside. Like a sleepwalker, he treads towards the centre with his chin up, eyes transfixed on the table. With every step, he detaches himself until he enters his own wonderland. That comprises the table, the billiard balls and him.
“There is deep contentment when I am at the table,” says Advani, who won his seventh world title the week before — the championship of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association’s (WPBSA) in Leeds. Of his six other world titles, five are in billiards and one in snooker. “Every time I walk towards the table, I get excited. So excited that the whole world seems to merge into the table,” he says.
“I never get bogged down by expectations as I never set any goals. I just enjoy the game,” Advani says with a philosopher’s profundity. “Losses have taught me more than wins. It’s only during losses that one gets time to introspect and chisel out the rough edges.”
Winning the WPBSA’s world title has still not sunk in. What baffles him most is the way people react to this achievement. “Maybe it’s because I haven’t won this title before and people had started to believe that I would never win it,” he says candidly.
My first encounter with Pankaj Advani was on a cold and chilly day in 2003, in Jammu. While most cueists were struggling to keep their hands warm to get a firm grip on the cue, Advani was sitting quietly in the hall of the Hari Singh Niwas Palace hotel, waiting to play the final of the senior national snooker tournament against the seasoned Yasin Merchant. He was 17 years old then.
His confidence against Merchant convinced aficionados of his special talent. Advani won. And as the youngest winner, he heralded a new era. In 2005, he won the first national billiards title in Mumbai. The same year, he went on to win his world billiards championships (of the International Billiards and Snooker Federation) and the Asian billiards championships in both point and time format. He was unstoppable.
His astute understanding of the game, along with the knowledge of his own limitations have made Advani impregnable. “When I first saw him as a 10 or 11-year-old boy practising on a small green baize table in Bangalore, I noticed his concentration and his intensity of purpose. It was unbelievable,” says billiards champion Geet Sethi.
For someone known for his childhood tantrums, it’s baffled many that Advani has been able to achieve such greatness. Advani believes the sport that requires a hermit’s patience, changed his life.
“I can’t afford to throw tantrums while playing,” says the 24-year-old. He doesn’t believe in meditation, adding that “my strength comes from playing on the table”.
His brother, Shree, who initiated him into the sport, believes that Advani has matured a lot. Shree says, “He might be quiet but is always competitive.” The elder brother reveals why he gave up playing the game. “He beat me as a 12-year-old boy in the final of the BS Sampat Memorial tournament in Bangalore. I gave up the sport because of him then,” recollects Shree.
Shree is one of the first persons Advani calls after winning a tournament. “The other is my mom,” says the player who lost his father at six.
Even during his greatest triumphs, Advani never forgets veteran billiards champion Arvind Savur. “Whatever I am, it’s because of him,” says Advani.
For Savur, Advani is like a son. During his formative years, Advani spent his days after school learning the nuances of the trade at Savur’s place. “He is humble and doesn’t say much, but I know he is the best in the world right now,” Savur says.
Though Advani seems reticent, he never misses a chance to mingle with friends and cousins. And Robin Uthappa is one of his closest pals. “He is a great guy and recently we went to Coorg for a trip,” says the cueist. “I love to socialise and it helps me unwind."