Cue applause: Pankaj Advani on his quiet wins across billiards and snooker
At 38, he’s won 27 world titles in cue sports. His latest wins, last week, went largely unnoticed, just like the others. ‘I’ve made my peace with it,’ he says.
Pankaj Advani chuckles at the mention of diminishing marginal utility. “That’s probably the only thing I remember from economics class,” he says.
The term, which states that the perceived utility of an item declines as its consumption increases by an individual, probably doesn’t apply to India’s ace cueist. Advani, 38, captured his 26th and 27th world titles last week in Doha, adding the IBSF World Billiards Championship point format title to the longer format one he’d won a few days earlier. It’s the fifth time since 2005 that Advani has swept a billiards double in this manner.
No other Indian has done this. India has had champions such as Geet Sethi win multiple titles, but to have a player excel in two sports at the IBSF (International Billiards and Snooker Federation) world level is a rare thing anywhere in the world.
Advani, to recap, has racked up 17 world titles in billiards and 10 in snooker, since he won his first worlds two decades ago (the 2003 World Snooker Championship; beating Pakistan’s Saleh Mohammad). Diminishing marginal utility doesn’t apply, he says, smiling; the 27th means as much to him as the first.
“I’m happy that I’m still able to do it,” he adds. “Of course, the first time there was novelty, especially since it was an India-Pakistan final in China. I got a crazy reception back home. Now, maybe people are just a little bored — that he’s going to go out there and probably win another one and come back…”
That, in a nutshell, sums up both Advani’s consistency and his tussle for greater recognition in the country’s sporting narrative.
The Advani family moved from Kuwait to Bengaluru in 1990, after the Gulf War. Back home, aged six, Pankaj was drawn to the game of coloured balls on baize, and began playing with his elder brother Shree Advani (now a sports and performance psychologist). By age 10, Pankaj was competing in domestic tournaments, and had found a mentor in former player Arvind Savur.
Advani, now India’s top cueist, continues to live and train in Bengaluru, in relative anonymity. “I wish cue sports got more prominence,” he says. Not for selfish reasons, he adds, “but because young talent needs to see a future in it.” Excerpts from an interview.
What is it like to be winning so quietly, year after year?
It’s not easy being a sportsperson in India, unless you’re part of the two or three sports that garner immense support. If somebody were to ask me, what is your biggest achievement, I think it’s the ability to play both snooker and billiards, play two full calendars and still specialise in them and win in both. The fact that I’ve been able to win in all formats of both versions of cue sports is, I feel, a big achievement — to do something that people thought was not possible.
By and large, the response this time has been great on social media. But at times, internally, I tell myself: I wish cue sports got more prominence; that people truly understood that it is a sport as much as the others in terms of the mental aspect, fitness and the work we put in to win medals for our country. I do feel those things. But now I’ve made my peace with it. I just tell myself, “Listen, you’re the best. And you still have a long way to go to realise your true potential as a cueist. And that’s all you should be worried about right now.”
Is that what fuels you, and keeps you going?
I’ve always believed that if you finish No. 1 in a tournament, it’s great. But to be No. 1 over a period of 10 or 15 years, that’s the real challenge. And it’s not like I look at a five-year stretch and say, “I want to win five world championships.” What I want is to get better as a player and fulfil my true potential. That’s the hunger that keeps me going. I consider myself an artist who likes to create new things and perform in a more creative way, rather than just sticking to the simple route.
I’ve now reached a stage where I’m proving something to myself before anybody else. And as long as I’m happy with the way I’m going about things, and finding peace and joy and the thrill of competition, then... I’m not saying I don’t need anybody else’s validation... but I guess I’ve started loving myself more and not letting my emotions be controlled by people’s opinions.
How do you view the overall health of the sport in India?
There is no dearth of young talent. But they need to see a future in the sport. And I sometimes worry about their future, if things are to continue the way they are right now. As far as talent is concerned, I have no doubt that cue sports is in very safe hands. But as far as the game’s future is concerned, I still have my doubts.