A tip for success? Zimbabwe snooker players are banking on it

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HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Highlights of the World Cup and other sporting events are shown on widescreen televisions in Ruwa, just outside the Zimbabwean capital of Harare. But all eyes are on the pool table… and the money.

Among them is 18-year-old Levite Chisakaire.

“I have to take the money home… there’s a lot of money today,” he said, holding a pool cue and waiting for the next opponent.

At stake is a first prize of US$150, a princely sum in a country where most earn just over US$100 a month, according to official government data, and around half of the country’s 15 million people live in extreme poverty. according to the World Food Program.

“It could be a long way to pay the bills,” said the Chisakaire boy, the youngest player in the running for the day’s prize.

Formerly a minority sport played in Zimbabwe’s wealthiest neighborhoods, billiards has gained popularity over the years, first as a hobby and now as a way of survival for many in a country where full-time jobs are very difficult to find.

Unable to continue her education after finishing high school with poor grades in 2019, Chisakaire struggled to find a job in Zimbabwe’s stressed industries. The COVID-19 outbreak has caused her father, a truck driver, to lose his regular job. So Chisakaire started hanging around an illegal tavern where patrons dodged or bribed the police to bypass pandemic restrictions so they could drink beer and play pool.

His hobby became a skill and he showed a talent for shooting the round balls into pockets. It soon helped solve his financial problems as he started betting on his games and winning. These days, he makes about $300 in a good month playing pool, he says.

He is not the only one. Most Zimbabweans make their living from informal activities, which include selling tomatoes at roadside stalls and also playing pool, according to a job survey conducted in October by the country’s statistics office. Around half of young people aged between 15 and 34 are unemployed and not in education or training.

Some, like Chisakaire, are making their living at the pool tables.

“Snooker first became popular as a form of entertainment in pubs, but is now proving to be more popular than football in many places,” said Michael Kariati, a veteran sports journalist in Zimbabwe for over 30 years. “It evolved into a fiercely competitive sport, with people taking bets and making a living out of it.”

In Harare alone, the number of professional players has quadrupled to about 800 in the last five years, according to Keith Goto, spokesman for the Harare Professional Pool Association.

“Then there are cash games which have grown exponentially. You find pool tables everywhere in the municipalities,” he said. “It is offering a form of employment and is paying through betting.”

Others warn that gambling is a dangerous habit that can have disastrous impacts on families. But with so many people out of work and Zimbabwe’s economic prospects so dire, many people are desperately struggling to make money from a bat.

Makeshift pool arcades flourish in bars, store front porches, and just about any open space. Some enterprising residents have pool tables in their homes, where they charge 50 cents to play and place bets, in violation of city laws that require such businesses to be properly licensed. The tables are often worn and wobbly, but people don’t seem to mind.

In Warren Park, a township in Harare, people ignored the biggest local football derby at the country’s biggest stadium nearby to gather around pool tables where money changed hands quickly.

To make money fast, betting requires ingenious means. Instead of playing the entire 8-ball game, some bet on the position of the black eight-ball after the first shot of the game, also called halftime. Others bet on the best of three balls. An experienced player offered to play using only one hand because people were too hesitant to bet into him.

Sometimes authorities carry out so-called clean-up operations to confiscate billiard tables scattered everywhere. Often city ordinance enforcers are simply paid as little as a $2 bribe to turn a blind eye. Most punters in low-income counties place bets in dollars on games where they can win $3 or $4.

In Ruwa, the competition is more organized and the stakes are higher. Each club member paid $10 as a participation fee, which went towards prize money. On a recent day, 31 players paid to participate. Dozens more were spectators, cheering and betting on their favorite players.

“Imagine taking home $150! That’s more than many employees earn a month,” said Goto, the spokesperson. “Billiards must now move from bars to schools and community halls like other sports, after all, it has become popular.”

For Chisakarire, the 18-year-old, snooker has become more than a game. From gambling and betting in backyard taverns, he is dreaming big.

“It changed my life,” he said, before hitting his next ball to win the tournament and pocket $150. “I can see myself playing in Europe one day.”