Mordecai Richler and his beloved game
Written By: Daniel Richler
Special to The Globe and Mail
In 1983, not long after our parents bought a cottage overlooking Lake Memphremagog in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, the family enjoyed a massive upgrade in the shape of one regulation-size, oak snooker table – in its own purpose-built room whose floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding doors situated our games on the edge of a hill in the woods, the actual woods, with the water lapping and gurgling and glittering brightly below.
You can see a corner of it on the jacket of On Snooker, the last book my Dad, Mordecai Richler, published while he was alive, as he surveys the field of green baize before him, cue held upright like a rifle with its butt to the floor. Outdoors the sky is blue while over his shoulder, somewhat ominously, is the silhouette of a bird of prey. We stuck it there to prevent sparrows and marsh wrens from smashing into the glass, but it reminds me of the raven in Solomon Gursky Was Here, “the likes of which hadn’t been seen over Lake Memphremagog since the record cold spell of 1851. A raven with flapping wings. A raven with an unquenchable itch to meddle and provoke things, to play tricks on the world and its creatures.”
If Dad himself looks a little worse for wear – well, yes, in fact. Cancer would do him in the following year, in 2001. But he loved that room, as we all did. We spent many a boozy, farty evening in it. Among other bacchanals, it saw the annual Boxing Day Richler Cup – an event, Dad wrote in On Snooker, “not yet recognized by the snobs who run the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association.”
Next week, another Richler Cup – a new one, semi-formal, less boisterous and organized by Snooker Canada – begins in Montreal. An annual event with prize money totalling $20,000, it is open to all-comers internationally. Already, players are arriving from India, Pakistan, the United States…
This is quite the leap from our little room, a place where Dad found solace and inspiration, and which for all my sibs and myself holds little but the fondest, most hilarious memories, and – in a manner that sports nuts who see existential dimensions in baseball will readily understand – the profoundest too.
As my sister Emma says, “You could tell the time of day by the sounds he made about the house.” All his life he worked at home, in later years almost exclusively at the cottage, and at 10:30, taking his morning tea break, against a backdrop of swap sparrows, willow catchers and motorboats out on the lake, you’d hear him knock the balls around as he waited for the kettle to boil.
He’d never play an actual game before the day was done, so you knew not to interrupt him there. That room was equally for him a place to think and process “whenever,” as he wrote in On Snooker, “I’m enduring a bummer of a morning at my typewriter,” which is why in those years Mum almost never set foot in the place. She knew it was his space.
‘He loved being with his boys’
It was Mum, though, who designed the snooker room and had it constructed for Dad’s 52nd birthday.
“I pretended it was going to be a master bedroom, with all the windows and the glorious view, to keep it a surprise,” she remembers. “He took very little interest in its construction until he discovered what it really was, but in the end it gave him more pleasure than any other gift I’d given him.”
There were pews at either end, salvaged from a local church, which would seat you with your face exactly at arse height of the players as they bent over to shoot. There was a stone chisel on the wall that once belonged to Dad’s dad, Moses Isaac Richler, the only legacy from a failed brickmaking venture in Montreal. There was a framed movie still of Ray Milland reaching for one more whisky in Lost Weekend; a 1960s-style Coca-Cola machine that reeked of the hash we used to stash in it as teenagers; a disgusting old brass spittoon; a painting of Daniel Mendoza, the first Jewish heavyweight boxing champion.
We kids moaned that playing at night required night-vision goggles. Tables in gentlemen’s clubs often have a canopy lamp hanging overhead, replete with tassels or Tiffany glass, dropping a generous pool of light onto the felt. Dad likely thought them garish or pretentious or too much in some way, so we were reduced to six feeble pot lights in the ceiling, which illuminated the cigarette smoke hanging in the air all very cinematically but not the other end of the table, as it receded into darkness 12 feet away.
As a player, Dad was tough to read. To watch him lazily whacking, or half-heartedly scooping, or just jabbing at the ball, more like a gardener with a spade or a street sweeper with a broom, you’d take him for a rank amateur. His stance: what stance? His style: not for him Euclidean geometries, the deep screw, the cocked-hat, the stun-run-through/massé combo. He could barely be bothered bending over to rack ’em up, preferring us to do the work, the way he’d send us to the cobwebbed cellar for firewood on wintry nights, while he lay in front of the hockey.
But growing up as he did around the Main in Montreal, he honed his skills early – and then, at the Mount Royal Billiards Academy and the Rachel Pool Hall on St. Lawrence, while still in high school, graduated to hustler. The bottom line is, no one could best the man’s ability to hook. His repertoire may not have been wide, but that guy could, and with a chuckle while he was at it, exile the cue ball to the remotest regions of the table, lose it in a thicket of coloured balls, leave it teetering on the precipice of a pocket or resting snugly, as if glued, against the bank. Every time, without fail.
“Just winning was not enough for him,” says my brother Jake. “It was more about the way he won – he preferred that it was really miserable for you, the opponent. Part of that was really dragging it out. Another was making sure that you thought there was hope, when there was none.
“He’d say, ‘All you have to do is snooker me once or twice and sink all the colours and you’ll win!’ I cannot recall how many times I led into the colours, and then he’d awaken and snooker me six times.”
“He loved being with his boys,” Mum recalls, “but he was fiercely competitive. He didn’t care whether you were 4 years of age. The world was a competitive place and you weren’t going to win just like that, that easily. If you won, then you deserved to win, because you had played very well and he had lost. Simple as that.”
When we kids swore and threw things, so bitterly surprised yet again at our own incompetence, he’d stand there awaiting his go like his mind was half-elsewhere. Which it usually was (on something worth the sweat, like his new novel). His only real concern was that we might rip the felt.
Or he’d say, “Look! Through the window. There’s a loon!”
And having distracted you, move the cue ball over for a better view of the black.
My sister Emma was like me, a stickler for the rules, a student of the arcana, the underlying Zen of it all, keeping faith that inner discipline and attention to the finest of details would one day bring victory.
“I’d do the technical too. Everything: the chin, the stance,” she said to me. “But Dad was like Hurricane Higgins – his head bobbing up immediately after the whack. Then I’d carefully line up my shot and he’d be terrorizing me from behind going, ‘Shoot! Shoot!’ and I’d collapse in giggles and muck up the shot.”
Another of the impediments to make a shot, we discovered, was putting away too much beer or, at that Boxing Day tournament, Mum’s most excellent chili con carne. The continual bowing action exerts an accordion effect on the gut, resulting in epic flatulence and no little embarrassment.
Tempers may flare as well on this account, particularly in late December when people are reluctant to open the windows, all of which will distract you from your shot and forfeit the game a measure of its charm, and goes some way to explain why the annual 15-hour Richler Cup was a nearly all-male celebration.
Dad loved the ritual of it all, with a Macallan 18-Year-Old and a special cigar to go with it. Actually, more than anything, I think he loved Emma’s send-up of the ritual, as in all that ruckus she’d don her white referee’s gloves, give the cue ball a rub and intone with ludicrous sobriety, exactly as they do on the World Snooker circuit, “Gentlemen. Quiet, please.”
Over the years the table became encrusted with little brass plaques we had engraved with the names of the winners, and Dad’s was there on almost half of them. As for the times he lost the Richler Cup, well, Jake remembers his pal Steve trailing 15 or 16 points, with only the pink and black on the table.
“He threw his cue down and said, ‘That’s it,’ and Dad said, ‘No, no, all you have to do is snooker me once and pot the rest and you’ve won.’ So Steve grudgingly picked up his cue again, snookered Dad as recommended, potted both remaining balls and won the tournament. Dad was very gentlemanly about it for a moment. But he was livid.”
Generously, our Mum calls those Boxing Days her day “off,” though she was the one who prepared the chili feast and all its accoutrements for 25 people, only escaping to her bedroom with a book by the late afternoon. Both my sisters tended to shy away too, especially as the party became boisterous and aggressive. Nonetheless, they also value memories of Dad at that table – but on a gentler note, from the days of the year when no one else was around.
“Among the sounds I miss the most,” says my younger sister Marf, “are the gunfire bursts of him typing in his studio upstairs, with long silences between. But then the soft, rhythmic knock-and-roll, the lazy click-clack, and the satisfying ker-thump that emanated from his cherished snooker room.”
Mum calls those sounds “our shared madeleine.”
The new Richler Cup
So it was that a year and a half ago, I received a call from Patrick Guigui, president of Snooker Canada.
“I want to set up a tournament in your father’s name,” he said. “ ‘The Richler Cup.’ It’ll be the biggest snooker prize in the country. And I’d like permission from the family.”
“And you want money from us, I take it?”
“No, no,” he said. “I read his book on snooker, and as soon as I was done I knew. He had the kind of passion that borders on obsession, the kind that can only be recognized by somebody who has the same vision. For me, it’s a labour of love, not some gold rush.”
It’ll also be a semi-formal event – a wise move in my opinion, for Canucks are known, even in England where we’re otherwise culturally invisible, to punch above their weight as boozing, brawling, coke-snorting stickmen; the Daily Mirror’s recent “Top Ten Bad Boys of the Baize” included three, count ’em, three Canucks: Kirk Stevens, Bill Werbeniuk and Cliff Thorburn.
“No jeans, no sneakers,” says Patrick, “and no noise for that matter. I know it’s boring if everything is perfect and proper, but you put a bad boy in a tux and he transforms into an elegant player. For those few hours, at least, it keeps him out of trouble.”
A big cash prize, then, with a bottle of The Macallan thrown in, and I’m thinking a Richler book or two wouldn’t be a bad idea. Oh, and it occurs to me that Dad would also want Emma there with her white gloves, trying to keep a straight face and saying, “Gentlemen. Quiet, please.”
The Richler Cup begins April 24 in Montreal.