John Roberts Junior stands out as one of the great Victorians in the world of sport. He was to billiards what W.G.Grace was to cricket, and had billiards continued its popularity, Roberts would be as well known today as his illustrious contemporary.
Son of the first recognised champion of English billiards John Roberts Senior (1823-1893), junior waseasily the most commanding figure the game has ever known, both on and off the table. For years he was able to give a third of the game start to any opponent, and won the professional billiards championship on eight occasions, the last in 1885.
He played in front of royalty many times and did countless world tours, including India, where Maharajah of Jaipur made him, for one months play a year, a courts billiard player for life, on an annual salary of £100 with expenses. It is likely that John Roberts first came into contact with snooker, during one of these Indian tours.
Roberts was a showman, immaculately dressed, a legacy he has passed down to today’s bow tied players. The other side of the coin however, was to behave as a law unto himself in everything connected with billiards. The governing body and other professionals were waived aside by a sweep of his dictatorial hand. I know one or two players like that today.
He invented the top of the table game at billiards, which combines pots and cannons around the billiard (black) spot. This obviously put him in good stead when he played snooker, as this report from the New World Of Billiards of June 1908 clearly demonstrates.
"Anywhere where the winning hazard (potting) takes precedence, the veteran (John Roberts Jun) can still hold his own with the best of them, and he knows it. He is the very ideal of a great hazard striker, quick and ready. He apparently has the angles of the table deeply cut into his mind. Wherever the winning hazard reigns he has this strong pull over all possible opponents. He developed his talents in the old pool and pyramid days. In his prime he was easily master of all comers, at a time, too, when hazard striking specialists abounded. His experience has stood him in good stead during the series of Snooker’s Pool games. At times he may have given the impression that his hand has lost its cunning and that his eyesight is failing. It is an impression which quickly wears off after he warms to his task. Today, although close on the heels of his 61st birthday, John Roberts has no superior, and it is doubtful if he has an equal at Snooker’s Pool."
This was confirmed weeks later in another article;
‘Roberts secured a great win over Tom Reece in the match of 101 games at snooker’s pool for £100 on level terms. It was arranged that the winner of the largest number of games (frames) should takehalf the stake, and the other half to the one aggregating the most points. Roberts did both for he won eight games more than Reece and aggregated 320 more points. The chief feature of the match was the brilliant break of 73 by Roberts in the 72nd game, which equals the existing record. The Oldham pro (Reece) played brilliantly at times, but the veteran was nearly always master of the situation. Contrary to expectations, the match held at Messrs. Burroughes & Watts well appointed salon in Soho Square, attracted good houses, despite the brilliant weather.’
It was Tom Reece incidentally who made a billiard break of 499,135 UNFINISHED against a certain hapless Joe Chapman in 1907. For over 5 weeks he had the two object balls suspended on either jaw of the top pocket, with endless scoring with the anchor cannon at 2 points a time.
London’s gentry would pop in from their clubs to see an hour or so, on their way home. Imagine the poor referee having to get dressed each day in his best bib and tucker, and stand there counting the score, hour after hour. Reece also had a cruel sense of humour and would turn to his opponent and ask sarcastically, "what kind of chalk are you using?" or "how are you finding the table?"
Getting back to John Roberts Junior, in 1908 he was obviously still a force to be reckoned with, although time was beginning to take its effect. The story goes that Charles Dawson was playing him after receiving a considerable start, when one of Roberts’ supporters asked the referee who he thought would win. The referee replied he thought Dawson would. "Well he can’t", replied the supporter, "nobody will ever beat Roberts". The referee then suggested that Roberts was not so young as he used to be and that Anno Domini might beat him. "Oh", said Roberts backer, "I didn’t mean by any of your foreign players, I meant by an Englishman."
Needless to say, Anno Domini did finally beat Roberts, and the master cueman of his generation, died in his 72nd year on the 23rd December 1919.