Nine-year-old wows The Citz Club

Dreams of the Crucible and greatness - young cueist Riley James.

He was the youngest in the Tauranga Citz Club on Thursday night by several decades – probably a couple of generations.

But there he was in his formals; the crisp white shirt, spiffy bow tie and monogrammed waist coat. He had pulled in the punters and he was setting about charming them.

“I don’t mind being around older people,” says Riley James, child snooker prodigy. “As long as I am playing well.”

He was playing well enough to take four of seven matches off some seasoned local cueists during an exhibition match – some more than half-a-century older than him, and all vastly more experienced.

He’s also playing well enough to get to the World Under 18 Championships in China. It’s even more remarkable because Riley is just nine-years-old.

When other kids were pulling on football boots or shooting hoops, Riley James was chalking his cue. “I play some soccer, but I prefer snooker. It’s an everyday sport and it’s a game I like.”  

Every day is right, because Riley practices his chosen sport two or three hours a day, seven days a week, and six or seven hours on a Saturday and Sunday. Is that admirable commitment for a kid, or is he being hot housed? Are his parents overly ambitious for him? “No, we’re proud of him, but it’s his fantasy,” says Dad Gary James. “He loves it.”

While most nine-year-olds are uttering Neymar and Giroud and Messi in deeply reverential World Cup football final tones at the moment, Riley James lights up at the mention of Mark Williams. Williams is Riley’s fantasy.

“Williams is brilliant,” he says. “I would love to play at the Crucible one day.” Mark Williams is the 2018 world snooker champion, and the Crucible is in the English city of Sheffield – the Mecca of world snooker. The champion’s purse of $800,000 might be an added incentive, even for a nine-year-old, but Riley has a way to go.

“My best break is 41.” It’s an irritation to him. “I can get into the 30s all the time, but I can’t beat 41. I will one day.” Riley will have to find another 100 break points from somewhere to beat the 131 top score at this year’s world championships.

It’s a glorious winter day in Tauranga – the sun’s idling across a cloudless sky and the mercury’s nudging 16. But it may as well be the dead of the night, because Riley’s back in the controlled gloom of the snooker parlour at the Citz Club – the darkness broken only by the banks of lights above each snooker table.

Riley’s giving a private exhibition match to The Weekend Sun – demonstrating the cue skills that won him a place in an academy for seven young New Zealand snooker talents, and eventually becoming one of three to represent New Zealand at the world championships in China.

He’s a nine-year-old with a firm handshake, impeccable manners, a maturity beyond his few years, a crucial sharp eye, cue skills and, now, the respect of Tauranga’s snooker buffs. 

“He’s definitely got a feel for the game and great potential” says Brian Head, a man several decades Riley’s senior who played a couple of frames against the Paraparaumu sharpshooter at the Citz Club. “It’s great for the game to see kids coming aboard.”  

They’re muttering Riley’s name in the same breath as Dean O’Kane – the New Zealander who, during an 18-year professional snooker career, rose to number 18 in the world.

“Riley will need the best advice from the best coaches to succeed,” suggests Brian, “and a lot of practice and discipline. He also needs to get his education right first.”

But that’s another box ticked. His Dad says Riley also excels at school. “His teachers were more than happy for him to have time out of class for the world championships,” he says.

“Well then, I just hope everything goes right for him,” says Brian.

At nine, Riley is the youngest snooker player ever to represent New Zealand by four years. And it all began in the Club Vista in Paraparaumu, north of Wellington, where his folks are members.

“I was able to play on the pool tables, but I always wanted to play on the big table.” The big table being the 2.8 metre by 1.4 metre slate bedded snooker table.

“I want to play on the big tables - how do I get to play on the big tables Dad?” That was a year or so ago. At this moment he’s mixing it with the world’s best under 18 players in China, and he still has another nine years competing at this tournament if he chooses.

Remember, this is a nine-year-old who still has to grow into that big table. He’s only been able to see over the top of it in the last three or four years.