Coach Hu Bing watches over 13-year-old Ma Hailong during practice at the World Snooker College in Beijing. Photo: AFP

Inside the China boarding school that teaches nothing but snooker

Beijing’s World Snooker College aims to train the next Ding Junhui

At the World Snooker College in China’s capital, there are no textbooks or exams, just rows upon rows of snooker tables and an ever-growing trophy case.

Clad in T-shirts and baggy sweatpants, the lanky teenage students at the Beijing boarding school – the first of its kind in China – practise snooker eight hours a day in the hopes of following in the footsteps of their idol Ding Junhui.

Ding, a 30-year-old native of eastern Jiangsu province, won two ranking titles at the precocious age of 18, and became the most successful Asian player in history last year after making it to the final of the World Snooker Championship in Sheffield, Britain.

Despite many expecting him to again reach the final this year, he was knocked out at the semi-final stage by England’s Mark Selby, the eventual champion, in a close match on Saturday.

“Of course I’m disappointed,” said student Wu Ze, 16, idly swinging his cue.

“[The championships] were such a good opportunity to realise his dreams.”

Students preparing their cues at the World Snooker College in Beijing. AFP PHOTO / Greg Baker

Ding’s dreams are entwined with those of China, where he is considered a national hero among the 70 million people – and counting – estimated to play billiard sports.

“A lot of parents want their kids to learn the sport after seeing [Ding] on TV,” said Wei Chunlong, a manager of the World Snooker College.

An offshoot of the Chinese Billiards and Snooker Association (CBSA), the academy’s 24 students hail from across China and are foregoing traditional schooling.

Instead of school desks, their two classrooms have snooker tables and instead of regular teachers, they have four coaches. In place of exams, they have competitions.

Xu Shi, 19, will move to Sheffield at the end of May to join the four students who have gone on to play professionally since the academy opened in 2013.

13-year-old Ma Hailong getting his lunch at the World Snooker College. AFP

“I only feel tired after I put down my cue,” Xu said.

“I’ve never considered being anything other than a snooker player.”

Ding shot to snooker stardom in 2002, when he triumphed at the World Under-21 Championship.

Three years later, he won his first ranking title at the China Open, delighting a burgeoning fan base in Beijing.

With his rise came the rise of snooker in China: the number of cue sport players in the country increased by 40 percent between 2005 and 2014, according to the CBSA. By 2012, half of the world’s highest-level snooker competitions were being hosted in China.

“Ding’s success not only spurred the rapid expansion of snooker clubs, but also drove vast numbers of young people to the sport,” said CBSA Secretary-General Wang Tao.

19-year-old Xu Si playing a shot during practice. AFP

Wang said these aspirants particularly admire the dogged determination and sacrifice – Ding’s family reportedly sold their house and grocery story to launch his career – that brought a “boy with Chinese roots” to Britain’s hallowed Crucible Theatre, the perennial stage for the World Snooker Championship.

Though he spends most of his time training in Britain, Ding is well aware of his Chinese following, and even goes by the nickname “Dragon”.

“They will be going crazy back home for this,” he said ahead of the final last year. “I know that they want me to do well, to win it and bring the trophy back home.”

13-year-old student Ma Hailong stretches to play a shot. AFP

Snooker is the most “skill-based” of the billiard sports, said Jing Ferguson, senior operations manager of World Snooker in China.

“It’s considered an elite sport here because it teaches people good manners,” she said. “In our sport, when a player makes a foul, he will admit it instead of pretending that nothing happened.”

Believed to be invented by British Army officers stationed in India in the 19th century, snooker is played with 22 balls on a green “baize,” with the goal of accumulating points by potting balls in a sequence.

“No game is the same,” Wei said. “You have to analyse every step – it’s a very intelligent sport.”

Ding Junhui at this year’s World Championships. Photo: Xinhua

The “gentleman’s sport,” as Ferguson put it, has become a favourite with both parents and investors looking to cash in on snooker’s growing popularity in China.

There had been talk of Chinese snooker bosses wanting to stage the World Snooker Championship in an exact replica of the Crucible but these proposals have been shelved now that the event is remaining in Sheffield for another 10 years.

“The game has grown so huge in China it’s inevitable they were going to make an approach, and someone else might have taken the easy route and just taken the money,” World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn said at the World Snooker Championship last month.

“My message to the Chinese was to ‘build your own, create your own history, you can’t buy history’.”

A large part of that history depends on the World Snooker College and its graduates.

“I can’t go a day without playing snooker,” said Wu, who aims to go pro in a couple years.

“I want to be as focused as Ding.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Taking their cues