Twenty-six floors up. Astonishing views over downtown Riga, bathed in late evening Eastern European sunshine. To the right, the river and a high-rise metropolis, to the left Riga’s Old Town, a beautiful mirage of Parisian architecture, leafy gardens and hidden side streets catering for every culinary taste imaginable. In the distance, hectares of lush forest, dotted with small farm dwellings. A waitress drops another round of cocktails at our table with a weary smile, picking up the debris of half-drunk mojitos, absinthe glasses and a bowl of salted peanuts, cunningly deployed to encourage us to drink more.
Despite the splendour and our rising bill, Julian is animatedly explaining his stance. Not on immigration or West Brom’s new centre forward, as is usually the custom by 9pm after a day on the fizzy pop. His snooker stance.
“So I just keep my nose parallel with the ball and where I’m aiming” he says, bent over the table separating the four of us and cueing an imaginary white ball. “And shoot” he adds, with the heated fervour of a particularly joyous gospel choir. It was a surprise he didn’t raise his arms to the heavens and shout “YES BROTHER!”
You see, snooker does this to you. It’s a game of fractions, and the opportunities for psychoanalysis are endless. A player’s stance might separate you from a club player, destined to fish out balls for any bloke who can string four balls together, and a professional like Shaun Murphy, 2005 World Champion, who was sitting four tables away and enjoying a drink with (who I presumed) was his wife.
Having spent years playing the game locally, I decided to take things one step further and enter a big boy’s tournament, a far cry from the tin pot trophies you get around here. Three years ago – the last year I was eligible – I won the East Sussex junior title. I wouldn’t say it was a procession but they had to shut a few roads. Nine players turned up and I think six of them were playing because it was raining outside and there was nothing else to do in Bexhill on a wet Sunday. In the first match, my opponent asked how many points the blue was worth. In my second, my adversary’s Dad had to referee because he couldn’t add up.
Snooker is dying a slow death. I wish it wasn’t but this is not the 1980s. There’s Instabook and Twitagram and hardcore pornography to keep young people amused nowadays. The idea of spending hours on end knocking coloured spheres around a big green coffee table loses out against Grand Theft Nintendo or The Big Bang Theory of Thrones. It requires determination, discipline, control and practise. Precisely the things that have seemingly been destroyed by the internet.
Despite the doom and gloom, there were still 197 players in the European Tour event in Latvia, including 97 amateurs. Anyone can enter for a mere £100 so I treated the event as a holiday with a bit of snooker thrown in.
We flew Wizz Air from London Luton, a surprisingly smooth experience excepting the fact we had to shell out £1 for a plastic bag for our toiletries. Fred and Simon, my travel companions, were suitably aghast, although their emotions were probably heightened seeing that they had just bid farewell to their cues, which had to be processed separately from general baggage.
It was a harrowing separation. I said my goodbyes that morning but Simon was a little overcome with emotion, wondering if he had done the right thing. “Let it go mate, let it go” I said, putting an arm around his shoulder and dragging him towards security, where a string of officers were menacingly putting on rubber gloves with a snap against their wrists. Stephen Hendry’s cue was once lost on a flight and Peter Ebdon’s turned up at the other end smashed to smithereens, although many in the snooker fraternity maintain this was to discourage the boring arsehole from playing.
Our cues are precious babies, which can be traced back to the vast sums of money we have spent on them. Fred shelled out over £800 on his Ultimate cue from John Parris, the premier cue-maker in the world. When shown it, I was somewhat disappointed it couldn’t transform into a laser jet or at least some form of weapon to justify the price tag. I was sensible, spending just £425 on my Superior cue, which also happens to be a stick of wood and has yet to demonstrate any cool combat features. But I have now got eighteen centuries with that bad boy, so I’m guarding it with my life.
On the flight, we quickly realised that all around us were Latvian and Russian voices and as we stepped out of the forecourt at Riga International Airport, the locals all jumped in cabs, caught buses or were met with hugs and kisses from loved ones. Meanwhile, eleven pasty Brits with giant ski cases were looking lost. It was like The Inbetweeners Movie for the boys on the baize.
We eventually got a large cab with two other players, Adam and Ben, the latter a Welsh lad who it is fair to say has been known to enjoy a trip or three to Gregg’s. He had a broad Cardiff accent and was wearing a Manchester United shirt for good measure. We struggled to understand him, let alone a poor foreign cab driver. Watching Ben explain which hotel we were staying at was like overhearing the training for that dog who was sent into space.
“To the inch” he said, as the cab eventually pulled up outside Avitar Hotel, our base for the following four days. The area was residential and a little shabby looking but seemed pleasant enough. Fred and I were due to play on Thursday, so as we arrived in good time on Tuesday evening, we thought we would treat ourselves to a session on the fomented liquid. We went downstairs to meet a few other players, including Sydney, who had turned professional a few months before.
“You’re walking into town” he said, looking horrified, as if we just casually mentioned we were about to jet-ski to the nearest orphanage and set fire to the toy room.
The boys then gave us a run-down of past misdemeanours and episodes in the Latvian capital which suggested the streets at night were like The Purge minus the humanitarian streak.
“Jamie got mugged for his watch and they smashed his face in” Ryan exhaled, returning his gaze to the Playstation 4 he had bought with him and had taken up half his hand luggage. “They don’t like us round here”.
It seemed the six fellas in the room were settled for the night playing FIFA 15 so we stepped outside and decided we would head into town if we could find a reputable taxi service. This was easier said than done – with all the dire warnings of scams and violence mooted by the group in the hotel, we were being cautious. One car stopped and Fred leaned in to the passenger seat window.
“Old Town please” he asked, making to open the door. No sooner had he opened his mouth, the driver turned a shade of puce and shouted “No English!”
“OK, Can you order us a taxi please” Fred continued, miming making a phone call on the off chance that the driver was trying to say he couldn’t speak the lingo, and wasn’t a rude bastard.
With that, he fucked off. Moments later, a taxi pulled up with a giant jester’s hat on the bonnet – ‘Joker’s’ was the company. I whispered in Fred’s ear that nowhere in the travel guides does it suggest you should get in a taxi at midnight with a toothless, bald Bond villain. Give him a white cat and he’d be giving Daniel Craig what for.
“You want taxi?” he said, with a smile that we all knew was insincere. When we hesitated, he leant out of his window and begun speaking as if he was letting us in on the world’s biggest secret – perhaps where his gang lord paymaster was hiding underground, awaiting another pair of unsuspecting tourists. We had no plans to be flayed and dissected on camera for some creeps on the dark web.
“You want to see naked girls” Igor beamed, adding a raised eyebrow into the bargain.
“Well yes” I thought, but not at your behest, Igor. Besides, I had already matched with five girls on Tinder, having re-set the GPS using the hotel’s WiFi. Three of them were called Santa, which momentarily made me question whether my phone actually thought I was in Lapland. One had already responded to my opening line of “Sex, Power, Love or Money?” by saying “You are definitely not Latvian”. Score.
“I take you to titty bar” our concierge service added in one last attempt to render his services. Is that really what the English are known for in Eastern Europe – beer-drinking, pervert louts only interested in booze and girls?
“Not tonight mate” we said, and he drove off abruptly. Soon after we gave up. There is only so long you can stand outside hotels, running after cabs. If we were in high heels and fishnet stockings, we could have been prosecuted.
The snooker started the day after so Fred and I decided to get an early night to give ourselves the best chance the following morning.
We needn’t have bothered. I lost 0-4 and after a terrific break of 13 (!) at the start of the first frame, things went downhill quickly. It didn’t help that my opponent was very good, which if you ask me is downright unsporting. So I watched Fred lose an epic tussle 3-4. With friends and family following the scores back home, I received the following text an hour after my whitewash. “Oh well. At least you can get pissed”.
That we did, heading to downtown Riga for the first time and supping many a beer along the way. What we didn’t realise was the potency of the local lager. There I was, happily downing pint after pint. Then I wondered why I couldn’t lift my middle finger. 5.2% is their standard volume, a hefty dose compared to the usual amber urine back home.
As we were supping a beer outside one of the many watering holes in the city, a promoter approached us and asked if we wanted to be part of a stag do that evening. I would have told him to carry on walking but Simon’s a chatty man and he inquired further. Our promoter friend spilled the beans in that Eastern European way which misses out connecting words.
“Yes, we taking stag and arresting him. We bundle him in boot of real police car blindfolded as friends shout “Leave him, leave him”, then we drive him round city for half hour, bring him back and put him on stage”.
“Are you serious? That sounds like torture!” Simon said.
“Oh yes yes yes. I be doing this six years, I see five stag piss themself and two shit themself. Their friends come on stage and hit them and pretend to be kidnappers. When the stag find out, he not be happy. He go after them and punch them!” he said happily, fists raised. This, apparently, was all to entice us to visit his bar – potential on-stage defecation, borderline torture, questionable ethics, near certain violence and friendship bonds being stretched to breaking point. What more do you want from a Thursday night?
Come 1am, things were finally winding down. Fred wandered off into the night with a girl he matched with on Tinder. I walked back to the hotel (following a strange and frankly ill-remembered episode in a dingy casino, where I had a roulette table open just for myself) and met the boys outside the hotel, enjoying a cigarette between rounds of their FIFA tournament.
“Where you been?” Sydney asked.
“Old Town” I said.
“And you walked back?” he probed, a little incredulous.
“Well yeah” I laughed. “No muggings, no gun crime, no strange people in the shadows. Fred’s back at some girl’s house playing hide the purple parsnip, Simon’s chatting away to an American geezer who works in Moscow doing the accounts of the mega-rich while I just had four casino staff waiting on me hand and foot as I spent precisely thirty euros”.
“So who’s winning the tournament?” I asked, poking my head into their room which was beginning to smell uncomfortably of men. Testosterone was at least the third most common compound in the air. They had barely moved all evening.
The next morning I received a text from Fred. “I’m completely lost mate” it read and his happiness at the previous evening’s efforts were receding as he wandered aimlessly through suburban streets. A mere two hours later (“Ten minutes she said it would take”) he bowled into our hotel room, a healthy glow in his cheeks, but not looking especially fresh. His tardiness meant we missed breakfast but as it consisted of half a teacup of corn flakes, three slices of salami and a hot dish of what might kindly be described as ‘local cuisine’, I wasn’t especially fussed.
The professional players entered the tournament on Friday and I came face to face in the player’s lounge with Mark Selby, the world number one. To be fair, he must have been focussed on his match because he didn’t stop to ask how my game was. It was just bizarre seeing the very people I have spent years watching on telly and reading about in the flesh. And I was one of them! A player, in the player’s lounge. Not a hanger on, not cos I’m mates with Phil on security. But because I’m a player too. Alright, a pretty useless one, but I can hold the stick at the right end.
That evening was the official welcome party at the player’s hotel and that’s where we re-join the action with me, Fred, Simon and Julian pre-drinking in the Skyline Bar on the top floor.
Once we had spent the customary four hours discussing our cue actions we joined everyone in the basement, which also happened to be a casino. Little to my knowledge, it turned out I was playing blackjack with Liang Wenbo, currently in the world’s top thirty. Ken Doherty was at the bar telling jokes and generally living up to the Irish stereotype. All sorts of madness was going down.
This time, the boys from the hotel were out in force and left the hotel in search of Friday night entertainment. Meanwhile Fred and I sloped off as we had a plane to catch in the early hours – no point in sleeping we thought. Half an hour later, Sydney and Simon pulled up in a cab – “what shithole this place is… we couldn’t get in anywhere” Sydney moaned, shaking his head. Out on the cobbled streets of Riga at that very moment, an angry swarm of snooker players, tanked up on the generous measures handed out at the casino to loosen the wallet, were having a wretched time. Their preconceptions were confirmed. The comfort blanket of FIFA 15 was just a cab ride away.
Meanwhile Fred and I were slumped on chairs at the airport, safe in the knowledge that we had seen the real Riga – stunning scenery, some of the best food I have ever had, accommodating and beautiful women, the grumpiest service sector retailers in the world, a continuing cultural battle between the native Latvians and the Russian nationals who outnumber them and most importantly of all, the beginning of our European Tour adventures. Bulgaria awaits in November.