Pocket rocket Robby Foldvari
We’re 50 minutes into our interview when Robby Foldvari asks if I want to lie on the table. This is no Me Too moment. Rather, it’s Australia’s most decorated billiards player since the great Walter Lindrum offering to demonstrate his trickiest trick shot. It involves placing the white ball on a block of cue chalk on the table’s side rail and having a volunteer lie on the emerald-green felt with another chalk block between their teeth, cradling a coloured ball. Foldvari then hits the cue ball from the side rail into the ball above the volunteer’s mouth, depositing it neatly into a pocket at the far end of the table.
“So, that’s dangerous,” he acknowledges, laughing.
I politely decline his offer – having visited my optometrist and dentist just days earlier, I’m not keen to risk a forced return – but am fairly sure Foldvari, 59, doesn’t promise shots he can’t deliver. He has, after all, been playing cue sports professionally since his early 20s.
“I’ve won Australian titles at every billiard sport,” he says. “Now I also do corporate entertainment – trick shots, team building. It’s like a golf day without the weather.”
These days he mostly combines playing American pool competitively with coaching and entertaining, but he has come out of billiards semi-retirement to this week take on the game’s best in the World Billiards Championship in his home town of Melbourne.
Foldvari’s passion for felted tables began early. He first chalked a cue at age 10, playing bagatelle while on holiday, and enjoyed watching the BBC series Pot Black on television with his family in Bentleigh.
It wasn’t just a passing phase. He was keen and so his furniture-maker father built him, at age 11, a little outdoor table to practise on. By 14 Foldvari had bought a pub-size table and at 15 he traded up to a full-size table. The family cars were punted out of the garage and the table took their place. About the same time, Foldvari had aspirations of becoming a professional Aussie rules footballer and trained with Melbourne Fourths. “But I couldn’t run fast enough. And I’d broken my collarbone, and, anyway, I wasn’t tall enough,” he says with a shrug. Billiards took over and he practised diligently in the garage for six or seven hours every day – in oven-like conditions in summer and on squelching carpet when winter rains forced their way through a leaky roof.
Foldvari didn’t give up on academia though, as he is quick to point out. “I didn’t have a misspent youth,” he tells me. “I used to play a lot at [Monash] university, actually.” On completion of his economics degree he started work as a graduate accountant for BHP. He was the undefeated Australian amateur billiards champion, and in 1983 he quit his BHP job and turned professional in June of the following year after being recommended by high-profile Australian billiards/snooker champion Eddie Charlton.
Within two years of joining the pro ranks Foldvari, the son of Hungarian migrants, had collected his first world title, becoming just the second Australian professional world champion after Walter Lindrum.
“I just love the game,” says Foldvari. “I liked to practise because I just enjoyed the playing of it and the strategy. You can always learn something. So I played from 16 to 25 when I won the World Professional Billiards [title]. After that I concentrated more on snooker.”
And why wouldn’t he? In the 1980s, the profile of that sport was mammoth and the prize money commensurate.
“I’ll give you an idea how big snooker was,” says Foldvari. “There was a famous match between Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor [the 1985 World Snooker Championship final, a best-of-35-frames match]. It finished on the black ball after two days. It finished after midnight, right, and there were 18 million people still watching that match.” The winner, Taylor, took home £60,000, more than was pocketed by that year’s Wimbledon women’s singles runner-up, Chris Evert.
“That’s why I turned pro,” Foldvari continues. “It was crazy. Even today, if you win the world championship, you’re a millionaire basically.”
But while snooker brought a full-time living, Foldvari describes billiards as the purest game. “It’s more like chess,” he says.
For some extra coin, has he ever thought of randomly turning up at pubs and following in the footsteps of onscreen pool hustler “Fast Eddie” Felson, played by Paul Newman? “No. I might do that for my super later,” he says, breaking into a sly smile.
The 2019 World Billiards Championship marks the first time the event has been held in Melbourne since 1934, when it was won by Lindrum, who in the early ’30s was as famous in Australian sporting circles as Don Bradman and Phar Lap. The tournament concludes today at the RACV City Club, where Foldvari is the resident professional. The week’s event has seen top-level competition from the likes of the defending champion, 34-year-old Indian Sourav Kothari; his countryman Pankaj Advani, who has 1.1 million Twitter followers; Peter Gilchrist of Singapore; Englishman Mike Russell; and Australians Matthew Bolton and Steve Mifsud.
Foldvari didn’t come into the championship with expectations of doing well – he’s been battling a shoulder injury and concentrating on American pool – but he was asked to act as the tournament’s ambassador. “I’m the only Australian to win the world title other than Walter Lindrum, and they couldn’t drag him up,” Foldvari says drolly. Plus the desire to perform on the world stage is still there. “In my head I’m trying to say I’ve got nothing to prove, nothing to lose, but…”
It’s easy to see he would dearly love to once again hold the oldest world championship trophy, the John Roberts Trophy, which dates back to 1870.
Foldvari says the key to being a top player is technique. “Your cue action is all-important, and it’s about where you stand. It’s intricate. It’s like rifle shooting, archery. It’s a target sport.”
Shot selection and remaining cool under pressure are also vital. “There’s not much between a lot of players, but it’s about the psychology of it as well.”
Why does he love the sport so much?
“I suppose it’s the click of the balls and the concentration. It’s more a test of your own ability. The best thing in any sport is just testing yourself. But I’ve also travelled to nearly 40 countries and done what I loved,” says Foldvari, who in the 1990s was a national coach in China and Singapore.
“And I like learning the different games. It’s a bit like AFL, rugby league and rugby union – not many people play them all. But I thought, ‘I’ll try to do that.’
“The most unusual title I’ve won is… Well, let me put it this way, I’m the current USSR Open Snooker Champion. I won in 1990 and then the country disintegrated, so I’ll never lose that. It was in a Moscow basketball stadium and there were about 3000 people watching. It was on the back page of Pravda.”
Foldvari, with shaved head as smooth as a billiard ball and an immaculately trimmed goatee, is turned out today in a well-cut suit and crisp, collared shirt. He looks sharp but is actually underdressed for his sport. “In this game – not in American pool but in billiards – you’ve still got to wear the waistcoat, bow tie and all that.
“This game is a combination, I think, of tennis and golf,” he says. In tennis, a player isn’t always looking to hit a winner but rather uses strategy to find a way to secure an advantage over his or her opponent. “Billiards is more attacking but in snooker you don’t always go for a pot, you might play safe. That’s a bit like tennis.” Then it comes down to execution. “Like in golf – it’s more about technique, you’re not really playing the opponent.”
The most wonderful thing about cue sports, Foldvari tells me, is the fact you can start as a child and still be playing 70 years later. “You can play for basically as long as you can stand up,” he says. “And a lot of people do.” And when standing is no longer an option for Foldvari, he can always lie on the table with chalk in his mouth and let his successor demonstrate a trick shot.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 12, 2019 as "Pocket rocket". Subscribe here.