The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Passion Play -

any of us have likely played a game of pool at some point – at a bar, a pool hall, or per­haps whiling away the hours at univer­sity. What­ever the oc­ca­sion, most of us prob­a­bly didn’t give a se­cond thought to the cue used to play those games.

There ex­ists, how­ever, a le­gion of col­lec­tors who take their cues very, very se­ri­ously, of­ten spend­ing tens of thou­sands of dol­lars and wait­ing sev­eral years for the per­fect cue.

Kam Daswani is one such col­lec­tor. No stranger to col­lect­ing rare and de­sir­able ob­jects (hav­ing amassed an en­vi­able col­lec­tion of Swiss watches, and run­ning the Cen­tral-based rare whisky busi­ness “Dram Good Stuff”), Daswani be­gan col­lect­ing pool cues over a decade ago, and has since built a col­lec­tion de­fined not by its size, but by its rar­ity, crafts­man­ship and per­sonal mean­ing.

Daswani’s en­try into the world of pool cues came through play­ing, ini­tially while study­ing gem­mol­ogy in Santa Mon­ica, Cal­i­for­nia. “I had sev­eral vis­its to Amer­ica, and I was very young in those days, so how does one make friends? How does one bond or get into the mix of things? That’s where pool came in.”

“Pool was very much like carom [an In­dian game Daswani’s fam­ily would play ev­ery Sun­day], ex­cept with a long stick in­stead of my fin­gers. I was very good at carom, so I fig­ured, ‘I’ve got to give this a try!’”

“I made re­ally good friends with the Asian com­mu­nity over there. That car­ried when I came back to Hong Kong. It’s just one of those things where, if you’re hav­ing a bad day, you’d say ‘let’s go shoot some pool’. You’re re­ally happy? You did a great deal? Oh, ‘let’s go shoot some pool’. It’s brought me a lot of joy in life.”

At the start, of course, Daswani wasn’t play­ing with ul­tra high-end cues.

“I went to the Hong Kong Foot­ball Club once, and there was an event fea­tur­ing the leg­endary Efren Reyes [a fa­mous pool player] which was spon­sored by The Hong Kong Pool Club. I thought, ‘Great! There’s a pool club!’ So I went, and the bar­man said ‘We can’t just let you be­come a mem­ber – it’s a very small club and ev­ery­body knows ev­ery­body. We don’t want any dis­rup­tive forces. Hang out and see how you in­ter­act with the peo­ple’.”

Daswani – who passed his trial with fly­ing colours – goes on to ex­plain that in the be­gin­ning, he was the only mem­ber with­out his own cue. “But you know? I tend to be a lit­tle ob­ses­sive in na­ture, and I de­cided my game needed to im­prove. So I went on all the [in­ter­net] fo­rums and, yeah. That was the be­gin­ning of the end …”

Daswani owned 77 cues at one point and his fam­ily thought “I had just lost it”.

“My phi­los­o­phy is “play with a cue, then move it on. Let some­body else en­joy the ex­pe­ri­ence.”

A prin­ci­pled man, Daswani would al­ways ad­vise the cue maker in th­ese sit­u­a­tions. “I’d say – lis­ten, I have your cue; I’ve played with it for so long. There’s a guy who wants it. He’s a nice guy. I’m sell­ing your cue to him.

“It was never about mak­ing money. Ev­ery cue I’ve ever bought, the cue maker is in­formed where the cue is cur­rently, es­pe­cially for the high-end ones.”

Daswani ex­plains his col­lec­tion now sits at a more mod­est 17 cues, but what it lacks in size, it makes up in fo­cus.

“I fi­nally have all the old mas­ters, paired with their ap­pren­tices”, says Daswani, pulling out a cue, which at first glance ap­pears rel­a­tively sim­ple, with a blonde wooden shaft and black “prongs” (elon­gated tri­an­gles run­ning down the length of the butt).

“This is an ac­tual Bal­abushka”, says Daswani. “[Ge­orge] Bal­abushka was con­sid­ered a mas­ter cue­maker. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s ex­tremely rare, worth quite a bit.”

Closer in­spec­tion shows the prongs con­sist of mul­ti­ple finely-in­laid ve­neers of dif­fer­ing colours, in­tri­cately laid, cul­mi­nat­ing in a point no more than one mil­lime­tre thick. Hold­ing it, the cue is solid and per­fectly bal­anced. It’s a sur­prise, though not a com­plete shock to learn it’s worth well over US$10,000.

The next cue is crafted with deep red wood. “This is a piece that Tas­carella made for me us­ing some old parts of Bal­abushka’s” (re­fer­ring to Pete Tas­carella, who took over the reins from Bal­abushka).

“When I started col­lect­ing, you could make things out of Brazil­ian rose­wood. You can’t do that any more: it’s in the same cat­e­gory as ivory. It’s pro­tected. You can’t ship it across borders.”

Daswani points out the in­lays – com­plex shapes, diminu­tive in size, made of abalone shell. When you con­sider all this is done by hand, it’s an im­pres­sive feat and helps to ex­plain why some cue mak­ers have a wait­ing list of seven to 10 years.

“There’s a process,” ex­plains Daswani. “You get to know the cue-maker and if he feels you are worth mak­ing a cue for (and many peo­ple never get onto the cue-maker’s wait-list), then, fi­nally, he’ll de­sign the cue.”

From Bal­abushka and Tas­carella, we move onto the Szam­botti fam­ily – Gus (fa­ther) and Barry (son). Daswani pulls out three cues, the first with com­plex prongs – a spe­cial­ity of Gus Szam­botti. It’s the lat­ter two, which catch the eye though, both by son Barry. The first is al­most en­tirely black and white – quite lit­er­ally made of ebony and ivory. The se­cond, named “The Gam­bler” has small hand-in­laid play­ing cards in ivory and gold ( both cues were shipped be­fore the ivory ex­port ban, Daswani ex­plains).

“Barry and I have be­come good friends, so when­ever I go to New York, I like to pop over to his home and hang out for a while. Barry’s cues mean a whole lot to me.”

Daswani then pulls out a cue, which is noth­ing short of a work of art – black and white, named “The Pas­sage of Time”. Daswani ex­plains the cue was made by Joel Hercek (suc­ces­sor to fa­mous cue- maker, Bur­ton Spain), and tells a story of time and space, through hand etch­ings of clocks, win­dows and plan­e­tary sym­bols. Had th­ese been drawn by hand, it would be an im­pres­sive feat. The fact that each dec­o­ra­tion (some al­most hair-thin) is etched into solid ivory, and in­laid with con­trast­ing ebony, solid gold or sil­ver, is sim­ply in­cred­i­ble.

“It would prob­a­bly be worth a small for­tune now,” says Daswani. “It’s been fea­tured in sev­eral mag­a­zines and blogs”.

While Daswani uses his cues as they were in­tended, he ac­knowl­edges that not all col­lec­tors ac­tu­ally “hit” with ev­ery cue. “I play with ev­ery sin­gle one of them – well ex­cept the etched ivory one …” Daswani says.

When asked about the unattain­able, “Holy grail” cue, Dawani is quick to re­spond.

“That’s my Den­nis Sear­ing cue. I’ve ac­tu­ally stayed at his house. I’ve had Thanks­giv­ing with him. But it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to get him to fin­ish my cue!”

Daswani pulls up pho­tos of his trip to Den­nis’ house, and the block of wood se­lected to make his cue. The pho­tos are from 2010, and Daswani con­tin­ues to wait. Such is the pa­tience of both cue-maker and cus­tomer.

It be­comes clear that pool cue col­lec­tors and cue­mak­ers are a close-knit, pas­sion­ate group and that this is a hobby which, while bear­ing all the hall­marks of any other fine, rare and ex­pen­sive craft, has its foun­da­tion in ca­ma­raderie and friend­ships.

When asked if Daswani would ever pick one cue for the rest of his life, he ex­plains “They all play dif­fer­ently, and be­sides, life is too short for just one cue!” Clearly.

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