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.