His Cue to Championship – Pankaj Advani
The lean and charming world billiards and snooker champion Pankaj Advani is a stickler for perfection. He’s like a casuist, using theoretical rules to solve problems, never giving up till he’s fully satisfied with the outcome. It is this trait that has catapulted the intense 30-year-old to the rostrum of fame that he stands on today. RITZ spends an afternoon with the 15-time World Billiards and Snooker Champion – the only player to win world titles in all formats of both, billiards and snooker.
How could a ten-year-old, so hooked onto billiards and snooker that he was willing to improvise and use a carom board, marbles and chopsticks instead, end up being anything but a world champion! Pankaj Advani beat his older brother at a small-time snooker tournament when he was just a little over eleven. During a subsequent interview he told media reporters that he wanted to be a businessman and then added “world champion” as an afterthought. His sports psychologist brother prefers to believe that it was this afterthought that triggered off subliminal messaging and belief within the youngster, driving him to achieve his goal at such an early age.
Pankaj Advani is definitely not made of conventional ‘star’ material. He doesn’t covet the attention that other stars do; throngs of fans, standing under the arc lights, constant adulation – these are not factors that motivate him. He’s happier wooing the cue and monopolising the tables as he pulverizes each of his opponents with deadly precision and unerring skill. In a sport that is often compared with fine wine, it is a well accepted fact that the champion from Bengaluru has only gotten better with age and will most likely continue to rule the roost for the next several years.
Being the only Indian to have won the world title both in snooker and in billiards, Pankaj strangely began his love affair with the sport at a hole-in-the-wall pool parlour in Bengaluru. When the family moved down from Kuwait he was a ten-year-old and often tagged along with his older brother and his friends who used to try their prowess at the game. “I beat my older brother Shree in the first tournament that I played,” says Pankaj, recalling how it was his brother who was more keen on turning pro than he was. “For me the game was never about winning or losing. Initially I played because I used to tag along with Shree; little did I realise that it would ultimately be my destiny,” says the world champion, recalling his induction and subsequent addiction to the game.
Down-to-earth and polite, Pankaj does not sport the airs and graces that most other sportsmen of his stature would. He’s mostly unassuming and openly admits that punctuality is not his best virtue. “I’m away so often that when I’m in Bengaluru I am flooded with requests for interviews, invited to functions and award ceremonies and so on. Invariably my appointments get pushed by a few minutes each and I end up falling back on my schedule,” he explains regretfully. Though the flip-sides to his fame and popularity are numerous, it is obvious he wouldn’t have his life any other way and tries to make the most of his hectic schedule and lack of quality time.
The list of accolades and awards to his name is endless. In 2009 he was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honour and before that the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna in 2006 and the Arjuna Award in 2004. Alongside these, his sporting laurels form an impressive display on his mantle, more often than not leaving spectators agog with wonder at the staggering number of plaques and medals on show. “I have worked hard to get where I am today and I like to sit back and bask in the limelight,” he says unabashedly.
In a game that is more skill than strength based, Pankaj ticks all the boxes that are mandatory that one expects of a champion of his stature. “There’s a lot of bending and stretching involved in my sport – I have to walk around the table assessing the shot and looking at angles. My body needs to stay fit in order to play the game and I think my lean build works much to my advantage,” he tells us.
“Pankaj was born with nerves of steel,” says his brother Shree. “He’s probably one of the few sportspeople in the country who is able to take a pressure situation and turn it to his advantage,” he tells, his voice ringing with pride as he speaks of his champion sibling. “From the day he followed me into the pool parlour he’s been hooked onto the game.”
To use a term like ‘sibling rivalry’ for the Advani brothers would be an error of gargantuan proportions. Rarely would one see siblings so close and so in tune with each other’s needs. Shree chooses to give Pankaj as much space as he requires, having understood over the years that he does not appreciate being cossetted or pandered to. Even their mother tends to allow her champion son the space he so desires. “I once went to a match he was playing; it wasn’t a very important one but when he missed a shot I could not control the gasp that slipped past my lips. It shot his concentration so much that I’ve banned myself from his matches ever since,” she tells us with a laugh. Apparently Kajal, his mother, even refrains from watching Pankaj play on television as she feels that her tense frame of mind is transmitted to him, distance and geographical barriers notwithstanding.
“It’s true,” says Pankaj, admitting that he tunes off from family and friends from the time he starts a tournament to the end. “I am completely engrossed in my game and prefer to concentrate on the place and ambience that I am playing in. I don’t need to call my mom and take her blessings or call Shree for a pep talk. I know they’re there with me in spirit and that is enough to keep me going,” says the dedicated young sportsman.
His long time coach Arvind Savur is quick to endorse his prowess. “He’s the best player India has or will probably produce in a long time to come. There is no doubt about that. He is one of the most dedicated sportsmen in this country and it is hard to find one to compare him with.”
But despite his overpowering drive and single-mindedness, Pankaj is a pretty fun guy to be around. The brothers love hanging out at popular night spots and watching American sitcoms with their mom. “Pankaj’s time at home is so limited that every moment he is with us is precious,” says his mother. Apparently there is an unwritten law in the household stating that palak paneer and roti will be the dish of the day each time he returns home after a tournament. “Being a vegetarian and teetotaller, Pankaj who is called a ‘killer’ at the (billiards) table wouldn’t harm a cockroach, though he detests them,” tells his older brother with cheeky grin.
On a lighter note his mother recalls a few of his childhood escapades narrating how although Pankaj was made Head Boy of his alma marter Frank Anthony Public School in Bengaluru, he was never around for the Annual Day, Sports Day and several other such momentous occasions. The poor Head Girl, she says, had to manage all the school duties on her own. “When he was around, he was a real softie; when kids forgot their badges at home, rather than take them to the principal’s office, he would give them money to buy them from the book store in school!”
She goes on to explain how her fiercely loyal son will do anything for his friends. “He’s driven in the middle of the night to pick up his buddies from the airport. He’s also a good listener and is a regular sounding board. He’s come back from hectic tournaments abroad and performed at his friends’ sangeet parties. He loves shaking a leg and was offered a deal to dance on a TV reality show but had to decline because of his hectic schedule that year,” quips Kajal Advani.
Completely immersed in his life as a cueist, Pankaj says that it is difficult for him to imagine life outside of billiards and snooker. “The game is my identity and I don’t know what I can do without it. It has given me everything and I feel that if there is no billiards and snooker then there is no Pankaj Advani.”