Lim's on cue to put rivals in his pocket

SINGAPORE- In a smoky snooker parlour nestled above a fast-food outlet, the eyes of gangsters and hustlers were trained on a scrawny, pale-faced kid.

In his school uniform, the boy methodically potted coloured balls with ease, despite learning the game just weeks earlier.

Gasps, whoops and some envious stares emanated from the enthralled crowd.

Cue the same reaction - more than two decades later - when Marvin Lim repeated his mastery of a snooker stick en route to SEA Games gold.

But, at age 14 in 1987, he was playing for a different prize.

"We bet around $20 on a game, which was my daily school allowance," said Lim, a Chinese chess enthusiast who was introduced to the world of dingy snooker halls by his Telok Kurau Secondary schoolmates.

"If I lost, I didn't have money to eat - that's a hard but effective way to learn a game."

He frequented libraries, not for school work but to pore over snooker books and videos of English legend Steve Davis.

Soon, Lim was winning so often that those same miscreants in the parlour told him not to return.

"They said I should aim higher and do something with my gift," the 40-year-old recalled with a sardonic laugh.

That he did, competing in national and regional tournaments.

At 17, he reached the quarter-finals of the Asian Under-21 championship in Karachi.

But he did not take losses lightly, throwing tantrums - and often his stick - whenever they occurred.

"At the elite level, make one mistake and you get killed on the table - a few hours of good work was gone, just like that," he said with a snap of his fingers.

He learnt that snooker "wasn't just a hustler's game to make a quick buck".

Top players complemented their sharpshooting with a keen mind and sound tactics.

These included the ideal body positioning for a particular shot, the best approach to create space to pot the next ball, or even the mental calculations of the ball's trajectory and rebound angles.

During a training stint in England, Lim came face-to-face with five-time world champion Ronnie O'Sullivan, describing the enigmatic Englishman as "out of this world" and making every shot "look like chicken feed".

Like his irascible idol, Lim was forced to put a lid on his short fuse, realising that it hampered his hand-eye coordination.

He explained: "In snooker, unlike other sports, you have a lot of time to think between shots.

"I tend to shake or sweat slightly if my mind is on other matters, like family or girlfriend problems."

He also toned down his offensive style in favour of a conservative, safety-first approach that sometimes frustrated his opponents.

In 2004, the former airforce engineer got his big break, winning the first of a record five national titles. It was then that he decided to be a professional player and coach, in both snooker and pool.

His clients have included local actresses Felicia Chin and Jessica Liu, teaching them the correct poses for the camera, while he actually took the shots for filming purposes.

At least five times a week, Lim can be found potting at his favourite snooker hall in Toa Payoh.

"If I don't spend some time playing or teaching snooker, I find it hard to sleep that night," said the avid jogger who is single and lives with his mother and sister in a four-room flat near Kallang.

His opponents have had a hard time getting some shut-eye too.

Such is Lim's dominance that his semi-final exit at this year's national snooker championship was met with a minor uproar within the community.

According to Lim, at the start of nearly every local tournament, players and officials debate over who will face him in the final.

"I'm always having to live up to the expectations," he bemoaned.

But his success is no fluke. Aaron Koh, high performance manager of Cuesports Singapore, praised the veteran's work ethic, even as his natural talent is "not among the best we have".

He added: "By far, Marvin is our most hardworking player, always nit-picking to find ways to improve his game."

The obsession with his craft paid off at the 2009 SEA Games in Laos. Together with long-time partner Tommy Ang, they upset the odds to come out tops in the snooker doubles.

"I still get goose pimples thinking about that - it's something we never planned for," Lim said with a wide smile.

Two years later, he surprised himself once more, becoming just the second Singaporean after Thomas Ang to attain a maximum break of 147 - the most coveted of feats in the sport.

"To have 36 balls fall in your favour, with the perfect positioning on each and every one - it's like scoring six goals in a football game," he said proudly.

Lim hopes to play competitively for another five years and add to his SEA Games tally of one gold, one silver and one bronze.

To identify young talents, he wants to change the sport's unsavoury reputation, and points to the host of smoke-free and gambling-free snooker parlours here as the way forward.

He said: "If I can find a few more kids willing to make sacrifices like me to succeed, I can hang my stick up happily.

"There will be no betting this time."

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