Monday, January 16, 2012

New Year Pool Overdose - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia!

The Petronas twin towers, and a chunk of the Golden Triangle, viewed from KL  tower.
Kuala Lumpur, or KL as everyone calls it, is an incredibly diverse city. Large percentages of Malays, Chinese  and Indians, but I also ran into Philippinos, Iraqis, Germans, Finns, Nigerians, Brazilians, Americans and a host of other nationals.

Petaling Street, Chinatown KL

 I stayed in Chinatown, home to a frenzied galaxy of street vendors who setup shop every morning and tear down every night in a logistical Gordian knot of commerce. You can find anything in Chinatown. $8 Rolexes, bongs, live frogs, burkas, bedbugs... Anything but a decent game of pool.
Kuala is a large  city, both in height and area.
The first couple of nights, I went to Reggae Bar, an overpriced expat restaurant/bar/club - I wouldn't normally go to a place like this, let alone return the following day, but they did have two 7-foot pool tables. I'm not even going to post any pictures from this place, the equipment was sub-par and the pool experience was quite bad. I ran into just about all of the perils of billiard travel here, including the oversized cue ball and a constantly changing set of rules (that's what happens when your customer base mixes UK patrons who know British pool rules, Americans who think they know proper 8-ball rules, and locals who have their own range of rules. There were even Norwegians who did not understand the concept of winner stays on.
the only good thing : they had pool on TV the second night. OK!

I spent the next couple of days looking for a more serious pool establishment. This resulted in visiting 4 different halls, some seedy, some trendy, but all invariably with poor equipment and no shooters (Coin ops in a pool hall? Carlsberg felt? Really?). I came to understand that KL is not traditionally a pool city. I did manage to find more serious cue artists and good equipment, but from the snooker world (still won!).

In my research, I had several times ran into a chain of establishments called "Golden Break", but all their locations were way outside of the city center. I finally asked a Malay azbilliards forum member where the action was, and he kindly replied that I should try to get out to the Golden Breaks. It turns out that yes, they are far, but I found one which was (seemingly) easily reachable by public transport.
Golden Break  Mentari
I set out from Chinatown on New Year's eve at about 5pm, with my route all planned out using the KL Komuter train. Oh boy. The train was packed to the brim, I barely squeezed in. The ride took about 40min, stopping at every station, with even more people getting on at each stop. Finally made it, only to find out my phone GPS was not getting satellite reception - I had another 2km to walk, but only a faint idea of which direction to go in. It took about an hour of wandering through a questionable neighborhood before I finally ran into a local who knew where the Golden Break (Mentari location) was.
Some of you know not to bet against me at this game.
Everyone else gets half my score spotted and 3-1 on the money.
Open challenge!
The place was nice. Real nice. Simonis cloth! Aramith balls! Employees who share their personal cues with random customers who look like they can shoot a little! The Megatouch machine also came in handy during the lull in shooters around dinner time. 
I did not know it yet, but I was in THE place to shoot pool in Kuala Lumpur (and perhaps all of Malaysia).
I played a bunch of 10-ball and 8-ball for table time, with a Yemeni expat. Good people, good players. Lost. I found out that the place was open 24/7, every day of the year - great news, as I wouldn't have to find transportation back to Chinatown that night (now THAT would have been an adventure).

Mr. Lim (light blue shirt) checking in on his regulars
After my Yemeni pal left, I settled down with a Heineken, ready for the long night of shooting that was ahead of me. Two guys were playing on the "feature" table, and when they were done I asked one of them if he wanted to shoot. I always want to play one-pocket, and this guy knew the rules and was willing to try it. We played about 8 racks, I did well but he was definitely catching up towards the end. We talked a bit, and it turns out he's an internationally certified pool and snooker referee, and get this, he's the general manager of all 10 Golden Break outlets in KL.

We talked pool, snooker, he told me about how he got to be manager, a couple road stories from his days as international referee, and I got a sense that the pool scene was on the up and up in Malaysia. As I was to stay in KL for another few days, Mr. Lim proposed that I also visit some of his other, larger locations.

I shot a bit more, and suddenly he says "Come with me, I'm going to show you some of the other outlets, let's go right now!"
We hopped in his car at around 11pm on New Year's Eve, and went on a whirlwind tour around the KL suburbs visiting one pool hall after the next, a billiard traveling experience I won't soon forget! He knew everyone everywhere and I was treated as an honored guest, offered some free single malt whiskey, chauffeured around by a pool personality with an acute understanding of the pool hall business and a willingness to discuss everything and anything.

In this video, Mr Lim shows me one of his pool halls, the one with the tournament room!

The stairwell - at one of the Golden Break outlets

The pool halls went from nice and nicer, to the best pool establishments I'd ever seen.

Each outlet had its own specific personality, each had been meticulously designed, and yet there was a common feel to all of them, a testament to the hard work of Mr. Lim and his employees. No expense had been spared to make these the nicest pool halls in the country (and perhaps more... what do you think?)

Wouldn't you like to have a place like this open 24/7 in your neighborhood?

Tasseled private pool side-rooms! Fancy!
Fully stocked bars, friendly staff, great lighting...
Stadium seating tournament room, suited for snooker and pool! Oh my!
Snooker fanciness too!
Oooooh look at all the pretty colors!
Mr. Lim checking in with yet another one of his branch managers
Trophys won by local players (got to meet a couple of them later on too!)
The Secretary General of the Malaysian Snooker and Billiards Federation........
........and his son, banking out the six on a 9-ball break and run. Scary.