Hint of success?Pool players in Zimbabwe are betting on it

Harare – Highlights from the World Cup and other sporting events are shown on widescreen TVs in Ruwa, outside Zimbabwe’s capital Harare. But all eyes are on the pool table…and the money.

Among them was 18-year-old Levite Chisakarere.

“I’ve got to take the cash home … big money today,” he said, waiting for his next opponent with pool bat in hand.

In a country where most people earn a little more than $100 a month, about half of the 15 million people live in extreme poverty according to the World Food Programme, it’s a $150 first prize, according to official government figures.

“Paying the bills can go a long way,” said the boyish Chisakare, the youngest player on the day vying for the prize money of the day.

Formerly a minority sport in wealthier communities in Zimbabwe, billiards has grown in popularity over the years, initially as a pastime and now as a way of survival for many in a country where it is difficult to find full-time employment.

Unable to pursue further studies after finishing high school with low grades in 2019, Chisakaril struggled to find work in Zimbabwe’s stressful industry. The COVID-19 outbreak meant his father, a truck driver, lost his regular job. So Chisakarere started hanging around an illegal tavern where patrons dodged or bribed police to defy pandemic restrictions so they could drink beer and play pool.

His hobby turned into a skill, and he showed a talent for pocketing round balls. Soon, this helped him with his financial problems as he started betting on his own games and winning. Right now, he says, he makes about $300 in a good month playing pool.

He’s not the only one. According to an October labor force survey by the country’s statistics agency, most Zimbabweans make a living from informal activities, which include selling tomatoes at roadside stalls and playing pool. About half of young people aged 15 to 34 are unemployed and not in education or training.

Some, like Chisakarere, are making a living at the pool table.

“Billards started out in bars as a form of entertainment, but now it’s proving to be more popular than football in many places,” said Michael Kariati, a veteran sports journalist who has worked in Zimbabwe for more than 30 years. Say. “It has evolved into a competitive sport where people bet and make a living.”

In Harare alone, the number of professional players has quadrupled in the past five years to about 800, according to Harare Professional Billiards Association spokesman Keith Goto.

“Then there’s the exponential money game. You can find pool tables all over town,” he said. “It provides a form of employment and it pays through betting.

Others warn that gambling is a dangerous habit that can have disastrous consequences for families. But with so many people out of work and Zimbabwe’s economic outlook so bleak, many are desperately scrambling to make money off their clubs.

Temporary pool arcades thrive in bars, storefront balconies, and just about any open space. Some enterprising residents set up pool tables in their homes, charged people 50 cents, and placed bets in violation of city laws requiring such businesses to be properly licensed. The tables are often shabby and wobbly, but people don’t seem to care.

In Warren Park, the town of Harare, people ignored the country’s biggest local football derby at the country’s largest stadium nearby and instead gathered around pool tables where money changed hands quickly.

For quick money, betting requires ingenuity. Some people don’t play the entire 8-ball game, but instead bet on the position of the black 8-ball after the first shot of the game, also known as a break. Others choose the best of the three balls. An expert player offered to play with only one hand because people were too hesitant to bet with him.

Authorities have sometimes conducted so-called clean-up operations, confiscating pool tables scattered throughout. Oftentimes, city bylaw enforcers pay a $2 bribe to turn a blind eye. Most bettors in low-income towns place bets on games where they can win $3 or $4.

In Roy, the games are more organized and the stakes are higher. Each club member pays $10 as a participation fee, which is used for prize money. On a recent day, 31 players paid to participate. Dozens more were spectators, cheering and betting on their favorite players.

“Imagine taking home $150! That’s more than many people with paid jobs get every month,” spokesman Goto said. “Billards should now go from pubs to schools and community halls like any other sport because it has gone mainstream.”

For 18-year-old Chisakarere, pool is more than just a game. From playing and betting in a backyard tavern, his dreams grew bigger and bigger.

“It changed my life,” he said, before hitting the next ball to win the game and $150. “I can see myself playing in Europe one day.”

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