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Crazy for Carrom
Charles Salter Jr.
April 29, 1996
Billy Stevens wants to turn an obscure Asian game into a household word
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April 29, 1996

Crazy For Carrom

Billy Stevens wants to turn an obscure Asian game into a household word

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Billy Stevens is world-ranked in his sport, but few people in the U.S. know his name, and not many more know his game. It's carrom, a South Asian board game that's a combination of pool, marbles and air hockey. For almost a decade the now 43-year-old Stevens has been on a crusade to popularize the game. He is convinced that if Monopoly can endure, Trivial Pursuit can explode and chess can be televised, then carrom can catch fire.

But despite Stevens's inexhaustible energy, carrom is no more familiar in the U.S. now than it was nine years ago, when Stevens learned how to play the game from teenagers in Sri Lanka. He was eager to continue playing carrom when he returned home to Durham, N.C., in the fall of 1987, but he couldn't find a board, much less an opponent. It wasn't until several months later, when he visited his family in Chicago, that he found a carrom board in a grocery store on Devon Avenue, the heart of the city's Indian community. Back on Tobacco Road, the heart of basketball country, he introduced his game to anyone who would listen, hoping to start a carrom craze. Stevens, a professional musician who plays keyboard instruments and the harmonica, demonstrated bank shots at cultural festivals, street fairs and craft shows, and staged carrom nights at local coffeehouses and in his home.

Carrom, which has been called finger billiards, has action, finesse, strategy and more angles than a presidential campaign, according to Stevens. Imagine playing pool with your fingers instead of cue sticks and with tiny wooden disks instead of balls. Using your index finger or thumb, you flick the silver-dollar-sized striker like a cue ball to sink the other, checker-sized pieces into small corner pockets. There are nine white and nine black pieces, and one red piece, called the queen. The red piece can be pocketed anytime after a player pockets his first piece; then he must pocket another of his pieces on the next shot or return the queen to the center and relinquish his turn. Points are tallied for the number of the opponent's pieces left on the board, and the first player to 25 points wins.

Carrom is not completely unknown in the U.S. Some Americans may have a version of the game, with larger pockets and miniature pool sticks, stored in their attics. Stateside, the game dates to the 1880s, when an inventor named Henry Haskell established the Ludington Novelty Company, later called the Carrom Company. Haskell's Carrom, a trademarked derivative of the South Asian version, is still available and comes with a two-sided board on which more than 100 games can be played.

A century later Stevens was so sure he could promote carrom that in 1989 he formed a company called Billiboards and imported 700 carrom boards from Bombay. Hope you can eat carrom boards, his friends told him. To encourage more people to learn the game, Stevens loaned equipment to Durham-area sports bars. The plan didn't work. "If I wasn't around to set up the board and play, it got propped against the wall," says Stevens.

But all those late-night games and demonstrations weren't for naught. Several years ago Stevens began participating in international carrom tournaments. In April 1993 he won his first title, teaming with an Indian friend to win the doubles in the International Carrom Federation Cup in London. Two years later, he returned to Sri Lanka and competed in the second World Carrom Championships with a couple of recruits from Durham, an insurance adjuster and a chemist. The U.S. team's chances of winning were as good as the Jamaican bobsled team's chances for gold at the Winter Olympics. The Indian competitors had grown up with carrom and, in the weeks leading to the tournament, practiced six hours a day. They had coaches. "They're so far above everybody else, I get a nosebleed just watching them play," said Stevens's teammate Sonny Finger, without a doubt the best-named player in all of carrom.

Though his doubles team was eliminated early, Stevens, who dubbed himself Captain Carrom, was fortunate in the singles draw. He avoided the Indian, Sri Lankan and Maldivian players until the semifinals. He finished eighth overall, no small feat for a relative newcomer.

These days the Captain is busy promoting the first U.S. Open International Carrom Tournament, which will be held July 11-14 at North Carolina State, in Raleigh. Stevens has enlisted support from players in Switzerland, Germany and India. "It's a very satisfying way to liveā€”to have big ideas and to set about accomplishing them," he says.

Satisfying, that is, as long as he doesn't have to eat his investment.