Edwin Kentfield

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There is no doubt that Edwin Kentfield, who died in 1873, was very superior to most of his profession. He was a man of refined tastes, passionately devoted to horticulture, with which he was thoroughly conversant, and he had the shrewdness to see that the tables and all the accessories of the game which were in use when he began to play were very crude and imperfect, the tables having list cushions, wooden beds, and coarse baize coverings. He spent many years improving tables, cushions, balls, cues, &c., and, thanks to his energy, and to the acumen of Mr. John Thurston - the founder of the present well-known firm of billiard-table makers, who thoroughly believed in Kentfield, and was always ready to support his views and carry out his suggested improvements - the old order of things was gradually superseded by rubber cushions, slate beds, and fine cloths.

All the newest improvements were naturally to be found in Kentfield's Subscription Rooms at Brighton, the appointments of which were wonderfully perfect, considering the date. In 1839 he published 'The Game of Billiards: Scientifically Explained and Practically Set Forth, in a Series of Novel and Extraordinary, but Equally Practical, Strokes'. In his well written and modest preface, Kentfield alludes to the 'many alterations and improvements that have been successfully introduced, and which have so greatly contributed to the state of perfection to which this noble amusement has at length arrived'. Compared with the tables that were in vogue before Messrs. Kentfield and Thurston began their improvements, their joint production did doubtless seem wonderfully perfect; yet this extract reads curiously in 1896, in the face of the extraordinary developments of everything connected with the game that have taken place within the last ten or fifteen years.

Kentfield was acquainted with the spot stroke, and played it well, considering the then existing conditions. He devotes a very short chapter in his book to it, and describes four different methods by which it can be made. There are now nine entirely different strokes which may be brought into use in the course of a long spot break; but doubtless, in his day, several of the varieties of the stroke were absolutely impossible, owing to the comparative slowness of the tables. He did not, however, approve of the spot stroke, nor consider it billiards, and on this point was evidently of the same mind as the younger Roberts, who has recorded his opinion that a constant succession of big spot breaks 'would very soon kill the popularity and destroy the artistic position billiards has attained'.

The thoroughly genuine nature of Kentfield's feelings on the subject may be judged from the fact that he caused the pockets of the tables in his rooms at Brighton to be reduced to three inches, in order to prevent spot strokes being made; and this, unless he materially increased the charge for each game, must have meant a considerable annual pecuniary loss to him. The table on which Kentfield constantly played is thus described: 'The table in the Subscription Room is extremely difficult. It is, perhaps, the fastest in England, and has pockets of the smallest dimensions (three inches). The spot for the red ball is barely twelve inches from the lower cushion; the baulk circle only eighteen inches in extent. On many tables the spot is thirteen inches from the cushion; the baulk twenty-two'. It seems singular that, quite thirty years before the first championship table was manufactured, Kentfield should have put up almost a fac-simile of it in his Brighton rooms; but probably John Roberts, senior, saw it there, possibly played upon it, and derived from it the idea of the table on which, in 1870, the championship was decided.

It is almost impossible, after this lapse of time, to form any trustworthy opinion as to the real strength of Kentfield's game, and it would be manifestly unfair to draw comparisons between him and any player of more recent date than the elder John Roberts. Let us first take the evidence of Mr. Mardon on the subject.... He writes:

Were I to relate all the extraordinary performances of Mr. Kentfield at the period when list cushions and pockets of large dimensions were in vogue, the reader would imagine I was bordering on romance. On one occasion, when playing the winning game, 21 up, Mr. Kentfield gave his opponent 18 points, and won sixteen successive games. In playing the winning and losing game, 24 up, he won ten games, his adversary never scoring! The games were thus played: Mr. Kentfield, in playing off, doubled the red ball for one of the baulk corner pockets, placing his own ball under the side cushion. His opponent played to drop it into the corner pocket, failed, and left on each occasion a cannon; that was made, and the games were all won off the balls! At another time he was playing the non- cushion game, 16 up. On going off he twisted his ball into the corner pocket from the red, and won in that manner six games, his adversary not having a stroke! Desirous of ascertaining how many games of 24 up could be played within the hour, he commenced the task with a player of considerable eminence;¹ and they completed thirty games within the specified time. Forty-seven games of 100 up were also played in eight and a half hours. In a match that did not exceed two hundred games, he beat his opponent eighty-five love games.

The only other witness I shall call is John Roberts, senior., who has left on record his opinion that Kentfield 'played a very artistic game, but possessed very little power of cue. He depended on slow twists and fancy screws, and rarely attempted a brilliant forcing hazard. He gave misses, and made baulks whenever they were practicable, and never departed from the strict game'. This was not written until many years after all rivalry between the two men had ceased, and may, therefore, probably be accepted as a calm and unprejudiced opinion. At first sight it is difficult to reconcile the entirely opposite views of Mr. Mardon and Roberts with regard to Kentfield's power of cue. The truth probably lies between the two extremes, for the former's judgement may have been slightly warped by intense admiration for his idol, whereas Roberts was possibly comparing Kentfield's power of cue with his own, which was almost phenomenal.

The highest break that Kentfield ever made was one of 196, and his best spot break 57 consecutive hazards. It may be taken for granted that neither of these breaks was made on his three-inch pocket table; nevertheless, they may still be regarded as very excellent performances. If, however, there are diverse views as to Kentfield's powers as a player, I have only been able to discover one opinion as to his merits as a man. Whether or not we may feel inclined to accept the dictum that genius is 'an infinite capacity for taking pains', I think there is little doubt that Edwin Kentfield was a genius at billiards, whilst in other respects it is quite certain that he set a brilliant example to the players who followed him.

¹ If a man wants to play fast he would surely select the worst - not the best - player as antagonist. - ED.

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