Want to win friends and influence people? Play billiards.


By Grant Hall Founder of League Cultural Diplomacy

I recently interviewed my friend Craig McAvinue who is Offshore Investment Brokers’ (OIBME) Regional Manager for South East Asia.  We discussed an ongoing project that Craig initiated in 2016 where he brings the British snooker legend Jimmy ‘The Whirlwind’ White out to South East Asia for events designed to build both the OIBME brand and Craig’s personal brand (click here for event details). What transpired in the interview can be read by clicking here, but it got me thinking a lot about billiards, or billards as it’s often known here in Vietnam, from where I write this post.

I’ve always enjoyed playing 8-ball and when I was a kid we had a table in the house. I was the eldest of three children and when the youngest was born, the pool room had to make way for the third bedroom, such were the skewed priorities of my parents. Growing up, I travelled around quite a bit with my aunty, uncle and cousin and the uncle had an inability to drive past a pub without stopping for a few pints. So with nothing else to do my cousin and I would hit the pub’s pool table and play with all the other kids in the same situation. I doubt this happens these days with drink driving laws in place, but I reckon I could still name every pub from my home town of Adelaide to Port Augusta. My cousin and I made a lot of friends that way, and we got pretty good at pool too.

When I was a bit older, in my late teens, a backpacker’s hostel and bar, which is now known as the Glenelg Beach Hostel, opened in my neighbourhood. My friends and I dropped in one night and, as the two pool tables were the main entertainment provided and the focal point in the room, we quickly found ourselves playing pool with and against people from all over the world. My mind was blown! Here was a place where I could meet and chat with people from everywhere and make new friends. We began dropping by regularly to play pool and chat with backpackers, all of which broadened my mind, opening it up to more international perspectives, and whetting my thirst for travel. A kind of process started to emerge; we would start playing pool with travellers, start chatting, invite them out for a day trip or a party the next day, and then we would become friends. Backpackers would often wind up spending a few days at my house if we got along real well, allowing them to save a few dollars on accommodation. When I think back to these days, what’s memorable is the conversations, day-trips, shared experiences and friendships formed, but what I’ve forgotten in the intervening years is that these friendships commenced with a game of pool –  a single thing of mutual interest, a simple conduit to start a dialogue which would lead to a friendship.

Hang around travellers enough and sooner or later you will hit the road yourself, which I did, embarking on a period of international travel, which kind of hasn’t ended, some twenty years later.

After a few international trips I decided to live abroad, and following a couple of months in London, a place I love to visit but have never wanted to live, I arrived in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I’ve written previously about how when I first moved to Belfast with some friends (who incidentally were among the same ones I used to play pool with at the Glenelg Beach Hostel) we arrived during the violence prone marching season, and so had to bide our time before we could get jobs. Temporarily jobless, we had to find ways to spend our time and the way we spent it was playing pool at Laverty’s bar every day for hours on end. While we were playing pool we’d often end up playing others. Once again, we would strike up conversations with our new partners and opponents and friendships were formed.

As you can see, a pattern had developed; whenever I found myself in a new place, particularly if I didn’t know many people, I would go and play pool. This is a pattern that started in those pubs between Adelaide and Port Augusta, and whilst I enjoy the game, the main reason why I would play has always remained the same – to make friends.

For the amount of 8-ball I’ve played in my life I should be a much better player than I am!

Growing up in Australia, professional snooker was rarely on the TV, and I was surprised when I moved into my first share house in Belfast to find my new housemates enthusiastically watching the world snooker championship on TV. The idea of watching snooker on TV was unappealing to me, but after about an hour I was hooked too.  As I started making new friends in my new city, it seemed to me that everyone in Ireland and the UK was watching the snooker. People there seemed to know all about all the players, and would often talk nostalgically about former players and past championships that they grew up watching with their families when they were kids.  Until then, I’d never realised how HUGE professional snooker is in certain places around the world.

Incidentally, during my time in Belfast I lived near the former world champion Alex ‘The Hurricane’ Higgins, with whom Jimmy White won the doubles world championship in 1984 and who beat Jimmy in a famous world championship semi-final in 1982. I had to cross through Shaftesbury Square twice a day to get to and from work whilst The Hurricane had to cross through Shaftesbury Square to get to and from his regular drinking and gambling haunts. With his lanky height, unique gait, black clothes and hat, he cut a kind of Dickensian figure that was hard not to notice. Someone told me that he “played boys for a tenner” at The Royal bar on Sandy Row and one day I went there hoping to play the former champ, but even as someone not adverse to drinking in shady bars, with the paramilitary flags adorning the neighbourhood buildings and the warnings to “never go drinking on the Sandy Row” ringing in my ears I decided at the last minute to give it a miss! The demise of Higgin’s health and ultimate death in 2010 is one of sport’s most tragic stories, and I regret being too chicken-shit to stop in for a game.

I’ve travelled to and lived in a large number of different places since, and in each new place, the “arrive, play pool, make friends” pattern continued. This tactic went to a new level when I arrived in Phan Thiet, Vietnam for the first time. In Vietnam there are a few different variations played on tables that don’t usually have pockets. In one game they mix in a card game, so players stand around with their cards held splayed in one hand and their que in the other, whilst in another variation there are only three balls on the table. Here I met an attractive and smart woman and on one of our first dates I took her out to play pool. She didn’t know how to play any billiards games so I taught her to play 8-ball so that I had someone to play against! That attractive and smart woman is now my wife, and we’ve lived in Phan Thiet off-and-on now since 2009.

Interestingly, I once came across the following photo of the supermodel Kate Moss in Phan Thiet in 1996. Phan Thiet back then would have been a sleepy fishing town without much to do – but what did Kate do?

Kate Moss Phan Thiet
KateMoss and friends at a pool hall outside Phan Thiet, Vietnam, 1996. Photographer: Bruce Weber. Accessed from https://mulpix.com/post/1460399036426206080.html (did you notice how the table has no pockets?)

So, as Kate Moss has shown above, I’m not alone in playing pool as a way to make friends. In any town or city where there is likely to be an expatriate worker population of more than about three you will be likely to find a pool league filled with these expats, who have, more often than not, joined mostly as a way to make new friends. Often, these leagues have been set up by and for expats, although usually they are very keen to involve the local population, to spread the enjoyment of the game and allow players and locals to meet each other. One such league is the Saigon Pool League in Vietnam, which is sponsored by Offshore Investment Brokers and plays host to Craig’s events with Jimmy White.

Offshore Investment Broker’s involvement with the league and the Jimmy White events is a good example of well-considered sponsorship. To start with, as financial brokers looking for clients, the sport of pool, like golf, provides plenty of opportunities for interactions with potential clients. As Craig said to me about using events to create a desirable corporate celebrity alignment, it’s “about giving people a happy experience… giving people an experience which they enjoy, and then they associate that experience with you”. The selection by OIBME of Jimmy White as a celebrity to align their brand makes a great deal of sense, as many people in their target client market are UK and Irish expats who grew up watching Jimmy White play championship finals in the 80’s and 90’s. Known as ‘the people’s champion’, which partly stems from the fact that he comes across as a good bloke, Jimmy’s attitude and the way he has presented himself for years may also reflect the way in which Offshore Investment Brokers and their staff would like to be regarded, as relaxed, approachable, friendly, professional and genuine. Not to mention that Craig plays in the Saigon Pool League himself, so in managing the event he is fulfilling business ambitions whilst indulging in his passion for playing pool.

Research has something to say about sharing enjoyable activities with others; in his influential book The Tipping PointMalcolm Gladwell cites a study by Carol Werner and Pat Parmelee (The Similarity of activity preferences: those who play together stay together) which demonstrates how doing things together builds good relationships:

Another study done on students at the University of Utah, found that if you ask someone why he is friendly with someone else, he’ll say it is because he and his friend share similar attitudes. But if you actually quiz the two of them on their attitudes, you’ll find out that what they actually share is similar activities. We’re friends with the people we do things with, as much as we are with the people we resemble.

As the owner of a business that works in the cultural diplomacy field, I’ve spent a bit of time in the HQ’s of international organisations and government consular buildings, including ambassadors’ residences, and I can see why pool tables can often be found there. I’ve written throughout wherewordsfailblog.com that in many parts of the world, having good relationships is a pre-requisite for doing business, and a game of pool is a good place to start to form such relationships.

Sport of course has long been used for cultural diplomacy and building relationships abroad or across cultures. Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State once famously compared the work of international relations to billiards, stating that international relations is ‘not a game of chess, where people sit quietly, thinking out their strategy, taking their time between moves. It’s more like a game of billiards, with a bunch of balls clustered together’.  Ping-pong diplomacy is well-known, and when I went on a trade mission with an Australian government to India recently, all we seemed to talk about was cricket, and actually, a cricket match was used in Adelaide in 2015 as the basis for building better business links between the South Australian and Indian business communities. Just recently I attended some Australian Rules Football (AFL) matches in Vietnam between both men’s and women’s teams from Vietnam and Cambodia, and I will soon write about how this event was used, with great effect, to strengthen people-to-people relationships between these two countries and Australia.

But through reflecting on my own personal relationship with billiards and in writing this post, it seems to me that billiards is perhaps the sport which is best suited to cultural diplomacy.

To start with, it’s played everywhere in one form or another and it’s much cheaper than golf. Whilst every town seems to have its own set of rules these can be quickly established through play, and it’s a game that people can play together, even if they don’t share a spoken language. In other words, billiards can become the common ground, speaking ‘where words fail’ to do so. What’s more, it’s popularity is on the rise, and there are said to be some 60 million regular players in China alone, where world leading players are frequently paid large sums of money to appear at private events.

Like golf and cricket, playing billiards allows players the time to swap stories, and if you play enough of any of these sports, you wind up with a collection of stories about the sports themselves and your experiences that stem from them, because you meet so many interesting people through playing these games. I could probably fill a book with personal cricket and billiard stories, like the time when the South African cricketer AB de Villiers saved me from the wrath of a British tax court, or when my friends and I spent an evening in a bar playing pool against an Australian TV personality who was hoping we might be able to hook him up with some cocaine (which kind of makes me think again why Kate Moss was hitting up the pool tables of Phan Thiet).

The importance of “telling stories” is well known within the business marketing and cultural diplomacy worlds, and storytelling is an increasingly common tool used to highlight the more attractive characteristics of a business or a nation. As the man who coined the term ‘soft power’ Joseph Nye states in his book The Future of Power:

In persuasion, rational argument appealing to facts, beliefs about causality, and normative premises are mixed with the framing of issues in attractive ways and the use of emotional appeals… outcomes are shaped not merely by whose army wins but also by whose story wins.

Once more, the reality that story telling works as a tool to gain influence is supported by science, and in his influential article for the Harvard Business ReviewThe Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business ToolHarrison Monarth cites several studies. One such study is by neuroeconomist Paul Zak, whose ‘research indicates that our brains produce the stress hormone cortisol during the tense moments in a story, which allows us to focus’, whilst ‘other neurological research, Monarth writes, ‘tells us that a happy ending to a story triggers the limbic system, our brain’s reward center, to release dopamine which makes us feel more hopeful and optimistic’. He cites further studies before concluding that:

Data can persuade people, but it doesn’t inspire them to act; to do that, you need to wrap your vision in a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul.

Mark Twain, a billiards fanatic himself, reportedly said “show me a good pool player and I’ll show you a man with a misspent youth”. I couldn’t disagree more. Throughout my life, playing pool has set me up with a fun way to make friends, gain more amazing life experiences, meet a diverse range of people, hear and tell stories, build international understanding and generally make the world a better place. On the more pragmatic side, playing pool within international government or business circles is a very effective and enjoyable way to build top end relationships, trust and influence.

So do yourself and the world a favour and rack ‘em up!

Related posts:

Jimmy ‘The Whirlwind’ White in Vietnam and Thailand; a case study in DIY events and celebrity brand alignment
Posts about sport
Posts about corporate relationships
Posts about corporate cultural diplomacy

Jimmy White Event Details (HCMC & Pattaya):

Ho Chi Minh City. 9 June 2017

Snooker exhibition – watch Jimmy take on current top Asian Snooker player Moh Keen Hoo.

Where: Masse Pool Hall, L2 150/9 Nguyen Trai, D1 HCMC

Enquiries: email events@oibme.com or call 094 834 9992 or 0120 345 8205

Ho Chi Minh City. 10 June 2017

The Offshore Investment Brokers Saigon Pool League end of season Prize giving.

All welcome – watch Jimmy take on some of the league’s players and even pay the man yourself. Also see what a great job Chris Lee does in organizing the league and maybe get involved next season.

Where: Masse Pool Hall, L2 150/9 Nguyen Trai, D1 HCMC

Enquiries: email events@oibme.com or call 0120 456 0263 or 0120 345 8205

Pattaya (Thailand). 11 June 2017

Watch Jimmy take on Pattaya’s finest pool stars and play in a competition to join them

Where: Bootleggers Bar , Rompho Complex

For enquiries and bookings: events@oibme.com or call Robin on +66 86 551 9248

Event Links

Craig McAvinue website: www.craigmcavinue.com
OIMBE website: www.oibme.com
Saigon Pool League: www.saigonpoolleague.leaguerepublic.com
Masse Pool Hall: www.facebook.com/massesaigon/

Bootleggers Bar: https://www.facebook.com/BootleggersBarJomtien/
Pattaya City Uncovered:

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