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CRAZY FOR CARROM BILLY STEVENS WANTS TO TURN AN OBSCURE ASIAN GAME INTO A HOUSEHOLD WORD

April 29, 1996
April 29, 1996

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April 29, 1996

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CRAZY FOR CARROM BILLY STEVENS WANTS TO TURN AN OBSCURE ASIAN GAME INTO A HOUSEHOLD WORD

By CHARLES SALTER JR.

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.

This is an article from the April 29, 1996 issue Original Layout

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 live--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.

Charles Salter Jr. is a feature writer for The News & Observer
in Raleigh, N.C.

COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Stevens has big ideas for his favorite little game. [Billy Stevens playing carrom]