How does it feel... To be a Tiddlywinks grandmaster

By Patrick Barrie

THE wink was a good distance from the cup but the poor match I was having left me with no choice but to go for it. This was, after all, the UK Tiddlywinks Singles Championship – the Wimbledon of Tiddlywinks. The game takes years to master, but luck plays a part in every match. You may have played a masterful game, perfectly positioning your wink for an easy pot, only to see it hit the bottom of the cup and bounce straight out again (this is known as the dreaded “scrunge”). My opponent was one of the top British players. It was a tense game. The points I’d built up throughout the day meant that I only needed a small win, but I was floundering – I needed this shot. My counter tumbled through the air... and landed in the pot with satisfying rattle. On this particular day, the Tiddlywinks gods were looking kindly on me: I was finally the champion.

For fifteen years I had jostled with my Tiddlywinks nemesis, American Larry Kahn, for the position of world number one. With the most titles and longest time spent at the top, Kahn is the most successful player of all time. As a shot player, no one can touch him, and he never suffers crises of confidence. But, like everyone, he has his weaknesses: he isn’t as strong strategically as some other players and has been known to make tactical mistakes. If he is on form, though, he is almost unbeatable.

That year, Larry failed to make the final so I knew I had a great shot at the title. The tournament is mentally and physically exhausting, though. You’re on your feet for seven hours of hard concentration, constantly bending over to play shots. One minute you’re moving a wink to a better position, the next you’re trying to cover an enemy. When the time comes to try and pot a wink, it’s imperative you hold your nerve.

It takes years of practice. I played my first game of Tiddlywinks after arriving at Cambridge as an undergraduate in 1984. It took me four years of hard playing before I threatened to win anything. It was seven years before I actually did. Anyone can play the odd good shot. Tactics, patience and knowing the right shot to play at the right time – these things take decades to master.

The UK Singles trophy takes pride of place in the cabinet in my living room where I keep all my Tiddlywinks prizes. People assume I must have had a previous life as a successful athlete. When I tell them they’re for Tiddlywinks, they laugh. My chosen sport may be eccentric but everybody needs a hobby.

As told to Alex Dymoke