It's cool to shoot pool for capital's youth
By Monique Natalia
JAKARTA (JP): The five young women, all around the age of 20, were dressed like they were ready to dance the night away.
But instead of heading off to a cafe or club on a recent Saturday night, they were at Bengkel Billiard, each of them holding a cue except for one who watched from one of the high bar tables at the pool hall off Jl. Sudirman in Central Jakarta.
Why is it suddenly cool to shoot pool?
"The guys who play pool here are cute!" giggled one of them, Echie, a student at the University of Indonesia (UI).
Although many of the young women at the club acknowledged that guy-watching is one of the game's major attractions, other players said they were also drawn to the challenge.
"Playing pool is a way to channel my competitive energy," said Anan, another UI student who took up billiards last year. "(But) being competitive doesn't mean I don't have fun while I'm playing.
"My friends and I still joke around when we play. Especially when I play with people who are also new players. We're still learning and it's better to learn through laughs than frowns, right?"
The bottom line for Bengkel, and that of other pool halls which have reached out to combine the sport with entertainment, is fun. And in the process they have done away with the enduring stereotype of the seedy, smoky pool hall frequented by those you would rather not meet down a dark alley.
Customers can groove to loud dance music, down a few drinks (beer is the only alcoholic beverage served on the premises) and glance at MTV on huge screens, legacies of Bengkel's disco and concert past, for prices ranging from Rp 25,000 to Rp 40,000.
Once the legendary Arena in Bengkel Night Park, a star-studded disco with a capacity of up to 8,000, Bengkel Billiard with its 120 tables is the largest pool hall in the country, if not Asia, said Ishwara Adi, the club's assistant manager.
Adi said the club first started with only 14 tables but quickly expanded due to demand. At weekends the waiting lists are long, sometimes up to 200 people.
Although business is nothing like the take from concerts, which had occasionally amounted to some Rp 65 million, Adi said transforming the place into a pool hall was the right move because it provided a steady daily income.
Ultimately, he said they want pool to be a sport for all.
"People used to see billiards as something negative. Wives forbade their husbands from playing pool because all they saw were the score girls, the gambling and the alcohol," Adi said.
"The same thing goes for young women, who tended to see billiards as an all-boy sport and didn't consider it something cool. We want to change all that ..."
Help is at hand for first-timers. A staff of four, consisting of one professional billiards player and three assistants, patrol the hall every day, giving pointers on correct technique.
"We don't want people to think that billiards is a difficult game to play," Adi said. "Once they know how to play they'll want to come again and hopefully the next time they come they will bring their friends, and in turn their friends will bring more friends."
It was inevitable that pool halls-cum-entertainment centers have opened in Bengkel's wake.
Among them is Gardu, which is located in Kompleks Taman Ria Senayan, and JC, short for Jakarta Club, at Jl. Jend. Gatot Subroto. Like Bengkel, Gardu tries to merge the concept of sports and entertainment but goes a step further in providing a cyber corner, a sports bar, a cafe and live performances.
The Indonesian Billiards Association (PB POBSI) also opened a public training center in October last year, but eschews the entertainment label.
"Our main focus is to provide Indonesian athletes with a place where they can train and prepare themselves for upcoming games. But due to funding problems, we decided to open up this place for public use," said Basuki Santoso, the association's deputy head of public relations and information.
Although he added that billiards "should just be pure sport because when it's mixed with entertainment people tend to lose their focus and concentration ..." the POBSI facility is already attracting a host of enthusiastic amateurs such as singers Jihan Fahira and Denada.
One of those won over by the concept of billiards for entertainment is Dian, a 21-year-old student who frequents Bengkel and Gardu.
"I was always interested in playing pool, but until a couple of years ago there weren't any places that were decent enough," she said, explaining that by "decent" she meant there was sufficient lighting, it was not too smoky, there was cool music -- and a cool crowd.
Tiyi, a high school student and model for teen magazines, said she never set foot in a pool hall in the days when she thought they were the exclusive domain of men, especially thugs.
Now, although she admits she does not play well, the pool hall is her hangout of choice.
"Here I can hang out with my friends, either play or watch other people play, and I don't have to worry about coming home past my curfew," she said. "When you go clubbing you have to arrive at least around midnight -- nobody goes clubbing at 10! When I do get to go, I can't stay for long because I have to be home by two."
She heads to the pool hall with her sister or friends -- "I don't know why but it's always easier to get permission to play pool than to go clubbing" -- at about 8 p.m. and plays until 11 p.m.
There is still enough time to fit in a short visit somewhere else before she goes home.
Anan's mother, Amyrna Leandra, said she felt comfortable knowing her daughter was out playing pool.
"I let her go because I know that it's only a game, and there is nothing wrong with that. It's good that she can have fun at it," she explained.
"As long as she doesn't get carried away and become addicted to it, of course! But I trust her."
For the moment, Anan and her friends have found that their place to be is the pool hall. But who knows how long the love affair will last in Jakarta, where everybody seems to be in a follow-the-leader act until the next trend comes along.