Interview with Ian Gilbee on Friday 30th June 2017 at Frankston, Victoria.
Interviewed by Mark Dunn on behalf of Australian Billiards.
MD. English Billiards is a game wrapped deeply in traditions, characters, smoky rooms and “strange” rules. Where did it all start for Ian Gilbee?
IG. Born in Eaglehawk (Bendigo) in July 1938. One older brother and one surviving younger sister. Dad worked on a family owned Eucalyptus farm and life was pretty basic for the Gilbees.
MD. And what type of scholar was young Ian Gilbee?
IG. Suffice to say I left school the day before my 14th birthday and got a job at the Beehive Departmental Store in Bendigo 3 days later. Rose to the lofty position of Sales Assistant after 3 years then worked on night shift at Bendigo Advertiser before joining Vic Railways as a steam engine cleaner at age 18. Progressed to become an engine fireman and after an 8-year apprenticeship qualified to become driver/fireman in 1964 then classified Driver General Class in 1968. Married to Betty in 1962; 1st son born 1964; daughter 1966 & 2nd son 1969. Retired in 1991 and moved down to present home in Rosebud in 2008.
MD. How did you come to get involved in the game of Billiards, Ian?
IG. As a 14-year-old, when working at the Beehive, my best mate Ken “Fatty” Gordon would meet up for lunch most days to watch the young fillies go by. One particular day I noticed a sign on the building opposite where we sat in Hargreaves Street Bendigo, saying Centenary Billiard Room and as we’d previously had a game of billiards on a work colleagues home dining/billiard table, we decided to check it out. The room manager said we had to be 18 to play but we could stay & watch the old guys in the corner playing billiards if we liked. Almost everyone else was playing snooker of course. So we used to come and eat our lunch and watch the old guys. And they played only open style as they probably had never heard of or seen top of the table. Hence my love of open play billiards perhaps.
MD. And when did you start playing more seriously?
IG. We heard that there were billiard tables available to juniors in the Mechanics Institute in Eaglehawk. We used to get home from work, have dinner, then cycle 3 miles down to the Institute and get home about 11pm. There was no coaching, we just learned from watching the other players.
When I joined the Railways at 18, I became aware of the various Railway Institutes and that they had billiard tables so I made my way to the Bendigo VRI and commenced playing A Grade billiards though I knew virtually nothing about break building. The memory of that time will linger with me my entire life as I won the 2nd level high break competition with a 79 as an 18-year-old.
Over the next few years, I moved around a few clubs in Bendigo, at one time playing at the Rambler’s Club where I came into contact with Phil Tarrant, who will be well known to many of your readers. Phil was an incredible and complicated character, professional tennis & squash coach and self-taught at billiards. I vividly recall one day pulling the balls out for him as he made a 554 break!!
MD. And when did you start moving up the rankings, so to speak?
IG. I left Bendigo for Wonthaggi in 1973 and didn’t play competitively again until I moved to Lilydale in 1976 and joined the Melbourne VRI, playing D Grade in the old Flinders Street Billiard Room. Not long after, Gordon Sexton invited me to join the RACV Club as I was showing a bit of promise and the stronger players such as Jim Long & David Collins would help my game develop. It took me 2 seasons to work my way into the A Grade team and finally made my first 100 break.
I enjoyed my years at RACV club, especially the years of playing No.2 to David Collins. By watching and playing with him, I am sure that experience helped me on the path of what success I have ever had. David may not be quite the player he was and his TOT play may not be quite as good but make no mistake he is still a great champion. A vivid memory I have of him in a pennant match when his opponent broke and played the almost perfect traditional break. David played a perfect cannon and went on to make 220 with his first visit, I class that as one of the best breaks I have seen and will take that memory to my final resting place with me I am sure. It was David who first suggested I should enter state & national titles.
MD. What was that first experience like?
IG. My first National competition was in Perth and my first game was against a young lad who had just come from winning the Australian Under 21 title at age 14(I think). I led nearly all the way in that match but this young boy made a 107 break to get up and beat me and that was the one and only time I ever got close to Matthew Bolton; what a champion he has turned out to be.
MD. So that would have been about 25 years ago. And what is/are your best results at National events?
IG. My proudest moments are getting to the Semi Finals of Open & National Australian Championships in 2002. I defeated Joe Minici in the quarter final in one & Phil Tarrant in the quarter final in the other. The two trophies I received for that will go to my grave with me.
MD. For the purists, high break, cue brand & tip size?
IG. Competition is 168 against John Schenk in Victorian Championships and practise is 313 against Ian Gilbee at home. I have a Barracuda 19oz. cue care of my old mate Ron Stecum and I use a 9mm size tip.
MD. Who are some of the interesting characters you have played with and against? I know of two in Eric Worsley and Mac Rynkiewicz, but who else?
IG. Back in my Bendigo days, a local player named Basil Tonkin made the most impression on me at a time when I was developing my own game. Basil played a very open style of billiards, which I admired, and could also play Top of the Table. He was a very learned and gentlemanly man and could make a 100 break as easily as any of the top players.
MD. Favourite player to watch?
IG. Matthew Bolton is a world class player and wonderful to watch. Of the international’s I’ve seen most of the top players, Peter Gilchrist, Mike Russell and the many Indian players. I watched Mike one time miss a simple shot after making a 700+ break and asked him afterwards how he could have missed it. “I’m only human” was his response.
MD. And the half-ball game rather than top of the table?
IG. I’ve always had a fascination with that style of game and having never been coached in TOT found it more to my liking. It’s not the preferred way to make the big breaks but I enjoy it just the same.
MD. And the future?
IG. I have only missed playing in a few state, national & world titles (those few held in Australia) and will play as long as I possibly can because the game has been so wonderful to be part of. The friendships made, the respect players have for each other, not to mention the skill level of some of these players. I know I am now in my twilight years (79) and my half-ball style will not get any better, but I am always there to help any players with my limited talent & knowledge learned from all the great players I have met over those years.
Since moving to the peninsula to live, I have become a member of the Frankston RSL B&S club where I have a keen band of members who want to learn more so I am trying to help them along and thoroughly enjoy doing that. There is also the Over 55’s daytime comp where we run 2 teams and am very proud to say & it’s very satisfying to me to say I started those teams at Frankston and we have had 1 premiership & 2 runners-up, at the same time giving the older players a chance to still enjoy a competitive game. l have an icon of the game in 91year old Ron Stecum, a very dear friend from RACV days, still playing in my team and still enjoying every game he plays. And he still does not wear glasses!!
MD. An outside of Billiards, who are your sporting favourites (need I ask)?
IG. As a very loyal Geelong fan, due to 1950’s premiership player Peter Pianto being a local Bendigo lad, there will never be another player like Gary Ablett Senior.
MD. I’ve finished my list of questions, Ian. Anything else you’d like to add?
IG. I would just like to say that I think Jason Colebrook is the Gary Ablett of Australian Billiards with the way he has influenced the growth of the game in Australia. He’s doing a fantastic job, even to the extent of his own high-level game suffering with the sheer volume of work he does. (MD. This last bit was completely unprompted by me, I swear).
MD. Ian Gilbee, thanks for sharing. And on behalf of the members at Frankston RSL Billiards & Snooker Section, thanks for sparking a renewed interest in this great game.