Men in black


Posted by Bert VAN MANEN on June 8, 2013

Bert van ManenTruth be told, I’ve never even seen that movie. But the title always reminds me of our referee corps, those anonymous men and women who stand on their feet for hours, paying attention while we play billiards. What a thankless job that is! They make Calcutta sweatshop money (or none at all), and the only time they get noticed is when they make a mistake.

But let’s have a little fun at their expense first, shall we? There’s time for praise later.

On the “district” level, here’s the ref who will NOT make it higher up in the hierarchy: stationary guy. He’s not too fond of all that strolling around, so he uses a table or the adjacent billiard to lean against. He’s comfy there, that’s his spot for the next 8 or 10 innings. You give him the “wtf are you doing over there” – look, but he has the “you just play, I’ll referee” – stare back. If you miss your next shot by a big margin, he announces  the zero with a little triumph in his voice. “Told you I could see it from here”.  We shake his hand after the match, but what we say under our breath is unfit for publication.

On the regional level, they get better. But there is one ref from long ago I will never forget. We called him the crotch-ref: whenever you went down on the shot, your cue was always pointing at his fly. I guess he had a special instinct to pick the one place where you should NOT stand. His timing was equal to his positioning:  you looked at a shot, went down, made a few warm-up strokes, and JUST when you were about to hit the ball, he took two steps to get a better view. Adding insult to injury, he always called the miss just a few seconds too early, the cue-ball still rolling and two feet from the target. If one day I arrive at the pearly gates, and Saint Peter asks me why I should be allowed into heaven, my answer will be: “I did not kill the crotch-ref”.

On the national level, they know from where to watch, of course. Top refs understand the game, they can anticipate the shots. These are not humble foot soldiers anymore, they are experts themselves. Proud of it, too. We had one, with a distinguished career, who saw the billiard room as a theater stage where the supporting actors were changed from week to week, but he always had the starring role.  On those Sunday afternoons he shone, his magnificent voice boomed. His attire was always immaculate, his posture regal, his enunciation a rival to Laurence Olivier’s. Daniel, Dick, Torbjörn and Eddy may have had their good and bad days, but HIS performance was always dazzling. For more than three decades, the man gave it his honest best, and he never realized he was a bad referee.

So what about the good ones? They serve us like British butlers. They are invisible, they don’t take  credit, but they get things done. As long as you are happy, they are happy. A good referee is forgotten in seconds, because there is nothing that sticks in your mind. Potholes, you remember. Smooth asphalt, not. All your focus, all the attention of the spectators was on the game, none was on the refereeing. No bad calls, no bad positioning, no mispronounced names, no incidents. If they have provided you with accurate scorekeeping, perfect match conditions, a playing field as level as, eh… a billiard table, you are most likely to forget to say “thank you” after the match.

Good referees blend into their environment like Zelig. But they have a spine. A top notch ref must sometimes make a split-second decision that will have serious consequences. And the players he or she has served so well, are not going to be helpful. They have famous names, intimidating personalities, sometimes aggressive body-language, and they use it all to suggest that their point was good. They get out of their seats, to make it clear their opponent’s point wasn’t. They can pile on the pressure in an instant. Not because they are cheats: their competitive instinct kicks in, and they need the help of a strong ref with calm authority. Because they can’t help themselves.

If you are weak, hesitant, gullible, they will eat you alive.

The man or woman in black must be confident enough to send a legend to the chair, to tell a genius that he’s missed. Wannabee referees: if you are arrogant, you’ll never make it. But if you are a wimp: not a chance either. A steely sort of humble is what we’re looking for.

Here’s a little clip that illustrates rather well what can happen in a pressure situation. You are the ref, there is money at stake, and prestige, and a title. A shot is played, balls collide and all of a sudden a tournament victory hangs on fractions of an inch and tens of a second. Were you positioned correctly? Are you positive about what you saw? Can you stand up to TB and MZ, both with VERY firm opinions about the matter?

As I’ve said before, the world of snooker is miles ahead of us. Referees like Jan Verhaas and Michaela Tabb are fulltime pro’s and make decent money. Not ever will the 3-cushion sport be able to offer that to its corps in black & white, and some of them are every bit as competent as Jan and Michaela. The one thing we COULD do, is give them a little more credit for their work, especially if they do it well. To start that off: If ever, over the past 35 years, I have forgotten to thank a ref, I want him or her to look back on that, and conclude: “I must have been excellent”.