There is a difference between passion and obsession. You can have different degrees of passion but obsession is just one. I was obsessed
A lot has changed in India over the past three decades. Shortages of everything have disappeared and jobs are aplenty for those with minimum qualifications. Not only is India closely linked to the world, but is also leading the shift of economic gravity from the West to the East. India is a different country today. The only thing common between 1985 and 2006 is the image of a handsome, eagle-eyed, wiry man, leaning across a billiards table on the verge of completing another of his masterful strokes. Geet Sethi, 46, picked up a billiards cue at the age of 13 and went on to win his first World billiards title in 1985. He won his most recent one in 2006 taking his tally of professional World titles to seven -- a feat that has made him a legend in a game where India now has had a tradition of creating World champions ever since Wilson Jones did the country proud. Naturally, he has also swept all the top sporting honours in the country including the Arjuna Award, the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna and the Padma Shri. His inspirational book titled Success vs. Joy was released in 2005 to rave reviews.
How has the career of this World champion and an MBA at the age of 21 evolved? There is plenty to learn from this hugely talented, persevering, sensitive and thoughtful person from a fascinating, superbly successful and sometimes turbulent journey spanning three decades
ML: When and how did you get interested in billiards?
Sethi: My father was in civil aviation and worked as an air traffic controller. He was transferred to Ahmedabad when I was around eight years old. I have always been keen on sports -- basketball, volleyball, cricket, etc. There was a gymkhana near the airport and my father became, what was called, a service member. That is where I saw a billiard table for the first time. Typically, the billiards room is dark and dingy. In this case, there was a six-inch square hole covered by glass on the door and I would peep into the room from outside. For a child it seemed like a different world -- dark, with a powerful light above the table. It was very attractive. I was desperate to play but the age limit was 18, or may be even 21. I used to excel in swimming; I was a state-level swimmer and I played a decent game of badminton as well. But when I was around 13, the ministry of sports sent out circulars to all clubs in India that they should encourage juniors to participate in billiards and relax the age limit to 12 so that we can have junior nationals. Our club acted on it and 30-40 of us were suddenly playing billiards. I was like a fish taking to water.
ML: Who taught you initially?
Sethi: Nobody really. It was the marker, who was about my age or may be a couple of years older. He also wanted to improve his game and we would mark for each other. Within a year, I won the junior nationals -- the first ever -- in Jamshedpur in 1976. I was 15 at that time.
ML: What happened during that year? Was it natural talent or hard work, or some kind of inspiration -- what turned you into a champion?
Sethi: I was completely obsessed. Just a few days ago, I read somewhere that there is a difference between passion and obsession. You can have different degrees of passion but obsession is just one. I was obsessed. That’s what described my mental state at that time. Almost overnight, I stopped every kind of sport.
ML: And studies?
Sethi: I actually stopped studies too (laughs). My father had come from Pakistan with nothing in his pocket so it was very important to him that I study. But I guess obsession reveals itself to the onlooker. And my dad recognised it too. He used to say, “buddy you play, how much ever you want to, just get me a first division”. In those days, first division used to be an important benchmark. So, I used to play for about eight months and, two months before the exam, I used to put my cue aside and immerse myself in studies. Almost every year, except one, I managed to get a first division. I lived up to my side of the bargain and he never interfered with my playing. In 1974-75, when I started, what did I have? A cycle and a club that was a kilometre away from home.
ML: Who were you practising with?
Sethi: I was playing with other juniors and even seniors. This is a game you can play with anybody. Ultimately, you have to play with yourself. In fact, when you are learning, it is better to play on your own.
ML: Why so?
Sethi: Because you are honing your skills at that stage. So you need to practise continuously -- play the same shots over and over again. To get your mind and body coordination right, to develop the eye, you’ve got to keep at it all by yourself. So, I kept going, learning all by myself, after winning the junior title in 1976. From 1978, I started becoming the senior number one in the state. In 1981, I reached the finals and won the senior title, beating Michael Ferreira who had just returned to India with his third World title. That made a big difference. On a competitive platform, it gave me the confidence that I can make a profession out of it. When you beat a three-time World champion, it subconsciously gives you a great deal of strength.
ML: At some stage, your family had to accept that this is going to be a profession for you. Were there lots of discussions and doubts?
Sethi: My dad probably had some angst about my career, but strangely I just never had the bandwidth or the time to even think about what I am going to do; or how is it going to happen. I was so immersed in what I was doing. And because I was so immersed, I did well and the doors kept opening up. Amazingly, just after I defeated Michael Ferreira, I also got admission to an MBA programme. My dad was thrilled. But that was the time I perhaps made a conscious decision that I will make billiards and snooker my profession.
ML: How did you complete your MBA? It’s demanding.
Sethi: I did very poorly. I flunked. I got a ‘D’ in various subjects. I was playing tournaments all the time. The college had a re-test and I think I did badly there too. But the college authorities probably felt: just get the guy out (laughs). When you really focus on one thing very strongly, other things just arrange themselves; at least, they did in my case. So I never had to really go through the agony of whether I will make a career out of this or not.
ML: You worked in Tomco (Tata Oil Mills Company, later acquired by Hindustan Lever) as a sportsperson. How did it happen?
Sethi: I finished my MBA and someone from the Karnataka Billiards Association told me that there is this guy in Air India at Bangalore who can help me join Air India as a sportsperson and that would allow me to fly around for my tournaments. I went to Bangalore and waited for about seven hours outside his office to meet him. In the end, I was told he was too busy. I took the evening flight back to Mumbai. On the flight, someone comes to me and says, “You are the guy who defeated Michael Ferreira”. I said yes. “My name is VK Bali and I am the president of Tomco. I have just got Michael into Tomco”. He then asked me to see him the next day. When I met him, he said “Welcome to Tomco”. Then he added: “we would want you to win a World title. A national title is not good enough. For that, you need to practise a lot. So, if I see you in office, I will sack you”. It was incredible. I stayed with Tomco and then, in 1994, when Hindustan Lever took over the company, I left.
ML: And you played both billiards and snooker.
Sethi: I used to. In India, I won both the snooker and billiards title for four consecutive years between 1985 and 1988. I was the first amateur in the world to make 147 in snooker, which is clearing the whole table in a competition. But the reality is that I was not a good snooker player at the international level, only at the Indian level. But I was a damn good billiards player. By 1988-89, I realised that I needed to make a choice and focus on only one thing. It was not like making a choice between HR and finance, but between specialising in treasury management and mergers & acquisitions in finance. It was that kind of call which I made in 1991. I just stopped playing snooker.
ML: We say that India is a cricket-obsessed nation and then there is our record in hockey but this is the game in which we have so many World titles. How did it happen?
Sethi: Partly, tradition. Tradition plays a strong role in instilling the subconscious belief I talked of. I keep shouting from the rooftops. Michael has three World titles. I have eight. Others have four among themselves. But all these put together cannot match the first title won by Wilson Jones. He came from a very underprivileged background. For his first World title, he had to travel a month by ship. He stayed in Bob Marshall’s garage. We are talking of the 1950s, when there was so much of racism. Bob Marshall was the World champion at that time. Wilson defied every kind of barrier -- economic, social, and geographical -- and got India its first World title. His World title was India’s first in any sport after Independence. After Wilson won, it created confidence in Michael. That is why tradition is so important. It is like Michael plays with Wilson Jones, the World champion. He almost beats him and then he does not. Then one day, when Wilson is a bit off-colour, a highly charged Michael wins a game from him. He has just won a game against the World champion, may be on a bad day for the champion but it is enough to create a belief that he can do it. That creates winners and a tradition. You tell yourself, I am going to practise harder. This has been passed on from Michael to me and further. Michael whacked me by 2,000 points in a match but, after a while, it was down to 1,000 points and, the next time, it was only 400 points and then one day, I beat him and then kept beating him. The same goes with Pankaj Advani. After he beat me, his belief in himself went up. It is a subconscious belief. I am a great believer in the subconscious. We need to work on our subconscious to perform consistently.
ML: Were you aware of how it works at that time or have you discovered it later?
Sethi: I became aware of it in the last three years.
ML: What were the things that worked for you and helped you become a World champion?
Sethi: At that time, I believe it was the background -- the lack of affluence and monotony. These are great building blocks. There has to be an element of monotony to build concentration and for your skills to flourish in any field. I use monotony in the positive sense. I had a cycle; I had a billiard table and nothing else. Through monotony, you develop skills; those skills fetch you pleasure and the pleasure becomes an addiction and creates a self-reinforcing cycle.
ML: Today, there is more money in sports and there is sponsorship. What was the situation in your early days? We remember Michael Ferreira used to be very bitter about the lack of support.
Sethi: That was an era when Sunil Gavaskar got Rs250 for playing a test match. Not only was there no sponsorship but, in the blinkered view of many in the government, billiards was an elitist sport. After Michael became the World champion, he shouted a lot; because of that, when I won the national title and he reached the semi-final in 1985, for the first time, we got live coverage.
ML: Rajiv Gandhi came and inaugurated the championship…
Sethi: Yes, that is how we got live coverage and it was great for the sport. I have also shouted about lack of support, though not like Michael, because the conditions had changed. But I remember having gone up to Margaret Alva and vented my anger about a particular incident.
ML: What had happened?
Sethi: It was 1987 and I was travelling to Belfast to defend the World title. The government used to sanction $10 a day at that time. It was only a sanction, based on which you could buy foreign exchange. The ticket was released on the last day. I went to Belfast and after coming back went straight to her office. I said: “what the hell are you doing sitting in that chair when a World champion is not able to get $10 to travel and defend his title”? To be fair, she was a committed person and she called her officers and fired them but it was too little, too late. Things changed bit by bit after that. In the last 10 years, there has been a significant change in the attitude of the government and sports authorities. Earlier, the government did not think that sport was a priority. We are a poor nation. We need to provide drinking water; we needed to provide education; and sport came pretty low down among our priorities. Now, there is a definite shift. Some eight years ago, they started an incentive scheme. If you win an Asian gold, you get Rs20 lakh; you win an Olympic gold, you win Rs1 crore. It is tax-free money. This has changed the way athletes think. Even though there is no corporate sponsorship, it is a good enough incentive.
ML: Coming back to your career, you went through a series of ups and downs, and at the age one retires, you have won another World title…
Sethi: When I started off, I did not get any formal coaching; I just started playing. Apparently, I had been playing with a faulty technique for a long time, in terms of the stance and how I held the cue, etc. Amazingly, there were three faults in my play and somehow they were cancelling each other and the ball was going straight; I was even holding the cue wrong! I won two World titles with that faulty technique! What happens with a faulty technique is that a small change somewhere in your grip and stance and your game collapses. In my case, of the three wrongs that made the right shot, if one changed the slightest bit, the other two wrongs messed up the shot because there was no correct reference point. I had not learnt it. So, one fine day, my game simply collapsed. Can you believe it? I was the World champion, had played exquisite billiards and I simply could not pot a ball!
ML: When did you realise it?
Sethi: When I played professional snooker. A slight change in my shoulder and the ball went haywire. It is a slow process but, once it gets exposed, it is downhill. You miss easy shots and you are baffled. You don’t know what is happening. Because you miss easy shots, insecurity creeps in, doubts creep into your mind and you do even worse. It is a vicious cycle. In 1990-91, I was based in England and playing the professional circuit. I was losing every match. For four months in 1990, and then again for four months in 1991, I was losing every match. I realised my technique was faulty. Then I started talking to various players and coaches and got a few basic tips. I came back to Ahmedabad and told myself that I am going to unlearn everything and learn billiards all over again.
ML: Again? All by yourself, again?
Sethi: Yes. Well, this time with a mirror in the front and one in the back.
ML: What about getting a coach or talking to other players, since India did produce so many top billiards players?
Sethi: Amazingly, Wilson Jones had a faulty technique and Michael Ferreira did not have the best of techniques either.
ML: How long was this phase of re-learning?
Sethi: It was an intensely frustrating two years of unlearning and re-learning. I practised almost 15 hours a day, sometimes playing all through the night, till 4 or 5 in the morning. Sometimes, I would wake up in the middle of the night, bending in front of the mirror. I almost went mad. I really felt that I was losing my mind. It was excruciatingly painful from the mental perspective. It was literally learning from scratch. By 1992, I was playing with a good technique. It obviously takes time. Then, one day, it just clicked. It fell into place. I played better, played more consistently and felt much better.
ML: Of the people you have played with, you have said that you and Mike Russell are great rivals and great friends. What impresses you the most about him?
Sethi: He is a fantastic player in both skills and technique. And he is an obsessive and intense personality. He is a street fighter. He is from a working class background. One of the things I picked up from him is that he comes half an hour before the match, sits near the table and just stares at it. There is a meaning behind this. One, your eyes are getting used to the light and, two, your mind is just switching off everything else; you are completely focused.
ML: Did these experiences lead to you writing your book Success vs. Joy? How did that come about?
Sethi: By 1997-98, I had six World titles. I was playing very consistently. But, strangely, I was anticipating that now is the time for the law of diminishing returns to kick in. It was an insidious process that started in 1994. I started practising less and I won the last two World titles virtually without any practice. I do not mean to say this arrogantly but as a matter of fact. I started questioning myself about the purpose of the game itself. It is such a physical, monotonous thing to do -- put a ball in a hole. For instance, somebody can shell 500 peas a minute and enter the Guinness Book of World Records. Am I not doing something similar? It is just a mechanical thing, I had mastered. Where is the mental fulfilment in this?
ML: Why did you feel that way?
Sethi: It just happened. I started raising these issues in my mind because I was not enjoying the game anymore. I said to myself there is more to life than billiards and let me explore it. And there was, indeed, much more to life than billiards. To hone my skills, I was practising for 14 hours a day. That doesn’t give you any time and opportunity to do anything else. You are limited in relationship building; your networking skills are zero; your knowledge is limited, if you do not read much. You are pretty dumb that way and sports people need to be dumb to excel. For instance, knowledge and awareness will take your mind to different planes whereas, as a player, you need to be totally focused. So, I started talking to people, reading and opening up my mind. As a part of that process, I wanted to go to ColumbiaUniversity to do a course in technology -- in systems analysis and data management. This was in 2000 and dotcom was really hot. Rediff had been launched by then. A friend of mine, also a snooker player, called me up and said, “Let’s do a sports portal”. We calculated that there were 68 cricket portals but nothing on any other sport. We wanted to highlight that there is more to Indian sports than cricket. It was exciting but I had already enrolled myself at Columbia. To which, my friend said, “Don’t worry; you come during the semester breaks. I will handle things”.
ML: Was that portal khiladi.com?
Sethi: Yes. We started khiladi.com but the minute we got started, I got completely immersed in the business. We hired people, put in our own money and then the dotcom bust happened. We suddenly realised that we cannot do this on our own and merged with Sify.com. Ramaraj, the CEO, was keen that I run things in Mumbai. So, I was living in Mumbai for five days a week. That entire period -- of about four to five years -- there was no billiards in my life and I went through a whole gamut of emotions and experiences, euphoria, disappointment, etc. Whatever life had to offer other than billiards, I went through it. At the end of it, one day I picked up the phone, called Ram and said ‘bye’. Ram asked what happened. I said, “I am going to play billiards again”. This was the time I met Sunil Agarwal, who has been an obsessive billiards player with a table in his house. But he could never play well competitively. He cracked under pressure. He followed me around for years to figure out how I play under pressure. We wanted to document how my mind works and we went to a small village in Gujarat where there wasn’t even electricity. I just talked for seven days and he tape-recorded everything. And whatever clarity I have now about myself is because I went through every little thing about my life, about my technique or character-building or where I succumbed. It was a terrific experience. This was all in 2004 and I started playing billiards again.
ML: What was your distilled conclusion out of that process?
Sethi: I concluded that we are all born with a specific talent to do something. You are born to write. I cannot ask you to play sport. You will go mad. At the end of the day, the whole purpose is to understand yourself. That is the only way to excel. What prevents you from doing great stuff is only yourself. It is not something external. It’s your limitations, insecurity or weakness that limits your output. Once I realised that, I decided to enjoy the game and, to do that, I felt I had to be in the same situation I was in when I was 14. I had a cycle and a billiard table. How could I recreate that, now that I had a wife, kids, an ailing father and a small business? I switched off my mobile for eight months and bought a bike, though I gave up the bike after a while. But I went to the club every single day to practise. I stopped all interaction completely. And magically, I got my game back. I felt the same way I did in 1996. And then I succumbed again.
ML: What do you mean?
Sethi: Well, I am carrying a mobile phone now.
ML: Oh come on. You need a mobile.
ML: Because it makes your life simpler.
Sethi: That’s what you think. It is a huge distraction. Of course, in some professions, it is essential. But in many other professions, it is a distraction.
ML: What happened to your family during those eight months?
Sethi: Well, when I was in Mumbai once one of my friends called me up and said Kiran (my wife) is desperate to get in touch with you. Then I got a phone and gave the number only to her.
ML: So this process made you a World champion again in 2006?
Sethi: I won some domestic tournaments and then got back the World title after a gap of eight years. Then I went to the US and even won a world team snooker championship.
ML: You have got control over your mind and so what would be the limitation now?
Sethi: Eyesight. You can play till your eyesight is with you. You can play with specs but it is never the same as before.
ML: What is the key learning of that period?
Sethi: It is that once you are successful, social structures take you over and you get entrapped. Your lifestyle changes; you need to earn more money; you lose a bit of the focus; you are a celebrity and give interviews on things like how good is the budget and inane stuff like that. These are the corruptions that creep in -- like the flaws in technique -- and one day you are gone.
ML: Now that you have gone through all the ups and downs and the entire process of self-discovery, can you offer these insights to the youngsters?
Sethi: There is a saying that advice should be given only when asked for or in a life-threatening situation. And, when a youngster has won an international tournament, he neither asks for advice nor is it a life-threatening situation. Also, it is unfortunate that the realisation and insight that comes with experience is impossible for others to really comprehend -- without having gone through a similar process. Also, the situation has changed. Today’s youngsters have massive distractions but they also have far better facilities.
ML: You are an MBA and you are running a travel services business. Do you invest in the market?
Sethi: I do but I am not a good investor. I invest a bit in equities and a bit in mutual funds, but I am putting away a lot of money in fixed-income investments too.
ML: What is the best investment you have made so far in life? Not just financial investment but any kind of investment.
Sethi: Investment in life? Well, it is a good question.
ML: The game itself?
Sethi: Well, it is the means. For me, the best investment is the effort I have put in to understand the real purpose of my life. And, for me, it has come through the game. I don’t know if it would have come in any other way. I don’t know what I would have done without the game.