Inside China's snooker hothouse: The kids ditching school in search of their big break

Katie Stallard, Asia Correspondent
Sky News

The success of Chinese snooker star Ding Junhui has spawned a surge of interest in the sport - but the country's attempts to produce the next generation of world champions come at a significant cost for the children involved.

Sky News found children who had left school as young as 12 to pursue a career in snooker at a specialist training centre in Beijing.

While their peers are still studying in the classroom, snooker is now the sole education for these students.

They train from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, with a lunch break amongst the tables in the snooker hall.

Fourteen-year-old Liu Hao told us he left school aged 12 to move to the Chinese capital and train full-time at the elite World Snooker College.

He said both he and his parents understood the risks.

"My worry is if I cannot get a good score for snooker and cannot make my living by playing, I won't find a job without a diploma," Liu Hao explained.

"Then I cannot find a good job. But I think I should not worry too much now.

"I should do my best now. In the future what happens will happen."

Several others said they had also stopped going to school before the age of 16 to focus on the sport.

We put this to the college director, who said all students under 16 have the option of attending a local middle school, but it was the choice of their parents not to send them there, preferring that their children concentrate on snooker.

Enthusiasm for the sport has rocketed in China since Ding Junhui's victory in the World Under-21 Championship in 2002.

The most successful Asian snooker player in history, an estimated 210 million people watched him at the 2016 World Championship on Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, where he finished runner-up.

Five-time world champion Ronnie O' Sullivan has predicted Chinese players will dominate the sport within the next 10 years.

Luo Honghao, 17, told us he hopes to be among them.

"I'm hoping that I could win the World Championship, because for now no Chinese have won the World Championship." Luo Honghao explained between shots.

"I hope I could do it."

More than 1000 miles from home, and having been taken out of school for six months to find out if he has what it takes, 13-year-old Ma Hailong also has big dreams of success.

"My goal is to become world champion," he told us.

But the road to world domination is long and the training schedule tough.

We saw the tearful teenager being comforted by his coach after being knocked out of the morning's competition.

"I think I didn't play very well," he said, clearly upset, "[My opponent] was stronger than me."

Later that day, Ma Hailong was back at the table, apparently undeterred by his older, and significantly taller, opponent's size.

We asked the head of the sport's governing body what happens to the students who do not make it to the top ranks, and the level of stardom of Ding Junhui.

"Firstly, they can become coaches at billiards schools, or teachers in clubs," said Wang Tao, Secretary-General of China Billiards and Snooker Association.

"They can also work in the billiards industry selling equipment."

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