Nation Enunciate

Stuff that matters

Despite being a British invention, table tennis has rarely thrown up a household name in the country of its origin. In recent times, with the exception of Desmond Douglas in the mid-1970s, only Chester Barnes, who has died aged 74, has been able to emerge from the sport to become a nationally recognised figure.

Barnes, who plied his trade in a slightly earlier era than Douglas, was known as much for his larger-than-life personality as for the five English championships he won from 1963 to 1974. In an era of sporting mavericks he was bracketed in the public consciousness with the long-haired rebellion of George Best, and the air of subversive excitement that surrounded him did much to raise the profile of table tennis, which went through something of a boom during his best years. The sport was regularly televised then, but even when Barnes played in run-of-the-mill county matches, sports centres would be sold out with crowds of several thousand people, all keen to see what he might serve up.

Though charismatic and funny, Barnes possessed a volatile bloody-mindedness that frequently brought him into conflict with the authorities, leading him either to flounce out of, or be banned from, various teams and tournaments. He stopped playing competitively at the age of 28, after which he spent time performing a table tennis cabaret act before making a surprise move into horse racing, where – despite having no previous experience – he became an ebullient and long-serving assistant to the highly successful jumps trainer Martin Pipe.

Born in Forest Gate, east London, Barnes was christened George but was known from infancy as Chester, after the comedian Charlie Chester. While at Forest Gate county high school, he attended a youth club run by Len Hoffman, a local table tennis coach. At the age of 12 Chester went with the youth club on a week’s break to a Butlin’s holiday camp in Clacton in Essex, where he was made “boy of the week” for his prowess on the table tennis table and was given tuition by the England international Harry Venner. Thereafter, under Hoffman’s watchful eye, he began to take the game seriously.

Within three years Barnes had won the men’s singles title at the English national championships, dazzling opponents with his mastery of the revolutionary new art of loop spin and becoming the youngest player ever to win the title. Two further national championship titles followed in 1964 and 1965 – making it three in a row at the ages of 15, 16 and 17.

Even by that point, however, Barnes had been running into trouble. A bad loser in his early days, he would often refuse to shake hands with opponents, and had upset the game’s officialdom by complaining in the press about being ranked too low. Soon after his first national title win, he missed out on England selection because he was absent for no good reason from a tournament featuring the country’s top 10 players.

Nonetheless, over the next few years the notoriety he gained from his various spats, allied to his showmanship, his mop-like hair and his boy wonder status, began to pay dividends. He signed a sponsorship contract with the Fred Perry clothing company, did some modelling, had his own fanclub and, aside from appearances on television in international matches, was in demand for lively small-screen interviews and guest appearances. Later he had his own agent, hung around with the likes of Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood, used a gimmicky square bat that was marketed under his own name, and drove a pink E-type Jaguar with the typically combative number plate FU 2. At the tender age of 22 he released an entertaining autobiography, More Than a Match (1969), followed by three instructional books.

Barnes continued to have success on the national stage throughout the 60s and early 70s, including by winning a string of regional open titles and representing England more than 250 times. His fourth and fifth English national titles arrived in 1971 and 1974, and he also won the English men’s doubles championship five times between 1965 and 1971.

However, in the world and European championships Barnes never fulfilled his potential, and indeed was occasionally criticised for failing to put in much effort. In the world singles, his best result was to reach the last 16 in 1964 and 1966.

His early retirement in 1975 came as a disappointment to his many admirers, but Barnes made a good job of taking his skills to clubs, holiday camps and cruise liners, where he would perform tricks on the table and play matches against all-comers with a frying pan.

It was on that circuit that he met Pipe, a table tennis enthusiast who had then recently embarked on a racehorse training career in Somerset. Pipe, a shy character, fed off Barnes’s non-stop chatter, and in quick order asked him to become his assistant. It was an inspired appointment, as his new friend’s support helped the idiosyncratic Pipe to become Britain’s foremost National Hunt trainer from 1988 to 2005, during which time he was champion jumps trainer 15 times. “Chester was the linchpin of my life, the heart and soul of our team,” said Pipe. Among other things, he ran the stable’s premium-rate phone line and wrote a jokey daily blog, Chester’s Chat. When Pipe retired in 2006 Barnes continued to be employed by Pipe’s son, David.

He is survived by his third wife, Jane, a son, Lester, and a daughter, Joanne.