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Chester Barnes, charismatic table tennis player who later went into horse racing – obituary

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 26/03/2021 Telegraph Obituaries
a man in a dark room: Chester Barnes in 1972 with his distinctive square bat: it conferred no aerodynamic advantage but enabled him to stand out from the pack - Colorsport/Shutterstock © Colorsport/Shutterstock Chester Barnes in 1972 with his distinctive square bat: it conferred no aerodynamic advantage but enabled him to stand out from the pack - Colorsport/Shutterstock

Chester Barnes, who has died aged 74, reigned supreme in British table tennis in the 1960s and 1970s; in retirement he changed direction and went into horse racing, becoming an assistant trainer with Martin Pipe.

Though he was cheerful and well-liked, he was often a controversial figure in his first sporting incarnation, frequently clashing with Britain’s table tennis officials. But at the height of his fame he was one of Britain’s best-known sportsmen, becoming friends with Rod Stewart, and beating Ronnie Wood at the table. And, like George Best and Alex “Hurricane” Higgins, he attracted as many headlines at the front of the paper as at the back.

With the charisma, and long hair, of a pop star, Barnes took the way the game was played to new heights, imparting hitherto unseen levels of spin that made many of his shots unplayable. He was also noted for his square bat – which gave no aerodynamic advantage but did set him apart from the pack.

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George Barnes was born on January 27 1947 at Forest Gate in east London. He was never called George, however, and was reportedly named after the star of The Charlie Chester Show on the radio.

He was something of a sporting prodigy, first picking up a bat aged 10; at school he was an all-rounder, picked for the cricket, swimming and athletics teams. He attended coaching sessions at Essex CCC – where, he recalled, the experience of facing the fast bowlers turned him to table tennis as a safer alternative; moreover, he admitted, he was never much of a team player.

He became serious about table tennis at the age of 12 when he went with his youth club to Butlin’s at Clacton; he spent the entire week at the table, coached by the England international Harry Venner. He began winning junior competitions – he returned to Clacton to win the News of the World trophy – and at 16 became the youngest ever winner of the England Closed Championship, retaining his title over the next two years. A few weeks before his 17th birthday he was England’s No 1.

a man sitting on a table: 16-year-old Chester with his trophies - Keystone/Getty Images © Provided by The Telegraph 16-year-old Chester with his trophies - Keystone/Getty Images

The man he had overhauled, Ian Harrison, had occupied the top slot for the previous four years, but he and Barnes became good friends and, soon, international team-mates. One Saturday afternoon they were due to play an East Germany side live on Grandstand, but when the visitors were delayed they went ahead and played an exhibition match that was watched by millions and did much to raise the profile of the sport: for a while it was popular as darts and snooker.

Though technically an amateur, Barnes acquired a manager, signed a host of endorsement deals and took up modelling. He was national champion five times, though along the way he left a trail of bust-ups and suspensions.

Barnes was a serial winner at all levels – junior and senior, singles and doubles, national and international. He retained a high world ranking despite Britain’s low status compared to the likes of the Chinese and Japanese.

a man riding a motorcycle down a dirt road: Barnes on his Vespa in 1964 - Robert Stiggins/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images © Provided by The Telegraph Barnes on his Vespa in 1964 - Robert Stiggins/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the early 1970s, following another run-in with officialdom, he announced his retirement. But in 1974 he made a comeback for the national championships at Crystal Palace, where he was pitted against his great rival, and replacement No 1, Denis Neale – who ramped up the stakes by declaring that if he lost to Barnes he would walk over to the nearby Olympic-size swimming pool and jump fully clothed off the 10 m board.

What Neale failed to appreciate was that Barnes had been practising in secret, adding even more spin to his armoury of shots. In what was seen as the biggest showdown in British table tennis history, Neale had no answer to the returning maestro’s blizzard of winners. After the final point he strode to the pool, with journalists and much of the 1,000-strong crowd in pursuit. He said a mock prayer as he stood on the board, then took the plunge.

But the following year Barnes turned his back on the competitive game for good and turned professional, becoming a travelling exhibition player, touring the holiday camps – the milieu that had sparked his own sporting epiphany. With his departure, table tennis itself faded back into relative obscurity.

a person with a racket: In action in 1972: three years later, he left the competitive game for good - Gregory Noakes/Fairfax Media via Getty Images © Provided by The Telegraph In action in 1972: three years later, he left the competitive game for good - Gregory Noakes/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Barnes’s move into horse racing came about when Martin Pipe, who fancied himself as a table tennis player, set up a match with Barnes – who, according to one telling of the story, used a saucepan rather than a bat. “He beat me 21-0,” Pipe recalled, “but I discovered his love for racing.”

A putative riding career ended after two days on the gallops and a broken wrist, but for many years Barnes spent his summer playing holiday-camp table tennis and his winters working for Pipe at his Somerset HQ. In time be became the champion trainer’s trusted and valued sidekick – described in a 1996 profile of Pipe as his “assistant, chauffeur and resident court jester”.

He was by Pipe’s side as the operation expanded, becoming one of the most successful in Britain – and loved his boss’s determination to seek out what became known in sporting circles as the pursuit of “marginal gains.” In 1997 he recalled: “Martin and I used to go round Henry Cecil’s yard posing as buyers and stuffing our pockets with his oats and hay so we could analyse it. You need a lot of luck in racing, but Martin does his best to minimise it.”

At Newbury races in 1993 - Colorsport/Shutterstock © Provided by The Telegraph At Newbury races in 1993 - Colorsport/Shutterstock

Barnes suffered from diabetes, and in 1993 had two heart attacks in one day. “When I came round all my mates asked me if I’d seen a light at the end of a tunnel,” he recalled. “I couldn’t see anything, not even West Ham winning the League.”

Barnes also ran the successful “Pipeline” tipping service, then when Martin Pipe retired in 2006 carried on working with his son David. “He was never short of a laugh or a joke,” David Pipe recalled, while Martin said: “He was the linchpin of my life. He cheered me up when we lost and we enjoyed winning together.”

Chester Barnes was married three times, each time to schoolteachers. “I must like a caning,” he said. He is survived by his third wife, Jane, and by a son and daughter.

Chester Barnes, born January 27 1947, died March 18 2021  

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