Snooker is the world's most skilled, absorbing, tactically subtle sport. Give it a break!

20 April 2013

The greatest event in the sporting calendar is on us once more: the World Professional Snooker Championship. With an opening sentence like that you’re probably expecting one of those ironically post-modern ‘let’s go slumming with the plebs’ pieces. Well don’t. I’m serious. Snooker is criminally undervalued. The next two weeks in Sheffield offer the finest entertainment sport can provide.

Yes, yes, I know the arguments. ‘Not a proper sport if you can play it while smoking a fag.’ Well that applies to cricket, as anyone who’s seen Phil Tufnell in a charity match can tell you. ‘Just a pub game.’ No, that’s pool. You try getting a 12 foot by 6 foot table into a boozer. ‘My God,’ pool dabblers always say on their first snooker shot, the baize stretching before them like Norfolk. ‘It’s so big.’

More than any other sport, snooker suffers from the problem of the pros making it look easy. Forget the waistcoats and the bow ties (snooker does aim the Uzi at its own feet sometimes) — what those boys can do with a simple wooden stick is incredible. Go on: name me another sport whose physical skill comes close. There isn’t one. Darts demands similar to-the-millimetre precision, but there the board is always the same, as is your position relative to it. Every tricky long red, on the other hand, is subtly different. Judd Trump and co. dispatch them in their sleep, though, often with sidespin and backspin to dictate where the cue ball finishes. Ronnie O’Sullivan can do it with either hand. Blacks off the spot are almost never missed, whereas football’s equivalent, the penalty, regularly fails to trouble the keeper. Yet somehow its players are worth 200 large a week. Eh?

Tactics. You want tactics? Snooker’s got tactics coming out of its baulk end. Most frames are like an episode of The Simpsons — to spot every nuance you’d have to watch them 19 times. ‘Chess with balls,’ they call it (come to think of it, both meanings apply). There was once a period of safety play where 25 minutes went by without a pot being made. ‘Oh hell,’ thought the TV producers, ‘this’ll have them turning off in droves.’ They got more requests to show the frame again than any other that season.


Excitement? The game’s uniquely designed to ratchet up the pressure: that yawning expanse of table gets perversely small when the business end of a frame comes round, every gram of tension penned in by the cushions. No way for the players to relieve it — no pitch to run around on, no bat to swing, no ballboy to shout petty and demeaning abuse at. How apt that the game’s spiritual home is the Crucible.

The players themselves? Like most sports, snooker takes place largely between the ears, but unlike most sports its participants have got something between the ears. I’ve interviewed Steve Davis, and, pace Spitting Image, he’s very interesting indeed, as astute an observer of the human condition as you could wish to meet. His transformation from invincible conqueror to seasoned sage is one of sport’s great character arcs. Davis has kept his place at the game’s top tables (just) by embracing life away from them; you don’t want to mess with him at poker these days. It echoes C.L.R. James’s comment on another sport of the mind: ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’

So why does snooker get such a kicking? Maybe people see all those pretty colours and think ‘game for kids’. Maybe they hear Willie Thorne doing the commentary and want to commit murder (memo to the game’s administrators: please can you point the Uzi at him instead?) But deep down, I think it’s because this country has become so depressingly, life-sappingly middle class. Snooker has always been one of those pursuits that terrifies Mr White Collar Privet Hedge but which the upper and working classes are happy to indulge in; a bit like swearing, fighting and sleeping with members of your extended family. It was the toffs what invented the game in the first place, when Army officers stationed in India during the Raj got bored of billiards. ‘Snooker’ was slang for an inexperienced cadet; one day a player missed an easy shot, and got called the s-word by his opponent. The name stuck.

The establishment’s connections continue to this day: the table at White’s is said to be the oldest in the world. At the other end of the club spectrum, meanwhile, working men also embraced the game. Which left the middle classes isolated, holding their noses. You’d think they’d appreciate snooker for the good example it sets youngsters. Players own up to their fouls even when the ref has missed them. Not one snooker player has ever sought an advantage by biting on a capsule of fake blood. At the end of each match there’s nothing from the loser except the firm manly handshake and the dignified walk back to the dressing room.

But no, the M&S brigade insist on seeing the game as somehow naff, maybe even criminal. (Here we gloss over the fact that the reigning world champion’s dad has done life for murder.) They prefer a nice round of golf, that thing they claim is a sport but is actually an excuse to combine knitwear, gin and racism dressed up as tradition.

To tell the truth, part of me’s glad snooker doesn’t get the recognition it deserves, because these days recognition is spelt hype. Back in the game’s 1980s heyday, that meant nothing worse than a Chas ’n’ Dave novelty single. Now it would mean eight-minute Sky Sports trailers set to Wagner, pullout broadsheet supplements and earnest dinner-party conversations about Selby’s safety play and the dangers of sticking on the pink when you go into the pack. But for the sake of sporting justice, I’ll have to put up with that. Tune in over the next fortnight and see what you’ve been missing. As the legendary MC Rob Walker says: it’s time to get the boys on the baize.

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  • sunnydayrider

    Without a doubt Snooker is one of the most interesting and enjoyable games to play. The best cure for insomnia to watch.

  • http://twitter.com/NewsTweet77 NewsTweet

    Best article ever!

  • http://twitter.com/zencatzen zen cat

    leave my Willy alone! I love his commentary.

  • RM

    I’m astounded. A positive snooker article written at this time of year by someone who doesn’t work for World Snooker/Snooker Scene? Very good piece.

  • http://twitter.com/MySnookerStats MySnookerStats

    Fabulous article – well done! Thankfully there’s no such snobbery throughout the wider world as snooker makes huge gains in popularity away from these shores.

    • http://twitter.com/WestmorelandKen Ken Westmoreland

      ‘Huge gains’ – snooker probably ranks behind Australian rules football in New Zealand and rugby in Brazil in (un)popularity.

  • http://twitter.com/CartagenaB Cristian Catagena

    Great article, I can only hope to read something like this one day from our sports journalists…(Chile)

  • http://www.facebook.com/nicola.prigg Nicola Prigg

    You make some very good points but most of them apply to tennis as well and in tennis, you only have a fraction of a second to make the tactical decision as well as hit the ball with enough spin, pace and height over the net to get the ball to where you want it to go. Also if you mistime it a fraction and your racquet is a couple of cm’s from where it should be, you’ll miss your target.
    You have to also run to get the ball, which is sometimes the hardest part.

    Meanwhile in snooker, you have as much time as you want to choose your shot, you then have again as much time as you choose to line up the shot and get into the perfect position to hit the ball just the way you want.

    • http://twitter.com/WestmorelandKen Ken Westmoreland

      Most of the points you make about tennis could apply to squash, which has the added bonus of being faster and played with a harder ball – it may not be a spectator sport (no pun intended) but it’s all the better for that. Same with hockey.

  • Gwaillor

    Yes, it’s right up there with staring at the wall, queuing at airport security or listening to an Ed Miliband speech.

  • john healy

    Snooker a sport ? Discuss

  • reddog694uk .

    Snooker is not a sport !! It’s a pastime !!

  • http://twitter.com/WestmorelandKen Ken Westmoreland

    “Golf, that thing they claim is a sport but is actually an excuse to combine knitwear, gin and racism dressed up as tradition.”

    Fair point, but a bit rich coming from a fan of a dreary, mediocre and provincial refuge of the talentless which is snooker.

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