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 h-y-p-e. 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.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 April 2013