Moving Pictures
Dec 05, 2023, 06:27AM

Empire Sport

Ronnie O’Sullivan and the game of snooker.

 131889255 gettyimages 1822472893.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

I’ve just finished watching The Edge of Everything, a new Prime Video documentary about snooker player, Ronnie O’Sullivan. UK viewers can watch it here. Currently it doesn’t seem to be available in the United States.

That’s not surprising given that snooker is—or has been—mainly a UK sport. In its almost 100-year history, the snooker world championship has been won by an English player 60 times, by a Scottish player 12 times, by a Welsh player nine times and by a Northern Irish player three times. The only exceptions to this are Horace Lindrum from Australia, who won it in 1952, Cliff Thorburn, from Canada, who won in 1980, Ken Doherty from the Republic of Ireland, who won in 1997, Neil Robertson from Australia, who won in 2010 and Luca Brecel, from Belgium, in 2023.

You’ll notice something about this list: with the exception of Ken Doherty, and Luca Brecel, all the rest of the non-UK winners are from the Commonwealth, which is appropriate, given that the sport was originally conceived and played by officers in the British army stationed in India. It began as an Empire sport, although today it’s dominated by working-class players. The inclusion of Brecel at the end shows that it’s now becoming an international sport. China, in particular, has taken up the game with enthusiasm, with a number of top-notch players emerging from that part of the world.

It’s a cue game, similar to pool, played on a large table, 12 foot long by 6 foot across, with six pockets. That’s around twice the size of a pool table. The pockets are smaller than pool, making it more difficult to play. There are also more balls: 22 altogether including the cue ball.

Like pool, the aim is to pocket all the balls, the difference being the sequence in which the balls are played. There are 15 red balls, and six colored balls: yellow, green, brown, blue, pink, and black. The balls have different values, from one for a red to seven for black. The reds are racked up in a triangle like a pool game, but the colored balls have their own spots. The aim of the game is to pot a red, followed a colored ball—which is returned to its spot—then another red, followed by another color, until all the reds are potted, followed by the colored balls in sequence, ending on the black. If a player misses a pot or elects to play a safety shot, then his opponent takes the table.

The highest possible score is 147: 15 reds, followed by 15 blacks, followed by all the colored balls in sequence, ending with the black. The 147 is the most difficult score to obtain, and few snooker players have achieved it in a high ranking tournament. Ronnie O’Sullivan holds the world record for the fastest ever 147 break, five minutes and 20 seconds. Stephen Hendry, the second best snooker player after O’Sullivan, called this the greatest achievement in any sport, ever.

You can watch the entire sequence here. For American readers unfamiliar with snooker, this will give you an idea how the game’s played.

The name “snooker” was originally derogatory, referring to rookies in the British army. In the game it refers to leaving the cue ball behind another ball so that the object ball can’t be hit directly. It’s this that gives snooker its particular quality and differentiates it from pool. Leaving the cue ball in the most awkward position at the end of the player’s turn is part of the game. A good player will not only be able to pot balls accurately at a distance, but he’ll also be a master of strategy, leaving his opponent with as difficult a shot as possible to follow.

The game’s a combination of physics and psychology, with a little art thrown in. The physics is obvious. It’s like playing with planets or atoms: about angles and momentum and spin, as if Newton’s laws of motion were brought alive by a game. The psychology is to do with dominating your opponent, undermining him, about the pressures of the game at the highest level, controlling your responses throughout the game, keeping yourself mentally and physically strong. It’s a lonely sport. Each player takes the table and holds it as long as possible. While you’re on the table you’re on your own, dependent upon your skill and stamina. When you’re off the table you can only watch. There’s nothing you can do but wait and hope until it’s your turn again.

The art is in the way the game’s played. All the players have different styles. It can be played aggressively or stubbornly, fast or slow, instinctively or mechanically, or artfully, with a flourish. Sometimes it’s boring, almost soporific. The two players are playing it safe, keeping the cue ball tucked up under the cushion, as far away from the action as possible, every move calculated to leave the opponent in difficulty. Games can go on for 40 minutes or more and send you into a meditative state.

The world championship final takes place over a maximum of 35 games in four sessions, over two days. If the players are playing in that defensive style, it can turn into the equivalent of trench warfare. The longest world championship match was between Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor in 1985, which lasted for 14 hours and 50 minutes. The final game came down to a single black ball, which both players missed several times, before it was finally potted by Taylor. The live TV coverage of the match kept going till the early hours, watched by an audience of 18.5 million. That’s still the record for the largest post-midnight audience for any British television show and is one of the most famous matches in snooker history.

There were a couple of documentaries made by the BBC, which are available: When Snooker Ruled the World, which you can watch here; and Davis v Taylor: The '85 Black Ball Final, which is available here.

Steve Davis was the most successful player of the 1980s, reaching eight world snooker championship finals in nine years. He was a focused, mathematically precise player, with a cool, unflappable style. He rarely showed any emotion. He was given the nickname Steve “Interesting” Davis by the satirical show, Spitting Image, because of his tendency to dull, monosyllabic answers. His bête noire was Alex Higgins, known as Hurricane. Higgins was everything that Davis wasn’t: flamboyant, passionate, fast-paced, emotional, dangerous. Snooker began as a game played in licensed premises, and early snooker players would often be seen with drinks in their hands. Davis preferred a cup of tea, but Higgins liked to drink, sometimes to excess. He was also a showboater, loving to please the crowd with audacious shots hit at cracking speed.

It was the 1983 UK championship final between Higgins and Davis that caused me to become a snooker fan. I was living in Bristol at the time, in a shared house. The whole house, eight adults and one child, watched the final together in the living room. Higgins was losing 0-7 at the half way mark, but then staged a dramatic comeback, eventually beating Davis 16-15. I can remember the cries in the room every time Higgins came to the table: “come on Alex.” It was said that he began celebrating that night and never stopped. He died of a combination of malnutrition, pneumonia, tooth decay and a bronchial condition in July 2010, bankrupt and living on disability benefits, horribly emaciated.

If Steve Davis dominated the game in the 1980s, in the 90s it was Stephen Hendry who took over. Hendry was arrogant, aggressive, imperious in his play. He’d never talk to his competitors before a match, preferring to intimidate them with his haughty demeanor. He became the youngest world snooker champion, at 21 in 1990, a record he holds to this day. From 1990 to 1999 he won seven world titles, also a record until it was equalled by Ronnie O’Sullivan in 2022.

Since then the undisputed master of the game has been O’Sullivan. The Edge of Everything is the story of his rise to dominance, first as a child prodigy, then as a wayward genius, finally as a man making peace with himself and his relationship to the game that’s ruled his life. It’s a fascinating tale. Unlike Davis or Hendry, O’Sullivan is personable and warm in his approach to other players. At the end of a match he’ll often hold his opponent in an extended embrace, giving them encouragement. He’s very emotional and his play is vivid, magical, creatively alive. Damien Hirst, who features in the program, says that it’s art. There’s nothing pedestrian or calculating about the way he plays. His aim, as he says in the program, is to reach a Zen-like oneness with the game, to achieve the state known as “flow.”

This is how he describes it:

“I just get into a zone sometimes where you’re feeling it. And for me snooker’s fantastic when you’re in that space. It’s a place where you lose yourself. You don’t think. Your mind feels clear. It feels free, free from any thought. It’s like it goes beyond that in a way. It becomes very instinctive. And quiet yet very sharp. It’s like you’re razor sharp. It’s like you’re floating. It feels like I’ve got all the time in the world.”

Winning and losing are less important to him than playing well. He says he’d rather lose and play well, than win and play badly. In the past he’s been hard on himself in his quest to achieve perfection even, at one time, considering having a hip replacement to steady his stance. It’s a measure of his obsessiveness that he still thinks this might’ve been a good idea.

He’s also suffered with mental health problems and addiction. It’s the amused self-reflection on his past troubles that makes this program so entertaining. You can’t help liking him. He’s led a strange life, dominated by his father, who went to jail for murder. O’Sullivan’s sensitive, almost spiritual in his nature. It was the constant badgering by his dad that set him on the road to world dominance. Even at the age of nine he was told he was destined to become the greatest snooker player ever. It’s this that elevates this program beyond the level of mere snooker. It’s a study in the psychology of success. O’Sullivan has suffered greatly, and yet has emerged, not only as a great snooker player, but as a great human being, an ambassador for the sport that is at the centre of his identity.

BBC’s Gods of Snooker series: [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOunYKArq9Q ]


Register or Login to leave a comment