My dad played snooker well. The name J. H. Charlesworth appears on the honours board at the Craven Club in Skipton for winning the annual snooker and/or billiards championships several times during the fifties and sixties, but he was never able to pass his skills on to his son. Oh, he taught me the correct stance and how to hold a cue properly and I could pot a ball here and there, but when it came to controlling the cue ball to line up the next shot, the essential skill in high-level snooker, I was pretty hopeless. Dad could put side and back spin on the white, and knew precisely how hard to hit it, though one thing he did teach me that sank in was to avoid hitting it too hard. A ball played softly, he would tell me, was far more likely to find the pocket.
Dad loved to watch Pot Black, the first ever televised snooker competition, and would have been astonished at the way the game and those who play it professionally have progressed since then. This week he’d have been glued to the TV set watching Ronnie O’Sullivan, Mark Selby and the rest work their magic with a cue on the green baize at the World Championships in Sheffield.
Snooker is one of those sports that you need to have played, or tried to play, in order to appreciate. Those with no acquaintance with the game, or who have never even picked up a cue, will find it desperately boring; each game appearing identical to the last as two players hit a white ball at a coloured ball that they hope will disappear into a pocket, over and over again until one misses, or try to place the white ball in a position from which their opponent is unable to score, safety play as it is called, which is arguably even more boring for greenhorns since the white ball is merely hit up and down the table with no coloured balls pocketed for several shots on end.
As it happens, I often prefer watching a bout of skilled safety play to seeing a player pot red after red with blacks, pinks and blues in between, especially when the balls are close together around the area where the reds start out. Break building in these circumstances can be a bit monotonous in a seen-it-all-before kind of way, but getting that white ball back into baulk and tucked underneath the top cushion is incredibly skilful, a real art, especially if the path of the white to the object ball is interrupted, meaning the player is snookered. Those who’ve tried it know that playing snooker well is infinitely more difficult than it looks. These guys on the telly make it look easy, just like Prince on the guitar or Entwistle on bass.
And no matter what its detractors may say, every game of snooker really is different to the last. The balls never fall in the exact same place twice, so each and every shot must be weighed up, options, odds and angles calculated, before the player gets down, chin tucked in right above the cue, and makes the shot, all the while holding his head as steady as a rock and following through smoothly. A twitch will send it off target, as will taking your eye off the object ball. Good eyesight is essential; very few players wear glasses and those that do have them specially made, with lenses halfway up their foreheads, as if they’re wearing them upside down.
Snooker is a cool and calculated game, played at a stately pace, and the players dress and behave like gentlemen; well, most of them anyway. The occasional bad apple will cause a ruck of some sort, like the late Irish firebrand Alex Higgins whose speed around the table was as mesmerising as his facial tics. The more sedate players surely knew he would burn himself out one day. Jimmy White was another hothead, helped by his fondness for hanging around with rock stars like Ronnie Wood. Today’s firebrand, if you can call him that, is Ronnie O’Sullivan, another fine player whose speed around the table captivates and who isn’t ashamed to show his emotions. What these three had or have in common is the pace at which they could or can wrap up a game, and this makes them thrilling to watch, popular too, and good at keeping the sport in the news.
However, the vast majority of professional players keep their emotions in check, especially the more recent arrivals from the Far East; inwardly seething when they miss one or if the balls fall badly of course, but propriety is the name of this game, steely resolve essential. So is sportsmanship. If a player’s foul on a ball somehow escapes the notice of the referee he will declare it every time, and when a player flukes a shot he will invariably acknowledge it, just as he will acknowledge an excellent safety shot from his opponent by tapping the table with a wry smile.
Snooker appears to a man’s game. Although there is a women’s world championship, I am not aware of any woman who has competed in the world championships at Sheffield’s Crucible, not the televised rounds anyway. There are female referees nowadays, and mighty stern they look too, and there’s plenty of female fans in the audience. It isn’t hard to imagine how the cool, elegant, James Bond-like demeanor of certain players might appeal to women. Years ago in America I had a girlfriend who was an absolute ace at pool – her dad ran a pool hall in Florida – and I loved watching her hustle some arrogant bloke and take his money. Having played a bit of snooker in the UK, I was pretty confident on pool tables in America with their small size and big pockets, except against her of course.
Some sports, among them football, cricket and those that require a racquet, pitch the players directly against one another insofar as the actions of one player require a direct response from another, and the quality of those actions and responses determines the outcome. Others, such as track & field, rowing or golf, are different in that the players are competing against the clock or the course, and the performance of their opponents has no direct influence beyond setting a target to beat. Snooker, I believe, is unique in that it mixes both these elements: the direct contest of player verses player during safety play and the indirect consequence of a player’s individual skill as he builds a break while his opponent has no choice but to sit and watch.
Perhaps that’s why snooker is such an unlikely success as a spectator sport, perennially popular as TV viewing figures indicate, or maybe it’s because it seems made for television: all those brightly coloured balls rolling around on a green cloth, all that deep concentration, and all those players, dapper as dandies in their suits and ties, putting on a show, their skills as precise as rocket science, the immaculate gentlemen of the green cloth. My dad, a conservative with a small c, would definitely have approved and, as it does every April, watching this week's World Championship brings back wonderful memories of watching J. H. Charlesworth play on the table at the Craven Club, sinking a red and lining up the white right behind the black, a skill that was always beyond me.