Magazine article The Spectator

Give Snooker a Break

Magazine article The Spectator

Give Snooker a Break

Article excerpt

Stop being snobbish: no sport is more skilled, more absorbing, more tactically subtle

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. …

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