What is it about snooker?

What is it about snooker?

Morning all, and welcome to Friday. I am typing these words with one hand, while the other grasps a piece of toast with peanut butter and black cherry jam. Its a combination that is so outrageously tasty I don’t understand why everyone in the world is not eating it every day. Never has there been a concoction more deliciously addictive. I am yet to try crack, but I imagine it has similar qualities.

As we build up into the weekend, there’s lots going on. Pakistan’s cricketers are in firm control against England with a first-innings lead of 107 runs. Fast cars are going round and round the Silverstone track in preparation for the Grand Prix on Sunday. The Champions League is finally getting back underway after lockdown. And golf’s first major of the year, the PGA Championship, is winding up with Australian Jason Day leading by one shot after the first round in San Francisco.

But while all of that goes on, I will be watching something entirely different. Ever since the Snooker World Championship started a week ago, I have found it difficult to get excited about anything else (“Snooker? Again?” my girlfriend sighed despairingly as I passed on the suggestion of a film last night). Indeed, I am rushing through this post to ensure that I am done by the time the evening session gets under way in Sheffield.

I am neither surprised nor disappointed by my girlfriend’s failure to comprehend this particular passion of mine. Snooker has not travelled particularly well outside of the UK and China, and I might well be the only person watching the tournament from Mexico, where we live. Most here don’t even know professional snooker is a thing.

To the untrained eye, snooker is hardly the most action-packed, adrenaline-inducing sport to watch on the telly. When broken down to its bare bones, it is mostly-chubby, pale middle-aged men hitting coloured balls with sticks. Sometimes minutes go by in which nothing – literally nothing – happens as a player considers his next shot. Or the same shot is repeated four, five, six times ad infinitum as a player attempts to escape from a particularly fiendish snooker. After each failure, the balls are replaced and the player tries again, just as you would rewind your favourite scene on an old VCR player back in the day. I freely admit that a gun-toting episode of Narcos provides more pound-for-pound excitement.

So what is it about snooker? Why, since the age of 10, have I looked forward to the World Championship at the Crucible with just as much excitement as I do the World Cup, or Wimbledon, or the Six Nations?

The first thing that stands out to me is the supreme skill of the players on show. When I was growing up, our TV was in the “games room” where we had a darts board, a ping-pong table, and a pool table. I used to watch the snooker with one eye on the screen and the other on my table, attempting to replicate what I was seeing from the professionals.

Suffice to say snooker is difficult, far more so than it looks. After several years of practice, I finally managed to get my head around the technique required for the basic spins; back, top and side. But mastering them is an entirely different matter. At their best, professional snooker players appear to have the white ball on a string, placing it perfectly for the next shot via perfectly-judged cannons and deft kisses.

And then there’s the potting. On my mini pool table, I would be happy when I managed to nail a long pot. But my long pot is the equivalent of the most basic, unmissable shot on a full-sized snooker table. A century break consists of about 30 of those shots in a row, each requiring surgical precision. I know these guys spend several hours every day practicing, but their abilities still amaze me.

What most intrigues me about snooker, however, is the unpredictability. There are so many different ways to win a frame, so many varying styles. The all-action aggression of Judd Trump or Neil Robertson. The tactical excellence of Mark Selby or John Higgins. The brilliant break-building of Ding Junhui and Mark Allen. And then you have the dazzling speed and genius of Ronnie O’Sullivan, who seems at times to be so much better than everyone else it becomes unfair.

When you sit down to watch a frame of snooker, you don’t know if you are going to be there for 5 minutes or an hour. Matches at the World Championship are played over three-days, generating incredible swings of momentum. As an individual sport, it is fascinating to observe the confidence visibly building – or draining – out of the competitor as matches are turned on their head. But unlike other individual sports like tennis, snooker is a slow game. Players have plenty of time – as much as they want – to prepare for each shot. Under pressure, the the misses can be mind-boggling, incredible and thrilling.

Snooker can be frustrating; I am not suggesting it is thrill-a-minute. Last week, I was watching a match of such poor quality that 35 minutes passed between one pot and the next. It was painful and frankly boring. I wanted to turn it off but I had already committed to the frame and the sport fanatic within me wouldn’t let me leave without knowing the outcome. As time drew on and more pots were missed, I started to strongly question my choices in life.

But the same can be said of any sport. In a football match, the ball spends most of the time either stationary or out of play. Tennis is roughly 15 seconds action, 20 seconds recovery. Cricket? Enough said.

So I’m going to stop there because there’s a snooker match I want to watch. And regardless of the quality, I’m going to enjoy this one because my two favourite players – O’Sullivan and Ding – will battle it out for a place in the quarter finals. It should be a cracker.

Have yourselves a great weekend everyone. There’ll be a newsletter for subscribers tomorrow morning, and I’ll be back here on Monday.

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