In a changing world, thank god for the constancy of Snooker

My grandparents on my mother’s side, God rest them, loved the snooker. In all the years I knew them, not once did they ever express as much as a passing interest in many other sports. Not soccer, or Rugby, or motorsport, or even, despite both being good republicans, the GAA. Boxing might get a look in, every now and again, when it was on the television. Snooker, though, was their only true sporting love. And Jimmy White was their hero.

Five times, in the 1990s, we crouched around the television, in absolute silence, watching Jimmy White in a world championship final. Five times, Jimmy lost. Five times, there was a crestfallen silence that seemed to last forever. And on four of those occasions, I remember not wanting to break their hearts and admit that I’d been secretly cheering on Stephen Hendry, all along. They loved Jimmy.

And they wanted nothing more than for their grandchildren to become snooker players. Snooker wasn’t just a skill or a talent – it was also a path, as they saw it, to unimaginable wealth. £147,000 was the prize – and, despite inflation, remains the prize today – for a maximum break. Half a million pounds goes to the overall winner. That level of compensation is modest, compared to other sports, but it seemed like money beyond dreams to Packie Joe and Kathleen Reynolds. So eager were my grandparents for us to get in on this loot that snooker tables and cues were purchased for us not long after we were able to walk. Sadly, for my grandparents, first I, and then in turn both of my two brothers, proved utterly talentless. The most money I will ever make from snooker, alas, Granny, is whatever pittance in revenue this article generates.

The world snooker championship at the Crucible happens at the same time, every year – the two weeks leading into the May Bank holiday. It is the one time of the year when snooker takes centre stage on television schedules, and we check in on players who we don’t think about for the rest of the year. John Higgins? He’s still playing, you say? Yes indeed. In fact, as I write this, he’s preparing for his semi final this afternoon with Ronnie O’Sullivan.

The names don’t change, you see, in snooker. My grandmother died, suddenly, in 2003, while I was away in Dublin. Three of this year’s semi-finalists played in that year’s world snooker championships. I don’t think my grandfather watched for the last two years of his life, before he joined her in the grave. It probably wasn’t the same without her.

Watching the snooker this week, the amazing thing about it is how little it has changed. Other sports evolve – in the 1990s, four-four-two was still the accepted mainstream tactic in soccer at the highest levels. Formula One cars had manual gearboxes. 250 yards was a good length drive off the tee in golf. It was a time before tiki-taka, or the turbo-hybrid engine, or Bryson DeChambeau. All those sports have evolved, and the skills it takes to win have changed. That’s not so with snooker. Hendry or White, at their peak, would still be able to win today.

The style hasn’t changed, either. Players still wear black tie. Shoes remain black, and perfectly polished. The referee wears the same pair of footman’s white gloves. The crowd remains hushed, and endlessly fascinated, burbling their appreciation for a good shot, or letting out a distressed hiss at a sudden miss. The atmosphere is about that which you’d expect if open heart surgery was a spectator sport.

And perhaps the two are not dissimilar. The skill required to move the ball around the table as they do, with topspin and sidespin and backspin and little kisses off the other balls, remains mesmerising. It’s not the world’s most entertaining, or dramatic, sport. But it is one of the more skilful.

But perhaps the appeal of snooker lies more in the nostalgia that comes with watching. It hasn’t changed, even as the rest of the world has. 9/11, the recession, the pandemic, the wars, the changing climate or the changing meaning of words – none of them have impacted the crucible, and the strange men who are its leading lights for two weeks every spring.

It’s an event I’ll watch every year until I die. And maybe, just maybe, my nephews and nieces, one day, will fondly remember that Uncle John really loved the snooker.

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