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The Sound of the Crucible

Whoever called snooker ‘chess with balls’ was rude but right. As I prepare this article for the press, the semi-finals of the World Professional Snooker Championship have not yet been decided. For Dennis Taylor things must look bad through his headlight-sized glasses, which give him two big pictures of Steve Davis moving elegantly ahead. Jimmy White and Kirk Stevens, however, are still stuck with each other, frame for frame. When you switch on the TV set you can hear the tension before the picture forms. It is a hiss that clicks — the sound of the Crucible.

The Crucible is a perfect name because the World Snooker Championship, like Wimbledon, takes high ability for granted and puts character to the test, heating it up to find out when it melts. The champion is the man who can stay incandescent longest without losing shape.

Over the forthcoming two-day final we will see which of two men with a comparable ability to control the cue-ball can control himself better than the other. Before they start, perhaps it is time for some philosophical reflections. This will be pretty deep stuff, but one is not entirely without qualifications. I have always found it ridiculously easy to hit the cue-ball with the cue.

Making the cue-ball hit the ball I am aiming at, on the other hand, has for some reason always proved ridiculously difficult. If the target ball is close, there is some hope of contact and — even if neither it nor the cue-ball ends up anywhere in particular — one can always pretend that the shot is part of some subtle plan. But if the target ball is farther away than about an arm’s length, it is possible, not to say likely, that it will be missed altogether.

This often-repeated experience can be a salutary one for the would-be writer on the sport, because it reminds him that snooker is a bit like the saxophone, out of which you can’t get a sound to start with, and which you must first learn to play before you find out whether you have any particular gift for playing it.

Hence the fellow-feeling among snooker players, so like the fellow-feeling among musicians: they all labour long and hard before finding out whether they are anything special, and if it turns out that they are, they give credit to the fates and not to themselves. Tributes to one another’s craft are common. There are some powerfully developed egos at championship level, but that essential modesty always shows through the conceit.

Nevertheless, even in a sport where you need so much schooling to perform at all, there is such a thing as outstanding talent. It shows most conspicuously in those players with hyped-up reflexes. Alex Higgins and Jimmy White both have the nervous system of a fighter pilot on amphetamines. White actually moves around the table even faster than Higgins: the only reason he seems a touch slower is that he does not, like Higgins, knock down the referee.

Kirk Stevens usually ranks as a quick player but when matched with White he seems sedate, sometimes pausing for thought before pointing his famous bottom at the expiring young ladies in the audience. You can tell when Kirk is thinking. When he is not thinking, he looks like an Easter Island statue with a sinus problem. When he is thinking, he still looks like that, but licks his lips.

None of which means that Jimmy White is not thinking. But he thinks on the move. Inconsistency is his weakness, yet he would not necessarily overcome it by slowing down. Higgins didn’t get eliminated through being hasty. The champions lose when they miss the easy ones.

Ray Reardon, the great strategist of the game, the man with the most comprehensive positional sense, has still got all that, but nowadays misses the easy ones. The snooker player, like the ballet dancer, sadly attains his fullest knowledge just as his body begins no longer to obey him. Or like the golfer. The difference between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson is that Nicklaus has begun to miss the easy ones. Otherwise, they are the same sort of champion, finishing high up even on an off-day. Steve Davis is the snooker equivalent. Compared with him, Jimmy White and Kirk Stevens are like Severiano Ballesteros: obviously brilliant, but just occasionally — say, once per round — sending an approach shot into the car park.

Davis, in addition to a strategic brain ranking with Reardon’s, has the physical and/or mental ability not to miss the easy one at the critical moment. For as long as he retains that capacity, he will win more often than not. To the superficial eye this makes him a bit dull, like Bjorn Borg or Billie-Jean King. But really the self-discipline of those great champions when they were ahead was the most exciting thing tennis had to offer.

Steve Davis has Rod Laver’s knack of staying sharp while in front. ‘When you’ve got your man down,’ said Laver, in his only recorded public statement, ‘rub him out.’ Davis’s formidable PR entourage would never let him say that, but that’s what he does. Perhaps this time he won’t. Perhaps he won’t even get to the final. But the chances are that he will get there and win.

Dennis Taylor lost it in the thirteenth frame of the semi-final, when he was only 7–5 frames down. He was 64 points up with a possible 65 left on the table. He cracked open the remaining reds and was all set to be right back in the match, possibly with the highest break of the tournament. But he went for an only mildly tricky red into the left centre pocket and hit it thin. It was a crushing psychological blow. Fifteen minutes later, he was 9–5 frames down and going blurry at the edges. The Crucible had melted him.

For a while his eyes were hard to see behind his front windows, but he played on. Disappointment is built into snooker and those who lack equanimity must learn to feign it. Not even Higgins, under such a provocation, could have allowed himself to do more than swear at a reporter, or bite a piece out of the side of his pint.

Letting your children watch Wimbledon unsupervised would be like leaving them alone with a video-nasty. Yet from watching snooker they can only profit. Snooker has no room for a Nastase or a McEnroe. A snooker match lasts too long, makes too many demands on inner resources, not just of the will but of the spirit. It is more like a war than like a battle. It is more like life.

But nobody’s whole life takes place on television — not yet anyway. A snooker match not only fits into a television screen, it seems specifically designed to do so. Down at the scruffy end of Fleet Street, where envy of television verges on psychosis, they are doing their best to rob the sport of its purity, but for most players and spectators snooker will remain a dream come true.

It is also a dream come true for the sponsor, whose interest in the fine alignment of mind and body might seem questionable. But even though Steve Davis is a non-smoker, from the sponsor’s point of view it is always, when he wins, an almost perfectly blissful moment.

And if a smoker — a really intense smoker, like Jimmy White — should happen to beat him, the rest of the dream would come true as well.

Observer, 6 May, 1984
* * *

Already drained by his last-ditch victory over Kirk Stevens, Jimmy White ended the first day of the final trailing Steve Davis by eight frames. But he came all the way back on the second day to only one frame behind before Davis took it.