TOP has a lot of readers in the UK, so each time I write one of my OT posts on pool, a few people will politely request that I give snooker a try. Snooker (the "oo" is pronounced like "blue" or "flew," not like "look" or "book") seems a characteristically British sport, in that at first glance it seems a bit worked-up, a touch daft, with lots of oddities and contrivances; brought to you by the culture that thought "thirty-love" was a fine enough way of saying "two points to none." So in the past week I studied the rules of snooker, learned the basics of how it's played and scored, and watched several matches online.
In other words, I still know nothing at all about it. But I know a lot more than I did before.
Surprise: it's a better game than pool. It strikes me as a more just test of the relative skill and merits of two opponents. For all its contrivances, it has some of the same subtlety, the delicate balances, the "just-rightness," of baseball. It gets rid of the big problem of 9-ball and 10-ball, namely the luck of the break, by starting every frame off with what amounts to a safety battle. It requires mastery of most cue-sport skills, and requires tactical thinking. It seems capable of rewarding both patience and boldness at different times. A fine game to watch at the tournament level. If it's not as exciting as pool, it seems like it can be just as entertaining.
I confess that I get a little frustrated with the arbitrary quality of pool games (although I have a soft spot for one-pocket). Nine ball in particular seems to put too much weight on how the breaking player falls on the lowest numbered ball. Frustration with the natural shortcomings in the design of the games was what led, most recently, to the development of American Rotation.
I will say that snooker fans' superiority complex over its difficulty isn't very justified. Yes, the balls and the pockets are smaller, but when snooker players are actually pocketing balls they're essentially playing on a table that's 6x6'. The other end of the table is mainly used for safety play. So all you snooker fans should stop patting yourselves on the back over how easy pool supposedly is by comparison. Until you start playing 10-ball on snooker tables.
At the same time, it's true that the occasional long ball is another aspect of the variety that snooker offers. It's a nice mix of skills the game requires.
I like snooker enough that I have to wonder why it isn't less popular. I'm going to venture what Ctein calls a WAG—a wild-ass guess—and wonder whether snooker's popularity might have been on the increase in the last couple of decades? The reason I ask is that this guy Ronnie O'Sullivan has the feel of a genuine phenomenon—when he's "on," watching him can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. I'm wondering if perhaps he isn't a sort of Michael Jordan, one of those athletes whose brilliance raises the stature and popularity of his whole sport. Willie Mosconi did that for what was then called straight pool—he was such a huge draw, and commanded so much respect, that the whole game suffered a blow when he retired. In a sense straight pool (14-1) never completely recovered. Basketball was in the doldrums for a while after Michael Jordan got old and went away—attendance went down and basketball lost some of the cultural importance, the centrality it had enjoyed when he was playing. I really have no basis for saying this—it's purely a feeling—but I'd bet that some of snooker's popularity is due to the presence of such a defining player, and that its popularity in the places where it's popular could go a bit on the wane once O'Sullivan's career is done.
Perhaps I'm being ridiculous, though. As I say, just a WAG based on intuition.
Whatever. I like snooker; I'll be watching more of it. The fact that the sport as a whole seems a lot healthier than pool (or than pool here, at any rate) is a pleasant bonus. The dread, anomie, and demoralization in American pool is so thick you can cut it with a knife sometimes—which can get tiresome. Snooker might seem a little odd to Americans, but I think our UK friends are on to something where cue sports are concerned.
(Photo by DerHexer, Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-sa 4.0)
("Open Mike" is the Editor's weekly Sunday indulgence. And some people actually like reading these.)
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Featured Comments from:
Andrew Hughes: "Hoorah Mike, you have discovered the great game!
"Your conjecture about Ronnie O'Sullivan is interesting—he is indeed probably the most talented player of all time despite his mental issues (that included not playing any tournament between two world championships). Another current reason for growth is snooker's massive popularity in China.
"Over the last four or five decades snooker has been blessed with typically one stand out player in each 'generation.' Ray Reardon, Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry were all as successful as O'Sullivan although not always quite so charismatic/weird. Through good management the game has grown enormously since Steve Davis's time ('80s) and much of that is down to his manager, Barry Hearn, who now runs world snooker.
"Hopefully snooker will gain success in the US before too long although I believe one of the factors that slows progress is the sheer size and cost of a table—few can have one at home."
Mike replies: It would be extraordinarily exotic for anyone to have a home snooker table here, as so few people play it (or are even aware of it). And it's as you say—it's pretty hardcore for people to have a full-sized nine-foot table at home—a seven-footer "bar table" is much easier to accommodate—and much easier for kids and guests to have fun on, even if the owner would prefer a larger table. Eight-foot tables are still for the most part considered "full sized" for home use in the USA.
Tom Burke (partial comment): "Snooker in the UK—that is, televised snooker—is less popular than it was 30 or so years ago, in fact. At that time it was a TV monster. The story is that the game's popularity began when the TV channel BBC2, the first in the UK to go to colour in the mid-'60s, wanted a quick and easy program to show off colour TV, and they picked on snooker and created the program 'Pot Black.' Millions watched it and were hooked."
Ed: "Two of the greats playing against each other (the aim at this stage of the game is to pot each ball in a defined order).
"Snooker players need to be able to pull off such trick shots and have the tactical skills to position the cue ball after potting so as to require one to finish."
Mike replies: Position play is a big part of almost all cue sports games. It's the main skill in 9-ball and 10-ball for instance, which are also rotation (ordered) games. It's worth noting that when you see a top level player miss a straightforward shot in 9-ball or 10-ball, however long or difficult, it's usually not because they couldn't sink (pot) the ball if that's all they had to do, but because they were trying to do too much with the cue ball afterward.
That's a tremendous draw (screw) shot you've linked—and that's another very nice thing about Snooker, which is that the players often get an opportunity to have fun and show off a bit clearing the balls after winning their frame. In snooker there really are a lot of felicities to the structure of the game. I'm impressed with that.
Clayton Jones: "Thanks for posting this, I'd never heard of the game or O'Sullivan and enjoyed watching some of his YouTube games. I like your occasional pool posts."
Peter Vuksanovitch: "The small mountain town I grew up in had an old classic pool hall that was the center of the world for me. The ten tables within were regulation size snooker tables and I grew up playing that game. The click of the balls, an oiled wooden floor, hanging lights, smoke, and a barber chair in front all haunt me whenever I remember the years well spent on the greatest game. Rack 'em up Mike."