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The Great Snooker Craze

As a pastime to pull heartstrings it seems most unlikely, but on TV in Britain its emotional appeal is such that it surpasses even Wimbledon

In Britain, Tuesday May 8 will be no ordinary day. In factories and offices there will be no-shows aplenty, and among those who do make it in, there will be a reprehensibly low level of concentration on the task at hand. Firings, however, are unlikely to be widespread because management, too, will have been up until the wee hours of that morning, watching the world championship finals...of snooker.

The final match is the climax of a 17-day elimination tournament that last year won 70% of the British television viewing audience. The BBC deploys more technicians for the tournament than for any other annual sporting event, and this year will put 125 hours on the air. The finals attract a larger viewing audience than Wimbledon or the British Open and more betting than on either of those classics; more betting, even, than on Britain's equivalent of the Super Bowl—soccer's Cup Final. Indeed, soccer, in its heartland, has for some time had to concede the TV lead to a game that less than a decade ago had the mass appeal of mixed volleyball. That is, until—and you can date it precisely—April 17-24, 1978, a week that BBC producer Nick Hunter still recalls with a glow.

That was when, delighted with what seemed to be unexpectedly good viewing figures for the first week of the championship, Hunter ordered champagne for a crew celebration. The gesture turned out to be a touch premature; as the tournament went on, the audience simply kept growing.

Four years later the game's popularity was still outstripping expectations. That was when the BBC offered free seats at the finals as a prize for a competition in which viewers had to select the best three of 10 difficult shots selected by experts. The network hoped for 10,000 entries. What it got, in two days, was more than 250,000, and in the city of Sheffield, where the world championships are held, the embattled post office had to call in the girl guides and boy scouts to help sort it all out.

And now, unbelievable as it may seem, this snooker revolution has made a lanky, ginger-haired 26-year-old named Steve Davis into possibly the biggest name in British sport. He is the reigning world snooker champion.

In March at Derby in the English Midlands, Davis was warming up by carving his way through to the final of the Yamaha Organs Trophy tournament, one of the last big matches before this year's worlds. In Derby's assembly rooms the halls were alive with the sound of Muzak and the lobby gaudy with the scarlet betting booths of Coral's, the London bookies, but an ordered formality ruled at the snooker table. At the start of each match, a solemn referee, in tux and white gloves ("I go through 50 pairs a year at $11 a pair," said this one, Len Ganley), entered, followed by the players. The audience clapped with symphony-hall discretion at just the right moments. There was, however, a special quickening in the room at the appearance of the most elegant of the players, who, on the posted form sheets in Coral's booths, was quoted as the 2-to-5 favorite.

It was Davis, of course. He was wearing a mohair suit that may well have cost $1,200. The jacket, not worn during play, will outlast six pairs of pants and three vests. And it, like Davis' formal shirts, has to be tailored with special care. Because he has been playing the game since he was two, Davis' left, or non-cue, arm is two inches longer than his right. In play he takes the stance of a praying mantis as he folds his 6'2" frame over the table, the long torso flexed straight from the hips, one elbow jutting back. With his cue he administers, almost without thought, it seems, both tender kisses that just tip the ball into the pockets and abrupt, violent slap shots that echo through the hall. At times, when the balls lie awkwardly, he stalks the table slowly, bends to sight a shot, straightens up again, takes chalk from his vest pocket, contemplates. He may do this three or four times, his face without emotion, as if he were in a waking dream. He has plenty to dream about. This year he will earn approximately $1.05 million.

The Derby tournament was Davis' first in almost two months. Since his previous appearance he had flown to Hong Kong—via Cathay Pacific Airways, with whom he has a contract, sipping on the way, possibly, a little cognac by Camus, with whom he has a contract, en route to help plan this summer's Hong Kong Masters, in which he is contracted to play. All of which should give him some good copy for his column in Fleet Street's Daily Star newspaper—with which he has a contract.

But the jaunt was almost out of character. More often than not, Davis can be found displaying his virtuosity in front of the TV cameras. Indeed, he doesn't feel that he's really playing snooker unless the cameras are there. "It's not the fan adulation," he says, "it's the thought of the TV staring in, so close, knowing everything. You are naked, more naked than in other sports. I know full well I don't get the same feeling in a match that doesn't have TV coverage."

The BBC, a non-commercial network, has never thought it necessary to make a survey of just why televised snooker has captured the hearts of British viewers. None of that tacky nosiness that here in the U.S. yields fanciful tidbits such as this—that 28.1% of the households with incomes between $17,050 and $21,010 watch Dynasty because of its pertinent social comment. So in order to find out what it is about snooker that has so gripped the British, it seemed a good idea to leave the assembly rooms at Derby and watch the action on TV in a pub across the street.

It took only about 15 minutes to understand why Hunter had said earlier, "No TV man ever went white-haired overnight over this game. It's like having a million in the bank." The very shape of a TV screen fits a snooker table like one of Davis' custom-made suits, and the closeups enhance the uncomplicated beauty of the vibrant colors of the balls resting on the green baize. Hunter's theory about the popularity of the game is that the elegance of the dress and the old-fashioned sportsmanship displayed by almost all of snooker's pros contrast strongly with the petulance and cynical foul play common now in televised soccer.

But in the end, none of that is enough to explain snooker's startling upsurge. Perhaps the answer lies in the way the intimacy of the small screen reveals the dramatic ebb and flow of the game and, more significant, the emotions of its players. "You can show them," says Hunter, "the undercurrents of disaster, faces shrinking and aging 10 years. In snooker the player wears his heart on his sleeve."

On the pub's screen you could see that Hunter wasn't merely referring to TV's ruthless revelation of the agony behind a botched shot. The player awaiting his turn, the one you barely notice when watching the action live, enjoys on TV all the privacy of a topless dancer. What makes snooker both a harsh and revealing television drama, as well as a beautiful game, is what is happening off the table. In snooker you can be entirely helpless. A player may not have even the opportunity to pick up his cue through a whole game. All he can do is sit, sip from a glass charged with anything from tap water to Napoleon brandy, and wait for his opponent to make an error, to give him a chance at the table. And meanwhile, like a CAT scan, the camera is peering in at every minute movement of the man's face, making high drama of the flick of an eye, a twitch of a lip.

Isn't all this as true, though, of pool as it is of snooker? Davis contends that his game is to pool as chess is to checkers. It is like chess, you realize; the Derby pub is hushed for 20 minutes while Davis and an early-round opponent maneuver defensively around a cluster of trapped balls. And it gets easier to understand why people are drawn to snooker: The keystone of its appeal is the complex, but easily understood, nature of the game (see box, page 44). It is a game that depends as much on strategy as it does on shooting skill, with just a bit of luck tossed in for seasoning. That being the case, it's not surprising that Hunter has found that viewers reject half-hour highlights of the world championships in favor of shot-by-shot coverage. This year there will be continuous transmission on some tournament days, from 10:25 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.

This enormous interest would have greatly surprised the junior officer, in the Devonshire Regiment, Lieutenant Sir Neville Chamberlain—no relative of the future prime minister—who in 1875 invented the game while sitting out the monsoon season in Jubbulpore, India. Much had happened to billiards, the basic cue-and-ball game, since it was first played in the 1340s and since, in 1587, the jailers of the unfortunate Mary, Queen of Scots had utilized the cloth of her personal billiard table to cover her beheaded body. Variations like Pyramids, Life Pool and Black Pool had evolved, and Chamberlain knew all about them. Casting about for a more complex game that would provide additional opportunities for gambling, he hit on the idea of combining the 15 red balls of Pyramid with some other, colored balls.

Chamberlain surely would be astounded by the life-style Davis leads as a result of the game. A few weeks before the Derby tournament, he had a rare sort of day with nothing scheduled, no supermarket to open or TV commercial to make, so he was spending it in the Luciana Snooker Club in Romford, in Essex, where his pro career started, autographing copies of his second autobiography, Steve Davis: Frame and Fortune. He apologizes to a visitor. "Really boring, huh?" he says, signing away. "Only I have this contract with a snooker table firm, and every time somebody buys a table he gets a free book." That particular contract brings more than $235,000 a year, but Davis' modesty about such things is very much part of his public persona.

Make no mistake, Davis' persona is vital to the success of snooker. Despite the color and the complexity of the game, it would never have developed as a TV spectacle without the serendipitous cast of characters with whom the public can identify, and Davis fills the principal role. He is every mother's perfect son, the nicest kid in town.

In fact, there are those who declare that TV couldn't have done better if it had warped in a roboticist from the 25th century to construct them a Davis. He seems to have been born for the game. His mom, Jean, bought him a miniature table from Wool-worth's when Steve was two, and there were endless hours of practice as Dad, Bill, who was "never better than a good club player," according to Davis, stood over him. Davis' wildest rebellion—smoking at school—lasted only a few days. He suffered agonies in his early days of competition when the crowd would heckle him and he could find no reply. "I was pretty lacking in the worldly-wise department," he confesses. "I was getting the mickey taken out of me something chronic." By which he means he was subjected to heavy kidding.

The jacket of Davis' most recent book isn't overly subtle. It shows Davis wearing a tuxedo and boyish smile, sitting on the hood of his Porsche 928. In the background a sign over a snooker hall announces a forthcoming event, STEVE DAVIS vs. ALEX HIGGINS, it reads, and it also says, SOLD OUT.

A conversation with Davis isn't notable for its rhetorical flights, but when the name of Alex Higgins comes up, he shows that his early problem with repartee has been overcome. "I worship," he says without geniality, "the ground that's coming to him." Hurricane Higgins, as he's called, would no doubt return this sentiment. He's the perfect foil to Davis on the screen, the Tabasco sauce on the oyster. There couldn't be a greater contrast. The Hurricane, 34, is a small fellow—he once tried out to be a jockey—whose tortured-looking, parchment-white face is usually obscured by cigarette smoke. He is right out of the sport's hustling past, in particular out of a snooker hall called the Jampot in working-class East Belfast. He haunted the Jampot, keeping score for pennies, living mostly on candy bars, hauling his cue around the Belfast clubs like a gunslinger looking for trouble.

In 1968, representing the Belfast YMCA, he was a member of a team that won the British Team Championship in England. He stayed on afterward, living, as he says, rough. At one period he was in residence in a row of derelict houses in the Lancashire town of Blackburn, where, he claims, he kept just ahead of the bulldozer, with five addresses in one week: 9, 11, 13, 15 and 17 Ebony Street. That was in 1969.

By 1972 the Hurricane had howled right across the snooker world—he became world champion that year—and the year after, picked up his first fine from the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, for unbecoming conduct, mostly for showing up late at tournaments and yelling at people. He celebrated his title by visiting India at the invitation of the ultraposh Bombay Gymkhana Club. The excursion lasted only one day and ended, so it is said, with the Hurricane being put on a plane home for drinking, abusive behavior and refusing to wear a shirt, though he had started an exhibition game with a flashing break of 109 points. The Hurricane later denied that he was expelled. "I went of my own accord," he says proudly.

But it wasn't adventures like this that won him his name. It was his swashbuckling style and speed as he banged home shots. Most of the time the shots worked, but in the aftermath of his '72 win, shots of a different kind looked as if they were cracking up his career: shots straight out of a vodka bottle.

The next decade brought episode after episode of the kind described here by Higgins' former agent, Geoff Lomas. "Alex turned up absolutely legless," he said of a tournament in which he had backed Higgins with $6,000, "with a gypsy bird with bloody big gold earrings. We sobered him up next day, but that was a mistake. He had the shakes. Still, he only lost by one game."

Meanwhile, Davis had been making a name for himself, though the game still occupied a niche in British culture comparable to that of pool in the U.S. But that was to change. Enter Barry Hearn. Hearn is now Davis' business manager, shield, organizer and, some would say, puppeteer. His beginnings were similar to Davis', but he found his way to the top by a different route. At 21 Hearn was already a certified public accountant, but, reasoning that such idiosyncrasies as wearing all-white suits made it unlikely he would ever become a partner in his firm, he branched out on his own, once as far as New York's Seventh Avenue. He figures he lost close to $350,000 in the garment business. Once back in Britain, with remarkable prescience he bought a snooker parlor in Romford. At this point, he says, he barely knew the rules of the game, and it was a full year before he realized the potential of the spidery kid who was hanging around his club.

That was in the spring of 1976. Since then, Hearn has worked industriously, not only on Davis' image but also on his own as the sport's most bumptious entrepreneur. In the eyes of the public Hearn is the slave driver who exploits every minute of "that nice young Steve's" life in a whirligig of promotions, exhibitions and personal appearances. He's Flash Barry, the barracuda of the snooker circuit, who says coldly of Davis, "He's full-time, 24 hours a day."

Another way of looking at the relationship is provided by Jean Rafferty, a young Scottish journalist who followed the snooker circuit for eight months in 1981-82 and produced a book entitled The Cruel Game. In it she wrote, "Barry is a...very convenient person for Steve Davis to have around. He drives a hard business bargain without Steve appearing avaricious. He can fend off the press without Steve appearing to be uncooperative. He does all the ruthless things that Steve Davis can't do without tarnishing his public image. In return, Steve reserves his ruthlessness for the snooker table, and in the process earns them both a fortune." In Romford, as he kept signing, Davis said, somewhat obscurely, "Money is a game Barry and I play together." It didn't seem to be a complaint.

As Davis moved to the top, winning his first world championship in 1981, the Hurricane went on blowing himself away. With the '82 championship a little more than four months away—he had never recovered the title he lost in '73—Hurricane was lying in a private clinic in Lancashire, incapable of holding down food, moaning that his talent had been thrown down the drain and that he had been exploited, talking of crying himself to sleep in lonely hotel rooms and of the consolation of vodka. Drinking was part of the job, though, he said, and he disparages Davis for sipping water during matches. "He'll be haunted by me until I'm carried out in a little brown box," the Hurricane said.

Against all expectations, Higgins was back on his feet again for the '82 championship. Lomas, whose agency had just released the Hurricane from his contract, had no notion this would turn out to be a blunder, even when, extraordinarily, Davis was knocked out in the first round by an outsider.

Lomas recalls how he watched Higgins sit out a game as his opponent made a long run. "He was reading the Bible," says the agent. "He was sucking a crucifix. He had bloody rabbits' feet everywhere. There was no way he was going to win."

Lomas can still hardly believe what happened. On succeeding days, the Hurricane somehow pieced his old skills together and fought his way into the finals. It was a wild scene the last night as, tears streaming across his face, Higgins tried to hold the world championship trophy and his 18-month-old baby daughter, Lauren, in his arms at the same time.

It may have been the most popular victory in Britain since England beat West Germany in the soccer World Cup in 1966. The lads in the pubs didn't care that the Hurricane was a bad boy, nor that the very morning after his triumph he was due to appear before the WPBSA to answer, among other charges, one of watering some potted daffodils in an unorthodox manner at a practice session in the championship. "The greatest comeback since Ali," the Hurricane crowed, and that night nobody would have challenged him.

For Davis, meanwhile, despite that still unexplained first-round disaster, 1982 had been a spectacular year. He won seven out of 10 of the recognized major tournaments, and he had also achieved what he still considers his greatest feat, which is immortalized on his license plate: SD 147. It represents a perfect score in snooker, achieved by sinking the seven-point black ball with each one of the 15 reds (totaling 120 points) and then the colors in sequence. Such an achievement is akin to shooting a 60 in tournament golf. A good professional break in snooker is 70, an excellent one, 100.

But in January that year at Oldham in Lancashire, Davis not only hit a perfect 147 but also did it live on television, the first time that had ever happened. He recalls the final blue—with still the pink and the black left to sink—as the best shot of all. "I thought I'd blown it," he says. "My legs had turned to jelly." The crowd, abandoning its discipline, started to yell, "Come on, Steve!" On sinking the previous brown ball, he'd been unable to leave himself in good position for the blue; the cue ball had ended up tight to the cushion, well up the table.

But now the robot in Davis took over. The blue was cut into a side pocket, and the cue ball traveled off three cushions to end up behind the pink. Davis' crisis of confidence was over and he pocketed both pink and black. The perfect score had taken 11 minutes, nine seconds. "I felt," said Davis, with his royal instinct for understatement, "a nervous smile cross my face." That was enough to buoy him up until the spring of '83, when he wrested his title back from the Hurricane. Higgins' wife, Lynn, blamed herself for her husband's strange lack of aggression. "I remembered the vitamin B pills I'd given him before the match to relieve his nerves. Had he taken them? Yes, he had, he said. All 12 at once."

Though new stars appear—for example Jimmy White, still only 21 and nearly as wild as the young Higgins, and whose girl friend, it's rumored, had to write his letters for him—it's Steve and the Hurricane who hold the TV public enthralled. At Derby, Steve won with some ease. "A nice bonus," he said. Meanwhile the Hurricane continues on his stormy course. Erratic and distracted, he was knocked out of the '84 worlds in the first round by a 20-year-old, Neal Foulds. He has been banned from a tournament later this summer in Australia, and if he shows up, as he threatens to, the Aussies say they'll cancel the whole thing.

No such vulgar shenanigans for Davis. His eye, or maybe that of Barry Hearn, is on yet wider conquests. Already the game has taken off spectacularly in Southeast Asia, and Brazil now reports a growing audience for BBC snooker shows. What's more, Davis and Hearn have begun to eye the U.S. market. "We went to Dallas last summer," Davis says, "but it turned out a bit of a farce. Myself and Terry Griffiths, another pro Barry handles, played two top U.S. pool players, Jim Rempe and Mike Sigel. We played at an ice rink and, of course, it was a tie. We won the snooker, they won the pool."

Both Davis and Hearn believe the Great TV Snooker Craze can make a successful Atlantic crossing, with cable TV as a potential launching pad. If that happens, one of these days there's going to be a new kind of absenteeism in U.S. offices and factories.



Twice-world-champion Davis has stroked his way to a seven-figure annual income.



Balk Line

11½" radius

The "D"






Davis' army of fans includes little old ladies in Romford.



Davis' boy-next-door image is put on sale at every match.



The tempestuous Higgins is the antithesis of Davis.



Hearn (left), sharing the limelight with Davis after a win at Derby, does the hustling for his partner.

The snooker table has a rack of 15 reds, each worth one point, plus six "colors" (yellow, 2 points; green, 3; brown, 4; blue, 5; pink, 6; black, 7). Breaking from within the "D" scribed on the felt, a player must first sink a red, then any color, another red, a color, etc. After being sunk, colors are spotted back on the table until all the reds have been pocketed. Then the colors must be sunk in numerical order to end the game. Here, break shooter has struck the cue ball to be in position to sink the yellow if a red should happen to fall.