When I used to play the game, there were snooker clubs in London that stayed open until midnight. You could drink beer while you played. And you could get a sandwich. And you could smoke too. I’d go with several friends, and stay for hours. It was as much a social occasion as anything else, because while you weren’t at the table, you were sitting talking.
I was playing snooker around the time it started being televised, and before it became popular. And it was primarily people like Alex “Hurricane” Higgins (below) who made it popular. Alex Higgins smoked and drank and threw television sets through windows. He also played mercurial, quick-fire snooker. And he pulled in crowds to watch him play.
Alex Higgins single-handedly re-invented the previously slow and stuffy game of snooker as an exhilarating fast game. And just like me, he’d sit between breaks with a beer and a cigarette (below) chatting with people.
The game became popular all over the world. But never more so than in China. I guess that when the Chinese economy started booming, snooker clubs and pool halls started opening, and Chinese people started discovering the pleasures of snooker. And now there are lots of Chinese snooker players who play snooker just like Alex Higgins.
But at some point (I can’t remember exactly when, but it was well before the UK smoking ban) the beer and cigarettes vanished from the televised game. And snooker became a job of work, with big prizes at stake. The players now sit sipping bottled water. Larger-than-life characters like Alex Higgins have been replaced by boring automatons. Many of them are technically better players than Alex Higgins ever was, but none of them ever have half his character or flair or passion.
And when the 2007 UK public smoking ban was imposed, snooker clubs started closing much like pubs and clubs started closing. And for much the same reasons. I wouldn’t want to go to any snooker club now.
A week or so back I watched a discussion between a couple of the game’s top players about the “current crisis in snooker”. The kids aren’t going to the snooker clubs like they used to. And they were discussing a plan to get snooker played in schools. If the kids wouldn’t go to the snooker clubs, they’d take snooker to the kids.
It won’t work. Snooker is being killed by stifling puritanism. And it’s probably already dying in China, now that the killing smoking bans have reached there too. For snooker is probably the most sociable of games. It’s as much about what happens off the table as on it. It’s much more than just potting balls.
The annual Snooker World Championship started a couple of days back. I won’t be watching much of it on BBC iplayer. Because it’s no longer the game that it was 20 years ago. It’s no longer fun. And most of the “characters” in the game – people like Alex Higgins – have gone.
Bankrupt, Alex Higgins died alone in 2010, aged 60, of pneumonia and malnutrition. He’d single-handedly re-invented the game of snooker. And now that people like him – rebels – have been banished from snooker, the game will probably die with him.