I don't know a lot about sports. The guys at the rock climbing centre used to joke that of the two skills you could use to scale a wall – brute strength or technique – I had neither. When a friend took me to my first ice hockey game I yelled 'touchdown!' when our team scored, and I still don't know what 'offside' really means. But one thing I know for sure is that sports are played by athletes, right?

Wrong. Sports are played by divas, and in sports where spectators aren't distracted by pace and movement, personality takes the place of physicality.

I came to this conclusion while watching the snooker world championship. When I heard about the clash of personality between an opinionated Shaun Murphy and Ronnie say-whatever-I-want O'Sullivan in the build up to their game last Friday, I decided that if there was ever a time to take an interest in cue sports, it was now. I expected to witness withering looks, perhaps some kind of heated exchange or maybe, if I was lucky, a touch of the old fisticuffs for my entertainment.

Wrong again. I knew my expectations were to be unfulfilled when O'Sullivan, despite bearing a slight resemblance to Sylvester Stallone, walked out to Train's 'Drops of Jupiter', while Murphy opted for a dance remix of Karl Jenkins's 'Palladio' – hardly fight songs. The two shook hands and then barely made eye contact for the duration of the match despite sitting directly beside one another. For a game that some insist is barely a sport, the two showed more sportsmanship than some six-figure salaried footballers.

From watching the tournament, you wouldn't think many of the players have struggled to make a living from professional snooker. Maybe it's the bow ties, or the lack of hooliganism from the audience, but there's a whiff of bourgeois in the room detectable even from the other side of the screen.

This is unsurprising considering the roots of the game. Billiards, from which snooker evolved, has a prestigious history that dates back centuries. Mary Queen of Scots played it during her days of incarceration, and it is said that after her execution her body was wrapped in the green baize of her billiards table. Cleopatra utters the line 'Let's to billiards' in Shakespeare's 'Antony and Cleopatra', and Ben Jonson mentions the game in his play 'The Devil is an Ass'.

In short, snooker was invented in the 1870s when a chap called Sir Neville Chamberlain – not to be confused with the former British prime minister – grew bored of billiards. He was a young lieutenant stationed in India when he devised a set of rules for the sport which he named after a military slang term used to describe first-year cadets.

It grew in popularity across India and the UK, but remained an activity mainly for the gentry, played only at exclusive gentlemen's clubs until 1969 when David Attenborough commissioned the snooker tournament Pot Black to demonstrate the potential of colour television. The series showcased on BBC2 and interest in the sport increased exponentially by the time the world snooker championship was televised in 1978. By 2003, it reached a peak audience of 7.1 million, exceeding the ratings for that year's FA cup final.

As it trickled out of obscurity down to the working class, pubs began providing their own snooker tables for customers and snooker halls started opening up and down the UK. This bred fertile ground for an amateur scene that would give rise to players like Joe Davis, 'the grandfather of snooker', whose career began when his miner-turned-publican father bought a full-sized billiards table for his pub.

Snooker occupies a complex cultural dynamic. It is at once a game open to all yet dominated by the working-class; a game with a middle-class heritage played by boys who grew up in their local pubs and snooker halls. Behind the veil of respectability of the snooker world championship lurks the process of gentrification, manifesting itself in waistcoats and white gloves.

It's difficult to imagine the attraction of a slow-paced sport played by men in dimly-lit rooms, especially when the audience are chastised by the referee for making the slightest sound or movement.

But the way skilled players make their shots look swift and effortless is undoubtedly impressive. Mark Mason summed it up perfectly in the Spectator a few years ago when he wrote: 'Like most sports, snooker takes place largely between the ears, but unlike most sports its participants have got something between the ears.'

More importantly, though, snooker embodies qualities like patience and manners which are often relegated in more aggressive sports. The isolation and stillness in the room makes the Crucible, home of the world championship, seem more like a world of its own than a theatre in Sheffield; a world in which competitors sit side by side; where people of different sides interact harmoniously; a world that is boring but beautiful.

Return to homepage

1
Upfront
The wrong note
KENNETH ROY


The Midgie

Election Forum
A second referendum?
Just call me a snowflake
ANDREW HOOK


The Week
Alternative versions of despair
WALTER HUMES


Hassan at Large
The final whistle
GERRY HASSAN


Sharp Talk
Boring but beautiful
RACHEL SHARP


Nannie's Diary
If we're in a jam, it must be the
fault of the asylum seekers
NANNIE SKÖLD


Essay
The brave who never told
MICHAEL ELCOCK


Despatch
French connections
RONNIE SMITH


Despatch
Main Street, USA
MAGGIE CRAIG


The Local
ISLAY MCLEOD


Film
Split Screen
JEAN BARR


Bob Smith's Views

Notebook
Winter Spring
ALASDAIR MCKILLOP