Snooker might not be the most frenetic or energetic of sports, but it’s one of the most precise and technical. A true game of skill, there’s no fluke, no flat track bullying and no hiding place. It’s a frustrating game for anyone who’s never truly found out how to play snooker. But for those who’ve put the time in, it’s brilliantly rewarding.
But where does snooker come from? What’s its origin? How has it come to be what it is today? Well, never fear. Rileys are here. And we’re going to tell you. So settle into your seat, take a small, studied sip of water and chalk your brain tip. Let’s explore a potted history of the game of snooker…
It Starts Life As Billiards
All cue sports are derived from billiards. The ‘gentleman’s game’ of billiards has been about since the 16th Century and kept the middle classes busy in the evening for centuries. A relatively simple game, the first incarnation of it saw players knocking a ball around a table that had no cushions or pockets. The holes you aimed for were in the middle of the table and dropped onto the floor when potted. You’d have two players and three balls.
But soon, variations were created to allow more players to play at once…
The British Army Adapts Things in India
To be able to entertain more men around a table at once, other games were invented for the billiards table. These games would go on to shape the table and eventually see both pockets and cushions introduced. British Armed Forces in India invented Life Pool and Pyramid pool, which would have 15 red balls on the table. Soon, these games and billiards were mixed together and a new pursuit emerged. But it had no name.
Not until high-ranking officer Sir Neville Francis Fitzgerald Chamberlain came along, anyway. One day he goaded a rookie he beat by calling him ‘a real snooker’ after the kid played a particularly amateurish shot. ‘Snooker’ being a word for a wetback soldier of little experience. Somehow that word began to be associated with the game and eventually it became its name.
Slowly People Start To Take Notice
The game remained an upper class soldier’s hobby until the 1920’s when the Professional World Championship of Snooker was formed with the help of the new sport’s first champion and star, Joe Davis. He would go on to win the first 15 World Championships and record the first maximum break of 147 ever.
The impressive figure of Joe Davis dominated snooker, but it made little impact on the wider public. It was barely even the one of UK’s top cue sports at this point.
Television was to be the launchpad of the sport. The BBC were trialling colour TV and needed an easy-to-film sport to test and introduce colour television with. They settled on snooker. The programme Pot Black started airing in 1969 and it really pushed snooker onto the masses. It went from peripheral hobby of the rich to a game that anyone could enjoy.
Snooker clubs begun opening up across Britain, the game slowly started leaking out abroad and the World Championships started being broadcast on television in 1973.
The Sport Produces ‘Celebrities’
The public image of the professional snooker player was that of the reserved and quiet man in a bow tie and waistcoat, slowly potting balls and generally being a little dull. All that changed in the early seventies when the prodigious figure of Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins swaggered onto the scene. A showman with bags of braggadocio and a carefree attitude, the public instantly took to him. His quickfire style and eye for a trick shot saw to that.
Higgins would go on to cut a rather tragic figure in later life due to his personal problems and alcoholism, but the sport owes him a huge debt. He made snooker… Well, kinda cool.
Things Get Interesting
Normal service was resumed in the 1980’s when Steve Davis came onto the scene and begun to dominate the sport, just as Alex Higgins’ career began to tail off. A reserved figure, he earned the ironic nickname ‘Interesting’ and snooker bosses – while stunned by the Romford-born player’s ability – feared he might undo the work that Higgins had unwittingly done for the sport’s image.
But people soon realised that there was more to Steve Davis than met the eye. Far from being dull, he was a sardonic and quietly charismatic figure. And one who would, with the help of his savvy PR man Barry Hearn, take the game from amusing pub sport with its own TV programme to worldwide phenomenon.
One Man Elevates The Game
Snooker saw some greats make a real impact during the era of Alex Higgins and Steve Davis. Ray Reardon, Dennis Taylor, the Higginsesque Jimmy White… The list goes on. But when the machine that was Stephen Hendry entered the fray, the game changed. Hendry upped the level you needed to be at professionally to make an impact and wowed fans in arenas and at home.
In racking up 11 maximum breaks, 775 centuries, 36 ranking titles, 38 non-ranking titles and a staggering SEVEN world titles, The King of The Crucible showed what the game could be.
Cut from the same cloth as Alex Higgins and Jimmy ‘The Whirlwind’ White, arguably the most naturally talented player ever born would compete with Hendry for glory in the 90’s and beyond. Ronnie O’Sullivan. The Essex-born potter would win legions of fans and plenty of world titles himself. The standard was now stupidly high at the top.
The Incredible Standard of Today’s Professional Game
You could be forgiven for thinking that Hendry and O’Sullivan represented some kind of unique pinnacle and that Hendry’s eventual retirement might usher in a lull in the sport. But far from it. If anything, the standard of play at the top of the game is breathtaking now. Most Top 16 players now would have cruised to multiple world titles back in, say, the 70’s. But now? They’re all so darn good it’s frankly ridiculous. Mark Selby, for instance, is an almost perfect player.
The only real decline can be seen in the amateur game. Fewer people seem to play in the clubs and that means fewer clubs exist. At Rileys we’re committed to keeping snooker tables accessible to people and giving them somewhere to play. After all, without a table for kids to play on, where are the next generation of world champions coming from…?
Well, if you ask that very question to most worldwide snooker fans, they’ll tell you. The next generation of snooker world champions is coming from Asia. And China, specifically. The country has spent time and money concentrating on producing the next generation of player and those programmes are really bearing fruit now.
World Snooker has tried to invent jazzier versions of the sport like Power Snooker and Premier League Snooker, but finally seems to realise that the game is best left in its current format.
What About Closer To Home?
The global game, the women’s game and the domestic game are all thriving professionally. And China are producing some excellent young players. But let’s not write off British players continuing to lead the way in the future. After all, the snooker superstar of tomorrow could well be playing on the table opposite yours the next time you’re down your local Rileys!