Along with cricket, Formula One and a host of lesser Olympic Games, snooker belongs to a class of sports which society does not readily permit one to enjoy. Unlike the grace of tennis or football, or the pure physicality of rugby and athletics, the appeal of snooker is evidently so obscure that to declare an interest in the game is often taken by the uninitiated as a challenge to their sensibilities. “Who,” they ask, aghast, “would watch such a thing? And why?”
But properly understood, snooker is a six- by twelve-foot microcosm in which abounds all that compels humans to play and watch sport. It is a game of precision balanced by chance; tactics tempered by physical ability; a disarmingly individual sport played in direct opposition to an opponent. Properly understood, snooker is pure sport, boiled down to its essential, constitutive elements.
In the quiet of a snooker hall during the indefinite span of a match, the physical abilities of the players are isolated from the elemental, atmospheric and reflexive variables at play in most sports. And well they need be, for those abilities are perhaps the most precisely honed in sport. Players strike the cue ball with millimetre precision, using conscious and instinctive grasps of physics and geometry to direct play around the table within margins that are minute, the difference between masterstrokes and disasters often a matter of centimetres. Many skills in many sports are equally as honed as in snooker –snooker is not necessarily the most skilled of all sports – but in mainstream Western sport only darts comes close to its minute precision.
Unlike darts, however, in snooker these skills are employed to execute the most intricate of tactics. Players will often plan four, five or more shots ahead, consider an entire break from their first pot, or play twenty shot safety exchanges with their opponent to retain the advantage and coax mistakes. Balls are manoeuvred around the table as required, in readiness for attack or defence; like a game of chess played on a board of baize and in which to move even a pawn demands years of practise.
And yet, in this most considered and precise of precision sports, every game contains an essential element of luck. Eventually one player must dislodge the tight triangle of reds in order to pot them but to do so is to gamble blindly, the split of the balls too chaotic to be accurately predicted. Like in a Greek tragedy, players can play perfectly and still have fate and the run of the table go against them. Every frame of snooker guarantees that beautiful, horrible element of chance which, through the awkward bounce of a ball or the lucky guess of a goalkeeper, draws emotional investment in sport and compels crowds of atheists to pray to the skies.
In its perfect encapsulation of the obsessive, irreverent element which characterises both sport and human nature, snooker is so much more than its ridiculous, rightly parodied elements. But it is also, importantly and gloriously, these absurdities. Snooker has in spades baffling terminology, pantomime characters and preposterous commentary, and it is all the better for it. For snooker, like all sports, is at bottom a game, and its silliness allows its fans and players to remember this much better than do those of many others.
It may well be that a defence of an interest in snooker such as this, though so often demanded, is in fact folly. Snooker, like all sport and art, likely appeals to certain preferences and interests held only by some individuals, and to convince those without them may well be impossible. That, I say, is probably your loss. It is certainly my gain; tickets for all the biggest matches on the snooker calendar cost less combined than one ticket for the Champion’s League Final.