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26th April 2022

Snooker at 147: opportunities in the snooker industry

Patrick Crowder

It’s a special year for snooker. Not only are crowds returning to Sheffield’s famous Crucible Theatre to see the action, but the game itself is celebrating a one-of-a-kind birthday. The cue sport which has captivated fans all over the world was first played in India in 1875, making this year snooker’s 147th anniversary.

That number (147) is important to players and fans because it represents the maximum number of points which can be scored in a single snooker frame. This incredible feat was first performed on television in 1982 by Steve Davis; many fans will also remember Cliff Thorburn’s 147 in 1983, the first time any player pulled it off at the World Championships. Since then, many players have made maximum breaks, but none faster than Ronnie O’Sullivan who cleared the table in just five minutes and twenty seconds during the 1997 World Championship.

To celebrate the long-standing tradition of snooker, we’re taking a look at the whole industry from amateur leagues to the top levels to see what lies ahead for the sport.

Local clubs – the heart of snooker

If you’ve ever played a casual frame of snooker, you’ve probably done so at a snooker hall. Though snooker halls are not as packed as they were during the height of their popularity in the 1980s and 90s, there are still many places to play dotted around the country.

The backbone of snooker today does not come from massive television viewership or pro players’ star power, but rather from amateur players who form a community of people who love the sport.

One such player is Pete Przednowek. Przednowek frequents London snooker halls playing matches with his friends while bringing new players such as myself into the group as well. For him, snooker has been a lifelong passion.

“My dad bought me a little table-top four foot table when I was around eight years old, and it was the best thing to ever come my way,” Przednowek says, “I was hooked from the start, and as soon as I was old and tall enough I started playing on full size tables in clubs.”

For most amateur players, snooker is a way to compete with friends in a friendly environment with the only goal being to have a bit of fun. For Przednowek, that’s what his relationship with the game started out as, but he soon found himself wanting to take things to the next level by entering competitions.

“I had my first experience playing in snooker tournaments at my local club in Croydon around the age of 16,” Przednowek says, “I got my ass whooped most of the time but I loved it all the same, and it made me realise that there is no better way to improve in sport than putting yourself out there and playing against random opponents who are better than you a lot of the time.”

He continued to play through his days in university where he developed an appetite for American pool. After a few years of casually playing 9-ball, he decided to return to his first love.

“I started playing snooker again more regularly not long before the pandemic struck. Then once the lockdowns were lifted, around April 2021, me and a few of my mates started playing more and more,” Przednowek says, “There were around six of us who had “caught the snooker bug”, so I decided to organise a little league between us all, with weekly matches, where we all play each other once over the course of a mini-season.”

Dedicated amateur players keep snooker halls alive, and the fine folks at Cousin’s Professional Snooker in Seven Sisters rely on players like Przednowek for business.

Cousin’s is a family business and takes a slightly different approach than other clubs. At Cousin’s, respect for other players and staff is paramount. There are the typical notices posted reminding members to keep quiet and respect other people, yes, but it is an atmosphere which fosters such a welcoming community environment.

People who come to Cousin’s feel no pressure to immediately rent a table or buy a drink. Instead, the owners view it as more of a community centre for members to come, relax, watch whatever cue sport is on the television, and feel like a part of a larger group with a shared interest. In another departure from snooker hall norms, their £30 membership lasts for life. I spoke with Paul O’Neill, who has worked on and off at Cousin’s for over 30 years, to ask him what makes Cousin’s a different sort of club.

“Cousin’s is a family-run business, which I think makes a big difference. We’ve only got two clubs in London, so it’s different from some of the chains,” O’Neill says, “It was established back in 2002 as a members club, and both of our locations are totally multicultural, we’re all different colours and creeds here. Snooker clubs have had a bad reputation traditionally as smoke-filled dens of iniquity, but we at Cousin’s had a vision to change peoples’ perspective. Our aim is to attract snooker and pool lovers of all ages and to be a meeting point for good characters from all walks of life. We’ve got fathers and mothers bringing their children here in the afternoon to play because it’s a relaxed, friendly, peaceful club.”

During the pandemic, many billiards halls struggled, and some even had to shut down. Cousin’s had to follow the same restrictions as any other place where people gather, but O’Neill says that the clientele at Cousin’s were eager to support the club and get back on the tables again.

“The last time that we reopened was a Monday, and we were full up. We had a waiting list for people to get on the tables on that day, everyone was so eager to play because it’s a very addictive sport if you like. They were missing it because they couldn’t go anywhere to play a game of pool, not even to a pub, so it was just completely off the list. So when we opened up on Monday it was absolutely packed in there – it was the busiest Monday we’ve ever had,” O’Neill says.

Not only are clubs like Cousin’s a safe, friendly environment to have a game, but they’re also places to meet people from all walks of life. In my experience, Cousin’s is more than a snooker club, it’s a way to meet people with similar interests and connect. Snooker provides the common ground, so you can always talk about what’s happening on the table, but quickly a few frames with someone you met that day can turn into a lifelong friendship. O’Neill explains how Cousin’s helps all kinds of people connect.

“There aren’t a lot of places now, in fact I don’t know any, that have so many different colours and creeds under one roof. All of the community centres have been closed down over the years, so people don’t get together anymore. But at least at Cousin’s we have all different nationalities mixing, they all meet at the club and become friends,” O’Neill says, “It really does bring people together, and that’s all we were hoping to do. There is still a lot of racism that goes on in this country, and this makes people open their eyes up and see that we all have the same personalities. Thank God for sport, it’s a great way for people to meet and understand each other.”

As a family-run and family-oriented club, Cousin’s provides a place for young people to meet in a safe environment. O’Neill has seen personally the way that having a healthy way to enjoy yourself can have a great effect on your life.

“There are a lot of youngsters who have gone the right way because of the club. They spend a couple of hours here after school and they go home instead of staying out on the streets and getting into trouble,” O’Neill says, “Without snooker I have no idea what would have happened to me because I grew up around all sorts of different people and influences, but I was in the club playing snooker instead of getting involved in anything else.”

Lessons with the pros

If you’ve never played snooker before, believe me, it’s harder than it looks. On a good day, the pros can make it look like the balls have a natural desire to find the pockets, and fly in willingly, with a good amount of pace. For a player like me, a good day is potting a few in a row, and even then, they’re rattling their way in, looking for any opportunity to bounce out. Thankfully, I’m not the only one with this problem, and coaches like John Woods are here to help.

Woods has been a snooker coach since 2010, when he passed the World Snooker Grade A coaching course in Sheffield, but he has been a snooker player for nearly his entire life. Just after leaving school, he found a job at his local snooker hall – a smart move for a young player looking to pay to enter tournaments, not to mention that snooker hall employees can normally play for free. Since then, his working life has been centred around snooker.

“I was playing in the qualifiers in the lower tier of the game – I was never full time, I went to work to fund myself,” Woods says, “It’s difficult in any sport to fund yourself I think, and it reached a point where it was just too much. There was personal stuff going on at home, so I couldn’t fully commit to it. So I went into coaching.”

He set up his business, Gone2Pot Snooker, and started finding students. Now, he is the main coach for all of Central London, providing instruction to players at more than five snooker halls. He coaches plenty of adults like me who hope to improve their game, but he also runs a kid’s club at the Hurricane Room in King’s Cross. There, he teaches total beginners, and helps them grow in both technical and mental skill, whatever their end goal may be.

“With the kid’s club we usually start off keeping it pretty fun, and you can see the ones who want to take it more seriously. We’ve got kids at the club who just want to play for fun – some kids go to football on a Saturday, some go to the cinema, and some like a game of snooker or pool on a Saturday morning, and it’s just a bit of fun and games. But obviously, you’ll get the ones who go: ‘Hold on, I think I like this’. Then, Mum and Dad will go: ‘Alright, how do we move forward with this?’ Then we work out coaching for them and see where it goes from there,” Woods says. “We’ve got a massive academy going on – players competing in National events, players close to turning pro, and they all started off at the kid’s club.”

When Woods earned his Grade A coaching badge, it was the highest qualification offered by the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA). Since then, they have changed the ranking system to three levels.

“The level three is very intensive, the level two is fairly intensive, and the level one is essentially a guaranteed pass. You don’t have to be a great player to be a level one coach, you’ve just got to have a knowledge of the game, and a passion about growing the game. You can get a level one badge fairly easily as a snooker enthusiast.”

In my session with Woods, he focused on the fundamentals first before moving on to practice routines. It turns out that, subconsciously, I had been holding the cue with an odd grip which was throwing me off the line of the shot. Once corrected, I had to get used to the adjustment, but eventually it felt as natural as the way I had been playing before.

Keen to tap into the natural inclination most snooker players have to keep score of themselves, Woods showed me a practice routine which would measure my progression as I continued with it. By completing a series of exercises designed to test my potting angles, straight cuing, and technique, I was able to set a baseline score for myself based on the number of exercises I completed successfully. We found lots of room for improvement, so you’ll probably find me down at the snooker hall when I’m not writing articles for Finito World…

The big leagues

We’ve seen how people are creating careers and lives in snooker without going pro as players, but I was keen to get a look at snooker at the top levels as well. I went down to the 2022 Betvictor European Masters in Milton Keynes to see the action.

Top players faced off at the event, including veteran Graeme Dott going up against Ryan Day, Fan Zhengyi versus David Gilbert, and Liang Wenbo facing off against Scottish favourite Anthony McGill. But the main draw of the event was Ronnie O’Sullivan taking on Tom Ford. During that match, the crowd was notably more energised than they were in previous pairings, and O’Sullivan was on top form. In the first frame of the match, O’Sullivan scored a century break with apparent ease to a crowd of cheering fans – a feat which he repeated later that night.

In between the action, I was also able to get a glimpse behind the scenes. I talked to Ivan Hirschowitz, who is the Head of Media for WST, to find out about his role in growing and promoting the game around the world.

“I suppose our biggest ambition is to grow snooker as much as we can throughout the world, so from a media perspective we’re always trying to reach new people through our different platforms. And one of our biggest challenges is promoting our players – they’re the role models. We want to bring lots of young people into the sport, and people will look up to the Judd Trumps and Ronnie O’Sullivans, so one of our big priorities is to show our players’ personalities through our social media and video content,” Hirschowitz says.

The only way for snooker to continue to grow is for young children to have the opportunity to play and take to the sport, but older perceptions of snooker can damage the chances that a parent will choose snooker for their child over something like football or cricket. One of the main issues has to do with the seeming lack of physicality in snooker – parents want their children running around, exercising, and breathing fresh air, and as Hirschowitz explains, that’s not the image which often comes to mind when talking about snooker.

“I think one of our hangovers from the 80s is that perception of the smoky snooker hall, and that’s one of the things we’ve got to try to move away from and give snooker a younger, fresher feel to it. Any time there’s a snooker player who’s into fitness we’re all over it, and we’ll go and do a story about it. If we can promote the idea of snooker as a physical sport then we jump at the chance to do that,” Hirschowitz says, “The other good thing about snooker is the mathematical element, so it is quite good for kids to learn their maths and we’ve done some school programmes surrounding that. So I think we do get the fact that some people might not perceive it as a sport which has a lot of benefits for kids, but actually it does. There’s a guy named Rohit Sagoo who wrote a really good thesis on the benefits for mental health in snooker, like the fact that when you’re there potting the balls on the table it can be quite therapeutic. It’s something that you can do on your own which is quite enjoyable. To me, the other great thing about snooker is the inclusivity of who can play. It doesn’t matter your age, nationality, gender, or anything like that – anybody can play against anybody.”

As well as Hirschowitz, I also got the chance to talk with Sam Fletcher. He’s a snooker player himself, and an author for WST. He remembers the change from his early years in the typical sorts of snooker halls often portrayed in media to the futuristic training facilities such as the Ding JunHui academy today. They trade the smoky practice room for well-lit, white walled training facilities which look towards the future of the sport, not the past. Fletcher also pointed out an often overlooked draw of snooker – the game’s natural beauty.

“I think that’s one thing about snooker, with the attire, is that it can be quite an immaculate environment. You go out there and, if you’ve never been there before, it’s sort of like going to a ball or something. The tables are beautiful things in and of themselves, and I think that’s important,” Fletcher says, “It was so funny to go from a club with dodgy tables to this incredible facility, suddenly I think my mom and dad saw it as a much cleaner pursuit.”

Snooker has come into the modern age in terms of training facilities, but most of the big competitions have retained the traditional dress code, which includes a button-down shirt and waistcoat. China’s influence on snooker has also greatly increased, and part of the appeal in China comes from the traditional dress code. Jason Ferguson started his career in snooker as a player, and now he is the chairman of the WPBSA and Director of WST. He gave me his view on why some things should remain traditional.

“In China the sport is seen as very high end – it’s dress suits, it’s immaculate, it’s smart, it’s aspirational, and it’s very well respected as a high level sport. And what that has done is it’s driven a much younger audience. So the audience is very young. Snooker is in schools, it’s in universities, you will find young people in clubs, and you will find clubs that are set up for a family environment rather than just billiard halls,” Ferguson says, “I think it would be a huge mistake to drop dress code in Asia, generally. The dress code is aspirational. It’s looked up to and it’s something that people aspire to wear and be part of the sport. We know that the kids are not going to go down their local club in a dress suit every day, but if you’re playing competitive, high-level events, that’s the level that we’re looking for. I think there are some things that need to be preserved.”

In addition to keeping long-time fans of the game, Ferguson also has a major interest in introducing young people to snooker. He explains how engagement with young people can change the way they see the game and inspire passion.

“I think every sport in the world is fighting to get people off of Xboxes and computer games and iPads and things. What we’ve got to do is use technology to drive participation as well, so we’re looking at various ways we can do that. We’ve got things like CueZone programmes in schools, this involves small folding tables which we designed ourselves for this purpose. If you imagine a table tennis table, you go into a school, you can put ten tables up in ten minutes, and you can create a snooker hall in the hall of the school,” Ferguson says, “They’re great fun days as well. So the audience is getting younger, and that’s very encouraging. And what comes with that is probably an audience with more disposable income, and so on, and that in turn will bring new partners, new sponsors, and new commercial partners to work with.”

Ronnie “The Rocket” O’Sullivan

After his decisive victory winning 5-1 over Tom Ford, Ronnie walked into the media room and I got a chance to talk with him. It wasn’t a long conversation, so here it is in full:

“After a great match like that, what are you doing to celebrate?” I asked.

“Just going to eat some scones,” he said, before clarifying, “You’re from America?”

“Yes I am.”

“So you’ve heard of scones, clotted cream, and jam?”

I reassured him that I knew what he was talking about, and he continued.

“Oh you have! Well that’s what I’m going to be doing tonight, I’ve got them outside. They’ve got to be good ones though, I get mine from Marksies. When you get them and they’re not great it’s just… I can’t do it, they’re one of my favourite things, you know? If my last meal could be something it’d probably be that.”

“In terms of the future of snooker, are there any young players you see coming through who impress you?”

“I don’t have opinions on anything to do with snooker, other than I wish all the guys the best of luck. It’s a great game, great sport, I hope they all get whatever they desire from it. I’m a snooker man through and through, so yeah – whatever they get, times it by twenty and I’ll be happy for them.”

“Can you tell me what makes a match enjoyable for you?”

“It’s really difficult to say, I’m not sure if I really get enjoyment out of it, it’s just sort of like – it’s just a challenge, you know, I just enjoy sort of putting myself through a test I suppose, that’s about it really. It asks questions of me, and I just try to stay on top of it which is a success in itself, you know?”

“How much of it would you say you do for the fans?”

“I’ve never really done it for the fans, but as I get a bit older in my age… you look back and get a bit more nostalgic and a bit more, probably, appreciative of stuff, and you can kind of mirror yourself with other sportsmen who have done other stuff similar to you and you can see how people react to them and think, well I have the same with the snooker fans. So listen, you know, I’ve got a great relationship with the fans and hopefully they’ve been entertained over the years.”

O’Sullivan’s attitude towards questions about snooker here is fairly typical of how he’s been answering recently, and maybe there’s a good lesson in that. His general mantra these days is that he’s not too bothered about winning or losing, he doesn’t want to get into discussions about the future of snooker, and he is playing for his own enjoyment. Especially in a sport like snooker where the mental side of the game is so important, a certain level of detachment seems like a good strategy after being in the spotlight for nearly 30 years.

Let me make one thing clear: Ronnie O’Sullivan still cares about his level of play, and he still takes snooker very seriously. No matter what he says in interviews, you can see his dedication manifest on the table when he plays. So what if we applied O’Sullivan’s mental approach to our own lives? Let’s say you’re a fresh graduate whose applications seem to be getting lost in the crowd when applying to your dream companies, as so often seems to be the struggle. Don’t stop caring, of course, but try not taking every rollercoaster ride. Just like snooker, the game of success is largely mental, and it’s easy to get bogged down with self-doubt and disappointment when something you’ve worked so hard for isn’t coming to fruition the way you’d hoped. Be like Ronnie: Keep on pushing, keep your standards high, but there’s no need to engage with every setback or stress about things beyond the scope of what you’re trying to accomplish. When O’Sullivan comes to play snooker, he plays snooker. Nothing else matters in that moment, and the best way to avoid turning mistakes into larger issues is to let anger and disappointment fall like water off a duck’s back.

There is a lot of opportunity in snooker. There is the opportunity to play at a high level and go pro, definitely, but more than that there is the opportunity to be a part of a community, to teach others, to concentrate on improving your own game and maybe even learn something about yourself in the process. Snooker has a long history, and thanks to the people who I talked to in this piece, and all others who have a deep passion for the sport, it looks like snooker has a long future ahead.

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