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Suddenly, Pool Game of Snooker Has Become the Rage in England : As TV Drama, It Plays and Draws Better Than ‘Dynasty,’ and It Has Made Wealthy Celebrities of Its Best Players

Times Staff Writer

The most popular sport on British television is not soccer, or golf or rugby or cricket but the once-lowly game of pool known as snooker.

The British Broadcasting Corp. devoted 100 hours of television time to the 17-day world championship snooker tournament that took place recently in Sheffield. The nail-biting final match drew a post-midnight TV audience estimated at 18.5 million, more than such prime-time favorites as “Dynasty” and “Coronation Street.”

Even for the matches that led up to the final, TV audiences were as high as 15 million, compared with 9 million for the men’s singles tennis final at Wimbledon.

Leading snooker players have become stars, their personal lives chronicled by the sensational press in headlines under headlines as those on stories about rock stars and royalty.

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A leading snooker player can take home hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in prize money and endorsements. In fact, the highest-paid sportsman in Britain today is Steve Davis, the 27-year-old snooker ace who narrowly lost his championship in the recent tournament. Davis is known as “snooker’s first millionaire.”

Its popularity on television has given a new luster to the game that was once confined for the most part to seedy poolrooms frequented by hustlers and hangers-on. What has changed the game so suddenly and dramatically, according to Barry Hearn, the snooker impresario who is Steve Davis’ manager, is color television.

“It’s the only sport where the whole playing area fits on the TV screen at the same time,” he explained the other day. “You can follow all the play. And you can zero in on close-ups of the contestants, so the viewer tends to identify with them.

“You can see all the tension on the faces of the players, and you can sense all the drama. The viewer sees the player making his choice on what color to try to sink.”

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Indeed, before the advent of color television, snooker was difficult if not impossible to follow without a lot of help from the announcer. But color TV quickly sorts out the 22 balls in play: the white cue ball, 15 reds and six others that are colored yellow, green, brown, blue, pink and black, and numbered from two to seven. They can be seen clearly and easily identified against the green baize cloth of the table.

Snooker is played on a pocket billiard table that is 12 feet by 6 feet, somewhat larger than the standard pool table. A player must sink a red ball for one point and then choose one of the other colored balls, their value running from 2 (yellow) to 7 (black). The player proceeds in this way until he fails to sink a ball. The player with the higher score when the table is cleared wins the frame. Matches consist of the best of a given number of frames.

The game of snooker was first played by officers in the Indian Army, and takes its name from a derisive term for an officer cadet. When a player was left in a poor position, without a clear shot at a proper object ball, he was said to have been “snookered.”

The officers brought the game home, and it was--and still is--played in the billiards rooms of a few stately homes. But it is much more popular in working men’s clubs and public pool halls. It has spread, too, to the United States but has never caught on the way pool and billiards have.

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A dozen years ago, the BBC introduced a professional tournament and offered modest prizes. As more and more people acquired color sets, the game’s popularity flourished.

Shrewd promoters also added a measure of elegance to the game by insisting that contestants in the major tournaments appear in dinner jackets for evening play and lounge suits for afternoons. The players are permitted to remove their jackets at the table but not their ties. Nearly all have taken to wearing fancy vests, in which they carry their cue chalk.

The first TV personalities were old timers, among them Yorkshiremen John Spencer and Ray Reardon. They were capable but somewhat stolid. Then, in the late 1970s, the game was galvanized by the arrival of Alex Higgins, a volatile Irishman who was quickly dubbed Hurricane Higgins. Thin and pale, Higgins came to be known for his quick play and the pint of beer that was usually within reach.

Higgins also had a reputation for late-night imbroglios, and his antics soon moved him off the sports pages and onto the front pages of the tabloids. The publicity only seemed to enhance the popularity of the game.

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On screen, Higgins projected the go-for-broke flamboyance of a river boat gambler. He often missed shots because he worked so fast, but this only built up his following. He was the only contestant allowed to appear without a black tie; doctors said he suffered from a neck rash. His appeal is credited with luring heavyweight commercial sponsors to snooker.

Other leading snooker personalities include Terry Griffiths, a slow-shooting, well-mannered Welshman; Cliff Thorburn, a quiet Canadian; Dennis Taylor, a witty Ulsterman with oversized spectacles, and Big Bill Werbeniuk, who has told the Daily Sun all about snooker “groupies.”

And there is Tony Knowles, a tall northerner given to wearing skin-tight trousers. His antics involving women have earned him tabloid headlines that have little to do with snooker.

The most consistently successful player has been Steve Davis, whose reputation for coolness and single-mindedness has given him a somewhat negative image as a perfectionist. One commentator called him the Bjorn Borg of snooker.

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Davis is a master at defensive play, of snookering opponents so that they rarely have a chance at a clear shot. But he is brilliant at running up points. He was the first player to sink all the balls, on television, without allowing his opponent to score a point.

To accomplish this feat, called the maximum break, a player must sink the 15 red balls (one point each), followed by the 15 black balls (seven points each) and then the rest of the colored balls in order, ending with the final black.

During a long break, tension builds and the onlookers are dead quiet. The television viewer can see the players’ faces, usually shiny with perspiration.

The only sound is the click of the balls and the announcer’s voice as he reads off the score. The referee, in dinner jacket and white gloves, can be seen re-spotting a colored ball or cleaning the cue ball with a linen handkerchief.

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Promoter Hearn is not sure the United States is ready for televised snooker.

“It’s such a delicate game,” he said. “I wonder whether the Americans could get used to it. It is chess rather than checkers. And the Americans play a different game of pool in every state. Still, we are trying to introduce the game into the U.S market. We will have to see how it does there.”

In Britain, it is estimated that snooker is played by 2 million to 3 million people a week. About 150 snooker tables are built every week, about six times the output of 1975.

The recent championship match, between Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor, was described by many as the best ever seen on television. Taylor, 36, was the underdog. He entered the final day’s play considerably behind and won on the very last ball.

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The strain on the players was obvious in close-ups. Most observers think it was good for the game to see the folksy, genial Taylor triumph over the aloof, methodical Davis, who plays with such precision as to seem at times unbeatable.

Davis took the defeat with good grace. A few days after the match he even offered a philosophical comment:

“All of a sudden everybody loves me because I’m a loser. I think I can understand it. It’s this business of losing. Ordinary people find it difficult to cope with winners, particularly fellows who win as often as I do. Winners are outside their experience. They don’t have that kind of commitment themselves and they find it difficult to handle. But losers are easier. Most people are losers in one way or another, and they can associate with losing. So they’re sympathetic.

“Terry Griffiths once said that there’s a kind of beauty in defeat--all that working and striving, and people feeling sorry when you fail. I know what he means, but I can’t pretend I like it. Given the choice between being an unpopular winner or a lovely loser, I know what I’d take.

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“But all this sympathy is a kind of compensation. Anyway, we earn a bloody fortune. It’s only right we should suffer a bit along the way. And it must have made phenomenal television.”


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