Wrong side of the blue
Self-originated nicknames, ludicrous in-offs, and moderate highest career breaks
First, a bit of housekeeping. It’s my birthday on Sunday and on the off-chance you’ve not already bought me a nice present, please feel free instead to forward The Writing Hut newsletters to three people you feel might enjoy it/them. Many thanks, and on with the show…
While I enjoy watching a variety of sports, I am not generally a huge fan of books about them. The exceptions are the ones which are not really about sport at all, such as Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch or Mick Brearley’s The Art of Captaincy and On Form. Of course there’s lots of sport in there, but there’s a human story behind it all which run-of-the-mill ‘autobiographies’ somewhat surprisingly usually fail to capture.
One sport that is particularly under-represented on the sports shelves is snooker, although there is plenty out there to keep diehard fans of Ronnie O’Sullivan and Alex Higgins happy for some time. For my money, the finest piece of writing about snooker is ‘The Grudge Match’ by Martin Amis and Julian Barnes. Before their relationship got a bit salty, the two novelists used to meet regularly for a few frames and wrote about it in a short piece which you can find collected in The Esquire Book of Sports Writing. Both write with considerable verve and humour about their skills (“I do hit the ball tremendously hard and with several violent spins”, boasts Amis; “Most Humiliating Break: five balls for seven points including two flukes”, admits Barnes), discuss their self-originated nicknames, ludicrous in-offs, and moderate highest career breaks.
This is the kind of sports writing I love and, it will not surprise you, that I have for some years been pitching such a book on snooker to publishers (so far in vain). I have played since I was at primary school and more recently every Wednesday night for years with the same group of friends at the local snooker hall.
The nearest I have got to a book so far is a regular column about the sport for half a dozen years until 2022 for the Idler magazine. In the spirit of sharing, here are a couple of those columns below which will give you some idea of my general approach for a book. Even if you don’t like sport or indeed snooker, I think you might still get something out of them so please give them a spin. Publishers/agents reading this newsletter, please form an orderly queue…
The golden pints:points ratio
In preparation for the television series Superstars in 1976, footballer Stan Bowles did not hone his squat thrust technique or work on his sprint starts. Instead he spent the night before his appearance downing lager, wine and brandy. The next day he sunk his canoe, fired his gun into a table in the shooting and scored the lowest total points in the history of the series (7). His example is not unique. However diligently you look, there is no research suggesting a couple of pale ales will improve your 10k personal best (although Thomas Hicks won the 1904 Olympic marathon while under the influence of significant levels of brandy).
Yet my experience during our weekly frames of snooker suggests that a case can be made for the Bowles Battleplan. I find that the first frame of the evening, before the first pint has fully gone down, often goes poorly. I feel tense. My cue action is stiff. I go in off even more than normal. After three pints, the results are similar. But in that golden period in between - roughly frame two and the first half of frame three when I have nearing two pints in the engine room - things often start to look up and my game looks nearly half decent. If I don't have any alcohol at all then I don't go downhill towards the end of the evening, but nor do I enjoy a brief purple patch in the middle. Moral: beer in moderation = breaks above 20.
And while several pints of Theakstons Old Peculier won’t help you in the pole vault, there is a semblance of a scientific case for suggesting that it may help with a tricky long pot.
Firstly, there is the psychological aspect. Alcohol can – in sensible quantities – help to reduce tension and stress while at the same time improve one’s confidence. It does this in a similar way to beta-blockers which reduce anxiety by regulating the heart rate in stressful situations, handy when using the spider rest for example (this is why beta-blockers are banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency).
One rather anecdotal 2010 study by two American doctors contends that people who are ok but not really good at ‘aiming’ sports like snooker, darts, and bowling, do best when they reach their Optimal Altered State (OAS). As the authors point out, this is not when you can’t walk straight but rather that point “where you have consumed just enough alcohol to make you feel supremely gifted”. It’s a point with which I’m quite familiar.
But alcohol also appears to help in other ways. Research into how archers perform suggests that a small amount of alcohol relaxes the body and reduces tremors in the arm, thus improving accuracy. Similar results were found in darts players, though after the first drink, accuracy started to tail off.
Timing as well as quantity is also important, since it takes about half an hour to 45 minutes for the amount of alcohol to peak in the drinker’s blood. So the effects of a pint at the start of the first frame won’t kick in until the second (depending on your snooker prowess). The process happens faster if you’re drinking on an empty stomach, the drink is pretty strong or carbonated, or if you are small.
It is in fact quite possible to combine top class snooker with several yards of ale. "He was a great drinker but also a very good player," said Jimmy White on hearing of Bill Werbeniuk's death in 2003. "Only he could get tanked up with 10 pints before a match and still win." The Canadian snooker star was one of the game's elite players for several years and claimed that his prodigious drinking – half a dozen pints before a match, one pint per frame thereafter - was the only way he could stop an arm tremor that hampered his play. He even attempted to offset his beer bills against tax. Bill’s career was only terminated when snooker’s governing body banned the beta-blocker inderal which he took to balance the effects of the alcohol, even though he argued that inderal was performance enabling, not enhancing.
And in terms of legality a swift half would not disbar me from appearing at the Crucible. The World Anti-Doping Agency bans alcohol for ‘In-Competition only’ in just four disciplines, Air Sports, Archery, Automobile and Powerboating.
But here's the real clincher for me. Bowles was not drinking alone that night before his athletic endeavours. Racing driver James Hunt was matching him clink for clink and Hunt also took part in Superstars the following day. And while Bowles found it hard to finish a length in the swimming, Hunt did rather well. That's all the 4.8% proof I need.
Snooker psychology: the advantages of the amateur
Sport is a simple game. You simply kick the ball into the net. You simply hit the ball with the bat. You simply knock the balls into the pockets.
It’s certainly simple when you’re sitting in your chair at home, criticising the England football manager’s team selection for the World Cup semi-final, or voicing foulmouthed amazement on Twitter about how rubbish four-time snooker World Champion John Higgins’s long-pot game has always been. It’s a teensy bit harder when you actually have to do it yourself.
Of course some of that is down to physical issues. I’ve pretty much come to terms now with the bleak reality that, at 53, I’ve probably lost just that yard of speed which makes me unlikely to break into the England squad for the next Six Nations (although it would be nice to be asked). But equally, it’s a question of psychology. Ronnie O’Sullivan knows this to be true. He credits sports psychologist Steve Peters for making him the player he is today and in turn has been helping boxer Tyson Fury with his mindset. Fellow world champion Peter Ebdon is similarly evangelistic about the power of positive thought and hands out copies of ‘Think and Grow Rich’ by the American motivational guru Napoleon Hill to almost everybody he meets.
One of the main issues that professional snooker players face is as basic as waiting for their turn. They must patiently watch their opponent rack up the points against them while unable to make any countermove. It’s a question of staying focused rather than letting your mind wander, erasing any negative thoughts as Ronnie knocks in another century break with his wrong hand.
Happily, this isn’t an issue we face at the Wednesday Night Snooker Club. There’s usually barely time to sit down after missing a shot because, to be frank, there’s a high chance our opponent is also going to whack it wide of the pocket before there’s even an opportunity for our pint to touch our lips. In this sense, we’re closer to darts players (in more senses than this too). Rather, if our opponent is in the groove, we are far more likely to mentally urge them on to an ever higher break, even cutting down the conversational chatter as they look to hit the 30 mark.
Similarly, when a professional is at the table, there is a huge amount of pressure. One mistake can easily mean the loss of the frame, added to which is the proximity of the crowd. At the World Championships, the players are not just able to easily see the faces of the spectators, said spectators are sitting so close that they could easily poke them with a shoe. Literally every eye in the house is constantly upon them.
Again, for the reasons above, this is not really a nailbiter for us. If we miss, chances are that we will have another chance in about 30 seconds. And to be brutally honest, there is a grim inevitability about our gameplay in that half our frames go down to the final black anyway, making the previous half an hour a frequently pointless exercise in mediocrity.
This does not mean we bold once-a-week warriors of the baize do not face our own inner demons. Quite the reverse. For a start, we have had to develop a hard shell which prevents our constant losses and misses taking too much of a toll on our good humour. If we were to spend any time contemplating our abilities, it could tip us over the edge. We play for fun. We do not play to explore the deeper recesses of our fragile ego. We can do that whenever we like at work during lunchtime.
At the same time, we’re not actually aiming to lose. So it’s important that we don’t unnecessarily come up with excuses for doing so. “It’s the first frame of the evening”, “I’m having unbelievable bad luck”, or even “I’ve had too much beer” aren’t really acceptable. Being positive is key. If I’ve had a stressful day at work on Wednesday, I try hard not to bring that to the table in the evening. If I can’t do that, I find it very hard to play half-decently. My cue arm tenses up, my action becomes even more irregular than normal, and when I miss the shot I find it harder to let it go.
The key to enjoying snooker is simple: it’s a stupidly impossible game. And that’s why we love it.
We still enjoy it but nobody's getting any better. You're still a young man, but I fear age has finally caught up with our cue action. And eyesight.
'breaks above 20'...I'm impressed. I've started playing fairly regularly and it's become a battle between the comfort of sinking into old pool habits (hitting too many too hard, the non-bridge hand swinging across a la Judd Trump etc) and trying to develop a better action. What a pleasure it is