Building on History, World Snooker Championship Cues off in Britain

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“Snooker Loopy nuts are we, me and him and them and me, we’ll show you what we can do with a load of balls and a snooker cue” —Chas and Dave, “Snooker Loopy”

Growing up in the 1980s in Britain, you knew these lyrics like the back of your hand. “Rockney” duo Chas and Dave, along with some of the top British snooker professionals at the time, recorded a catchy ditty that included the very basics of snooker rules:

“Pot the reds and screw back for the yellow, green, brown, blue, pink and black...”

The World Snooker Championship is April 20-May 6 this year in Sheffield, England — which makes this a good time to review the basics of the game. A player first targets one of the red balls, then alternates red and color (the colored balls are spotted, or put back on the table, as long as any red balls remain). After all the reds are in, players target the colored balls in ascending numerical order. Players who foul are penalized with points for their opponents. The champion takes home £250,000 (about $380,000).

Snooker originated in the latter half of the 19th century, probably from army barracks in India, as a variation of the more widely played Billiards. Apparently, back in those days the term “snooker” was used to describe a rookie or inexperienced soldier.

Folklore has it that during an early game, an army colonel, Neville Chamberlain (not the prime minister), exclaimed “snooker!” to his opponent when he failed to “pot a ball,” insinuating he was a rookie. It must have stuck, because by the start of the 20th century Snooker was gaining popularity in Britain and becoming part and parcel of gentlemen’s clubs around the country.

To this day, members-only snooker clubs are ten a penny in British cities, and I can distinctly remember playing in such clubs as a young teenager. Signed into the clubs by my friend’s father, we were allowed to play on the hallowed green velvet surface just as long as we “don’t bloody tear the green.” So all our shots were played in fear of doing just that (which means we didn’t play very well).

Snooker is played on a 12-by-6-foot table, with 15 red balls and the aforementioned colored balls. There is a fair amount more to the rules than with, say, pool or billiards. And the game is a lot more difficult. However, in my opinion, the objects are simple: Score more points than your opponent. Call your fouls. Entertain the crowd. And don’t tear the green. After all, there is a ton of history to snooker.

Between the 1920s and the Second World War, the World Snooker Championship was played in Britain, with the title mainly between a few players who excelled at the sport. It helped if your last name was “Davis.” Joe Davis won 15 titles in a row before 1946, and then his brother Fred won eight times before 1954. The sport became more mainstream in the UK in the 1970s, with Ray Reardon from Wales winning six times in that decade. Steve Davis — no relation to Joe or Fred — won six times in the 1980s.

By this point, other Commonwealth countries had snooker personalities competing, such as Cliff Thorburn from Canada, who won the world title in 1983. The dour Scot Stephen Hendry won seven times in the 1990s. And Ronnie “The Rocket” O’Sullivan, who has won four times in the 21st century, is the defending champion and probably the most significant snooker personality since the late Alex Higgins. O’Sullivan faces competition this year from fellow Englishmen Mark “The Jester from Leicester” Selby and Judd “Juddernaut” Trump, as well as Australian Neil “Thunder from Down Under” Robertson.

If you follow this year’s world snooker championships, here are five things you should know:

1. It is held at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. It has been since 1977, and the majority of the snooker-watching public knows no other venue. Whatever else is held at this theater — it could be Shakespeare, it could be Mozart — for two weeks every year, the Steel City goes snooker loopy.

2. The maximum break is 147. That is the most points a player can score in one visit to the table. It doesn’t happen that often — on television, anyway. But when it does, expect the crowd to go nuts.

3. The current champion, Ronnie O’Sullivan, is quite the character. Incredibly talented: check. Winning pedigree: check. Cheeky chappy who likes controversy: double check. Ronnie likes to taunt his opponents by playing left handed (he is right handed). It’s the equivalent of Tiger Woods borrowing Phil Mickelson’s golf clubs and still beating him.

4. One of Snooker's most revered personalities is Jimmy “The Whirlwind” White. Jimmy is snooker’s “nearly man.” He has never won the World Snooker Championship – although he has been runner up no less than six times. He won’t be at this year event, as he didn’t qualify, but the 50-year-old will be mentioned multiple times by the commentary team (he is also best buddies with O’Sullivan).

5. Back in the day, players used to smoke and drink pints during play, even in the world finals. Search online for video of any old '70s or '80s final and you will see drinks on the players’ tables. It’s all purified water and fresh fruit in this day and age, but the olden days hark back to more of a laissez-faire era. Long live the Davis clan.

Follow the Betfair World Snooker Championship on Yahoo Sports Euro Edition.

by Matt Goff

Photos: Starting April 20, Ronnie O'Sullivan will defend his title at the World Snooker Championship at Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, England. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Mark Selby of England, shown posing during the media launch for the 2013 Betfair World Snooker Championship, is one of the top contenders. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Judd Trump of England is another possibility to topple O’Sullivan. (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

Neil Robertson of Australia, who lost to Mark Selby in the Masters Final in January, is the highest seeded non-British player in the World Championships. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)