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6 Conversations

A man about to take his first shot in a game of snooker.
Snooker loopy, nuts are we
Me and him and them and me

- Chas and Dave (1986)

The origins of snooker, as with most cue sports, are somewhat clouded. It is known that billiards was played in England as early as 1750 on a felt-covered slate table1 measuring 12ft x 6ft (the dimensions of today's snooker table), and many stories emanate from colonial India, the most substantial crediting Sir Neville Chamberlain2 with inventing the game in the 1870s, after his men grew bored with billiards and began adding more and more balls to the table.

Whatever the origins, snooker is today a genuinely worldwide sport, with massive followings in countries as diverse as Canada, China, Finland, Australia and Brazil.

The Equipment

Snooker is played on a 'Standard Billiard' table 12 feet long, six feet wide and 34 inches high, with a cushioned surround. A line, delimiting the 'baulk' area, is drawn 29 inches from the bottom (short) cushion, and a semi-circle of radius 11.5 inches imposed on the baulk side of the baulk-line. The table has six pockets, one in each corner and one mid-way down each 'long' cushion. The pockets can vary in size according to the requirements of the table3The game requires 22 balls4 of diameter 38mm (originally one-and-a-half inches), 15 red in colour and one each of white, yellow, green, brown, blue, pink and black. The white ball is generally referred to as the 'cue ball', as it is this one that is struck by the tip of the cue.

The Basics


The table is set as follows:

  • The red balls are arranged into a triangle (each side five balls in length), the base of which is parallel to, and 24 inches from, the 'top' cushion (the short cushion furthest away from the baulk-line).

  • The black ball is placed on a spot 19 inches from the top cushion and on the central axis of the table.

  • The pink ball is placed on a spot on the central axis of the table almost touching the bottom-most of the red balls.

  • The blue ball is placed on a spot exactly central to the table (that is, midway between the two central pockets).

  • The brown ball is placed on the centre of the baulk line.

  • The green ball is placed where the right side (viewing from the top cushion) of the semi-circle meets the baulk line.

  • The yellow ball is placed where the left side (viewing from the top of the table) of the semi-circle meets the baulk line.



The Play

The white ball is initially played from anywhere inside the 'D' created by the conjunction of the baulk line and the semi-circle, and is subsequently played from where it lies5. The 'object ball' (that which is to be struck first by the cue ball), is any of the red balls until a red is 'potted' (knocked into one of the pockets). The player potting the red can remain at the table and nominate any one of the other balls ('colours') to become the object ball. If the 'colour' is potted, then the player can remain at the table again with a red as the object ball. This continues until the player fails to pot the object ball, when play passes to his opponent, and red becomes the object ball once again. The number of points a player gains in one visit to the table is known as the 'break', and the maximum possible break is 147 (15 reds, 15 blacks and the colours in order6.

During play, any colours potted are replaced back on their starting spots (or the spot of the next lowest scoring number ad lib if their own spot is being covered by another ball). Red balls are not replaced.

Once all the reds have been potted (followed by a colour each time), no more balls are replaced and the lowest numbered colour remaining on the table (starting with yellow) is the object ball. This continues until the table is cleared of all but the white ball, at which point the player having potted the highest number of points is declared the winner.

Foul Shots

A foul shot7 is committed if:

  • No balls are contacted by the cue-ball.

  • The object ball(s) is not contacted first by the cue-ball.

  • Any ball other than the object ball(s) is potted.

  • Any ball is knocked off the table8.

  • A shot is played while the player does not have at least one foot on the floor.

The penalty for this is four points, the value of the ball being aimed for, or the value of the ball contacted/potted/knocked off the table, whichever is higher, to the other player. In snooker parlance, this is known as four (or five, six or seven) away. After any foul, play passes to the other player.

If a player comes to the table after a foul shot and is 'snookered' (that is, he is obstructed from the object ball by one or more other balls), he is entitled to take a 'free' ball as the object ball, worth the same value as the original object ball, after which the game continues as usual.

A rule which is not generally applied to social games, but which has caused much furore in the professional world, is the 'miss' rule. This has derived from the fact that a professional player could deliberately play a foul shot to gain a better safety play (see below), at the expense of a few points9. To counter this, the 'miss' rule was introduced, whereby, under the referee's judgement, if the player has (or could have) deliberately played the foul shot, a 'miss' is called, and the other player has the option to replace any moved balls and make the first player replay the shot. This has led, in the past, to multiple foul shots, amounting to as many as 20 or 30 points. The only time when the 'miss' rule may not be invoked is when snookers are required to win (when one player is further behind than the maximum number of points available on the table).

How To Play

If you've never hit a cue ball before, it is advisable to work up to the full game gradually. First try hitting a cue ball straight down the middle of the table (over the spots) so it rebounds from the top cushion and returns along the same line. This is not as easy as it sounds, but is important to check that you are not imparting any unnecessary spin to the cue ball (see below). From this, you can progress to setting up potting angles, positional and safety shots.

Stand with your feet facing the table (not square to it). Hold the butt (the thick end) of the cue in your right hand (if you're left-handed reverse all this), and plant your left hand firmly on the cloth of the table, about six inches behind the cue ball, fingers spread a little. Bend over and run the cue through the channel created between your thumb and index finger (this is known as the 'bridge', and differs between players; given time you can move your left hand around a bit to create a bridge that is best for you). Your chin should rest on top of the cue10, allowing you to move it backwards and forwards smoothly. Always follow through the cue ball on line, otherwise you'll develop all sorts of nasty habits.

If you are graduating to the snooker table from pub games of pool, then you might find the table bamboozlingly-large (about four times the area, in fact). To this end, practice your use of the rest (the six-foot stick with a big 'X' at the end of it), to use as an extension to your bridge. If your positional play is not yet up to scratch, you will find yourself relying on the rest quite a lot.


The theory behind potting balls is simple, but it takes plenty of practice to perfect the necessary hand-eye co-ordination.

Imagine a straight line coming from the pocket you wish to aim for and passing dead through the centre of the object ball. To successfully pot the ball, the cue ball should contact the object ball at the very point where that line emerges from the other side.

Positional Play and Safety

If the above were all the skill required to play snooker, it would be a very easy game. Far more important, and frequently overlooked by beginners, is realising and trying to predict what happens to the cue ball after it has contacted the object ball. Remember, if you pot the red, you can go after one of the high-scoring balls next, which will be much easier to pot if you are close to it.

Similarly, safety shots require the removal of the cue ball as far away from the red balls as possible, in order to make your opponent's next shot difficult.

The simplest way to control the cue-ball is to think about the strength of shot. If you hammer every red ball hard into the back of the pocket, the odds are that the cue ball will go careening around the table and you will have no control. Instead, after hitting a few pots, see if you can start hitting them at the appropriate strength to leave the white ball close to the black or pink, in order to make that next pot easier. Remember that the white ball will travel at much greater speed away from a 'thin' pot (that is, one where the cue ball makes contact with only the side of the object ball) than from a straight pot.

There are many, many clever ways to control the subsequent path of the cue-ball by the application of topspin, backspin and sidespin, but they are beyond the scope of this entry, and besides the easiest way to do them is to try them. Remember, though, whenever applying any spin shot, to always strike through the cue ball with the cue tip, rather than just catching it a glancing blow.

Snooker and The Masses

The game enjoyed very low-key popularity in the United Kingdom throughout the early 20th Century while its name spread. Indeed, it acquired insalubrious connotations, a 'snooker parlour' often being a front for an illegal betting-shop or brothel.

During this time the acknowledged billiards great, Joe Davis, began to perfect the game; he and younger brother, Fred, were virtually unbeaten until the late 1950s. The game was still played very much in an amateur capacity, though; with the boom in sporting activity of all types during the 1950s and 1960s, snooker was left struggling.

For those of you watching in black and white, the pink is behind the green
- Ted Lowe; BBC Commentary circa 1980

Part of the problem, of course, was that the elite game could not be conveyed to the general public via black-and-white television - snooker not unsurprisingly losing a great degree of its appeal when one couldn't tell red balls from brown balls. Hence, the development of colour television in 1967 led to an unpredictable revolution in sports viewing. The game was originally televised merely to emphasise the novelty of colour television, and the sudden increase in the fanbase unpredictably turned an erstwhile parlour game into a major sport. Snooker for the first time was attracting a mass audience, mostly through the hugely popular Pot Black.

The initiation of professional snooker tournaments, particularly the Embassy World Snooker Championships (held at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield) boosted popularity even further, and for the first time snooker players began to become household names.

The trend continued through the 1980s and 1990s, due to the emergence of more and more personalities in the game, and today snooker is the second most watched sport in the UK, after football.

In 2001, the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association relaxed its rules on dress during tournaments. Hitherto, dress for snooker players had always been 'waistcoat and tie' morning- or evening-dress (depending on the time of play), but many players enjoyed their new-found freedom, and the move was credited with returning some personality to what had become something of a dour game.

Snooker Greats

Joe Davis and Fred Davis

Without a doubt, the two players who shaped the game as it is today, Joe developed many of the skills and tactics, and set the first 147 maximum break. Fred was of at least equal skill, but had the charm to bring the game to the general public. Snooker's revival in the 1960s owed so much to Fred, who was still playing consistently well in 1978, at the age of 65, to reach the Embassy semi-finals.

Ray Reardon

Known as 'Dracula', for his distinctive haircut, Ray was a stalwart of Pot Black and principal player on the world stage before the introduction of the Embassy Championships; therefore, he was probably snooker's first household name. An absolute demon with a safety shot, Ray continued to play until the mid-1980s, when failing eyesight forced his retirement.

Alex Higgins

The original bad boy of snooker, Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins was a near legend, in that no-one could work out how he could play such precise, fiery pots consistently with such an apparently haphazard approach to the game. In truth, Alex was much affected by addictions to both alcohol and cocaine, and received frequent bans and fines from assorted governing bodies. However, his innate showmanship did more to endear people to the sport than any other player before or since.

Steve Davis

Although no relation to the great brothers, Steve's mastery of the tactical game brought him five Embassy championships in the 1980s and made him, at the time, the most successful player ever. Labelled Steve 'Interesting' Davis by TV's Spitting Image lampooners, after his methodical play around the table, he proved himself to be anything but boring, becoming a sparkling presence among journalists and broadcasters. It seemed his career in snooker had dried up around the late 1990s, about the same time as he was beginning to make a name for himself in American 9-ball pool, but he surprised many by making a return to snooker's elite Top 16 in 2002.

Jimmy White

Certainly the best supported player ever, and probably one of the unluckiest, Jimmy has been Embassy runner-up no less than six times but has never won the tournament. He burst onto the snooker scene in 1981 at the age of 19, when he wowed crowds with his lightning potting and stony veneer. He quickly acquired the nickname of 'whirlwind'. Jimmy's good humour towards the game was well exemplified when he underwent a testicle removal to combat cancer: When asked by the doctor if he would like a 'dummy' testicle implanted for cosmetic reasons, Jimmy's lightning response was 'can you put a snooker ball in there instead?'.

Stephen Hendry

Stephen's mastery of all aspects of the game has been plain since his debut as an acne-ridden 17-year-old in 1986. Regarded by players and journalists alike as the finest player ever to pick up a cue, Stephen is not only a fine judge of both table and balls but also of an opponent; hence his unprecedented seven Embassy titles is thought unlikely to be equalled. He is still at the top of his game after 17 years, thanks to a determined and focussed approach to the game, and a nonchalance which belies one of the best brains ever to have played the game.

Ronnie O'Sullivan

Possessed of more flair and natural ability than any other current player, no-one has seemed to be throwing it all away as often as Essex lad O'Sullivan. Myriad run-ins with drink, the law, and apathy dogged Ronnie's career throughout the 1990s; but to his credit he shook them off and devoted himself to his game, which flourished, leading him to a well-deserved Embassy victory in 2000. He has a habit of playing left-handed around the table, allegedly to help him concentrate, but in equal measure it certainly helps showboat the crowds and rile opponents. A loose cannon if ever there was one.

It is a measure of snooker's appeal to the general public that all on the above list, except Ronnie O'Sullivan, have been awarded the MBE, and Joe Davis and Steve Davis have been awarded the OBE.

1Slate has long been the standard material for the base of snooker tables, due to its laminar structure, but if you get a smaller-size one with foldaway legs for home use, it's more likely to be made of fibreboard.2No relation to the 20th-Century British Prime Minister of the same name.3Tables for use in professional tournaments have much smaller pockets than those in the average snooker club.4Traditionally made from ivory, but today from a complex polyaramide plastic.5The white ball is replaced in the 'D' if potted.6This is widely accepted but not technically true. A break of 155 is possible if one can take a free ball to commence the break. Unsurprisingly, this does not happen particularly often.7Aka 'foul stroke'.8In the case of a red being knocked off the table, that ball is considered to be potted and is not replaced.9These 'few points' are often less significant amongst good players, where the scoring is higher.10Ladies: you'll find very soon that playing snooker in a low-cut top is not advisable for precisely this reason.

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