William Alexander Werbeniuk1 was born on 14 January, 1947, in Winnipeg, Canada, but moved to the western city of Vancouver at an early age. Known throughout the snooker world as 'Big Bill', the 20-stone man-mountain became a cult figure to British snooker fans in the 1980s, due in no small part to his extraordinary alcohol intake. Interviewed in 2002, he recalled, 'I'd down six to eight pints of lager before I started. Then I'd have one pint a frame. Obviously over the longer matches I'd get through quite a lot of lager but I managed to burn off alcohol very quickly.' During one World Championship in the late 1980s, the toilet at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre was temporarily renamed 'the Bill Werbeniuk room' because he'd needed so many 'comfort breaks' during one match. Bill also famously split his trousers live on television, while representing Canada in the Snooker World Cup, which led team-mate Cliff Thorburn to quip: 'This is a needle match and I was hoping Bill was going to sew it up for us.'
But the amount of pint glasses that passed through his hands shouldn't mask the fact that Big Bill was no mug at the snooker table. Werbeniuk's era was the golden age of Canadian snooker - Cliff Thorburn and Kirk Stevens were also ranked in the top eight in the World in the early 1980s. Thorburn won the 1980 World Championship, and the three of them won the Snooker World Cup in 1982.
Bill took up snooker at the age of nine, but turned professional comparatively late - in 1973, after winning the Canadian amateur championship. In his first season as a pro, he won the Canadian and North American championships. He defended the latter title successfully for the following three seasons - and visited the UK for the first time for the World Championships, where he made the last 16. He reached the same stage in 1975 and 1976, but then missed the entry date for the 1977 event - so he went off to the USA instead, where he is reputed to have won $20,000 in ten hours playing 9-ball pool. 'The trouble was,' Bill later recalled, 'I lost it all in the next 20 minutes, but there was a guy there with $200,000 in his briefcase and I was hoping to win that as well!'
When he returned to the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield for the 1978 Embassy World Championship, he proved that he could compete with the best in the world, losing only to eventual champion Ray Reardon in the quarter-finals. It was around then that Werbeniuk decided to base himself in the UK, setting up home in a converted bus in which he travelled from tournament to tournament, and using the North Midland Snooker Centre at Worksop as his base. The success of the move helped to compensate for missing his home and the delights of the Pacific North West. At the 1979 Embassy, he reached the quarter-finals for the second time, equalling the then tournament record break of 142 on the way, but lost 13-9 to John Virgo. Another personal milestone was established that year, as Bill reached the semi-finals of the UK Championship in Preston.
'I was hoping Bill was going to sew it up for us'
In the following year, with Cliff Thorburn and Kirk Stevens, he helped Canada to progress to the final of the World Team Cup, where they were beaten by Wales. But his performance at that event was overshadowed by the famous trouser-splitting incident. While playing David Taylor of England, he elected to stretch over the table rather than use the rest2 to play an awkward shot - and split his trousers wide open. This greatly amused his opponent, and caused much mirth in the audience because, lacking underpants, Werbeniuk's ample backside was in clear view. However, Bill would enjoy his most notable success in the same tournament - alongside Thorburn and Stevens, he was overjoyed to contribute to Canada's 1982 World Cup triumph.
He also reached the quarter-finals of the Embassy World Championship on another two occasions, losing 13-10 to Ray Reardon in 1981, and 13-11 to defending champion Alex 'The Hurricane' Higgins two years later. In the same tournament, he also played a cameo role in Cliff Thorburn's maximum 147 break - the first ever seen at the Crucible. Bill was playing David Taylor on the adjacent table and, having heard the ever-louder shouts of encouragement as Thorburn began to clear the colours, Bill peered around the dividing wall to find out was going on. Temporarily abandoning his own match, he stayed to cheer his compatriot on to make snooker history and was on hand to provide a celebratory bear-hug once the final black had been sunk.
Bill in his Prime
Werbeniuk reached a career high - eighth in the world rankings - during the 1983-84 season. Despite the odd occasional lapse, Bill had established himself as one of snooker's leading exponents. He frequently compiled sizeable breaks, potted well from distance, and was shrewd when it came to employing his tactical game. However, his failure to translate his abundant talent into success in a major individual event was something that Bill always regretted. He came closest at the 1983 Winfield Masters in Australia, where he lost 7-3 to Thorburn in the final, and at that year's Lada Classic in the UK. En route to the final, Werbeniuk defeated some of the game's top players - Alex Higgins, Doug Mountjoy and Kirk Stevens - but in the final he came up against Steve Davis at the peak of his powers. Bill made a good contest of it, but couldn't contain Davis, eventually losing 9-5.
Bill spent several successful seasons in the top 16, but his story is a sad one - the gallons of lager he drank before, during and after matches were to control an hereditary nervous disorder that caused his cue arm to tremble. He made the highest break of the 1985 World Championship - 143, but from the mid-1980s a steady decline in form set in, which coincided with a substantial increase in his alcohol consumption. He even made headlines by acquiring a medical certificate which approved his lager-drinking, and offsetting the cost of the booze against income tax as a necessary overhead.
His reliance on lager became such that, when scheduled to play at ten in the morning, he was forced to rise at 6am in order to get through the eight or so starter pints which he needed to play. Big Bill would then down a pint in each frame, before retiring to the bar at the end of the day for what he termed 'a social drink'. It was the norm for Werbeniuk to consume more than 20 pints each day and often more, but he rarely became drunk and, with time, the alcohol had a diminished calming effect.
'I got a letter one day...'
Eventually, concerned about the effect of his lager intake on his health, Werbeniuk's doctors recommended that he switch to the beta-blocker Inderal. Unfortunately, when snooker's governing body3 instituted a drug-testing policy, Inderal was placed on the list of banned substances. Werbeniuk continued to take it, ignoring the possible professional consequences, and as a result he was first fined and then suspended. He returned to Canada in 1988, saying: 'It looks like the end of the road. There is no other drug available. I could take other medication, but I would need three times the dosage and it could possibly kill me'. Interviewed after the end of his career, he maintained 'I would always maintain that Inderal was performance enabling, not performance enhancing. I got a letter one day saying don't bother to turn up because you're not playing'.
Werbeniuk was eventually expelled from the game in March, 1989, for non-payment of fines. In September, he was reinstated as a non-tournament player, but his attempts to stop using Inderal led to increased reliance on drink. By now Bill was 47th in the world rankings, and faced with the dilemma of either giving up the drug and risking his health, or taking it and giving up the professional game. Quite naturally, he chose the latter option and quit the circuit, returning to Canada to try to earn a living playing pool.
Werbeniuk's last recorded professional match was in the preliminary rounds of the 1990 World Championships: a 10-1 defeat to Nigel Bond. In the post-match interview, he declared 'I've had 24 pints of extra strong lager and eight double vodkas and I'm still not drunk'.
A bankruptcy notice was filed against him in 1991, and later that year he was fined again and censured by the WPBSA for refusing to take another drugs test. However, despite this lack of sympathy, he retained his membership of the association and came back to the UK to play in the Embassy qualifying tournament in 1991 and 1992. But, forced to compete without the drug he had come to rely on, he failed to get beyond the second qualifying round on either occasion.
He returned to Canada, where he lived on disability benefits. He passed away in January, 2003, at the Ridge Meadows Hospital in Maple Ridge, on the outskirts of Vancouver, after suffering from heart problems. He had been seriously ill for a year and had spent the last three months in hospital. He was 56.
Another of snooker's great characters, Jimmy 'The Whirlwind' White led the tributes: 'I was gutted to hear Bill had died,' he said. 'He was a great drinker, but also a very good player. Only he could get tanked up with 10 pints before a match and still win.'
Six-time world champion Steve Davis said: 'Bill seemed like a jovial, happy character and was a much harder competitor than most people gave him credit for. I think one of his greatest moments was when he broke wind loudly at the Crucible and then turned to the audience and said: "Who did that?"'
Former Canada team mate Cliff Thorburn said:
Every time I come to Britain people always ask me about Bill. He was a larger than life character. When Bill was at his peak Canada had three players ranked in the top eight in the world and I always thought we were the only real team competing in the World Cup. We weren't just team-mates, we were great friends off the table. While everybody else was arguing amongst themselves about who should be captain, we were a unit. I will always remember Bill, Kirk (Stevens) and myself standing on one chair singing 'Oh Canada' after having a couple of drinks.
Bill had a wonderful mind on him. He was a really tough competitor and very under-rated as a snooker player. He had more cue power than anybody else in the game. We didn't speak that often after Bill retired from the game; he went to live with his mother in Vancouver. But whenever we did, it was as though we had never been apart.
Memories of Bill and tributes from his fans poured in to the BBC as news of his death broke, and these can be found on BBC's Tribute to Bill Werbeniuk.