Sunday, 27 April 2014

The sport of gentlemen

Today, with the World Championship of one of my (few) favourite sports in full flow, I intend to bore regale you all with a brief rambling history of "the gentlemen's game" - snooker.

The origins of the game can be traced back over 400 years to the creation of what would become English Billiards.  Billiards is a much simpler 3-ball game with very different - and even more complex - rules than snooker, where players score points (up to a pre-arranged limit) through striking the balls in certain ways as well as potting them (and even, in some cases, potting the cue ball).  It is still a very skillful gentlemen's game - and ladies', as this newsreel proves! - and one I'd very much like to learn myself but its intricacies and nuances can make it quite a long game, not particularly suitable as a full-blown spectator sport.

Billiards continued to be the dominant cue sport well into the 19th century, though, and its legacy as the "sport of gentlemen" can still be felt in snooker today, not least in the sartorial aspect of waistcoats and bow ties.  Chaps would invite their guests for a game or two in the billiards room after dinner, so it would be off with the dinner jackets for a few post-prandial frames of 300 points or so!

It was the British Army, however, whom we have to really thank for snooker as we know it today.  Units based in India at the end of the 19th century were keen to play a more involving game, sometimes with more than two players and very often for money (hence the term "pool", as in "pool your bets" - the modern game bearing that name also evolving from this new variation).  Thus the different aspects of snooker that we recognise now came into being - pyramid pool introduced the triangle of red balls, life pool used some coloured balls and black pool the black (obviously!).  All were eventually combined in 1875, in the Indian city of Jabalpur, by Colonel Sir Neville Chamberlain (of no relation to the later Prime Minister), creating what would become the sport of snooker.  Chamberlain later introduced an official set of rules and coined the name for the game.  A "snooker" was army slang for an inexperienced cadet.   Following a bad shot by his opponent during one frame Chamberlain called him "a real snooker" - and the term stuck.

John Roberts - the British Billiard champion at the time - then visited India in 1885, met Chamberlain and decided to publicise the new cue sport on his return to England.  Even so it took some years for the game to really catch on and the first official competition, the English Amateur Championship, was not established until 1916 (gentleman apparently not letting the war get in the way of a good game of snooker).  It was then another 11 years before the first professional tournament - the inaugural World Championship - took place in 1927.  By that time a player who would dominate the sport for the next twenty years had arrived on the scene - Joe Davis (no relation to Steve Davis either, by the way!).  Already the World Billiards Champion, Davis took to snooker equally well and won the first 1927 championship - total prize money £6 10s. To this very day Joe Davis holds the record for the most amount of World Championship wins - 20 - and his younger brother Fred continued the family tradition in a professional career that astonishingly spanned nearly 65 years from 1929 to 1988.

In 1969 the B.B.C. was keen to show the potential of the new-fangled colour television and decided snooker was a perfect way to show off this new medium.  As you can see for yourselves, snooker does not lend itself to being watched in black and white!  The Pot Black series - a quick one-frame knockout tournament-style programme - gave viewers the chance to watch this colourful sport properly from the comfort of their own homes (although not everyone had colour TVs in those early days, leading to one of the best gaffes in sports commentary history from well-known snooker commentator Ted Lowe - "and for those of you who are watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green"!) and helped pave the way for the game to become the international multi-million pound, multimedia sport it is today.

Even though snooker has become in many ways just like any other professional sport in the 21st century, with copious amounts of advertising sponsorship, thousands of pounds in prize money, dozens of tournaments played throughout the world and a tough ranking system, there are many aspects still remaining that hark back to a more refined era and it is one of the few sports still described as "gentlemanly".  Players call fouls on themselves, acknowledge flukes and generally behave sportingly albeit still with a friendly rivalry.  And of course, they still wear waistcoats and bow ties!

Having said that, modern snooker players have largely gone to pot (ahem) in the sartorial department.  Things started to go wrong in the 1970s, with even snooker not being immune from the ruffled shirt craze that swept through formal attire at the time, along with bow ties that wouldn't have looked out of place fluttering about in a South American rain forest.  Canadian player Kirk Stevens was well-known for his white waistcoat in the Eighties, not realising that one doesn't play the game in white tie.  The rot really set in during the late 1990s, though, when players waistcoats began to be emblazoned on the chest with the name of some obscure Far Eastern turf accountant following the demise of tobacco sponsorship.  At the same time waistcoats began to get longer and more squarer in cut, in order to (unsuccessfully) keep viewers from seeing the players' shirts and belts during hard-to-reach shots.  Players have also since developed a propensity for waistcoats with startlingly-coloured backs, with some pinks and purples distracting from the colours on the table!  Pre-tied bow ties began appearing with increasingly frightening frequency until sadly they are now almost de rigeur - often with the top button undone no less (except for Scottish player Stephen Maguire who, somewhat bizarrely, has a doctor's note excusing him from wearing one due to an undisclosed "neck problem")! 

Having watched the World Championship thus far with one eye on the clothes, I have to admit this has to be one of the worst years yet for the players' wardrobes.  So to end this post (and put it out of its misery?) here's a quick run-down of my top three sartorial snooker heroes and villains for 2014:

Another Scotsman, Alan McManus, has enjoyed a surprise return to form at the 2014 World Championship in what would otherwise be regarded as his twilight years.  He has not been seen much on the [televised] snooker circuit since he beat fellow Scot Stephen Hendry in the 1994 Masters and, judging by his choice of leg wear, perhaps it's been for the best.  One can admire his patriotism and perhaps put his trouser selection down to eccentricity or the excitement of being back in a major tournament for the first time in 20 years but really, Mr McManus, this isn't golf you know.  He also compounded his error by failing to bring with him to Sheffield any form of trouser support (and the demise of braces among snooker players is also keenly felt by your author), resulting in his first match against friend and compatriot John Higgins being punctuated by frequent hitching up of the trousers.  Mr McManus also demonstrates the sadly popular habit exhibited among many players of wearing a black shirt with a black waistcoat (and black tie), as if they can't contemplate two or more colours (unlikely for a snooker player!) or are delivering Cadburys Milk Tray after the match.

"If you can tie your own shoelaces, you can tie a bow tie", they say, and youngster Judd Trump adds weight to that theory with these rejects from a mediæval torture chamber.  Hard to believe, but these things cost young Trump £15,000.  ([Dis]honourable mentions should also go to Chinese player Xiao Guodong, whose silver-covered slip-ons wouldn't look out of place in a 1970s sci-fi series, and Welshman Dominic Dale who obviously prefers zebra to calf-skin.  Veteran potter Ken Doherty did his best to counter with some natty blue wingtips, but alas he lost out to McManus yesterday.)  This is what happens when young players get their hands on more than £6 10s when they win a match or two.  Unsurprisingly, Trump eschews even the pre-tied bow for a "pre-tied crossover" bow (whatever that may be!) that owes more to Colonel Sanders than to Colonel Chamberlain.  The lad needs a proper haircut and a shave to boot.

The sartorial beacon of rightness in this year's World Championship has without a doubt been Shaun Murphy.  A fellow Essex-born chap he is very much a traditional snooker player and all the better for it.  Nowhere is that illustrated more than in his attire.  OK, so it may not be the proper formal black tie and waistcoat of earlier years but it is still a welcome break from what is now sadly becoming the norm.  The brown waistcoat/trouser combo he's been sporting this year has a splendidly old-fashioned look about it - as though he were going for a relaxed pot-about at a country estate, perhaps - topped and tailed wonderfully by brown half brogues and (could it be?!) what looks very much like a self-tied bow tie.  For that alone he deserves to win the tournament in my opinion, and I hope he continues to do well (currently 4-4 in his best-of-25 match against Marco Fu) so that we can see more of the same!

Well, that's enough of that - I think I've gone on longer than some matches!  How about joining me in the billiard room for a couple of frames?


  1. I quite agree, old top - sartorial standards have sadly gone to pot! As you say though, snooker is the true sport of gentlemen. An example other sportsmen would do well to follow.

  2. "or are delivering Cadburys Milk Tray after the match" - that had me laughing out loud! Brilliant post, I remember fondly the snooker games of my youth, after my Dad bought us a second-hand mini table to keep us quiet in the summer holidays once. I've never played billiards though! P x

  3. I used to nurse in elderly care...and miss it sadly...and one of my old ladies was a Snooker fiend! She would retire to her room with a cup of tea and plate of cake and sit there quite happily.
    Her mind was a bit wandered because she suffered from dementia but the Snooker seemed to break through something for her.
    Given her background it wasn't something one would have thought she'd have liked, but there you go.
    I can tell you she'd have had forty fits had she seen what they are wearing! Mind you, I couldn't blame her, those shoes...eeeewwww, nasty.


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