By some, snooker’s considered pool for the die hards. For others, it’s associated with slightly too serious Brits and people getting beaten up in Guy Ritchie movies. Despite the efforts of the United States Snooker Association, it remains, like soccer, one of those British imports that’s never caught on in the US. But if we could find a place in our hearts for Doctor Who, it turns out the Chinese could do the same for snooker.
Snooker was invented by British Army officers stationed in India during the nineteenth century as a variation on billiards. Colored balls were added to the black and white ones used in other cue sports of the time, and more complex rules devised to deliver a more demanding game. The name supposedly comes from a then-popular nickname for first year cadets at the Royal Military Academy; as this was a new game, everybody playing it could be considered a “snooker.” Whether you want to believe that story or not is up to you, but the legend, the history and most importantly the complexity are all cited as reasons for the game’s supposed superiority over pool.
Cue sports have long been big in China and the popularity of snooker has boomed since World Snooker Limited saw the potential to heavily market it in the region. Some credit the success of snooker in the Far East to the game’s emphasis on calm, discipline and individual endeavor, but that’s not borne out by the atmosphere you’ll experience if you ever attend a match there. Sit in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre and you might find the silence of 980 people oppressive (during one 2010 match, a fan was thrown out because his snoring was disturbing the players). Turn up for a match at the Beijing University Students Gymnasium and you’ll see star snooker players mobbed by fans in a manner the British would reserve for David Beckham.
There are already ten Chinese players in the Snooker World Rankings Top 100, five from Thailand, and one from Hong Kong. For seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry, the future of the game is clear. In a recent interview with the Daily Mirror, he predicted the World Championship (held at the Crucible since 1977) will at some point move to China:
“I do think it’s inevitable. I can’t see it happening in the next 10 years, but I think in the future. There are five major tournaments in China and only three in the UK, so it’s going there at an alarming rate.”
World Snooker Limited have indicated they have no intention to move the World Championship from Sheffield as long as it continues to enjoy the support of fans, local government and the BBC. The last of those may be the most important; the BBC’s decision to commission coverage of snooker in the 1960s as a way of showing off color television is seen by many as a key factor in the sport’s rise in popularity. But the Chinese are big payers too, and even World Snooker Limited’s Barry Hearn admitted it. “They’re a very demanding customer; they like to put up lots of money to play for.”
It’s a shift in snooker’s playing base which can’t be ignored and has the potential to see the UK and Ireland lose their place as the home of world snooker in the same way they did with soccer, cricket and golf. Now, if only they could get Americans playing it.
Image credit: LauraGilchrist4/Flickr