'Put your hand on the table. Keep your fingers straight. Act like you're trying to clutch the felt and lift your thumb up. Now look for the line!'
It's 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon and I'm standing in a snooker hall in north London next to Joe Johnson. The former world champion is having a hard time trying to teach me the basics of the sport he mastered long ago. Despite his coaching, my left hand just isn't having it. My fingers start shaking and seem like they're being yanked out of their sockets. I feel like I'm attempting the billiards equivalent of a complex yoga pose. Johnson sighs and moves on to a radio correspondent at the next table.
This much is certain: I'll never be able to go pro anytime soon. I'll spend the next hour locked in a seemingly endless snooker frame against a Dutch sportswriter and a reporter from Finland. The German on my team isn't half bad and we managed to beat them, no thanks to me. Despite following Johnson's tips, I won't score a single point.
I, along with a few dozen journalists from around Europe, have been transported to London to cover the 2014 Masters, one of the several snooker tournaments that take place annually across Europe and Asia. We've got hours to kill before the next match begins at Alexandra Palace so our hosts have arranged an impromptu lesson with Johnson and Mike Hallett, another former champ.
I've played pool a million times over the years but snooker is an almost entirely different beast. The pockets are smaller, the table is larger, and the rules are mind-boggling for a newbie. While I struggle to sink a red ball in a centre pocket, Johnson is working the room, casually dropping alien terms like 'spider' and 'century break.'
Once upon a time, snooker was a game primarily enjoyed by British military officers stationed overseas. It grew increasingly popular over the course of the 20th century....in the United Kingdom, at least. The first World Snooker Championship was held in 1927 in Birmingham. The game fell in and out of favour in the decades that followed. Then David Attenborough used snooker to help demonstrate the potential of colour television in the '60s and tournaments have aired in the UK ever since. One championship final drew 18.5 million viewers in the mid '80s.
While many a Brit is accustomed to televised snooker, the game is still relatively unknown in many corners of the world. I grew up in the states and I'd never even seen a snooker table before I moved to Europe a few years ago. Pool remains the preferred cue sport in my nation of origin.
As the only American in the snooker hall, I felt like a stranger in a somewhat strange land. For me, the appeal of this complicated game is a befuddling mystery. I'm more accustomed to the thrills of the NBA and the pomposity of the NFL and European football. I can't imagine why anyone would want to spend hours of their free time watching billiards on television when there's so many far more exciting sports out there. Where's all the tackling and dunking? Can anyone even get a technical foul or a yellow card in snooker?
While snooker may never catch on in America, the Eurosport network has embarked on a quest to see if viewers in continental Europe will develop a taste for it. Perhaps the game's biggest cheerleader is Barry Hearn, the chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association. Our next stop on that Thursday was Alexandra Palace, the home of the 2014 Masters, where Hearn was waiting beside a snooker table that apparently cost upwards of £20,000.
'I am the best promoter in the world,' he declared at one point. Listen to Hearn talk for twenty minutes and you'll start to believe him. This is the man who has helped turn televised darts into a fixture on networks all across Europe, in addition to waving the banner for other unconventional sports like fishing, bowling, and ping-pong. He seems like the sort of guy who could sell sand to Luke Skywalker but could he turn me, an American with a short attention span, into a snooker junkie?
At the very least, he did a remarkable job of explaining why an increasing number of viewers across the UK and continental Europe are tuning in to watch professional snooker tournaments.
'Darts was a situation where we needed to get 12,000 people in an arena to watch men, well, throwing darts,' Hearn said. 'That was the problem and we changed it around to make the game look good.'
Hearn and his crew applied the same method to snooker. 'We changed the emphasis from points and the ranking system to prize money,' he explained. 'Because everybody understands prize money.' Mixing in flashy TV adverts, energetic MCs, and Beyonce songs between frames hasn't hurt either.
Like many other sports, clashing personalities and backstage drama are a big draw. Over the years, the world of snooker has hosted some colourful characters. They may not hold a candle to the likes of Dennis Rodman or Robin Friday, the notorious footballer who, among other things, once tried to destroy a hotel's snooker room by throwing billiard balls around while standing on the table dressed in only his undies. Nevertheless, the game has had its fair share of bad boys.
While Friday may have done his best to sully snooker forever, consider the career of one late Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins. He played professionally for decades and his remarkable ability to sink balls super fast made him a crowd favourite. Higgins was also incredibly moody and had a violent temper. He once headbutted an official and made headlines for urinating in a potted plant. There's also tales of him brawling with his fellow players, assaulting a school kid, and threatening to have a rival killed. His 60 cigarettes-a-day habit finally did him in and he passed away in 2010.
William 'Big Bill' Werbeniuk is another former player with a personality worthy of a boxer from Nintendo's Punch-Out!! series. He's one of the few Canadians to ever play the game professionally and was well known for both his girth and pioneering the 'safety shot.' Werbeniuk downed as many as four pints of pilsner before every match to calm a tremor in his cue arm. He also drank during tournaments too.
According to legend, Werbeniuk performed the impressive, and unlikely, feat of downing 76 cans of lager during a match in Australia back in the '70s. For him, beer was a tax deductible expense and even splitting his trousers during a live match on the BBC wasn't enough to quell his drinking habit. Sometime later, Werbeniuk managed to put away another 43 pints in a snooker game turned drinking contest against a Scottish player named Eddie Sinclair.
It ended when Sinclair passed out. Despite mounting health concerns, Werbeniuk never stopped drinking and guzzled 28 lagers and 16 shots of whiskey during a match back in the early '90s. He lost and afterwards went looking for a bottle of Scotch to 'drown his sorrows.' Sadly, Big Bill succumbed to heart failure and died six days after celebrating his 56th birthday in 2003.
The players competing professionally these days may not be as wild but there's still plenty of drama. 'People make their own heroes and villains,' according to Hearn. 'It becomes a soap opera.' In addition to the prize money on the line, it's a game that requires a great deal of strategy and one that rewards the patient.
I found myself speaking with David Hendon, a journalist who writes about snooker and works as one of Eurosport's commentators during televised matches. 'Many of these players try to psychologically destroy their opponents,' he explained. 'Making them stand on the sidelines for as long as possible while they sink ball after ball shatters their morale. It's fascinating to watch it all unfold. Almost like a Shakespearean drama, in a way.'
There's also another element that I learned about while watching a match that night between Mark Selby and seasoned vet John Higgins. More than anything, snooker is mesmerising.
'It's almost hypnotic. Once people start watching it, they have an inability to turn it off. I don't know the real reason why,' Hearn said. 'Maybe it's the green felt. Something stimulates the brain to say, 'I think I'll watch some more of this.' [They] get involved with the characters playing and develop an affinity for them. Then, over time, it becomes an addiction.'
This is one of the theories that explains why viewership is growing across Europe and Asia. Professional snooker also has several celebrity fans. The versatile Stephen Fry regularly attends matches, or so I was told. Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood cheered on his friend Ronnie O'Sullivan during a match a few nights before we arrived in London. Artist Damien Hirst also attended to support him. Actor Donald Sutherland showed up for another Masters match but, according to one source, he didn't seem to know what was going on.
Alas, I don't think I'm destined to become a diehard fan of the game. As the clock approached midnight on that Thursday evening, I could barely hold my eyes open while the match between Selby and Higgins rolled into its fourth hour. I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't plotting my escape. Unfortunately, a fierce rain storm was blasting London and I doubted that I'd be able to catch a cab. I was trapped, snookered if you will, pure and simple.
90 minutes later, a bus rolled up to carry us all back to our hotel.
'I've been napping away these past few hours,' the driver said as I headed for my seat. 'Bloody game takes longer than cricket!'