The score of 140 flashed up at the bottom of the television screen, covering the near left corner of the dark green table. Over the other side, the white ball sat a foot off the table’s right cushion.
Another foot and a half to the left, and slightly higher up the table, the black ball rested on its spot. Impertinent. Almost mocking. The last piece in one of sport’s toughest puzzles: how to complete a snooker maximum break. 147 points in one visit to the table. 15 reds, each followed by 15 blacks, followed by all the colours and that black again.
147s were known in exhibition matches and in 1979 , one had been made in a tournament. But the TV cameraman had gone to lunch and the table’s pockets had not been regulation size anyway.
This, in front of the nation now, could be the first maximum break televised and officially ratified. The first time we could all share in the moment. Feel the satisfaction of the pocket swallowing that damned, final, black ball.
It was 1982 and the Oldham Civic Centre was hosting the Lada Classic. The reigning world snooker champion, a 24 year old from Plumstead in South London, eyed the imaginary pathway to the pocket, as he must have done thousands of times before. He blew on his bridge hand, bent down, and pulled back his cue.
Tonight, the BBC will release on iPlayer its first “comedy drama feature film”. Charting the heady days of snooker’s rise to popularity, it is called, quite unforgivably, The Rack Pack.
I was growing up just as snooker was some 30 years ago, in the era of colour television and the personality cults of Alex “Hurricane” Higgins, Jimmy “The Whirlwind” White, “Champagne” Cliff Thorburn, and the like. Call me boring if you will, though, but my favourite was Steve “Interesting” Davis. The Nugget. Romford Slim. The Ginger Magician.
Davis was crowned world champion six times between 1981 and 1989 and was runner-up twice. It was the first time I became aware of how one person can completely dominate a sport, really set themselves apart, and become untouchable. Yes, I know he didn’t provide the sort of entertainment of more charismatic players. But he was a maverick in his own way, raising the standards that make the sport what it is today.
In 1985, my Dad and I went to see the first round of the Benson & Hedges Masters at Wembley Conference Centre. Higgins versus Davis. It was a rivalry that had been simmering since the quarter finals of the 1980 World Championship when the Hurricane won. Later that same year, Davis won their final in the UK Championship to take his first major title. In 1983, the Northern Irishman was victorious in the re-run but not before he had lost to Davis at the Worlds in the second round in 1981. Davis took his UK title back in 1984 in a third final against Higgins.
He came to Wembley in January 1985 as World Champion. Higgins, forever the “People’s Champion”, had two World titles under his belt, and was a two-time Masters winner. This was the first time they were to meet in the competition. Four times out of four that season, the Englishman had come out on top. And the crowd was, to say the least, highly partisan and almost violently against him. One man, twenty-something, dressed head to toe in Sergio Tacchini, and sat along from me, was particularly vexed about his hair. Not it’s gingerness. Just the fact that it was so damn neat. The contrast could not have been greater. The uptight, master technician or the bowtie-less, flair populist. Obviously, I sided with Steve.
At four frames all with one to play he was 53–0 up before missing a mid-range red to the top right corner. The crowd murmured with glee. Alex began taking his chances but, so far behind, with only 6 reds left, and the black against the cushion, he needed a clearance to ensure victory. His first red was rolled deftly into the top right.
The black was straight on. Alex poked it straight in.
The second red took a clip. Top right again. Cue ball perfectly on the blue.
Red, black, red, black. At 23 points, the commentator Clive Everton reminded the TV audience that, with the black and all the colours but the pink on their spots, there was no technical reason why Alex shouldn’t clear up. The final red took him towards balk. 39. He started lining up the green, paused, licked his fingers, dabbed some chalkdust off the baize and readjusted. 42. Yellow. 44. Green again. 47. Brown. 51. But the white wouldn’t stop. It kept rolling, rolling until it kissed the blue and settled but an inch away. Unpottable.
And so began the best phase of any snooker frame: safety play. Like chess. But with balls. In both senses. The back and forth between the players as they leave the cue ball safe or snookered, sweeping up and down and across the table, knowing that the slightest misjudgement in cue-to-ball or ball-to-ball contact would once again leave them exposed and at the mercy of their opponent. Steve, now only two ahead, was behind the pink. Alex sat down and smoked for the few seconds before it was his turn, behind the black. He swerved-shot out of it and left the pink half-covering. Steve now left the blue for Alex at distance but straight. He used the pink to make a long snooker. Steve escaped using the cushion but the blue was now open. Alex slotted it away (that top right pocket again) before knocking the pink into the centre. He slapped his thigh. Turned round. Shook hands. And that was it. I was gutted but thrilled.
Despite that hard-earned triumph, Higgins went on to lose lost 5–1 in the quarter final to Terry Griffiths, and his game was sadly already in decline. In 1986, he was banned for a year after head-butting an official during the UK Championships. He won only two more individual titles (both in 1989, both in non-ranking events) and retired in 1997 before a short-lived comeback in 2005–06 by which time his drinking, violence, family estrangements, and financial losses had cast a shadow over his sporting achievements. He returned to the tables to play in the inaugural Snooker Legends tournament in 2010 but was an unrecognisable figure, both physically and in his play. He died in August that year.
Davis, however, remained at the top of snooker despite the coming challenge of the generation he had inspired.
Just over three months after the Master’s first round exit to Higgins, he and Dennis Taylor were to give us one of sport’s most memorable nights. The 1985 black-ball finish World Championship final left 18.5 million people thrilled and remains a UK record audience for post-midnight TV viewers.
In 1988, he became the first player to complete the Triple Crown (World, UK and Masters titles) in the same year.
At the end of the 1989–90 season he was replaced as world number one by Stephen Hendry who took another six titles in the nineties to overtake Davis’s record. But Steve was not quite to be outdone in the sport.
In 1997 he won the Masters again and made the World quarter finals in 2005 and 2010 (in the latter, knocking out the reigning champion, and 20/1-on favourite, John Higgins). He took his last individual professional title — the World Seniors — in 2013 to bring his total to 81, more than any other player in history. And that’s not to mention his three world trickshot championships, and nine team or doubles titles, to boot.
By the time of that last Masters win, a new cueing hero was beginning to win my snooker affections. Ronnie O’Sullivan had turned professional in 1992 at the age of 16. He had all the focus and skill of Steve but with an added speed that was, and remains, a mesmerising flow when he is playing at his best. At times troubled in his career, his openness and honesty about depression and self-doubt have been inspiring as he has come back again and again from self-imposed exiles from the game.
He holds so many records in the game, including most competitive century breaks (807) — and not just the most ratified maximums (13) but also the three fastest. His five minute and 20 second 147 in 1997 will probably never be beaten. It is a glory to watch and I love that he said he knew from the start that it was there — that he could already see the balls in the pockets.
The maximum break has a unique aesthetic. You start with the geometric pleasure of the pyramid of reds. Then comes the creative destruction of the break; destroying the perfect alignment in order to build the valuable score.
As the reds spread out, to a different pattern each time, each pot leaves a little more of the green baize uncovered, as the white alternatively orbits and then collides with the black. Through a combination of strategy and mastery of the laws of physics, we are left with just the colours and a finale just 6 shots away. As each of the remaining balls disappears, we travel that little bit closer. There can be no more nerve-wracking task in sport than taking that 36th shot — the final, black ball.
By now, everyone is invested. The player. The other player. The audience. The commentators. Even the referee. Competitive 147s have become slightly more common in recent years but to witness one is a privilege that no one wants snatched away by a last mistake.
And you never forget your first time.
“I bet he can see the pocket closing up, and closing up, and getting smaller,” said John Pullman, the commentator, as his colleague, David Taylor, gave a small prayer of “Come on, Steve”.
After five ever-shorter drawbacks, Steve Davis slid his cue forward and through the white. The crack-click of the cue and balls was the only sound until a dull thud as the black hit the pocket and disappeared.
The crowd erupted and a look of disbelief broke out on his face. The final pink to set up the final shot – off the rest from the centre of the table – was one of the greatest shots he ever played. The black had almost been an anti-climax in comparison. And while there were still all those titles and records to come, the legend was assured.