Stunning snooker

I have just experienced watching the World Snooker Championship for 2015 from the Crucible Theater in Sheffield, England.   This lasted about 2 weeks and involved all the leading snooker players in the world, although most of them are from the UK.  The outcome of this intense competition was very unexpected.  But, more of that later.

[Snooker is a sport unknown to most Americans and even many Anglos.  For those I will summarize the rules (skip the next two paras if this is boring).  In snooker a player uses a wooden cue to strike a white cue ball to then pot or drop another colored ball into a hole in the side of the table that is covered with a green baize.  But, snooker is much more complex and grander than billiards or pool.  It uses a much larger table, 12 feet by 6 feet, and involves various colored balls.  There are 15 red balls that at the start are in the form of a triangle, set with a frame.   Each red ball has the value of 1 point when potted, and then yellow is 2, brown is 3, green is 4, blue is 5, pink is 6 and black is 7.  These colored balls are placed on specific points in the middle of the table at first.  The players try to pot a red then a color and then red again and a color, until all the reds are removed and then the other colored balls are potted in sequence of their value, yellow to black.

But, the intricacy of the game lies not only in potting the balls, but in how to maneuver the cue ball to line up for potting the next ball.  Good players think 3-5 plays ahead in order to accomplish this and thus score high points.  In order to stop his opponent from scoring a player tries to “snooker” his opponent, by placing the cue ball or the object ball directly behind another ball, so that he cannot hit it directly but must bounce off the side cushions.   If the opponent then misses, as a penalty the player receives 4 points.  Also, if the cue ball is potted by mistake the other player receives a 4 point penalty. So the defensive “safety” aspects of the game are just as important as the attacking or potting side.]

With that background you can understand that snooker is a game of great expertise and talent.  The best players are well known and win hundreds of thousands of pounds per year.  The winner of the World Championship gets a check for GBP 300,000, although this may seem peanuts to professional boxers and tennis players.  Ronnie (“the rocket”) O’Sullivan is the Federer of snooker, he is the best natural snooker player in the world and has won all the main championships multiple times.  He was favorite to win the World Championship again for the sixth time, after 2012-3.   Next to him are three other great players,  the current no. 1 in the world (according to a points scoring scale) and champion in 2014 Mark Selby, then the Australian Neil Robertson, (who is nicknamed “blondie”) whose father owned a snooker hall and won in 2010, and the most talented younger player Judd Trump whose play is audacious, and then others like John Higgins winner in 2011, who is older now, and Ding Junhui, a Chinese player who lives in Sheffield.  Both Robertson and Ding came to the UK as penniless hopefuls and are now millionaires.   But against all odds, none of these favored players won the championship.

What happened that was unexpected was that the top players were defeated by other usually lesser ranked players, Selby, O’Sullivan and Trump were eliminated and the two players who made it to the final were Shaun Murphy, a relatively well-known and ranked player, who won the Championship the first time he played 10 years ago, and Stuart Bingham, who at 39 has been playing as a  professional for 20 years, but until recently never won anything (he won the Australian Open in 2011 and the Shanghai Masters in 2014).  The odds given were 50:1 against him winning.  While Murphy has a smooth and fluid style, Bingham was more consistent and dogged, with occasional flashes of brilliance.

What distinguishes this Championship from other tournaments, that usually are the best of 7 games, is that the first round consists of 19 games (first to 10 wins) and increases up to 35 in the final (best of 18).  This is a huge number of games and is a real test of endurance and psychology.  The 31st game was pivotal, while Murphy led from the beginning, 3-0, 8-4 until Bingham levelled at 9-9, then it continued back and forth until 15-15 and in the 31st game Murphy missed potting a simple yellow ball, and while the usual length of a game was 17 mins, this game took over an hour.  It was a battle royal, with Murphy missing from a snooker 7 times (I have never seen this happen before).  Bingham won that game and went on to win 18-15.  He is now ranked No. 2 in the world and his life has been changed forever.



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