DerHexer, Wikimedia Commons
DerHexer, Wikimedia Commons

An evening with snooker greats

A night watching a few frames of snooker and an informal chat with Dennis Taylor, Jimmy White and John Virgo – for a snooker fan like me, it was a much-watch event. I was lucky enough to get a front-row seat for what turned out to be an intimate and fun evening.

The night began with a meet-and-greet with the players, about an hour before the event started. The set-up was simple, a snooker table on the arts centre floor and a few chairs scattered about. About twenty of us went in, and we all had a photo with the trio, before they started milling about, signing things and making conversation. Virgo also encouraged Taylor to have a go at the black ball that won him the 1985 final, and he sunk it straight away, to a round of applause. “It’s easier,” he quipped, “with the pressure off.”

John Virgo came onstage and told us that we were going to start with some trick shots

I sat next to a charming Irish gentleman from Taylor’s hometown of Coalisland, who told about Taylor’s life and some interactions that his family had with Taylor’s parents. He’d brought a book about the town’s history, which featured Taylor in his very early snooker days. I looked around, and there can’t have been more than 100 people then – it was such a shame, and the size of the Butterworth Hall made it look a very small crowd indeed.

Then, onto the main event. John Virgo came onstage and told us that we were going to start with some trick shots (in much the same style as his TV show, Big Break). It got off to a poor start when the first guy kept mucking the shot up – the idea was to bounce off three cushions, hit a ball tray and pot a black in the centre, but we were eight attempts in before he found the angle. Later shots saw a black and pink suspended on narrow tubes, facing each other in the centre of the table – striking both of the tubes full in the face would lead to the black going forward, the pink going back, and going into the opposite centre pockets – this was done perfectly, first try.

After my failed attempts, it was time for the main show, and some markedly more skilful snooker

I then got to have a go myself. The black ball was surrounded by three reds on the cushion, between the top and centre pocket – in the opposite bottom corner pocket, a barrier was made with five red and the triangle in front. The idea was to strike one of the reds, sending the black towards that corner – it would hit the triangle, leap over it and be pocketed. I had several goes, always getting it over the triangle but unable to send it to the pocket (and, at one point, launching the black off the table!). After my failed attempts, it was time for the main show, and some markedly more skilful snooker.

Taylor and White came out to play three frames, with Virgo commentating and keeping score. The first frame was a bit slow, as both players got used to the table – White eventually took it in the end. The second started out equally stilted, with most breaks comprising only a red and a colour, but Taylor found his way in after a fantastic cut on the blue, building a break of 60 and winning the frame. It was one-all as we entered the decider, and it struggled to get going. The reds split terribly, and their placement made big break building almost impossible. They spent most of the frame two or three points apart, and things really heated up when they kept narrowly missing a difficult yellow. In the end, it was White who potted it, clearing the rest of the colours and winning the match.

A young kid asked about how snooker was invented – it was originally a lawn game in India

Throughout the match, Virgo and Taylor were making quips (the kind your dad tells, but they had an infectious charm), and Taylor also explained a couple of the shots he played and how he was thinking (White didn’t really interact much – he was playing the game and not much else). Virgo asked them both questions about the game as they were playing, and offered his insights to the audience (whether certain balls would fit, or if a plant was a viable shot). The fun nature of the match meant both players seemed more willing to be attacking and play riskier shots, which made the match more exciting (to quote Virgo, “you don’t see that at the Crucible!”).

After an interval, we returned for a Q&A session with the players. The moderator asked a few questions about their origins, how they got into the game and stories about the late Alex Higgins, before the floor was open to the audience. We had questions about who ranks as the best player of all time (Ronnie O’Sullivan was an obvious shout, and Taylor said his opinion changed all the time, between O’Sullivan, Stephen Hendry and Steve Davis). A young kid asked about how snooker was invented – it was originally a lawn game in India, and it was brought over here by a guy called Neville Chamberlain (not the one you think, though).

I’m glad that so few people came, because it gave the event an intimacy

The questions varied between fun (reminiscences of Taylor’s time on Strictly Come Dancing) and technical (the players were asked their opinion on the miss rule) – the panel were also hounded by a guy who was obsessed with Jimmy White’s £15 chalk. We also had a discussion on the future of the game, and what could be done to entice younger UK players into the sport. This session was over fairly quickly (because, I think, of the length of the earlier third frame), and it brought the night to a fairly quiet close.

In a way, I’m glad that so few people came, because it gave the event an intimacy that I think a full Butterworth Hall would have destroyed. I’d have liked a longer Q&A and, because I’m a snooker anorak, a bit more on the technical side of the game (especially during the match, as Taylor’s few comments were incredibly interesting), but it was a fun and enjoyable night and the chance to spend some time with some of the big names in a sport you enjoy was fantastic.

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