It's a regular school night in 1969, black and white TV, 9 pm, and it's a Monday. I'm seven years old, and my Dad gives me special dispensation, not a word I knew at 7. I still had to google it to make sure I used it in the proper context,
Dispensation ~ noun;
'Exemption from a rule or usual requirement.' I loved words from an early age, and my favourite subject was English, mainly stories and funny rhymes. My Dad often remarked while we watched pot black on those school nights together how amazed he was how I knew what shot they would play, had they raised a psychic or a snooker genius.
It turns out neither; I just had a knack for seeing the shots. Yes, I know what you're thinking; well, what happened to him? That's not a common occurrence these days. Nevertheless, it was and still is the game that fascinates me, any game with a cue and balls, in fact, any game with a ball, except for American football. Sorry to all my friends across the pond, but I just don't get it. If anyone wants to try to convert me, I'm always up for new interests. I do enjoy the halftime show at the Super Bowl. Surely, that's a start.
After a failed attempt at becoming a Snooker Pro back in the golden era of the 80s, I knew I would have to get a 'proper job,' which was at my nearest Snooker Club in Clacton on the Sea. I would clean nine full-size 12x6 tables twice a day, and such was the popularity of the game that nine soon became 17, and a year later, there were 24 tables plus two American 9-foot Brunswicks.
Us Snooker players, I use the term 'us' very lightly. I was never going to be good enough to make a career out of it. I did finish 8th in the Essex amateur championships once and had nineteen-century breaks, including the highest total clearance of 132. However, top players were making these numbers every week, and I'm sure today's players make that amount every day, such was the chasm between a wannabe like me and the likes of my heroes at the time, Ray Reardon, Jimmy White, Steve Davis, and Alex Higgins, sorry, Jim Wych, gingers never did it for me, although Kirk Stevens was always entertaining in his white suit.
As is always the case, I have veered off topic, back to the reason for the beginning to what
I would like to call it 'Diary of a Cuesports Commentator: Using My Own Words,' do you think
the title is a little long?
I had to admit to myself that I would never make the grade or any money playing snooker, but I also knew I loved this sport. I had learned so much about the game and myself that at 23, I embarked on a new journey, a different destination but the same vehicle. I took a coaching course with the owners of Clacton Snooker Centre and became a coach.
We had a local school just a short walk across a Rugby pitch. For those of you who don't know what Rugby is, it's proper American Football for Men. Three times a week, we would have
students brave the walk through an ongoing Rugby match and spend two hours learning the
basics of Cuesports, we knew 95% of them chose Snooker for their double sports lesson for a sneaky cigarette on their way and an escape from doing some other sport they liked slightly less.
This led to foreign interest, and we would have groups come over for a week from Holland and Belgium a few times a year, and we would then travel over there to promote the sport further. I remember meeting Jan Verhass for the first time at a tournament in Rotterdam, where some of our students played.
"After working as a process operator for Shell Chemicals, Verhaas qualified as a class 1
snooker referee in 1990. In 1989, he had been helping at tournaments at a friend's snooker
club in Rotterdam when referee Michael Clarke advised him about refereeing and encouraged
him to qualify. Michael Clarke was my boss, one of the owners of Clacton Snooker Centre, and a professional snooker referee with his partner Peter Koniotes. Peter refereed the semi-final of the 1979 world semi-final at The Crucible, the year Terry Griffiths won it.
It's funny how little things stick in your mind, I can remember Mike teaching Jan how to remove balls from the cradle at the same time as getting the blackout to respot, concealing them from the camera, then casually placing them in a bulk pocket. It was like a magician's trick performed by the referee, 'The great Verhasss' He went on to perform his craft in pool, also refereeing the first Matchroom pool championship in 1999, which was won by Efren Reyes and was also the official overseeing seven maximum breaks in tournaments and, most famously, the one that nearly wasn't when Ronnie turned round after making the 2nd black "How much do we get for a 147?" Jan said, "I'm not sure I'll find out." Later in the break, Jan informed Ronnie there was no prize, and when Ronnie went to the final black, he refused to pot it and shook opponent Mark King's hand. The Dutchman used his persuasive nature to encourage Ronnie to pot the black and show the paying audience a 147, the ultimate in snooker. Jan was later elected as a board member of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association.
These referees were celebrities themselves, and working with them gave a snooker lover like myself the opportunity to travel around following the Cuesports circus, I just tagged along
and did whatever job necessary to be involved in the sport. Exhibitions where I would do everything asked of me, clean the table, the balls, a lot of balls, not 9 or 15 even, 22, yes 22 and by hand, no diamond ball cleaner in those days, soapy water, dry them, then polish them. I dropped many, too, for years I thought that's where the quote 'Catch 22' came from. I would also install the seating at the Steve Davis Courage beer-sponsored exhibitions that took place around Britain, seats Mike Clarke has specially made, plush velour seating that fitted together like mechano, sometimes. I'm sure spectators had to sign a waiver on entry.
I was having the time of my life when not injuring spectators. I was operating the electronic
scoreboard or doing the shot-by-shot recordings: 1 for a red + 7 for a black, S for a safe, and M for a missed pot. Yep, I did it all, but I got to hang out with the best players in the world at the time: Steve Davis, Alex Higgins, John Parrot, Joe Johnson, who was world champion at the time, Jimmy White, Tony Knowles, and later Stephen Hendry.
I gotta watch my idols play the game the way I always wanted to but never could, but that didn't matter. I was involved, living my dream vicariously through others. I learned so much over the years. Mike and Peter would invite the big names to their club; yes, I had to clean the table and balls again and set up the death trap seating, but it meant I got to play against the greats. Ray Reardon often came. I not only got to play him, but he'd hang around for a few days, and he would give me advice and play a few frames. And I got to play Jimmy White in front of my home crowd, even though they were cheering for Jimmy apart from my Mum, I upset everyone but my Mum as I knocked in a 48 and a 27 to beat my idol, the local paper reported Whirlwind Mark White turns the tables. I could go on about my accomplishments of who I beat on those exhibition nights of one frame where the pros aren't really trying, but I won't. I will say, that TonyMeo, Jimmy's best mate at the time, came a month later and was informed of me blowing his best mate away and promptly smashed in a century to get revenge for Jimmy.
Other names that graced our tables were Tony 'The Tornado' Drago, who went on to quite a successful career in pool as well as snooker, and Tony Knowles, the pin-up boy of snooker at the time, but also another one of my scalps, OK, OK, I'll stop gloating, sorry. Another great opportunity presented itself when I got the chance to coach at a famous holiday camp in the UK called Butlins in Ayr, Scotland. Amazing job, one of the best I had. Summer season contract teaching the holiday guests and then running weekly tournaments giving players the opportunity to play Stephen Hendry or Alan McManus. They would take turns to show up on a Thursday afternoon, play all the tournament winners, do a few trick shots and sign autographs. Hendry was the reigning world champion at the time. He dominated the 90s, winning seven world titles in 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, and again in 1999.
I was given the job of compere referee and had a frame against him. More accurately, I broke; he made a 127 break, left the black on the table, gave me his cue, and said, "There you go, pot the black." I missed it.
Alan McManus was really friendly; he loved to play ping pong and was very good at it; he did to me on the ping pong table what Hendry did to me at Snooker. Those were great times, and looking back now, I feel very honoured to have spent so much time around Cuesports.
As is the case with many aspiring players/Coaches, it can be tough to make a living unless you are in the top 16; I often hear players today complaining about prize money being top-heavy and I understand their point. A player today needs to reach the last 8 to just about break even,
but it's catch-22 again. No, nothing to do with cleaning balls. If you have skipped any of this
article, that last sentence won't make any sense! But seriously, players want to play big money
tournaments, and big top prizes attract the big top players.
So, I quit playing to win money and had to get a proper job to pay the bills. It was admitting I
wasn't good enough. I did several jobs, including delivery driver, pizza maker, karaoke bar owner, radio presenter for eight years, and construction. I remember standing shoveling sand into the mixer after breaking the ice on the water, but at 7 am on a cold winter English morning. I would tell myself over and over with every revolution of the concrete mixer that one day I would earn money doing what I love instead of just doing what I had to do to survive and the dream to live my life to best and use the ability I believed I had is what got me through those monotonous days.
I started to plan a way out of the daily drudgery. And I had always enjoyed traveling and somehow ended up in Thailand. I knew snooker and pool were popular; James Wattana had put Thailand on the cue sports map in the late '80s and '90s. I visited Thailand in 1989 and was amazed; there is no other country like it. In 2018, I decided to go back, you know, purely just to see if my first thoughts were still relevant and found that although snooker was still played, American pool was even more accessible with new pool rooms opening up, there was music playing, beer being drunk, it seemed like a lot more fun than snooker, and from that moment my love for cue sports was rekindled. OK, I had to be unfaithful to my first love, snooker, but I was getting on in years and wanted to live life to the fullest: no more quiet alcohol, music-free Snooker rooms for me.
I realized that my knowledge of snooker and coaching could be put to good use in pool also,
I am fascinated just watching all the different styles, stances, bridges, cue grip, stroke, and shot
selection. I rarely watch the actual table. I seemed to be more interested in what the player
was doing rather than whether the balls were going down.
Sometimes, I found myself just commenting on what they would do next and why they missed
certain shots. I wanted to pass on that knowledge to a broader audience. What if I could actually
commentate on a match? Who would hire me? I had no experience; usually, it was ex-famous
players that picked up the mic when they put down their cues. There is an old saying that goes;
'Sometimes you are just in the right place at the right time.'
They also say the break is the most important shot on the pool table. Well, I was just about to get a break of my own, a very big break.
Find out more in the next chapter of 'Diary of a Commentator, in my own Words.’