The torture chamber hidden within World Snooker's Crucible
Exit the Crucible stage left, turn right past the players’ dressing rooms, funnel down the narrow corridor and you will eventually reach the media centre in the bowels of the building. There, behind a partition at the back of the room, is snooker’s torture chamber: where beaten men come to bare their souls.
In eight days of this year’s World Championship so far, 20 losing players have ploughed this lonely furrow: wounded, grey, shrunken - and that’s before the Press men have started picking at their still weeping sores.
Mark Allen blamed his inadequacies on his opponent’s supposed cheating; Ding Junhui was reduced to anguished, barely audible mutters of “rubbish”; Peter Ebdon broke down in tears; Graeme Dott, looking smaller than ever after a 10-1 hiding, looked as if his life-force had been chewed away from the inside.
Stephen Hendry and John Higgins at the World Snooker Championship. Photo: Getty
Saturday was the turn of defending champion John Higgins, fresh from a 13-4 drubbing at the hands of Stephen Hendry. “Last night was torture,” said Higgins, referring to the penultimate session which Hendry took 7-1 in frames.
“You watch other players going through the same emotions and you think ‘how the hell did he miss that?’ But when you’re out there you can see the miss coming quite clearly. I could see that last night.
“It’s a hard thing to go through. You can hear people whispering in the crowd. It’s a tough place to be when you’re going through turmoil. This place can give you your best moments but it can also give you your worst nightmares.”
And what a nightmare. A vast green cloth on legs; remote-controlled cameras lurching and whirring up above; huge, brightly-coloured balls, clinking and clunking, rearing this way and that; those conspiratorial whispers. And all you can do is watch as your opponent makes those cursed balls disappear. It’s like a psychedelic hallucination as directed by an early David Lynch.
Terry Griffiths, world champion at his first attempt in 1979 and runner-up in 1988, is mightily eloquent on the psychological demands of the game. “It can be a very lonely place despite being in the company of so many,” Griffiths told BBC Sport. “It’s the company of many that’s the problem.
“They’re in front of television cameras, which are right in their face to see their struggle. And there’s an emptiness in their eyes, simply nothing there. The crowd wants you to do something, you can sense that and you feel worthless.
“People say it must be difficult to play against Barcelona, because they never give you the ball. But in our game you might not get the ball for 30 or 40 minutes. And by the time you get the opportunity, it feels like three months.
“There’s many a player said to me that they get to the stage where they hope their opponent doesn’t leave anything on if they miss. That’s how bad it gets.
“And when they lose, they immediately have to go to the Press room. That was the worst John Higgins has ever played at the Crucible, and he probably doesn’t even know why. You’re just raw, there’s an emptiness about you, you’re in a cocoon of grief. It’s just you, the Press and all your disappointments.”
Snooker doyen Clive Everton has witnessed every Crucible World Championship and seen plenty of meltdowns, including in 2006, when Ronnie O’Sullivan lost all eight frames in a session in his semi-final against Dott.
“We’ve seen O’Sullivan come here over the years with his head full of rubbish and simply implode,” said Everton, former BBC commentator and still editor of Snooker Scene. “He was in such a state in 2006 he got obsessed with tips, he must have tried 12 or 13 during the tournament. I’m not a psychiatrist, but there was something going on there.
“Snooker is a very cerebral sport and the most important distance is between the ears. The chess player Bobby Fischer said the idea of the game is to crush the ego of the opponent. As long as a player is sitting in his chair thinking, ‘come on, miss, I can still do it’, he’s OK. But sometimes a player gets to the stage where he knows he can’t do it - his ego is crushed.
“There are times when a player feels so low, he just wants to get out of there: ‘Crikey - is it only 6-1? I wish it was 10-1 already.’ A humiliation in snooker is a long, drawn-out affair, unlike in other sports, where it’s over relatively quickly.
“It’s an awful feeling when a player is out there and he knows in his heart he can’t do it. There’s almost a disconnect between his emotions and what he’s trying to do. Emotions cut out, the rubber band comes off that’s holding everything together. And when that happens, you’re not truly alive.”
Snooker as described by Higgins, Griffiths and Everton sounds like a sport ripe for banning, on the grounds of cruelty to humans. But Griffiths insists it is because of the emotional ground zeroes that the highs feel so intoxicating.
“This is the special event of the season for all the players and this where your dreams are fulfilled or shattered,” says Griffiths, now a BBC commentator. “But this place gives you something special, so you can’t have it both ways.
“The boys who suffer bad defeats, if they’re any good it will make them stronger for when they come back. If they’re no good, I wouldn’t worry about it. All the players here are very skilful, but the real challenge is in the mind: snooker is a series of disasters followed by a minor miracle.”
Which is why Higgins, Dott and the rest will be back: the sickly, psychedelic nightmare of the previous year a distant memory; wishing more torture on their rivals; hoping for their own, personal miracle at the cruel, foreboding Crucible.