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The torture chamber hidden within World Snooker's Crucible

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Ben Dirs | 07:45 UK time, Sunday, 29 April 2012

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

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Great blog. Used to play a lot of snooker with my mate when we were school kids. Now it's more golf. Similar sort of feeling though when the putts don't drop and the simple wedges miss the green. Conversely when it's all going well the tap in pars just keep coming. At least with golf though you always have another chance at your own ball. In snooker there's nothing you can do when the other guy's at the table apart from read the daily record which my mate frequently turned to towards the end of our snooker era....

  • Comment number 2.

    me and my mate make a thing of having a few frames every month or so and i have arecord of 2 years and 3 months unbeaten by him, and his dad when he tags along, but even so last week when we went down our local to ''enjoy'' a ''frame or two'' he whooped me 10 frames to 1!!! so badly i actually had to walk out, it wasnt that id lost 50 quid it was that the whole place must have seen, and that i had to drive back to mine with his gloating twisted smile in the rear seat, i felt empty, my long game missed my short game missed i couldnt even put him off his game, i won the 1st frame and the thought here we go again slipped into my head and i fluffed the next break and he was in, grin and all, so if i had had to go to speak to some scribble jockey , taking pleasure in my misery i couldnt have coped, all credit to these men who do because its a brave thing confronting your own peril.

  • Comment number 3.

    Marvellous, never was a venue so aptly could it ever be the same if the World Championships relocated to China?

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    And this is why I find it amazing how much Mark Allen was condemned while Mark Williams barely got a mention. Allen, as one of the favourites for the title, losing in the manner he did to an unknown (who played exceptionally well, it has to be said), thinking he'd saved the match then seeing the cueball rolling into the pocket, his heart sinking into his feet, then being taken instantly into the press-room and making some remarks that he has since apologised for and accepted were out of line, is nowhere close to the lack of professionalism Williams displayed in calling the Crucible a 'sh**hole' the day before the tournament started, not apologising for it and basically just trying to laugh it off without ever clarifying whether he was being serious or not. And this was all before he ever played a shot in the arena.

    If there's one thing that NEEDS to be done, it's to postpone the loser's press conference for 10 or 15 minutes to let them get their emotions in check, then we'll avoid the impulsive stupidity shown by the likes of Allen and O'Sullivan over the years. Then again, the tabloid vultures wouldn't have as much to write about if they couldn't contort the words of the vulnerable.

  • Comment number 6.

    You just knew somebody would be offended by this blog.....and the prize goes to.....Laurie. Why niot take the moral high ground? Oh, you already have.

  • Comment number 7.

    This is a very good article. In fact one of the best since i've been on here.

    I say that because I've been playing snooker once a week against a mate of mine who used to play in a local league and just one a tournament in a pub pool league.

    He beats me 80% (maybe more!) but its amazing how much your mind gets into it. When he's playing poor he gets very angry - verging on throwing the cue - whilst I just constantly go on about "how poor a shot was, not good enought - not playing well tonight sort of rubbish!"

    Thinking about it he must really feed on my emotions and I feel somewhat bearen when I start because I know he's good. I'll win a frame, my confidence will shoot from nowhere and his drops all of a sudden.

    I'm not sure i'm mentally strong enough! Many an occasion I feel crushed and I'd rather have a long pot chance than a simple!

  • Comment number 8.

    Well put together article. Enjoyed the insights of former pro and the commentators.

    And right there is why the format of the UKs shouldn't have been changed and i hope to hell they never change the worlds.

    It is such a psychological sport, which is what makes it fascinating to watch. I'm not a higgins fan and have had to watch him grinding out victories over players i like, where you just know he's not going to miss. But you could just tell against hendry he was going to miss. It got worse frame by frame until it looked like he didn't even care when he missed anymore. And i definitely felt sorry for him.

  • Comment number 9.

    Really good blog, and utterly fascinating! No other sport really, perhaps darts, gives such an intimate view of every facet of a player's game. I've never seen a player play a perfect game at the Crucible, with no mistakes, especially in the final few frames - it's just impossible. And it's interesting you say about the press conferences afterwards - what about the final, where the loser has to stay out in the arena, get interviewed, then watch the victor take the adulation, the trophy and the cheers? I think O'Sullivan a little while ago got criticised for leaving the arena before the trophy presentation, but I really don't blame him.

    It's funny how people on here have mentioned how even playing snooker for fun still inspires emotion within. I have a couple of friends who I sometimes play snooker with, one who is a little better than I and another who has been playing since he was little and has played in several local leagues/tournaments etc. Even though I go into these frames knowing full well I'll be taken to the cleaners, if I get a sniff of victory my mind gets right into it, only to be crushed again by my opponent's better skill. Our other friend gets really wound up by it, to the point that he refuses to play anymore. And let me remind you that this is just a few hours of fun in a snooker club.

    The last time we went, it was just me and my local league friend, and I wound up beating him 2-1 in 3 frames, winning the last 2 frames. While I kept laughing it off as flukes, and making jokes, inside I was elated, and I could see my friend was really getting angry with himself about it. For him, it was no laughing matter - and much as I didn't admit it, it was the same for me. You just don't get that with a kickabout in a field, or a spot of light tennis - i.e. getting so competitive despite the lack of anything meaningful riding on it.

    Now multiply that feeling ten, twenty, a thousand-fold, and we had an inkling of the pain of defeat in the Crucible. If anything, I'd say Mark Williams' comments just prove how much the WC needs to stay at the Crucible - it's not supposed to be a welcoming place to be. It's a fortress, much like how certain sports teams utilise their stadium as a 'fortress'. Only in the Crucible, there is no 'home team'. Everyone has to take the brunt of the atmosphere, the relentless intimacy, knowing that there is absolutely no escape, no hiding place. But on the flip side, for those who achieve the glory there, huge adoration is laid upon you - just witness the start of last year's final session, where Trump and Higgins were cheered into the arena in the biggest standing ovation the Crucible has perhaps ever seen. Truly stunning to behold.

    (Also, a bit off topic, but I'm noticing that a lot of players are starting to hint that the snooker tour as is is a very unrelenting and tiring beast, but they still feel they have to do it as if they dont, they slide down the rankings very quickly. Am I right in thinking that in other tour-based sports, such as golf, there are ways that a player can perhaps skip several events and it doesn't affect their ranking too heavily? Im wondering if the reason why we're seeing lots of seeds crash out is burnout after a long season?)

  • Comment number 10.

    Great article and brilliantly written. Having played the green cloth i can appreciate to a degree what the players have to go through, win or lose. It does make the little grey cells work overtime !
    Keep up the good work and hope the rest of the tournament is as good as the first couple of rounds.

  • Comment number 11.

    In the early 80s I was in my mid teens and pretty good on the baize. I grew up with my Grandad playing billiards (anyone under 40 or so, see Cue Sports in Wikipedia - it doesn't even get it's own page...!) in the late 1960s and 70s. I won the local league, I had a good action, good ball control, the lot. Then I lost. Badly. To someone I had beaten so many times and so easily that I couldn't understand it. Of course, they had got better and I hadn't, but I was too young to see or admit that, so I did what any kid would do, and snapped my cue over my knee. I got another cue, "didn't like it" and gave it away. I got another one, didn't like that either. It's still at my mother's house, in a cupboard somewhere.

    I realised though I could play the game physically, I couldn't do it mentally. It's the mental side that is important, especially at this level. Every player at the Crucible is good - they are either 'Top 16' or they are in-form having qualified. They can all make centuries, play safe, do the tricks. It's the mental side and how they handle it that makes the difference, and that's what makes it fascinating and wonderful to watch - in an almost voyeuristic kind of way.

    But that is on the table and during the match.

    If I had had to give an interview to a journalist after my - totally trivial and insignificant - loss, I would probably have used the broken end of my cue and shoved it somewhere that would have made retrieval difficult. I can totally understand Mark Allen's, Ronnie O'Sullivan's (in the past) or anyone else's comments in the circumstances. Let them have a little time to reflect before facing the press. They just lost to one 'opponent' - they don't need to face another so fast.

  • Comment number 12.

    Snooker is a fabulous game.

    I think it - more than most sports - maybe like golf - can't be appreciated by people who don't or have never played it.

    PS I didn't read any of the other comments and only about half of the article

  • Comment number 13.

    At 12:07 29th Apr 2012, misoramen wrote:

    Snooker is a fabulous game.


    I agree, misoramen.

    Not sure what else you said, I didn't read the rest of your post...!!

  • Comment number 14.

    There are a few reasons why snooker is such a test of nerve.The balls are still so when you come to play a shot you have time to think unlike a lot of other ball games.The hands are two points of contact you have on the cue.Being nervous, which they almost always are, affects the hands in terms of sweating and shaking.When you a playing a game of fractions of inches delivering the cue online is fundamental.When you have the crowd and TV cameras so close on top of this it must be very hard to perform to your best.But some do and some thrive on it when the adrenalin is flowing.Having played local league snooker and billiards including finals,semi finals I have a little insight into how the nerves play a part.But this be multiplied several times over at this level.It is no place for anyone with any weakness.

  • Comment number 15.

    What was it Steve Davis said? Something like "If you can play as if it means nothing to you, when it means everything. Then you'll be tough to beat"

  • Comment number 16.

    Good article. Nice read.

  • Comment number 17.

    A well written piece. Capturing the emotions of all who play at any level of the game.

  • Comment number 18.

    The ability to absorb the pressure, and maintain your game is unique to a privelledged few. But, i truly believe nice guys in sports, are more often than not, programmed to finish second. Winners, uniquely, have a real arrogance about themselves. Our local snooker legend, fits the bill exactly. The most charming, down to earth, celeb, you could ever wish to meet. That, i believe was the problem. Hence, if you are that much of an agreeable personality, finishing second, seems like a good result.

  • Comment number 19.

    some great results and its shaping up to be a very, very competative world finals. my only downside was luca brecca going out. the youngest qualifier. i had a daft fiver on him. he impressed my tho.he will be a big name soon.

    im hoping ronnie wins it. a player of his calibre should be at least 4 world titles.

  • Comment number 20.

    Snooker is like being a teacher and that when you get unexpectedly observed the worry is will you show the same performance or will your demons prevail. What is really different from snooker is that you are in control of every outcome and not the observer. In snooker it really is fair game.

  • Comment number 21.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 22.

    Very good article. The game looks much easier on the box than when watched live

  • Comment number 23.

    I'd quite happily settle for the above 'turmoil' to travel the world and be compensated with hundreds of thousands of pounds for doing nothing more stressful and tiring than knocking a few balls around.

  • Comment number 24.

    As a for want of a better term, Mind Coach I know there are many mental and physical tricks you can use to control yourself - including getting in the zone and controlling your emotional state and I'm sure the top guys in snooker use sports coaches of some sort - or are they missing a trick here. Because if, as you say that the mental side is every bit as important as the actual physical, technical skill side it would make sense to spend just as much time on the mental side of the game wouldn't it? And to be honest a half decent Sports Psychologist would associate the 2 so you practice the mental side each time you are at the table. Repetition is the mother of all skills so use the time at the table to practice both. Simples!

  • Comment number 25.

    Instead of 'relocating' the World Championships why don't they just alternate between The Crucible and other international venues?

    Sounds simple enough and would allow China to put their own grand show on.

  • Comment number 26.

    Been watching an awful lot of the World Championship online and via the Red Button and the commentary seems a lot more in-depth than the usual on BBC1 & BBC2. Terry Griffiths, in particular, comes out with some sagely words.

  • Comment number 27.

    I can relate to this article. I used to play quite a bit of snooker in my teens because I had meningitis when I was 14 and spent 4 months convalescing by playing in our local town hall. I developed quite a fluent style and played very quickly.

    Years later, I played against an opponent in Cardiff and his style was completely opposite to mine - slow and measured with each ball just dropping into the pocket (whereas I liked the bang of a crisp shot!). In one particular frame, he played so slowly and potted every ball that he took on that I just wanted to take my cue and whack him on the bum!

    It was a bit like Ronnie O'Sullivan playing Peter Ebdon except I'm not as good as Ronnie. Whenever I watch them playing each other, that nightmare frame comes back in my mind!

  • Comment number 28.

    Great blog! 2 things to say really....

    Firstly the Crucible should remain the home of the Worlds for ever. The moment it is moved away, the players who seem to hate it so much will see that it never returns and we will lose the atmosphere to a purpose built, soulless venue that has been 'modeled to re-create the unique atmosphere of The Crucible' and inevitably failed!

    Secondly, why should the loser be 'protected' from the press conference or the final presentation? If you are willing to accept the plaudits and gains from your efforts, then you should be equally able to congratulate your victor or answer your critics. The idea that players should be given some time to gather themselves will only lead to a procession of 'mind coached' claptrap. Keep it, the rawness of the emotion makes it honest!

  • Comment number 29.

    to scormus post no.15, Davis said "If you can play as if it means nothing, when it means everything, you're hard to beat". It was about Jimmy White when Jimmy consistently beat him in best of 9s but not longer matches in the 80s. They were head and shoulders ahead of the rest in the rankings for a while.

  • Comment number 30.

    23. At 20:37 29th Apr 2012, John wrote:

    I'd quite happily settle for the above 'turmoil' to travel the world and be compensated with hundreds of thousands of pounds for doing nothing more stressful and tiring than knocking a few balls around.


    Then do so John, nothing stopping you is there? It's only knocking a few balls around and you'll get paid a fortune. Please wave to us when you're on telly in no more than six months from now, hmmm?

    I'm afraid this age-old line of comment is slightly worse than posting "Who cares" then grinning around the classroom at one's own razor-sharp wit. Rocking the chair back on two legs.

  • Comment number 31.

    Nice blog. Like a number of others above, I am a former player. I got to what I thought was a decent level and did well in most teenage competitions, even winning a few. However, there came a point when I started to think too much about angles, pace, which shots I was better at, etc. It was cured somewhat by my mentally reeling off times tables, well beyond 12, but after a while I accepted that I'd gone as far as I could. Aged 19, my old cue was stolen and despite trying, no other was quite the same and that was the end of me. It was of course, all in my head as truly, the cues were as good if not better than what I had.
    I play pool these days (short-sightedness is no good for snooker) but it's a different game.
    I have always admired the physical and mental ability of the players on show and believe the standard increases year on year. Being the same age, I hope Hendry wins this year as he's the best there ever has been and was a huge influence on the way the game is played today.

  • Comment number 32.

    My father, who was a good sportsman always said talent onlky takes you so far, its what is between the ears that makes the difference, talentwise a 'good' player in most sports who performs consistently and can handle the mental pressures and demons, will win more, have a longer and happier career than the mercurial player who only copes sometimes. The trouble is, it is the mercurial player who leaves the viewers and his peers gasping for breath at his skill.

    I wonder if the issue this year, where so many of the 'top' players have struggled to hit the ground running is the amount of frames played and miles travelled this season by them.

  • Comment number 33.

    Noone likes to lose at snooker, even when your ability suggests you should more often than not.
    Players at the top must get these feelings thousand fold so just the fact that they stay dignified in defeat in front of the world deserves a pat on the back.
    The odd wrap on the table or bang of the cue is to be expected in such a high pressure atmosphere of a ranking tournament. so i guess what i'm trying to get across is that if players do make comments that upset, let's allow this because the only player to exhibit signs of disrespect around the table in matchplay that i can remember was the most naturally gifted player of all time(Ronnie with the hanky).
    so lets not dwell on players comments after the event, let's commend their behaviour during the match!!!

  • Comment number 34.

    As a former pro player lucky enough to have appeared at the Crucible (although only twice, 1st round defeats both times) I can confirm totally what the blog states. The atmosphere is like no other snooker tournament, you can hear every cough or belch the crowd make, people laughing when you miss, others whisper "come on" to you even though you have no idea who they are.

    It is a cauldron and only if you have experienced it can you really comment on it therefore I m not sure the 33 views above really should be taken into consideration.

  • Comment number 35.

    #34 - you're not Steve Newbury then as he lost 3 times in 1st what's your real name?


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