On Snooker: A must-read book on an exciting sport

It is written with passion and understanding by the Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler, a man who knew the sport as a hustler in his younger days, a fascinating story in itself.

The book touches upon history, gossip, a season of the professional sport in England where Mordecai Richler lived for some years. Ronnie O’Sullivan, Stephen Hendry, Jimmy White, Steve Davis and others come alive in the pages.   -  H. Vibhu

I think it was Clive James who defined snooker as chess with balls. When I was a schoolboy it was a game associated with smoky bar rooms and men wearing suspenders who had not shaved in a while. For a game of skill that was a terrible image to have.

Snooker was invented in India, but unlike chess, that other sport which originated here, it was a while before it was seen as respectable, and Indian world champions began to appear. But I am not sure if there are inter-school snooker tournaments even now. Perhaps respectability was never the problem, merely convenience.

Sport is a sign of life  

At any rate, the sport was rescued by television. The green baize, the coloured balls, the moment of suspense as the player bent over the table was brought into our living rooms in sharp detail and often in close-up made viewing exciting. You could almost see what the player was thinking.

The must-read book on the sport is On Snooker by the Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler. It is written with passion and understanding by a man who knew the sport as a hustler in his younger days, a fascinating story in itself.

“Games have always played an important role in my life,” writes Richler, “culminating in my becoming a novelist, a rogue’s game wherein I was at last empowered to make my own rules, rewarding and punishing as I ordained.” Later, snooker was useful for other reasons, “Whenever I’m enduring a bummer of a morning at my typewriter in my upstairs studio, I slip down to bang the balls around on the green baize.”

Love of cricket  

Occasionally Richler is annoyed. “There are times when my obsession with time-wasting sports irritates the hell out of me,” he says. But then he recalls other novelists who have written about the game: Pushkin, Tolstoy, Jane Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, Conrad.

The writers Martin Amis and Julian Barnes carried on a snooker rivalry over the years (Amis called himself ‘Earthquake’ and named Barnes ‘Barometer’), playing initially for money, and then for pride, occasionally both. “Here’s a little confession,” wrote Amis later, “Julian and I are not terribly good at snooker, but we can be terribly bad at it.”

The poet Herbert Spencer, Richler tells us, complained after he had lost that “a certain dexterity in games of skill argues a well-balanced mind, but such dexterity as you have shown (pointing to his conqueror) is evidence, I fear, of a misspent youth.” After Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded, her doctor removed the green baize from her table and wrapped her body in it — her devotion to the game was legendary.

Guests, who are really welcome!  

On Snooker touches upon history, gossip, a season of the professional sport in England where Mordecai lived for some years. Ronnie O’Sullivan, Stephen Hendry, Jimmy White, Steve Davis and others come alive in the pages.

“When I was a child,” writes Richler towards the end of the book, “it was sport that first enabled me to grasp that the adult world was suspect.”