Geeks Vs Loneliness: Snooker loopy

How a teenage obsession with snooker helped Anna to find her identity and make connections with people when it mattered most…

In April 1992, I was busy revising for my mock GCSEs. I say revising, it was more like avoiding. I was doing anything but revise to be honest. One afternoon, in a desperate attempt at distraction from seemingly endless past maths papers, I turned on the TV. The snooker was on. It was the World Championships and Jimmy White was playing. I’d watched snooker on and off when I was younger, my dad was a fan and Jimmy had always been his favourite player. I felt at that moment it was vitally important that I stopped what I was doing, had a brew and watched it for a bit.

The match was part-way through and Jimmy was at the table. As he built his break, finding a path back to black after each red, the tone of the TV commentary shifted, and the audience were on the edge of their seats. He was apparently on for a maximum 147 break. I deduced that this was a big thing. It felt exciting, he kept losing position and regaining it, the audience gasping with every shot and his opponent looked on encouragingly. The players from the other table had paused their match and peered from behind the dividing screen. It was incredibly fraught but, as he potted the final black ball, I knew I loved this game.

From then on, I was into snooker, and Jimmy White’s biggest fan. I watched the rest of the tournament avidly and by the final, I was completely invested emotionally. Jimmy made it through, but all my shouts of “Come on Jimmy!” from behind a cushion didn’t help and he lost to world number one and my new nemesis Stephen Hendry. And in that moment began the continuous emotional trauma of supporting snooker’s “people’s champion” that would dominate my teens.

Watching snooker became my focus, my thing, and I embraced it with my entire being. It’s a theatrical spectacle, with the drama of the game itself and the tense, psychological battles that take place between the players. You can invest a lot in the personalities of the competitors, they become heroes and villains as the story unfolds on screen. I also loved the routines and ceremonies of it all and the respect for tradition within the game. The BBC coverage was always the same and I looked forward to enjoying every tournament. It became reliable and familiar, providing comfort, stability and certainty when it felt like there wasn’t any during my teens.

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The potential for absorbing and collecting facts and trivia was outstanding, and there was comfort in that too. I love a good list, and I can probably still recite various lists of winners and finalists, maximum breaks and so on. I wanted to know everything, to challenge my brain perhaps, or to prove I knew my stuff. It didn’t impress many people back in the day though to be fair, marking me out as a bit of a geek. Although it’ll be handy if I’m ever called up for Mastermind.

Watching snooker also helped me to channel my emotions in a safe space. I’d get caught up with the drama on screen, often taking it to heart if my player didn’t win. Pinning my hopes and dreams on one player’s success was quite dangerous as it led to emotional turmoil and a lot of disappointment. But that helped me to feel and explore my emotions. My teenage years were sometimes difficult to navigate, with family breakdowns at home and that unending feeling of not quite fitting in at school, of not finding my place. But watching snooker and supporting Jimmy White gave me a purpose.

Now my eccentricity had a label and I embraced it. I was still different to other girls, but I was the one who liked snooker. It gave me an identity, and something for people to connect to with, even if they didn’t share my passion or thought it was odd. The day after the notorious 1994 World Championship final, when Jimmy White lost yet again to Stephen Hendry in a final frame decider by missing a black off its spot, friends came up to me in school to commiserate without me needing to say a word.

I’d always got on better with boys at school as girls often couldn’t fathom me. I was never very popular, but the friends I did have I treasured. One of my loveliest friendships was with the boy who lived across the road from me. Throughout our teens, we would spend time together doing our homework, often whilst also watching snooker or playing it badly on his snooker table. I would give him advice about girls, which he would largely ignore, and then provide a shoulder to cry on when it all went wrong. We grew up together, united by a common interest. It was always easier to chat about the big stuff when the snooker was on in the background.

My love of snooker also framed my university years, watching it in my room in halls late at night on my fuzzy black and white portable when I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t tell which ball was which, but the familiarity an old friend in the background gave me comfort when I didn’t feel sure of myself or felt far from home.

Amazingly I found other people who appreciated it too, and I was delighted that people actually wanted to watch it with me. My closest university friend and I still message each other when there’s a tournament on TV. It was a big deal when she sent me a text after spotting John Virgo coming out of a McDonalds in Hammersmith. My friends don’t think I’m a geek, they love me for it.

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In the early 2000s, I finally made the big move from TV viewer to audience member thanks to my older brother. He was also a fan of the game (and Jimmy). In 2004, I had just moved back north after five years in London. I knew hardly anyone in my home city anymore, so spent a fair bit of time with him and his best mate.

For my birthday that year, they took me on a surprise trip to see Jimmy play at the UK Championships. We set off in my brother’s dilapidated old mini, so rough around the edges you could see the road if you lifted the mat in the passenger footwell. We had such a laugh on the way and were cutting it fine to get there in time for the evening session. Giggling like school kids we rushed into the venue, excitedly demanding to know which table Jimmy was on from the nearest attendant, only to be told he had gone home sick.

That road trip meant a lot to me at the time but was made more poignant when my brother’s best friend sadly passed away a couple of years later. His sudden death devastated my brother, but we often talk about the trip to the snooker with great affection, united in the joyful, lasting memories the three of us created together doing something we loved.

Inevitably, for me, the world of dating was always difficult to negotiate as a shy, awkward type. I don’t think proudly being able to list all World Championship runners up since 1977 helped my cause on first dates, and often I found there wasn’t a second one. But eventually, I found someone who understood. My now husband stopped short of agreeing to have the Pot Black theme tune as our first dance, but completely gets my love of watching the game.

My obsession hasn’t really waned over the years, in some ways it feels stronger as it serves as a well-earned escape from the realities of my busy life of working, being a parent and generally just getting through. Time stands still for a while as I sit down and concentrate on a game, caught up in the hypnotic nature of it. Although Jimmy White has long since dropped out of the top flight, I’ve found other players to root for and invest my hopes in. I’m not as deadly serious about it as an adult either, allowing myself to acknowledge the ridiculousness of it as well as celebrating the sublime.

It’s not necessarily the obsession with snooker itself that has defined me, it could easily have been something else, I just happened to switch on the TV at the right moment. I think perhaps it’s the process of immersing myself, cherishing and celebrating it that brings me the most joy. I also have a longstanding and deep connection with films too, absorbing every aspect of a director’s work for example, so perhaps I’m just that way inclined. If I’m honest with myself, I think I’ve always liked being a bit different. The snooker thing provided me with the perfect way to demonstrate my difference, but it also became a longstanding and unwavering friend. It’s always been there when I’ve needed it, and that’s ok with me.

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You can find Anna on Twitter @real_meaning