“The Rocket,” they call him for the speed with which he plays, and he is, more than anything else, an artist at the game. Michelangelo once said that sculptors should discern the shape that wants to be freed from a block of marble, and Ronnie O’Sullivan practices a kindred art, perceiving in some not fully conscious way the simplicity that wants to be revealed on a snooker table.
That artistry may be what keeps O’Sullivan the crowd favorite everywhere he plays. At age 42—getting on in years for a successful professional snooker player—he is still by a huge margin the most popular figure in the sport from London to Shanghai. He’s lost nine tournaments for every tournament he’s won, but bookies nonetheless make him the favorite in nearly every match, if only to lay off the sentimental bets that invariably follow him.
His artistry may also be the problem with Ronnie O’Sullivan’s game. By almost any measure, the Rocket has had a successful career. His 30 career tournament victories over his 26 years of professional play tie him for second-most since the modern recordkeeping system was established in the 1970s. He stands as the all-time leader in prize money, having won in competition some £9 million (plus many millions more from exhibition matches, endorsements, and celebrity appearance fees).
And yet, to watch him play—to watch, for example, his seven-match trek to the English Open championship this October—is to wonder why he hasn’t been even more successful. For anyone else, his snooker career would seem a triumph, making him one of the all-time greats. But the Rocket wasn’t supposed to be one of the greats. Since his debut as a professional at age 16 in 1992—for that matter, since he first started appearing on the covers of snooker magazines as the game’s child prodigy at 10 or 12—O’Sullivan has demonstrated his transcendental ability, the best snooker has ever known. He’s also demonstrated his petulance, his quirky charm, his oddball humor, and his deep unhappiness: a morbid depression at each failure to play consistently at the impossible level of perfect snooker. It’s one of the many peculiarities of Ronnie O’Sullivan that he could have found all this success and still seem something of an underachiever. Something of a disappointment. Something of a failure.
Added to his play is the drama of his public presence, ginned up in equal measure by O’Sullivan himself and a British press that grasps at any storyline about the only snooker player whose name the entire nation knows. He sprained his ankle on a long-distance run just before the English Open, and he spent his first match limping around the table while wearing comfortable blue sneakers with the black vest and bow tie that snooker tradition demands. He easily won the best-of-seven match 4-1, but the British reporting was all about his rule-breaking shoes.
In the end, the shoe controversy was settled sensibly enough, with the tournament authorities giving O’Sullivan medical leave to wear soft shoes in his remaining matches, as long as they were black. But soap opera refuses to travel far from the Rocket. At the end of his third match, a middle-aged woman came down from the stands and began trotting around the table, telling O’Sullivan that she was “just going for a jog.” Snooker referees enforce silence during shots, decorum during matches, with a ferocity that golf officials, tennis umpires, and Amtrak conductors on the quiet car can only envy. But the invasion of the players’ area seemed to have them at a loss. So O’Sullivan calmly stepped up, potted the pink ball that assured him the match. And then—worried, he said, that the officials “were going to rugby-tackle her”—he handed the jogging spectator his cue so she could take on the final ball remaining. (She missed. Twice.)
In the following days, he struggled to set aside his most successful contemporary, John Higgins, then romped through the remaining rounds, defeating Kyren Wilson 9-2 in the best-of-17 final, with 4 century breaks along the way. But every O’Sullivan match has to have a little melodrama for the tabloids to report. He showed up for the final at Barnsley Metrodome arena on October 22 without his cue. Only a friend’s 40-minute dash back to the hotel saved O’Sullivan from having to forfeit the opening frames.
What championship tennis players arrive at a tournament final without their rackets? Golfers without their clubs? Boxers without gloves? O’Sullivan’s career is littered with dozens of strange episodes—some small, like the forgotten cue, and some large, like his storming out of the arena after his (victorious) first round of the 2016 world championship. Enraged that he hadn’t played as well as he wanted, he skipped the mandatory media interview, let his close friend, the artist Damien Hirst, watch him smash up his dressing room, and then fled to London to spend five days in the hospital getting treatment for depression and exhaustion. (He returned in time for the tournament’s second round the next week, which he lost, marking one of his earliest exits in years.)
Ronnie O’Sullivan would probably have been a happier man—and have won at rates that better reflect his talent—if only he could have brought himself to play the game as others do. With 13 perfect frames in his career (scoring all 147 possible points) and over 900 century breaks (the most 100-point turns anyone has achieved) he has considerable great play to be satisfied about.
But snooker was not designed for much precision. Small flaws and minute miscuings add up across the expanses of green baize, and the Rocket cannot stand it. In truth, Ronnie O’Sullivan has never played much snooker. What he plays is some mad game against the imperfection of the world and his own demons. The battle only happens to take place on a snooker table. Having won 74 percent of his matches over his career, O’Sullivan has the highest winning percentage of any longtime tournament player, but it feels to him mostly a record of frustration: How could he lose more than a quarter of his matches? The greatest snooker talent who ever lived, snooker’s sole genius, plays to create the perfect simplicity of a work of art.
It’s a mug’s game.
Tabletop cue-and-ball games originated in the 15th century among French and English aristocrats, essentially as lawn games moved indoors for the winter (hence the traditional green color of the cloth). At the beginning, the thick end of the stick was used to whack the balls, like a miniature version of croquet. Pockets, once they started to appear, were akin to ponds or bunkers in golf: things to be avoided while the balls smashed around the table.
By the 18th century, the pockets had become goals rather than hazards, with the narrow end of the cue used to poke the cue ball. A range of new games developed, culminating in the modern forms of billiards and pool. Snooker, too, although it was a deliberately invented variety, created in the 1870s by British Army officers stationed in India. Snooker was army slang for a new and useless cadet, and in the officers’ mess the term came to be applied to the game: first as a position with the target ball blocked from a direct shot (leaving a player snookered) and then as a name for the game itself.
The officers brought snooker back to Great Britain, and the game had a brief vogue among the upper middle classes and the posh gentlemen’s clubs. But soon enough it drifted down to working-class pubs and what became snooker halls, where it picked up the vague aura of seediness and criminality it kept for decades. (No one was surprised, for instance, to learn that the Kray brothers, England’s most infamous 1950s gangsters, had started out managing snooker clubs.)
Still, in the late 1920s, the game found its chance. Billiards, snooker’s main rival in Britain, was falling in popularity, mostly because of the tedious stalemates at the highest level of play, while American pool had never caught on. Perceiving the opening, some skillful players (notably Joe Davis, who won every “world championship” from 1927 to 1946) tried to bring respectability to a professional version of the sport. They mandated vests and bowties for snooker players and dressed the referees in dinner jackets, giving the game the working-class formality of emcees in 1920s music halls—an aesthetic to which snooker still adheres.
As far as the rules go, snooker thrives on the kind of British complexity that makes cricket so indecipherable. (Hard to play, hard to watch, and hard to explain to Americans, as the old line runs.) A frame of snooker starts with 21 balls on the table, plus a cue ball. Fifteen red balls, worth one point each, are arranged in a triangle. Six different balls are then set in marked positions around the table. Called “the colors”—yellow, green, brown, blue, pink, and black—these balls rise in value from two to seven points. The game requires using the white cue ball to knock any red ball into one of the table’s six pockets, followed by knocking in any colored ball. Each time one of the colored balls is potted, the referee returns it to its place on the table. After all the red balls are gone, the colors must then be potted in order from yellow to black.
At most, then, a frame of snooker requires knocking in 36 balls: 15 reds, alternating with 15 colors, followed by the 6 colors. Players continue a turn, called a break, until they miss, at which point their opponents get a chance. And all of this takes place on a table almost double the area of even the largest tournament-sized pool table, with pockets an inch tighter. Just to make things more difficult, the green baize covering a snooker table has a definite nap running in one direction, distinguishing the warp from the woof of the cloth. Many of the combinations allowed in pool are banned by the rules of snooker, which require the object ball, whether a red or the designated color, be the first ball struck by the cue ball. A foul results from accidentally potting a color other than the one the player named while lining up for the shot, which eliminates most bash-and-pray techniques.
All these rules are designed to lend snooker a superficial precision—and to casual spectators, cue-and-ball sports do look like wonderfully clean games: Euclidean in their angles and Newtonian in their motions. In the 17th century, deistic philosophers commonly used billiards as a metaphor for God’s mechanistic management of the physical universe.
Unfortunately, snooker at the highest level becomes something non-Euclidean and even anti-Newtonian. Snooker tables are so big that a pot down the diagonal runs over 13 feet—an enormous distance to roll a five-and-a-half-ounce ball across napped cloth and expect it to hold its line. On those expanses, infinitesimal imperfections in the cloth and resin-cast balls, even dustings of chalk, have an influence. Balls wobble, failing to keep an even motion. Unpredictability adds up from tiny slippages of the chalked cue tip, angular momentum as the balls spin, and small compressions as they strike one another.
Players sometimes seek non-Euclidean lines with tricks of friction to swerve and reverse direction (putting “English” on the ball, in the old American expression). But always they play with a probabilistic physics. Professional snooker is more like Niels Bohr’s vision of the atom than Newton’s picture of the solar system. The key to snooker is only partly—almost incidentally—the potting of reds and colors. The real game concerns where the cue ball goes after it has struck the target balls. Using top spin, side spin, or back spin to control the bounce of the cue ball off the target ball, calculating the reversal off the side cushions and the cannon (a billiards corruption of the French word carom) off other balls, the players aim for a probabilistic field, seeking to settle the cue ball somewhere within the area offering the greatest chance to line up the next shot.
And how do you play the game if you’re someone who despises chaos theory and unpredictable cascade effects—someone congenitally incapable of a let’s-just-see-what-happens attitude? How do you play the game if you’re Ronnie O’Sullivan?
O’Sullivan owns a painting Damien Hirst made for him, an enormous tableau (12 feet by 6 feet, the size of a tournament snooker table) that shows the position of the balls as O’Sullivan began his first maximum break of 147 points, with ghostly gray images of the frame’s later positions.
Snooker has had some famous moments in the years since the BBC began televising it, giving the game a national prominence—originally in 1969 with a program called Pot Black, designed to show off the BBC’s new color broadcasting, and then in 1978 with the first coverage of the World Snooker Championship tournament. Cigarette companies became the broadcasts’ enthusiastic supporters (followed by gambling companies, once the BBC banned tobacco advertisements, and snooker has had a problem with players’ gambling in recent years). As the television and promotional money increased, so did the number of players converting from amateur to professional, and the level of prizes rose from a few hundred pounds to tens of thousands.
Television showed a classic frame in 1982, for example, when Alex Higgins—the Hurricane, he was nicknamed: a slight and wildly self-destructive Irish player, the most popular figure of the time—snatched an improbable victory from another crowd favorite, Jimmy White, in the semifinals of the world championship. A second came in the 1985 championship final, when the largest British audience for a sporting event tuned in to watch Dennis Taylor in his oversized glasses defeat the most successful player of the 1980s, Steve Davis. After grueling through to a 17-17 tie, Taylor and Davis played a 35th and final frame that lasted 68 minutes, ending well after midnight with over 18 million viewers watching Taylor pot the final black ball to win the title.
And then there was the break Hirst memorialized for O’Sullivan—a first-round match at the 1997 championship in which the Rocket, 21 years old, scored a perfect 147 in a break that took him only 5 minutes and 20 seconds. A typical frame for professionals lasts around 20 minutes, with matches varying from as few as best-of-7 frames to as many as best-of-35—and tournaments requiring as many as 7 matches to get through to the final round. Like the walking in professional golf, the grinding through frames, day after day, makes endurance one of the abilities needed to win a snooker tournament.
That grinding seemed to irritate O’Sullivan even while he was young, and the speed of his 1997 perfect break remains unrivaled. A 147 score requires that the 7-point black ball be the only color potted after each red: no reaching for a nearby pink or blue to ease the tactical situation, no running up the table for a yellow, green, or brown. O’Sullivan’s 5:20 time, averaging 8.8 seconds per shot, stands as one of those sports records never seriously challenged, akin to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point basketball game and Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in baseball.
And perhaps the most interesting element, as one watches video of the break, is that the young O’Sullivan never appears hurried. A handful of professional snooker players (notably Tony Drago, Hurricane Higgins, and the Whirlwind, Jimmy White) played the game fast, rapidly lining up the best available shots. But they always seemed to be rushing, pressing for speed, while O’Sullivan simply flows around the table, gliding to the next spot and even appearing to take his time. Each of his career’s 13 perfect games is a master-class in break building, but that first 147 had a joyousness in its perfection—a happy promise of all the young genius would do. And then he lost the next round and failed to reach even the quarterfinals, growing frustrated and surrendering a 12-13 match to a journeyman named Darren Morgan.
The highs and lows of that 1997 tournament are a perfect microcosm, a lasting figure, for much of O’Sullivan’s odd career. Every sport has seen players of undoubted ability (think of, say, football’s Ryan Leaf) who failed to click at the professional game. Every sport, for that matter, has seen any number of players who had runs of brilliance (think baseball’s Denny McLain) but never quite put together an extended career. What’s rarer are the athletes who have shown what, for any others, would have been greatness at a high level for a considerable period but nonetheless appear to leave their talent unfulfilled. Mike Tyson, certainly. Mickey Mantle, perhaps. Jim Brown. The wildly emotional early years of John McEnroe. Tiger Woods, maybe. Often enough, father-figure demons haunted them. Many of them drank, drugged themselves, and misbehaved, rebelling against the activity that had made them famous. All of them found less joy in the sport than we believe we would have, when we imagine ourselves with their stratospheric levels of talent.
This is the class of which Ronnie O’Sullivan is the archetype. Born in 1975, he was both cosseted and abandoned as a child. His parents were working class with millionaire money, running a string of sex shops in London. It kept them too busy to care much for Ronnie and rich enough to hire constant help. The father, Ron Sr., cut a large figure, paying all his son’s club fees as he developed into a young snooker phenomenon. Whenever Ron came into the club to watch his son, one friend recounted, he paid for all: “No one put their hand in their pocket.”
By the time he was 12, the ambidextrous boy was reportedly making several thousand pounds a year from exhibitions and junior tournaments, and he was already developing the charm and persona of working-class shyness that would endear him to fans. Asked how big he wanted to be in the sport, he told a television interviewer he wanted to be 5-foot-10—the perfect height, he thought, for a snooker player. The interviewer laughed and the audience fell in love with the wide-eyed little boy in a satin waistcoat and bowtie.
By the time he was ready to turn professional at 16, he seemed primed to explode on the snooker scene. Forced to play qualifying matches as a first-year player, he set the sport’s record by winning 38 matches in a row and 74 of his 76 qualifiers. But then in 1992 his father was sent to jail for knifing to death in a pub brawl a driver for the gangster Charlie Kray. Emotionally, the world collapsed for the young player.
Ronnie won the U.K. championship the next year at age 17, the youngest champion of one of the Triple Crown tournaments, the three most prestigious events on the tour. Dozens of reporters lined up to film him and shout questions as he brought the trophy to prison to show his father. Two years later, his mother, Maria, was sent to prison for tax evasion.
Through the first decade and a half of his career, he won enough tournaments to keep himself among the game’s premier players, including the Masters in 1995 at age 19 and the world championship in 2001, completing his trio of Triple Crown victories. But his wins were rarer than they should have been as he wandered through the snooker scene lost in drink and fatherlessness. In 1996 he was suspended after he head-butted an official. He quarreled with the snooker association, gave shyly charming interviews that kept him in the public eye, and lost matches he should have won. In 2000, O’Sullivan checked himself into rehab after being stripped of a title for failing a drug test. In 2001, while winning the world championship, he called a suicide hotline and began dosing himself with antidepressants.
Snooker players usually start to lose their edge in their 30s. Stephen Hendry, for example, was the greatest player of the 1990s, the man whose 36 career victories in ranking tournaments place him ahead of O’Sullivan. He no longer had his old invincibility by the time he was in his mid-30s, and had essentially retired by 40. What weaken, most obviously, are the eyes: Snooker lives in the middle range between nearsightedness and farsightedness as the players lean over to bring the cue ball, an arm’s-length from their faces, in focus with a target ball sometimes 10 feet away.
Throughout his late 20s and early 30s, O’Sullivan seemed a wild man. He grew his hair out. He shaved his head. He sat through another player’s break with a towel over his face. He sired three children out of wedlock with two different women, neither of whom is his current companion, and he reportedly has rarely seen his eldest daughter.
In 2004, the six-time world champion Ray Reardon coached him on improving the weakest part of his game, setting up safety shots and snookers that leave opponents no good replies, and O’Sullivan won the 2004 world championship. It didn’t settle him. He repeatedly threatened to retire, and he walked out of a match with Stephen Hendry down only 4-1, reportedly saying, “I’ve had enough of it, mate.” It was always as though he wanted to play by himself, hating the presence of his opponents and being out of sync with the referees. In 2008, he threw away a match against Marco Fu by playing too fast and too sloppily—and then, obviously stoned, he made an obscene suggestion to a female reporter at the after-match press conference. And just because he was the unpredictable Ronnie O’Sullivan, he went on to win the world championship, his third, only a few weeks later.
A dry spell would soon follow, as age apparently caught up with O’Sullivan, who failed to win a tournament from late 2009 to early 2012. His top spin disappeared, his long pots went astray, and his safety shots rolled short. He found himself concentrating even more on his obsessive running, seeking in the loneliness of roadwork some escape from his anxieties. (His 2003 autobiography, Ronnie, tells of his parents’ troubles, while his 2013 book, Running, speaks of his own demons.) Over his career, he’s flirted with multiple religions and even left the game for a while to try farming.
What eventually did seem to help were sessions with the sports psychiatrist Steve Peters, and suddenly, at age 36, he started claiming tournaments again. In 2012 and 2013 he won his fourth and fifth world championships. In 2014 he took his fifth Masters and his fifth U.K. championship. In 2016 and 2017 he added his sixth and seventh Masters titles—despite such well-reported adventures as deliberately refusing a perfect game, scoring 146 in protest over the low bonus offered for a 147.
Mark Selby has been the top-ranked player for the past few years, but Ronnie O’Sullivan, entering relatively few events, remains a serious threat at 42 years old—reviving his career yet again this season as he followed his English Open victory by reaching the finals of the Champion of Champions on November 12, winning the Shanghai Masters on November 18, and playing well in the U.K. championship through the first week of December.
The late surge of good play hasn’t made him entirely happy or content. He claims to be much calmer these days, much more accepting of small failures. But after winning the English Open, he immediately began to squabble with tournament officials and refused to accept the trophy that went along with his victory. He publicly complained about “numpties” in subsequent matches, his word for minor players who, he thought, enter tournaments just so they can get their pictures taken with famous champions. He caused a scene by insisting on photographers being thrown out of a match in Shanghai, and he told an interviewer that he would happily skip the next Triple Crown tournament for the chance to appear on a British reality-television show.
What remains for him? Still able to win matches in his 40s, embarked on yet another successful run this season, O’Sullivan should reach in the next few years the mark of 1,000 century breaks he has said he wants. Six more ranking tournament victories would match Hendry’s 36 wins (albeit over a much longer period than Hendry’s 17 years). O’Sullivan’s last 147 was in 2014, and he may add a few more perfect breaks before he stops playing. His career will go down in snooker history as ranking alongside the careers of Joe Davis, Ray Reardon, Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry, and perhaps Mark Selby.
It doesn’t seem quite enough. The greatest sheer talent snooker has ever seen, the one true genius of the sport, he should have no one rank alongside him. To watch Ronnie O’Sullivan play snooker, in those moments when the Rocket flows and his break-building reveals the simple beauty in the game, is to wonder how he ever lost a match.
The answer is inextricable from the style with which he plays. The imperfections of the snooker table, like the imperfections of the world, will not be overcome forever. The demons of the human condition will not be held at bay for long. Ronnie O’Sullivan wanted to make a perfect art of snooker, and the problem isn’t his choosing snooker. The problem is his sad need for perfection. His mad need for art.