It wasn’t immediately obvious, arriving at Alexandra Palace, that there was a sporting event taking place. The men (they were nearly all men) queuing up outside looked as if they might be there for a model railway convention, or an IT conference. It was a Sunday evening in January, and I had come to watch the evening session of the MrQ Masters snooker final, one third – along with the world championship and the UK championship – of snooker’s ‘triple crown’. Ali Carter, a journeyman player in the form of his life, was taking on Ronnie O’Sullivan, by common consent the game’s greatest player of all time.
Carter and O’Sullivan, who both grew up in Essex and are near enough the same age, have a history of shit-talking each other. They last clashed publicly during the second round of the 2018 world championship, after O’Sullivan missed an important pot deep into the match. Carter said O’Sullivan had barged into him as he returned to his seat; O’Sullivan said Carter hadn’t left him enough room to pass, and called him ‘Mr Angry’. In the sedate world of snooker, this counted as high drama.
In the arena at Alexandra Palace, the match was about to resume (the Masters final is divided into two sessions, afternoon and evening). O’Sullivan had been playing well all year, but he’d just returned from a gruelling tour in China, and in the pre-match interview he seemed tired and slightly bored. After the first session, Carter was up five frames to three. Even so, Ronnie was the favourite, both with the bookies and in the eyes of the crowd. When Carter made his entrance, the audience clapped. When Ronnie swaggered in, they went wild. As play continued and he started to win, I began to feel sorry for Carter, who sank ever lower in his seat. The crowd was raucous (for a snooker match) and had to be repeatedly shushed by the referee, who held up a gloved hand and glared as if he was directing traffic.
O’Sullivan’s great achievement, and his great tragedy, is that he is so much bigger than the sport he competes in. During last year’s world championship a journalist from Eurosport asked various players to name the most famous person in their phone contacts. Shaun Murphy, a solid player who was the world champion in 2005, named the retired footballer Michael Owen. Judd Trump, currently ranked second in the world, named the still-playing footballer Mason Mount. Mark Selby, who has been world champion four times and UK champion twice, said Nicko McBrain, the drummer from Iron Maiden. When the journalist asked O’Sullivan, he paused for a moment then replied: ‘Barack Obama.’
O’Sullivan is widely acknowledged to be the most naturally gifted snooker player – if not one of the most talented sportspeople – there has ever been. He began playing in the clubs of North-East London when he was seven. On a recent episode of Desert Island Discs, he explained that during the school holidays his father would drop him off in the morning at a snooker club in King’s Cross before heading into Soho for work. The club was his crèche, he recalled fondly, though he admits it wasn’t ideal for a child to spend so much time around adults and cigarette smoke.
He made his first century break – scoring more than a hundred points in a single visit to the table – when he was ten. At eleven he was making decent money from the game, and by sixteen he was earning enough to turn professional. He won his first UK championship at seventeen, and his most recent one in 2023 at the age of 47. He now holds the record as both the youngest and oldest UK champion, and the youngest and oldest winner of the Masters. He has won seven world titles, an achievement equalled only by the game’s dominant player in the 1990s, Stephen Hendry. He has made more century breaks – at the time of writing, 1240 – and more 147s (the maximum score you can get in a single frame) in tournament play than anyone else.
O’Sullivan was given the nickname ‘Rocket’ early on, because of his rapid, instinctive play. He still plays at a faster pace than most professionals, but these days is rarely impetuous; he has retained all his attacking flair, but is also a master of the strategic and defensive aspects of the game, and supernaturally cool under pressure. In a game that requires a great deal of mental stamina, O’Sullivan’s longevity is unprecedented. Hendry, his nearest rival as snooker’s GOAT, won all of his world titles in a single decade. Ronnie has been playing professionally, and winning tournaments at the highest level, for more than thirty years.
Like Luke Littler, the kebab-eating teenage darts prodigy, who stepped onto the world stage this winter as if from the pages of a Martin Amis novel, O’Sullivan’s prodigious talent made him a fan favourite as soon as he turned professional. His personality – anguished, combative, romantic – has only sustained his fame since. His fickleness, too, is legendary. During the 2010 World Open, he initially refused to pot the black to complete a 147 when he was told that the £147,000 bonus usually awarded for a maximum break in the tournament had been scrapped. Playing Hendry in the 2006 UK quarter-final he stormed off after going 4-1 down. Losing against Mark King in 2005 he put a towel over his head so he wouldn’t have to watch King outperform him. He used to practise as much with his left hand as with his right, and can now play almost equally well with either. When he went 8-2 up in the opening round at the 1996 world championship against the Canadian player Alain Robidoux, he played the rest of the match using his non-dominant hand to strike the cue ball. After O’Sullivan won, Robidoux accused him of being disrespectful. Ronnie said he did it so as not to lose interest in the game.
In the staid waistcoat-and-dickie-bow world of snooker, O’Sullivan’s behaviour comes across less as eccentricity than as a radical act of defiance. He has repeatedly clashed with the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, the sport’s governing body, over what they see as his unsporting actions (and he has frequently admonished them for what he sees as their mismanagement of the game).
He is known for making impulsive decisions. In 2009 he went to live on a narrowboat. In 2012 he gave up snooker for a year and worked on a community farm in the middle of Epping Forest. It was around then that he discovered a love of running and became a competitive amateur – his 10km time put him in the top 1500 runners in the country. He has flirted with the idea of becoming a golf pro (they’re both just games involving balls and sticks, he says), or retiring to make spot paintings with his friend Damien Hirst, or retraining as a running coach.
O’Sullivan claims he’s hard on himself and others because he’s a perfectionist. He finds mediocrity, he said in a recent interview with Amol Rajan, with what felt like genuine outrage, ‘quite revolting’. He would rather lose playing well than win playing badly. During the 1997 world championship he made a 147 break in five minutes and eight seconds – the fastest it’s ever been done. The video of this is extraordinary – like watching a tightrope walker solve a Rubik’s cube under time pressure – but he now sees the speed as a sign of weakness in his game. ‘It was only quick because I was out of control,’ he writes in his new memoir, Unbreakable. ‘Because I had so little confidence.’
It’s not hard to interpret the lack of confidence, the anguish, and the uncertainty fused with dismissive arrogance, as a result of his upbringing. O’Sullivan grew up surrounded by ‘characters in the wide sense’ – Essex gangsters, West End wideboys. His father, Ronnie Sr, ran sex shops in Soho with his wife, and introduced himself at parties saying: ‘Big Ron’s the name, porn’s the game.’ Little Ronnie had none of his father’s gregariousness, and when Big Ron was sent to prison for murder, after stabbing a man during an argument in a nightclub (the judge ruled that the attack was partly racially motivated, which Ronnie has always disputed), his world fell apart. O’Sullivan was sixteen at the time. A few years later, his mother was prosecuted for tax evasion and given a one-year sentence.
O’Sullivan’s parents were imprisoned just as his career was taking off – his mother waited until he’d travelled to Thailand for a tournament before telling him about his father’s arrest – and even now he seems not to have properly recovered from what he has never described as a betrayal, but which clearly felt like one at the time. In his twenties he was treated multiple times for alcohol and drug addiction, and he now speaks openly and self-effacingly about his struggles with mental health.
These events have shaped O’Sullivan’s life, and he has returned to them in profiles, TV documentaries and two previous memoirs. His first, Ronnie (2003), told the story of his startling rise to fame. His second, Running (2013), was a more focused account of addiction and recovery by pounding the paths of Epping Forest. He has also lent his name to three crime thrillers, loosely based on his own life (they’re about a young snooker player named Frankie James, whose mother went missing when he was sixteen years old and whose father is in prison for armed robbery), as well as a cookery book (sample recipe: ‘Nuts: 40g nuts of your choice … Eat as a snack between meals’).
Unbreakable takes the form of a self-help book. It’s O’Sullivan’s attempt to account for his talent, and to apply what he has learned at the table to other avenues of life. ‘The things that have helped me in snooker have also helped me away from the table,’ he writes in the first chapter. ‘Working out the angles in the real world, finding your trick shots for life.’ What are these lessons? Know your limits is one. ‘Recognise when you’re getting close,’ he writes. ‘Look at yourself and ask another question: how is this affecting me?’ ‘It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish’ is another. These clichés come across as endearing rather than annoying because of the seriousness O’Sullivan attributes to them. You want to agree with him, even when you don’t.
Part of Ronnie’s charm is his complete inability to explain how he does what he does, or what others should do to achieve the same results. This is because of the maddening difficulty of the game he is trying to describe and draw lessons from. The diameter of a competition snooker ball is 52.5 mm, while the pockets on a full-sized table are 86 mm wide: you’ve only got a third of a ball’s width of space on either side of the ball you’re potting, and that’s if you’re hitting it into the pocket square on, which you almost never are. The tip of a cue is between 9.5 and 10 mm wide. Though striking the cue ball seems easy enough (it’s not), at a distance of twelve feet (the length of a full-size table), a deviation of less than one degree at the white will lead to a significant miss at the other end of the table.
Then there is the complexity of position play. To win a frame of snooker you have to be able not just to pot the ball you’re aiming for, but to engineer where the cue ball will end up afterwards. Early in a frame, or if you know you won’t be able to string together enough pots to make a high score, you may be tempted to play a safety shot by putting as much distance as possible between cue ball and object ball, or even to ‘snooker’ your opponent by obscuring the ball they need to hit behind another one. The surface of the table, usually made of a single piece of slate covered in baize (a material resembling felt), can be fast or slow, depending on the age of the baize, the material the cushions are made from, and even the amount of moisture in the air. This makes it very difficult to anticipate where the balls will end up after any given shot.
For O’Sullivan, snooker is a nebulous combination of angles, spin, power and something – never fully explained – that he calls ‘compression’. This is the way he describes what it feels like when you’re playing well: ‘It’s an energy. In your body, walking round the table. In your mind, looking at the spread of the balls … it’s the best drug you’ve ever experienced.’ When your cueing’s going well, he says, you can hear it. ‘That thick, solid noise. We all recognise it. Your opponent hears you striking the ball sweet and it puts doubt in his mind.’ In his first television appearance in 1990, at the age of fourteen, he remembers ‘the feathering on some of the shots, smooth and precise’.
The allure of snooker, for its fans, depends precisely on its untranslatability: the sense you have, watching real pros, not just that they’re making a difficult game look easy, but that they are making it legible. Rather than a demonstration of the body’s physical limits, aficionados admire players for the opposite: for the way that at its best the game seems to remove the human element altogether (O’Sullivan once considered getting a hip replacement so that he would have a more consistent approach when striking the cue ball), turning players into machines – repeatable, perfect, mindless. ‘It’s a sport that requires repetition,’ O’Sullivan explains. ‘Repetition requires hours. You’re not going to get away with an hour and a half training like many Premier League footballers do. You’ve got to put your four or five hours a day in, most days, even the top few guys.’
O’Sullivan’s attempts to alleviate his mental struggles – through running, or AA, or eating well, or self-help – suggest another aspect of his personality: a deep vulnerability he is always searching for simple ways to overcome. He admits to being obsessive, and is open-minded enough to try almost anything at least once. On one occasion he inadvertently converted to Islam after visiting a mosque with the boxer Prince Naseem Hamed (he had been asked to recite a passage in Arabic which committed him to the faith, and was too polite to say no). His ‘mentor’ for the past decade or so has been the sports psychologist Steve Peters, proponent of the ‘chimp brain’ thesis, according to which the human (rational, careful) and ‘chimp’ (unreasonable, passionate) parts of the psyche need to be in balance if one is to gain success in life. But he also still swears by the therapeutic benefits of running, abstinence and making spot paintings.
Despite these self-help tendencies, it seems clear from Unbreakable, and from The Edge of Everything, a revealing recent documentary, that O’Sullivan has never really confronted the aspect of himself which, from the outside, would seem to explain his behaviour better than anything: the strain of expectation placed on him by his father when he was a young man. In Unbreakable he confesses to still sometimes being ‘afraid’ of Big Ron, who got him a snooker table when he was nine and a cue for which he’d swapped a car, but who also dumped him in snooker clubs when he probably should have been looking after him, and spent much of the most important part of his life in prison. It’s notable that Ronnie Jr always insists on how close the O’Sullivans are as a family, though it appears he is estranged from his oldest daughter, and his sister has talked to the tabloids about being ‘abandoned’ by their parents.
O’Sullivan’s other great misfortune is one of timing. He reached the pinnacle of his sport just when it was entering a seemingly terminal decline. Snooker’s heyday was in the 1980s and 1990s, when journeyman players had celebrity status and a snooker-themed TV show – Big Break – was a mainstay of Saturday night entertainment. In 1985, 18.5 million people tuned in to watch Steve Davis play Dennis Taylor in the final of the world championship; many of them stayed with it to the end, even though the match finished after midnight. In Running, O’Sullivan blamed snooker’s decline on the banning of tobacco advertising in sport in 2005, and on the subsequent complacency of the WPBSA, who weren’t quick to find alternative sponsorship. The circuit became a grind, with most players living on a subsistence wage. The situation improved somewhat when the impresario Barry Hearn took control of the WPBSA in 2009. He changed the ranking system and increased the number of tournaments players were obliged to compete in each year. But outside China, where the game is thriving, snooker has never regained the heights of the 1990s.
In interviews O’Sullivan often says that the real reason the sport is less popular now is that the players aren’t good enough, so the matches have become boring. He bemoans his own game just as much as his peers’, even when he’s winning, and says he’d rather be doing something – anything – other than playing snooker. ‘The job ain’t worth the stress and the hassle,’ he said to the BBC in 2022. ‘Sometimes a loss is a blessing in disguise, it just allows me to do other stuff.’
Because of this, he has the slightly haunted air of a man out of time. When he writes, in Unbreakable, ‘there is no one on this planet right now who can compete with me,’ you can’t help but agree. But you also wonder how many people have ever picked up a snooker cue. The torture that comes with O’Sullivan’s freakish gift is partly down to the fact that he is playing a game where the stakes have become, for most people, so low.
But for the fans, the magic remains. At its best, watching a game of snooker is like watching a kind of exquisitely delayed explosion. There’s a rhythm to a good frame, the players wary, taking it in turns to make the cue ball caress the reds so as not to leave their opponent an easy shot, until someone makes a mistake. A great player will seize on any opening, clearing up the table in a way that feels both impossible and inevitable.
In the first session of this year’s Masters final, O’Sullivan had played a wild game, going for anything at all that looked like it might be pottable. During the break, some fans accused him of being ‘disrespectful’ (that word again) to Carter and not taking him seriously enough as a challenger. In the evening session, O’Sullivan was more careful and tactical, and something amazing began to happen. The table opened up, and he made pots that you couldn’t see were there. All you could hear was the clunk of the cue, the clack of the balls, the swish of the pockets. It was by no means his best game, but it was clear he had remembered that he really did want to win. And he did.
In the post-match interviews, neither player was gracious. ‘When you play Ronnie, you have to play the crowd,’ Carter said, with the air of a man who knew this had been as good a chance as he’d ever have to beat his nemesis. Later he accused O’Sullivan of ‘snotting’ on the floor of the green room, like a footballer, and of not showing sufficient respect for the game because he was wearing trainers (Ronnie said he had special dispensation owing to a persistent running injury). O’Sullivan claimed he was surprised to have won because he’d played so badly. His cueing action, he said, was ugly and inconsistent. He said he didn’t know how much longer he could go on. A week later, he won the World Snooker Grand Prix.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.