Of the important sporting lessons taken on board this week, one stands out: there are better ways to watch snooker than on a laptop YouTube feed, without commentary and with the single camera lens fixed implacably between the four cushions.
In a way, the experience crystallises some of the struggles the sport has encountered since its 1980s heyday; strip the personality and soap opera and context out of the room and some of the charm in its endless geometric puzzles is lost.
Especially on nights when the tension is so great it becomes impossible for anyone to impose order.
This month, the New Yorker brilliantly profiled Ronnie O’Sullivan and tried to sell a new audience this great sport.
“In the professional game, frames tend to unfold with vivid, unsettling ease — the balls slide into the pockets as if there were nowhere else for them to go — or with staggering, metaphysical difficulty, as the players foil one another by arranging the balls in illogical patterns, a type of play known as “safety,” and everyone’s nerves go to hell.”
This was a night in Hell. And on these kinds of nights, you need to see the flames rise. To watch them engulf the player sitting helplessly in his chair. Or her chair.
I like a narrator too, someone to deliver the homily. A Ted Lowe ‘oh dear’, now and again, would be perfect, just to lament that there really was nowhere else for that ball to go. But you’d almost settle for the trademark Virgo worry. “Where’s the cue ball going?”
Still, a lot of us stuck with this one, in near silence, even if, by the end, we might have felt a bit like the Queen pinning the MBE on Jimmy White. “Jimmy… do tell me why they put the snooker highlights on so late?” Liz was surely hanging in there with us Thursday night. Did one have the HDMI cable out? Or does one have a smart telly?
Not even studious focus on the geometry could strip away the soap opera entirely. It was another of those special late-night dramas that snooker treats us to. And one of our own involved again — 30 years after the greatest drama kept everyone up.
There’s no empirical evidence to prove it, but women surely drove the snooker boom as much as anyone. Snooker may never have gulped the clean air outside its claustrophobic halls without the great waves of feminine affection — motherly and otherwise — that enveloped men like Dennis Taylor and Alex Higgins and Jimmy White. An Old Bailey judge once invited Steve Davis to a trial he was sitting on. Thought Steve might be interested. A murder case where the accused used a pool cue.
Snooker might easily have remained a game reduced to its component parts, to nuts and bolts, to geometry. Its people imprisoned between four cushions.
But the game was given a personality. The artist Damien Hirst was first drawn in by the the clean lines but stayed because he could no longer make sense of it. He stayed for Ronnie O’Sullivan, who makes the trip between Heaven and Hell more than most.
“You look at snooker and you think that it is geometry that is going to get you out of trouble – it is more fluid than that, and he humanises it.”
Hirst expands, in that New Yorker piece. “That’s his beauty — that he is absolutely shitting himself. Do you know what I mean? He doesn’t know what the fuck is going on.”
Of course, just as in other areas of life where women have devoted a lot of love to men who don’t know what the fuck is going on, there’s no guarantee women get much out of these situations in the end.
On Thursday night, 10-time world champion Reanne Evans came to collect the least women were entitled to.
Women love Ken too, of course. Everyone loves Ken. And Ken had his own reasons for looking damned, at times, on Thursday. “The game will eventually tell you when to stop and I’m not looking forward to that,” he said recently on RTÉ.
There were plenty more hints in the bleak surrounds of a Sheffield basketball court — if we could have seen the surrounds — stuffed with 11 tables, hopefuls and weary greats battling side by side to get to the Crucible, every one of them able to vouch for the sport’s democracy.
Except Reanne. It almost insulted Reanne to reduce this one to the geometry.
Last time they played a women’s world final at the Crucible, nobody could find the key of the drawer containing the balls, so there was a delay. Not many were inconvenienced.
Reanne brought that kind of thing with her Thursday night. And we really needed to see the load she was carrying, properly appreciate the pressure that led to that fatal double-kiss on that last black.
For now, she stays imprisoned by the four cushions. Freed, she could inspire the champions that take the sport to new levels. She deserves many more chances to find the Crucible key.
If snooker needs its narratives at times, to lend humanity, football tends to make a little too much use of these devices, to sell us back stories we don’t really need.
And so what is currently being called Stevie G’s “Dream Send-off” draws inexorably closer.
This week Robbie Fowler made his contribution to this emotional search for natural justice on Stevie’s birthday.
If some confusion exists at the moment around where young Raheem Sterling’s priorities should lie, be that maximising his value and earnings or concentrating on improving with Liverpool, Robbie reminded us all there were even more important things to consider.
“Help yourself get to Wembley – and Steven Gerrard get to Wembley, so that his last appearance in a red shirt will be in the FA Cup Final – and you’ll get a glimpse of how you can fulfil your dreams at Liverpool.”
Amid all of this palaver, it’s impossible not to recall a certain other dynamic midfield man, another England captain who gave great service to his club and was due to make his exit at the end of a season which was destined to feature an FA Cup final appearance.
In the end, Bryan Robson watched that one in his suit, left out of the squad altogether, despite scoring in the semi-final and contributing reliably on most of Manchester United’s big days.
But then whatever you say about Fergie, and you could say a lot, he was no great believer in other people’s narratives.