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It took only about 15 minutes to understand why Hunter had said earlier, "No TV man ever went white-haired overnight over this game. It's like having a million in the bank." The very shape of a TV screen fits a snooker table like one of Davis' custom-made suits, and the closeups enhance the uncomplicated beauty of the vibrant colors of the balls resting on the green baize. Hunter's theory about the popularity of the game is that the elegance of the dress and the old-fashioned sportsmanship displayed by almost all of snooker's pros contrast strongly with the petulance and cynical foul play common now in televised soccer.
But in the end, none of that is enough to explain snooker's startling upsurge. Perhaps the answer lies in the way the intimacy of the small screen reveals the dramatic ebb and flow of the game and, more significant, the emotions of its players. "You can show them," says Hunter, "the undercurrents of disaster, faces shrinking and aging 10 years. In snooker the player wears his heart on his sleeve."
On the pub's screen you could see that Hunter wasn't merely referring to TV's ruthless revelation of the agony behind a botched shot. The player awaiting his turn, the one you barely notice when watching the action live, enjoys on TV all the privacy of a topless dancer. What makes snooker both a harsh and revealing television drama, as well as a beautiful game, is what is happening off the table. In snooker you can be entirely helpless. A player may not have even the opportunity to pick up his cue through a whole game. All he can do is sit, sip from a glass charged with anything from tap water to Napoleon brandy, and wait for his opponent to make an error, to give him a chance at the table. And meanwhile, like a CAT scan, the camera is peering in at every minute movement of the man's face, making high drama of the flick of an eye, a twitch of a lip.
Isn't all this as true, though, of pool as it is of snooker? Davis contends that his game is to pool as chess is to checkers. It is like chess, you realize; the Derby pub is hushed for 20 minutes while Davis and an early-round opponent maneuver defensively around a cluster of trapped balls. And it gets easier to understand why people are drawn to snooker: The keystone of its appeal is the complex, but easily understood, nature of the game (see box, page 44). It is a game that depends as much on strategy as it does on shooting skill, with just a bit of luck tossed in for seasoning. That being the case, it's not surprising that Hunter has found that viewers reject half-hour highlights of the world championships in favor of shot-by-shot coverage. This year there will be continuous transmission on some tournament days, from 10:25 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.
This enormous interest would have greatly surprised the junior officer, in the Devonshire Regiment, Lieutenant Sir Neville Chamberlain—no relative of the future prime minister—who in 1875 invented the game while sitting out the monsoon season in Jubbulpore, India. Much had happened to billiards, the basic cue-and-ball game, since it was first played in the 1340s and since, in 1587, the jailers of the unfortunate Mary, Queen of Scots had utilized the cloth of her personal billiard table to cover her beheaded body. Variations like Pyramids, Life Pool and Black Pool had evolved, and Chamberlain knew all about them. Casting about for a more complex game that would provide additional opportunities for gambling, he hit on the idea of combining the 15 red balls of Pyramid with some other, colored balls.
Chamberlain surely would be astounded by the life-style Davis leads as a result of the game. A few weeks before the Derby tournament, he had a rare sort of day with nothing scheduled, no supermarket to open or TV commercial to make, so he was spending it in the Luciana Snooker Club in Romford, in Essex, where his pro career started, autographing copies of his second autobiography, Steve Davis: Frame and Fortune. He apologizes to a visitor. "Really boring, huh?" he says, signing away. "Only I have this contract with a snooker table firm, and every time somebody buys a table he gets a free book." That particular contract brings more than $235,000 a year, but Davis' modesty about such things is very much part of his public persona.
Make no mistake, Davis' persona is vital to the success of snooker. Despite the color and the complexity of the game, it would never have developed as a TV spectacle without the serendipitous cast of characters with whom the public can identify, and Davis fills the principal role. He is every mother's perfect son, the nicest kid in town.
In fact, there are those who declare that TV couldn't have done better if it had warped in a roboticist from the 25th century to construct them a Davis. He seems to have been born for the game. His mom, Jean, bought him a miniature table from Wool-worth's when Steve was two, and there were endless hours of practice as Dad, Bill, who was "never better than a good club player," according to Davis, stood over him. Davis' wildest rebellion—smoking at school—lasted only a few days. He suffered agonies in his early days of competition when the crowd would heckle him and he could find no reply. "I was pretty lacking in the worldly-wise department," he confesses. "I was getting the mickey taken out of me something chronic." By which he means he was subjected to heavy kidding.
The jacket of Davis' most recent book isn't overly subtle. It shows Davis wearing a tuxedo and boyish smile, sitting on the hood of his Porsche 928. In the background a sign over a snooker hall announces a forthcoming event, STEVE DAVIS vs. ALEX HIGGINS, it reads, and it also says, SOLD OUT.
A conversation with Davis isn't notable for its rhetorical flights, but when the name of Alex Higgins comes up, he shows that his early problem with repartee has been overcome. "I worship," he says without geniality, "the ground that's coming to him." Hurricane Higgins, as he's called, would no doubt return this sentiment. He's the perfect foil to Davis on the screen, the Tabasco sauce on the oyster. There couldn't be a greater contrast. The Hurricane, 34, is a small fellow—he once tried out to be a jockey—whose tortured-looking, parchment-white face is usually obscured by cigarette smoke. He is right out of the sport's hustling past, in particular out of a snooker hall called the Jampot in working-class East Belfast. He haunted the Jampot, keeping score for pennies, living mostly on candy bars, hauling his cue around the Belfast clubs like a gunslinger looking for trouble.