History of Snooker

Origins

Essentially, snooker is an offspring of billiards, which was extremely popular during the Middle Ages after its development in the 15th century and was, in turn, the product of many outdoor stick-and-ball lawn games like croquet. That said, the concept of snooker is relatively modern, deriving as it does from the 19th century. In that era, billiards was a popular leisure activity amongst British soldiers stationed in India. A number of variations on the game were spawned, many of which played important roles in the rise of snooker such as pyramid pool (where 15 red balls were racked in a triangle) and black pool (which supplemented the pyramid with a black ball that could be potted after a red for extra points).

Chamberlain’s snooker

Such innovations were precursors to the actual inception of snooker in its most primitive form in 1875, the founder of which is commonly held to be Colonel Sir Neville Francis Fitzgerald Chamberlain. While relaxing in the officers’ mess in Jabalpur, Chamberlain proposed the addition of a number of coloured balls to the pyramid pool variation. These included all the current coloured balls on a snooker table, with the exception of blue and brown, which were added some years later. The basic principle was therefore to pot the red balls and, in between attempts at the reds, follow with any of the coloured balls for extra points. The word ‘snooker’ was a concurrent invention, originating from army circles as the name for a first-year cadet. When a young subaltern tried his luck at the fledgling game with Chamberlain present, the latter remarked that he was a ‘regular snooker’ after missing a shot. Chamberlain later acknowledged the same status for all players (including himself) and the game of ‘snooker’ was subsequently born.

The spread of the game in army circles was again the work of Chamberlain, who spent much of his time promoting snooker. By the end of 1882, the first rules of snooker had been drafted and recorded in Ootacamund in India (although they would only be acknowledged by the Billiards Association in 1900). The rules were a matter of some debate and Chamberlain himself later credited a Lieutenant-Colonel George Tindal Pretyman RA as an influence in forging the first documentation. The popularity of the game blossomed dramatically in the region and, during this period, references abound of soldiers enjoying the new game, with a Captain Sheldrick from Calcutta also acknowledging the element of gambling in 1886 as a contributing factor to its popularity, asserting that there were games when merely scoring a point would mean the other players paid out!

Bringing the game to England was a different matter though, and it is worth remembering that the modern incarnation is a far cry from Chamberlain’s original concept. There is much debate on who met with Chamberlain and received the original rules. The most popular story is that, in 1885, the English billiards champion John Roberts visited India and received a full explanation from Chamberlain. However, Roberts’ activities and involvement in the game after 1885 tends to contradict this story, and the person of Fred Shorter has instead been mooted as the most likely recipient, who travelled to India in that timeframe on his way to Australia and met Chamberlain. It is said that Shorter then passed the rules to Henry Upton Alcock while touring Australia, who then brought them back with him to England.

The confusion today over who was responsible for the early developments was far worse at the time. Indeed, in the absence of an obvious lineage, another founding theory was postulated, claiming the game was the brainchild of a ‘Colonel Snooker’ of the Royal Artillery. This story gained credence and was only definitively dismissed by Chamberlain in a letter published in The Field on 19th March 1938, when he finally publicly proclaimed himself as the father of snooker.

Forging the modern game in the 20th century

Nevertheless, snooker’s popularity in England during the subsequent decades blossomed and gained a further champion in the shape of the finest player of the era, Joe Davis. Along with his brother Fred, Joe Davis dominated the game for practically half a century and, more importantly, helped turn snooker into a genuine competitive sport by establishing the first professional World Championship in 1927. Needless to say, Joe picked up the first crown and continued to win all the following competitions until 1946, before his brother took on the mantle and proved dominant thereafter until 1957. Such was their expertise that, at a time when half-century breaks were relatively uncommon, both brothers continued to improve, with Joe even making a maximum 147 break which was recognised in 1957.

The foundations laid by Davis were pivotal to the modern game, but snooker’s rise was not without disruption. Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, the game’s popularity waned to such a level that no World Championship was held between 1958 and 1963. Curiously, overcoming this lull had little to do with the players or even the game itself, but rather the invention of colour television. In their zeal to display the technological advances, the BBC invested in a snooker tournament entitled ‘Pot Black’. The competition was held and televised between 1969 and 1985 and, helped by the inimitable commentary of ‘Whispering’ Ted Lowe, became an immediate success (at one time being the second most popular programme on BBC2).

The knock-on effect was dramatic for the sport, with money pouring in. The World Championship was revived in a knock-out format in 1969 and received extensive television coverage from 1976 onwards, its popularity helped further when Cliff Thorburn completed the first televised maximum 147 break in 1983. This explosion saw a rise in players’ lifestyles and an explosion of talent from the 1970s onwards, from the firebrands like Jimmy White and Alex Higgins to the more austere personalities such as Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry. In many ways, the notion of snooker as a fashionable sport is still evident today with remarkably popular (and exceptionally talented) personalities like Ronnie O’Sullivan. Moreover, the continued growth of the sport has meant the rise of foreign talents like Marco Fu of Hong Kong and Ding Junhui of China.

Ironically then, the history of snooker is somewhat symmetrical, from its beginnings outside England to its current expansion beyond English borders and increasingly global popularity. Whichever way you look at it though, snooker has certainly come a long way from the officers’ mess in Jabalpur!