This is the 2,000th post I have made on this blog since I started it six years ago and it seems apt that it falls just in time for the start of the Betfred.com World Championship, the qualifiers for which get underway on Thursday.
Because as much as we all follow the twists and turns of the circuit, there is nothing in snooker to compare with the 17-day soap opera that is the World Championship.
The countdown has begun. For snooker fans it’s like waiting for the last day of the school term, or Christmas, or your summer holiday.
And it’s the continuity, the familiarity, of the World Championship which is its greatest strength.
Most people reading this now will not remember the tournament when it was played under any other format. The current one came into effect in 1982 and aside from an (unnecessary) tweak of the semi-finals from best of 31 frames to best of 33 in 1997 has remained constant.
Every player in the last 30 years has faced the same test, the same tensions, the same pressure.
The tournament has not made any concessions to the modern age or the lowest common denominator. There are no silly gimmicks like shot-clocks or, God forbid, a ‘power zone.’
It is snooker as it should be: raw, hard and demanding of its competitors the very highest levels of skill, concentration, discipline, patience, nerve and stamina.
The long matches are what make it so special. There is time for so many shifts of momentum, for doubt to creep in, for implosions to happen. There is time for heroic comebacks and bitterly disappointing collapses. There is time for reputations to be cemented or destroyed. There is time for redemption for past failures.
As Barry Hearn himself has said, “it’s a bizarre format but it works, so why change it?”
The World Championship is a long slog, and not just for the players. At the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield each year a community of dedicated people come together to make it happen. Most are not household names but snooker could not function without them.
There’s the officials, the table fitters, the TV crew, the journalists, the hospitality staff, sundry backstage personnel and, of course, the fans.
For many, April in Sheffield represents an annual pilgrimage to the sport’s own Mecca. It is a chance to renew old friendships and experience the greatest snooker show on earth, to be part of it.
I first attended the Crucible 22 years ago. I’ve worked on the last 15 World Championships and commentated on the last six, but my World Championship memories stretch back much further.
We all have our favourite matches and moments. In the 1980s, snooker was everywhere. The BBC showed hour upon hour upon hour and it chiefly revolved around whether anyone could stop Steve Davis winning.
In the 1990s, I remember following the drama of the Hendry-White era hoping against hope that Jimmy would finally do it.
I had nothing against Hendry. I respected him and came to respect him even more after getting to know him. But it was easier to support a man with obvious flaws against a man who seemed to have none.
I was there when Hendry won his seventh world title. Indeed, I had to hold his cue while he did a radio interview afterwards.
I couldn’t move. I thought, if I somehow break this I will surely be taken to a place of execution (it was of course broken a few years later by less reverential baggage handlers).
That was a great tournament. I remember standing in the photographer’s booth as Ronnie O’Sullivan missed the pink on 134, his look of resigned anguish.
He played his part in a new era for the championship, which was dominated by him and his contemporaries, John Higgins and Mark Williams.
In Mark I saw someone for whom winning and losing was not everything. Even when he won the title for the first time in 2000 he was measured in his celebrations.
Higgins always had his family with him and they knew how to celebrate. When he won for the first time in 1998 he seemed certain to win several times more. As it transpires he has done, but few thought it would take nine years between first win and second.
For television viewers, many moments have become iconic: Alex Higgins beckoning his wife and baby on to the stage, Cliff Thorburn sinking to his knees after his maximum, Dennis Taylor’s black, O’Sullivan’s record 147...
But many of our memories are more prosaic. For some reason I can’t shift the image of Terry Griffiths knocking the Embassy globe from its moorings in the 1988 final.
There was a strange anticipation on each Thursday of the tournament while waiting for the BBC’s ‘Snooker Break’ segment in the days when features were limited to when there wasn’t any play going on.
It’s almost a cliché to become nostalgic for Shot of the Championship and the final interval musical pieces but they were as much a part of watching on TV as the matches.
Since working on the tournament, my perspective on it has become less about the snooker and more about the experience.
When I started in the Crucible pressroom it was like an ashtray: full of smoke, all free courtesy of the sponsor, with a complimentary bar much patronised by the journalists.
It was an incredible buzz to have gone from watching the event on TV to being there, inside the ropes, part of the backstage drama, which was every bit as compelling as the snooker itself.
Being at the Crucible for 17 days is like being in the Big Brother house. You are effectively hermetically sealed off from outside reality. Everything exists in its own bubble.
The days are long and people get bored. I’ve been involved in many childish pranks backstage to pass the time. I’ve been wildly drunk after hours. I’ve had far too little sleep. I’ve eaten badly. I’ve had pointless arguments. I’ve listened to the same old stories and same old jokes. I’ve dashed to press conferences to hear tales of joy or despair. I’ve bashed out stories which seemed incredibly important at the time but which now look rather desperate.
I remember the Saturday afternoon of the semi-finals in 2003. Paul Hunter led Ken Doherty 15-9. A colleague of mine had gone off to do football and landed me with his newspapers to do, with the cheery comment that “it’ll all be over in good time for deadline.”
Of course, Ken came back to win 17-16, leaving me scrambling round trying to get the various stories sent, juggling quotes and then doing full rewrites.
I’m sure I complained bitterly at the time but these are the afternoons that get the blood flowing, and the graciousness with which Ken won and Paul lost was special to witness.
These days I commentate for Eurosport. This is a different experience because it demands full concentration.
Not every match is a classic by any means but they each contribute to the overall narrative. There are many threads to be pulled together until the champion is crowned.
Good luck to all those starting out on the road to the Crucible this week. The qualifiers themselves contain much of the intrigue associated with the final stages. To be at the Crucible or to miss out and know it’s going on without you is one of the season’s big disparities in emotion.
There will be much heartache before the night of May 7, much excitement too.
There is nothing in snooker to match the World Championship and long may it continue to entertain, to enthral and to thrive.