And then there was Ron: Ronnie O’Sullivan and the Search for Perfection

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE CAMBRIDGE GLOBALIST ON FEBRUARY 26th 2016

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or the most part, sport is played within the liminal space that opens out between a cold, hard realism—‘win at all costs’—and a slightly more ephemeral aesthetic—‘the game is a spectacle with a primary responsibility to entertain’. If you look carefully within any sport, you will inevitably find advocates at either pole of this dichotomy. One has only to think of the spat that continues to percolate between Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger: Mourinho with his low-risk pragmatism, Wenger with his balletic idealism. The argument that exists between them was humorously parodied by Mourinho at Chelsea’s end-of-season awards dinner last year. There a tongue-in-cheek Mourinho spoke of a ‘team who play in red’ who ‘would like to play without goals’. ‘That team’, he went on, ‘plays really well and the ball goes and goes and goes and the quality of the ball possession is really beautiful, but no goals.’ Of course, Wenger would go on to have the last laugh when, in the following season, his team’s ‘beautiful football’ mustered more goals than Mourinho’s, resulting in the eventual dismissal of the Special One with Chelsea languishing near the bottom of the league.

The fact of the matter is that, however Mourinho might choose to spin it, there is some kind of correlation between playing well and scoring goals. For, put simply, it is the teams who play attractively who tend to be the teams who score the most goals. However, there is, inevitably, an exception to this rule in which a free-flowing attacking team is overcome against all the odds by a stodgy pragmatism (of which the paradigmatic example is, ironically enough, the ‘park-the-bus’ Chelsea side who won the Champions League in 2012). For every Wenger, therefore, there is an equal and opposite Mourinho. As such, the enduring allure of football stems in some sense from the capacity of one team to counteract another’s methodology. The separation that Mourinho perceives, then, between these two—pragmatism and romanticism—is, more properly, a spectrum along which managers must position themselves in a bid to maximise their winning potential. And every sport, to its own degree, boasts a similar continuum between beauty and practicality. Imagine, though, a sport in which the gap between aesthetics and victory was only held apart by a knife-edge; in which, if you played attractively, you were almost guaranteed to win. That sport exists and it is called ‘snooker’.

Snooker: A Simple Game

On the face of it, snooker is a simple game—a player tries to beat an opponent by scoring more points than they do. Points are scored by potting balls in pockets with a cue and, as long as the balls continue to drop into the pockets, the potter remains at the table. To maximise their chance of beating an opponent, a player must string together a run of pots, increasing their tally whilst, at the same time, reducing the possible number of points available to their opponent. Two aspects of the game, therefore, are fundamental to a player’s success: the ability to pot balls—which keeps the player at the table and scoring points—and the ability to control the cue ball—which leaves the player with easier shots, increasing the chance of an extended run of pots. Playing the game well, then, consists of succeeding at these two things.

And it is at this point, when both aspects of the game are held in perfect balance, that the sport is at its most beautiful. When constructing a large break, the snooker player carries out a feat of aestheticism—a quasi-theatrical act in which, one by one, the balls are made to disappear from the table in a performance that requires metronomic perfectionism and creative resourcefulness in equal parts. As such, playing the game well is closely correlated with playing the game beautifully; more often than not, the player who wins is the player who played the more attractive snooker. In snooker, more so than in any other sport, the pragmatic and the idealistic are brought into closest conjunction, often only being held apart by a hair’s breadth.

This coincidence of beauty and practicality is reflected in the Holy Grail of which every snooker player is in search: the maximum break, the highest possible score in a single frame which involves potting all fifteen red balls followed by the black ball fifteen times and then all the colours in order. One hundred and forty-seven points resulting from the perfect confluence of thirty-six shots. (Of course, the purist will cite a figure of one hundred and fifty-five as the highest theoretical maximum break in the event of a free ball but such a distinction is purely academic.) To achieve this feat, the player must balance a control of the cue ball with an ability to make tough pots. What results are often visual spectaculars which leave fans on the edge of their seats.

And Then There was Ron

For the majority players, a maximum break is a once-in-a-career achievement. One individual for whom the maximum break is no stranger, however, is Ronnie O’Sullivan, famously touted as being ‘the most naturally gifted player ever to grace the modern game’. His unparalleled run of thirteen maximum breaks began in 1997 with thefastest 147 on record, as the 21 year old O’Sullivan cleared the balls in 5 minutes and 20 seconds. Persisting in this tendency towards head-turning, many of O’Sullivan’s subsequent maximums have exhibited elements of the sublime or the ridiculous. The twelfth came in the final frame of the 2014 Welsh Open as O’Sullivan beat Ding Junhui to the title in what was to be the last snooker event to be held in the Newport Centre. More controversially,the tenth was the maximum that nearly never was: having cleared all the balls up to the black, O’Sullivan offered his hand to his opponent, Mark King, and it was only on the intervention of the referee, Jan Verhaas, that he finally potted it. In 2016, the fans finally got the ‘147 That Never Was’. Playing in the Welsh Open, O’Sullivan took a pink instead of the black between the fourteenth and fifteenth reds, finishing on 146 and later claiming that the £10,000 prize money for a maximum break was ‘too cheap’ to bother trying for.

Understandably, uproar ensued. Barry Hearn, the World Snooker chairman, described O’Sullivan’s actions as ‘unacceptable’ and ‘disrespectful’. ‘Players’, he claimed, ‘have a duty to the fans to deliver the best standard and entertainment they can. Anything less than playing to their best ability is unacceptable and disrespectful to the paying public.’ Hearn, the wily entrepreneur, emphasised the players’ accountability to regale the fans, that is, the people who write the cheques that the players’ receive at the end of a tournament.  O’Sullivan countered: ‘If you had told the audience I would get a 146 and do that, they would have still gone out and bought tickets. If someone wants to do better, here’s my cue, chalk and waistcoat, go and do it.’ Entertainment, he seemed to intimate, is not merely a one-way arrangement between entertainer and audience. Rather, it goes both ways. It is not just for the crowd to dictate what is entertaining, but also for the artiste to show them what can be entertaining. In this sense, the audience at the Welsh Open had not simply turned up on the off-chance that a 147 might have been scored; they had turned up because Ronnie O’Sullivan is the most creative snooker player in the world. To this extent, whether or not he made a maximum break was immaterial.

What is a Maximum Worth?

At the heart of this disagreement there lies a deeper question: what is a maximum break really worth? On the face of it, the sympathetic view lies with Barry Hearn. How can a player possibly reject £10,000 as too little to complete a feat which many players dream of achieving at least once in their careers? That is a sum of money slightly over a third of the national average salary for a mere thirty-six shots that could take as little as 5 minutes and 20 seconds of O’Sullivan’s time to complete. It is hard to perceive O’Sullivan as anything less than a celebrity sports personality who has lost any grip he might have had of economic value.

There is, however, a more charitable reading of Ronnie O’Sullivan’s actions here which actually allows for him to be more than a money-grubbing prankster. Throughout his career, O’Sullivan’s on-going struggle with his mental health has been widely documented. One aspect of this struggle is a clear inability to distinguish between reality—that is, the way things are—and ideality—that is, the way he deems things should be. In an interview given after he nearly turned down his tenth maximum break, O’Sullivan made the laughable claim ‘maxi[mum]s are quite easy to make’.  What he is saying here is completely explicable in light of his broader outlook upon the world in general: he means to suggest that, in light of the fact that maximum breaks are possible, we should not be surprised when they do happen. Yet O’Sullivan has overlooked the material point which is that they don’t happen very often. He has confused what is possible with what is probable.

It is statements like these, such as his predictably biannual threats to be considering retirement out of disgust at his recent ‘woeful’ performances, which have led to a pervading opinion amongst a number snooker fans that O’Sullivan, regardless of his obvious genius, is bad for the sport in general. Now whilst this attitude clearly betrays the sort of impatience that is still shown to sufferers of mental health problems—the ‘I’m sympathetic to those with mental health problems as long as they shown no evidence of their problems’ approach—what it misses is the deeper reality of O’Sullivan’s attitude to snooker. Where the majority of the game’s aficionados play the sport in the realm of the probable, O’Sullivan operates within the realm of the possible. Because a maximum break is always possible, any frame that he plays in that doesn’t result in one is considered a missed opportunity. He points his cue towards perfection and feels the bite of regret whenever he fails to achieve it.

There can be little doubt that it is as a result of this attitude, that O’Sullivan finds himself within the ranks of the finest players of the game of snooker. For him, the game is an art—he holds in his mind the platonic form of snooker and bends every fibre of his being towards the realisation of this form upon the table. And the result is beautiful. When watching O’Sullivan in full flow, the sport looks different to the game his opponents play. He seems to understand the game completely, making it look effortless and imbuing within his audience a curious blend of aspiration and incredulity because, when he wields his cue, the game looks simultaneously possible and impossible to the mere mortal. In those moments when O’Sullivan is at his finest, reality and ideality perfectly align and everything else seems to disappear.

Making the Possible Probable

What is a maximum break worth to a man who has compiled so many that he is able to reject them seemingly at will? More than £10,000? Is it not rather the case that, in light of his approach to the game, the question becomes meaningless? For O’Sullivan, the monetisation of the maximum break is beside the point. In the interview following his infamous tenth maximum, O’Sullivan admitted ‘I love leaving the black on 140… it’s more of a buzz than making a maxi[mum]… I don’t care about money’. And there it is, in a nutshell—the worth of a 147. He doesn’t want £10,000 in exchange for a maximum break because he gets something far more valuable from the event than reimbursement: he gets the elation of having made the possible probable. What difference does it make if he takes a pink instead of a black in his thirty-six shots? He could, had he wanted, made 147. But he didn’t. The maximum was there for the taking. He knew he could have done it if he wanted to. But he didn’t have to.

In his search for perfection, Ronnie O’Sullivan has changed the sport of snooker irrevocably. He, more so than any other player of the game, has achieved such a mastery of it that, for him, a score below a maximum break can attain the same meaning as a maximum break. When others play the game it is as if they are in thrall to its possibilities. They strive to attain the perfect score and they celebrate when they do. For O’Sullivan, though, it is as though the game is in thrall to him, waiting to be fashioned as he takes on the possibilities it offers and makes them seem entirely probable.

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