A cue for success

Cliff Thorburn and snooker are good for each other

Michael Posner December 26 1977

A cue for success

Cliff Thorburn and snooker are good for each other

Michael Posner December 26 1977

A cue for success

Closeup/Sport

Cliff Thorburn and snooker are good for each other

Michael Posner

Once, in a previous incarnation, the room had been a dance hall. Couples waltzed and music drifted out of windows and the walls reverberated with the rhythm of the songs. Later, catering to changing tastes, the premises were converted into peep show galleries and later still into something called the Twenty First Century body rub parlor, sad cubicles for the prurient and the peculiar.

Recently there has been a resurrection. The gauzy curtains are gone, replaced by rosewood paneling, and the sound of billiard balls, clicking on 72 square feet of green felt, fills the room with a certain life.

Twenty-two stairs above Toronto’s Yonge Street strip, in this room, now known as Cliff Thorburn’s Billiard Club, a pool match is in progress. The principals are Thorburn himself, a lanky mustachioed young man in blue jeans, and Bernie Mickelson, a lanky mustachioed young man in blue jeans. Mickelson is one of the top five amateur snooker players in the country. Thorburn, a professional, is currently ranked second in the world. All similarities between the two men end there.

At Mickelson’s request, they are playing pool rather than snooker because pool is a game that Thorburn occasionally loses. The same cannot be said of snooker. Only the very rich or the very dumb play snooker for money with Cliff Thorburn— even when he gives points.

Thorburn frequently gives points. If he did not give points, he would have no one to play with, an unenviable position for a professional. As it is, competition is scarce. Yielding 30 or 40 points, Thorburn can beat 99% of all the snooker players in Canada. He has been the Canadian champion six times. He has won two editions of the prestigious Australian TV Masters championship. He came within an eyelash of winning the 1977 World Snooker Championship at Sheffield, England, last April—the first Canadian, the first North American, ever to reach the finals. He is cited in the Guinness Book of World Records for having recorded 14 perfect games—more than any man in history— by sinking, alternately, 15 red balls, 15 blacks and all the other colors, without missing a single shot, for a maximum of 147 points. (This month, in practice, he shot a fifteenth.)

In snooker any run of 100 or more points—a “century break”—is considered an achievement, something to tell the grandchildren. Thorburn records a century almost as often as he eats eggs, two or three times a week. Frequently, he scores

them back to back. Once he registered seven in a row.

His knowledge of the game—angles, techniques, probabilities—is awesome. He never forgets a shot and rarely if ever chooses the wrong ball to shoot. At playing safe or avoiding being snookered, he is

probably without peer. And that he will win the world championship soon, very soon, seems as certain as flowers that bloom in the spring.

Bernie Mickelson knows this. That is why he is playing pool. Pool is not the same as snooker, not at all. For one thing it is

played on a smaller table which dramatically alters the angles at which the Vitalité balls rebound from the hard rubber siding. Thorburn is less familiar with these angles. He is therefore more prone to error. Since games are won and lost by a fraction of a millimetre, it is entirely possible that Bernie Mickelson will win. It is equally possible that Bernie Mickelson will be elected the King of Siam next week. Not a good bet.

Especially not after Thorburn pots 107 consecutive balls in the first game. No one in the room has ever seen or heard of anyone doing that before. It is the approximate equivalent of sinking 107 consecutive four-foot putts in golf. Thorburn wins game one handily.

Game two is tighter. For a time, Mickelson leads. Thorburn is relaxed, commenting on his play as though he were a sports announcer. “One of the most exciting performances ever seen on this table, sports fans,” he says, affecting the clipped, nasal style of broadcasting. “Of course, the table has been here only three days ... Now if he sinks this shot, there will be a ticker tape parade.” He misses. Mickelson leads 131116. The first player to sink 150 balls wins.

A man named Farmer offers to split the bet with Thorburn. Amused, he turns it down. “Why should I split the bet with him? I’m working at the game 14 years, I should split the bet?”

Mickelson misses and Thorburn picks up his $40, made-to-measure cue, built only a month ago after the previous model was stolen. He is testing a laminated wood shaft that is said to vibrate within a smaller field than the ordinary Canadian white maple wood he uses for snooker. “If you can forget for the whole game that it’s there, then you know you’ve got a good cue,” Thorburn says. “Unobtrusive, like.” But he prefers the feel of ordinary wood. The laminate, he says, is “too stiff, too rigid.”

One would never know it. He sinks one ball, then another. He moves around the table like a jaguar stalking prey—an unhurried, confident lope. His eyes, large and luminous, never leave the balls.

Thorburn takes less than 15 seconds between shots. He knows immediately not only which ball he needs to sink, but how to strike the cue ball so that it spins or caroms or rebounds to a precise point on the nap, leaving him “position” on the next object ball and the one after that. His mind turns on another level, three or four removes from present reality. As in chess, the possible execution of B and C depends on

the flawless execution of A. Miss A, leave the cue ball one quarter of an inch beyond where it should be, and the grand design collapses. Recovery may be impossible. No sport asks more finesse.

After every shot, Thorburn chalks his cue, then slides the cube of chalk into his right pant pocket. The motion is quick and smooth, almost rote, like a coin falling into a slot. Even as it falls, he is moving again, pacing, thinking. The entire action seems orchestrated for rhythm, choreographed for flow.

Thorburn’s striking motion is equally fluid and efficient. Bent low from the waist, eyes at table level, he first seeks the best possible view of “the natural angle” of the balls. When he shoots, his left leg remains rigid; his right bends at the knee. The fingers of his left hand splay open on the table, forming—depending on the shot required—either an open or a closed “bridge” with his left thumb, a groove for the cue to slide through. Before he releases, Thorburn brings his chin slowly down until it barely touches the ebony handle of the cue. Then, like a hitter in the batter’s box, he takes his warm-up strokes, edging the cue back and forth through the bridge seven or eight times, carefully adjusting weight and angle, feeling the exact degree of power needed to sink the object ball and the precise amount of siding needed to put the cue ball in position. Thorburn’s cue ball control, his ability to place it just where he wants it to go, where it must go, is utterly uncanny.

The entire ritual is deliberate and assured, a kind of slow motion ballet: stroke, stand, chalk, stride, bend, rehearse, stroke. Stroke, stand, chalk, stride, bend, rehearse, stroke—over and over, shot after shot, a dance propelled by its own momentum, each movement distinct but contiguous, an elegant fusion of art and science accompanied only by the musical clicking of the balls on the table and the satisfying thupp as they drop into their ordained pockets.

Bernie Mickelson sits in stunned silence, watching. Thorburn takes the second game, then the third. He wins $60 for the afternoon.

Clifford Charles Devlin Thorburn got to be one of the world’s great snooker players by working very hard at his game. Other men have taken more talent to the table, but few have pursued perfection with more diligence. “I’m only 29, but I’m going on 43,” he jokes. “I’ve seen a lot of life, like. I figure I’ve played 30,000 hours of snooker. That’s since I first picked up a cue, which would be September of the year I turned 15.”

Which would have been in Victoria, British Columbia, where Thorburn, son of a city garbageman, was born, where his parents separated when he was two and where he grew up on the fringe of delinquency, a miserable student but an excellent athlete. He won scoring titles in lacrosse against players who are now

professionals. He threw four no-hitters in little league baseball. “But I’m thin, eh? Like, I didn’t have enough weight. I could not take a hard jolt. Plus, the coordination in my legs was not too hot. I knew when it was over. The thing with snooker was, I never went more than a month or two without noticing some improvement.”

Thorburn had ample opportunity to improve; his academic career ended early.

“After my second try at grade nine, my teacher said: “Cliff. Like, I’ve passed you, but you really didn’t pass, see?’ Well, I went to grade 10 for a couple of weeks and then dropped out. I’ll say this though : I was pretty good in math.”

Yes. He demonstrated his understanding of geometric principles on the tables of the late Dave Smith’s pool emporium in Victoria almost daily. “There didn’t seem much else to do. After I made a few bucks, I figured I was pretty hot, eh? So I went to Vancouver to play Johnny Bear. He hustled me. Sent me home flat broke,

tail between my legs. And I started over. But in Victoria, like, there was nobody to measure myself against. I had no idea how good or how bad I was.”

So he left. Lor the next five years, until he was 23, Thorburn thumbed, bused and trained his way across the continent about 15 times. “I think I played in every pool hall in Canada.” He’d go to Calgary, take a room in a boardinghouse and stay until he beat the best player in town. Then he’d set out for Regina, then on to Winnipeg, then Sudbury. He watched. He listened. He lost. He won. He played. “It was like going to school.”

He played everybody—gamblers, hustlers, sharks, kids, bums—all comers. He played for a dollar and he played (when he had it) for 1,000. He played hot and he played cold. He played from early in the morning to early in the morning and when he wasn’t playing the game, he talked it. Talked to men who had seen a lot of snooker. “Now, Cliff,” they told him, “you’re good. Damn good. But listen, Cliff, listen: Ya gotta go to Toronto to watch George Chenier. Ain’t nobody can shoot like George Chenier. You could learn a lot watching him.”

Chenier had been the North American champion for 23 consecutive years (194870). What Thorburn learned by watching the master was that his own game needed more work. He went back to Vancouver and started over. By the time he felt ready to play Chenier, the champion was already an old man. “We played at the Golden Mile and I managed to win. I felt terrific at first. Kid from Victoria beats North American champion, eh? The next morning I woke up I felt terrible. Chenier was sick. Dying, like. He couldn’t play his game. Beating him was almost meaningless. But I was 21 or 22 and I was oblivious to anything like that.”

Chenier said of Thorburn afterward: “I don’t know where that boy learned to shoot like that. God knows there was nobody in Victoria to teach him.” Other highranked snooker players were also impressed. “You could see Cliff had it even then,” recalls former Canadian champion Paul Thornely. “Not only the talent, but the desire. The desire to always play his best. If he could run 80 points, hell, he’d run 80 points. He wasn’t trying to hide it. He never relaxed on a shot. That’s the only way to be world champion.”

In fact, Thorburn did hustle occasionally, but only out of absolute necessity. Lor the most part, he gambled. Once, in Thunder Bay, down to his last $50, he needed to sink a single, simple shot for victory. He missed. He did not hit the cue ball hard enough. “You don’t get any better pretending you can’t play,” he says. “But gambling with your last sawbuck teaches you not to miss.”

Broke, Thorburn gambled with money he did not have, double or nothing until he won. “I felt like quitting a thousand times. You’re playing badly and you don’t under-

stand why. But I was always able, eventually, to figure out why. I have a good mind for the game: quick to make decisions and realistic with myself. I knew when I lined up to shoot I was playing the right shot. And I never thought I was better than I was.”

For three months in the summer of 1966, CliffThorburn was an apprentice lithographer. For a day and a half in 1970, he picked tobacco in southwestern Ontario. He quit the first job because he did not like being covered with gold dust and he was fired from the second after he failed to turn up one afternoon and was found in the local pool hall. Those are the only jobs he has ever held.

For more than a decade, he earned his living from snooker: tournaments, exhibitions, lessons, gambling. He did not prosper. He traveled by thumb or bus, slept in abandoned cars, and once lived on fruitcake for three days. Everywhere he played, he sported a flashy purple jump suit and white turtleneck sweater. “I could never understand why I was getting so much action. People looked at me and thought I was a moron.”

Success has raised Thorburn’s standard of living measurably. He now pays $25 for a haircut. He has traded public transit for a 1976 Ford Granada Ghia. He carries his cue in a handsome, felt-lined leather case that retails for $50. He owns eight $350 three-piece suits from Toronto’s celebrity disegnatore, Lou Myles. He sleeps every night in a comfortable two-bedroom apartment, earns $200 a week just for lending his name to two Toronto pool rooms and in Canada alone performs up to 100 shows a year in billiard halls, universities and private clubs. The going rate for an evening of Thorburn’s wizardry on cue is $250. He subscribes to Sports Illustrated, reads a lot of paperback thrillers (usually during tournaments) and watches his beloved Montreal Canadiens on his color television every chance he gets.

Still, things might be better than they are. As a sport, snooker is virtually unrecognized in Canada and many people believe that poolrooms are breeding grounds for society’s vermin. This accusation is unfair. Vermin may, from time to time, be found in the nation’s billiard parlors, but they are bred elsewhere. Besides, some very fine upstanding citizens have (from time to time) passed a pleasant hour or two in the company of a cue. Yet the myths linger and the game suffers.

Oh, to be in England, where snooker is the game of gentlemen. Thorburn’s name is practically a household item overseas. People stop him on the street to ask for autographs. When he visits London’s swank Sportsmen’s Club, his name goes up on the celebrity board. Two former world champions, Joe and Fred Davis, have even been awarded OBES for—in effect—their cue ball control.

There is also more money abroad. In

Australia another former world champion, Eddie Charlton, recently signed a $ 1.4 million contract with a billiard firm. Most British pros gross $60,000 to $70,000 annually. Cliff Thorburn’s Canadian income last year was about $25,000.

Part of the problem is Snooker Canada, an organizing body that is itself disorganized. Torn by warring factions, it spends too much time accusing people of

not doing enough for the game. Thorburn himself, acknowledged as the best thing that’s happened to snooker in more than a decade, has even been an occasional target of abuse. “I did a two-month tour of Western Canada and just broke even and some high-ranking vice-president, some guy with his diamonds and his Cadillacs, gets up at a meeting and says to me: ‘What have you ever done for the game?’ I just walked out. I don’t have to listen to that.”

Thorburn’s friend John Ostler, elected secretary of Snooker Canada in a recent shake-up, is even more incensed at the shoddy treatment Thorburn has received.

“Poolroom owners are the most ignorant breed of people you could meet,” Ostler says. “I’ve gone to pool halls and said: ‘How would you like Cliff Thorburn to come up and play an exhibition?’ And the owners say to me: ‘What for? I’ve got guys here who are almost as good. Why should I pay Thorburn $500 to play here?’ I mean, Christ: 500 bucks. A good plumber can cost you that. And here’s Cliff, who’s only 40 points better than anybody in the country, who’s maybe the best in the world, who’s a sure bet to bring in business, and they’ve got guys who are almost as good.

“Why, at the Olympia [another Toronto pool hall] they even make him pay for his table. Can you believe it? Cliff Thorburn. It’s like having Jimmy Connors come to your local tennis club and charging him for court time.”

Tournament prize money is another problem. Existing on the outermost margin of professional sport, snooker has never attracted support from big-buck sponsors. Thorburn collected $1,750 for his last Canadian championship; comparable British and Australian events yield $8,000. “So the organizer says to me: ‘Sure, you want a $5,000 first prize, Cliff. You always win.’ Well, what am I supposed to do? Wait until there’s somebody better than me?

“I’m taking a big gamble even playing in the thing. Any guy could come up hot and beat me. It’s happened before. And like suddenly, Johnny Fireman from Rearend, Manitoba, is the Canadian snooker champion and CliffThorburn is nowhere. Sure I could make $60,000 a year if I went to England, but I can’t do the game much good over here if I’m there. So I think it’s important that I make a good living. Because if I can’t, then the game is going to end up where it began ... Eddy Charlton signs for $1.5 million and I’m paying for my table at the Olympia. Like, sometimes it’s depressing.”

A year ago, Cliff Thorburn nurtured three ambitions in life: to quit smoking, to win the world championship of snooker and to brighten the game’s image in Canada. Two months ago he gave up smoking. “It was something I’d accepted that I had to do.” In partnership with Terry Haddock, president of Snooker Canada, Thorbum runs two of the nicest poolrooms in the country. More than that, he is himself the game’s best diplomat, as polished, mature, likable and unassuming a champion as one will find.

There remains the world championship, for which he has already started training. “What I’ve learned lately is that everything comes in good time. I was very impatient before. I wanted to be at the top before I was ready to be there. Now, I’m ready. Somebody is going to have to play awfully well to beat me. I want to play beautifully and be as hard as rock. I want to look good and play the right shot. But more than anything, I want to win.” Nobody who bets should bet against him.0