From humble beginnings washing cars and picking fruit, Barry Hearn has unquestionably redefined the modern perception of snooker. A pastime once reserved for 16th century British Armed Forces stationed in India has been revolutionised, now watched by half a billion people worldwide.
Over 400 years ago, tables had no side rails, pockets or cushions, only containing holes for the balls to be potted. Balls were made of ivory and, though competitive, the sport was informal at best.
In the Madras Province in 1882, snooker received its name. When British Billiards champion John Roberts travelled to India the sport was still in its infancy, but the idea nevertheless intrigued him. It was there that he overheard a comment made by Colonel Sir Neville Francis Fitzgerald Chamberlain, who labelled a player missing an easy shot a “real snooker”. Roberts decided that when he returned to the UK, that would be the name of the sport.
After the establishment of first the English Amateur Championships in 1916 and then the Professional World Championship in 1927, the sport was nearly exclusively driven by the incredible skill of Joe Davis, who won 21 consecutive titles until the outbreak of the Second World War halted the event. Chamberlain would likely never have called Davis a ‘real snooker’.
A post-war decline in popularity saw snooker tournaments scrapped, but the emergence of colour television saw the BBC launch the Pot Black tournament. In 1973 the World Championship emerged, and the introduction of world rankings three years later rejuvenated a competitive edge not seen in the sport since its days on Bangalore’s beaches.
Welshman Ray Reardon dominated the game in the 1970s, winning six world titles. But Hearn’s formation of Matchroom, with players Steve Davis and Tony Meo propelled the sport to new heights, the former going on to be the face of snooker for a decade.
Speaking exclusively to Forge Sport at the launch event of the Crucible’s 2017 Worlds, Hearn remembers his and Davis’ journey well.
“The 1981 final changed my life, and it also changed Steve’s life. You know we were two kids from council houses, and we had a dream. His was to be world champion and the best player in the world. Mine was to be by his side and develop around that, and in our own ways, we’ve achieved our objective.
“It doesn’t mean to say that Steve’s not passionate about snooker, he is, and it doesn’t mean that I’m still not passionate about sport in general and snooker in particular in which I am.”
The rise is quite remarkable. In the early 1970s, looking for a property investment, Hearn bought a snooker hall in Romford, London. With his business partner Deryck John Healy he then cashed in on Lucania Billiard Halls, and after a time promoting snooker on television he decided to manage the young and upcoming Davis in 1976.
“I get flashbacks of nostalgia… running when he [Davis] won in 1981, and my life changed in the Crucible and through the sport of snooker. I wouldn’t be sitting here if it weren’t for snooker.
“For good or bad, 81 was my zenith moment in sport and I think about that day every week of my life. A flashback comes in, and when I walk into the crucible, I can’t help but look around and say jeez, and suddenly I’m not 69, I’m 29 instead, and you get a really nice warm, comfortable feeling about yourself.”
Since its inauguration in 1977, the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield has hosted the World Championships, creating moments from Dennis Taylor’s tenacious triumph over Davis on the last black in the 1985 final to Ronnie O’Sullivan’s five minute 147 break in 1997.
Whether Hearn overreacted at the end of the 1981 final is up for debate, but what is not is his affinity for the venue and Sheffield.
“It’s like someone who introduces you to your wife, you know, you never forget the introduction, and I think Sheffield and us are married. This is why we are going to commit to staying here for so much longer, despite huge financial offers around the world, for once in my life it’s not about the money it’s about history.”
And he has a point. Despite its history, the recent talk of the town has been about the potential value of China’s popularity for the sport abroad. Around 60 million people play snooker, and the likelihood that venues which hold thousands will sell out is high, especially if it were for the sport’s pinnacle prize.
Nonetheless, just last month World Snooker and Sheffield City Council agreed on a deal to keep the championships until 2027.
And Hearn cannot wait for the popularity of the sport to continue even further.
“We know we are going to see a global audience of over 400 million tune in and we’re going to see a new world champion, or another Selby victory – who knows? But whoever wins this event deserves to call themselves the best player in the world.
“Because of the nature of sport and the changing of the guard if you like, every chapter throws up another chapter in this soap opera of snooker. In 1977 you got £17,000 total prize money, now you get £16,000 just for going out in the first round.”
“This year we begin another chapter in an ongoing story of the best novel that you’ve ever read. It’s a slowly burned sport, and every chapter tells a different story. None of us really know how it ends until we get to the final page, but what we do know is we are going to see some amazing snooker over 17 days.”
Hearn is chairman of World Snooker Ltd, with a view to revitalising the game in the future by encouraging high-level competition at a lower level. So for the first time in 2015, he introduced a new qualifying format, in which only the world’s top 16 players automatically qualified to play at The Crucible, the rest having to battle it out through three rounds of qualifying at Ponds Forge.
It is that desire to globalise snooker while sticking to its roots that brings a sense of excitement and drive to Hearn.
“Now I look at the stars of today, and we are a truly global sport, and everyone should be incredibly proud of what we have achieved, and it’s a great British export, and Sheffield has been a major part of that.
“Sheffield as a city has changed enormously in those 40 years and you know it was a mining city, but it suddenly shows the change. This wonderful city now is becoming a high-tech example to others around the world as what you can do, and snooker’s played a small part in that, attracting the investment from a large number of Chinese companies… the association began through snooker.”
Hearn once said that the world is changing and snooker has to change with it. But rightly so Sheffield has been and will continue to be its spiritual home.
For a time Hearn’s spiritual home was in Romford, where over 40 years ago he spotted a young talent on table 13. A famous East End phrase defines both of their achievements in snooker. Lovely jubbly.