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“My biggest thrill was just potting balls, you know, from the age of 12. My love for the game hasn’t changed. It’s gone up and down over the years but the love for the game is still there.” - Jimmy White
Snooker legend Jimmy White talks to Adam Darke about his life in sport, from discovering his love for snooker as a youngster to fighting back from testicular cancer and losing five consecutive world finals.
With contributions from five-time world snooker champion Ronnie O’Sullivan, along with Jimmy’s children Lauren, Breeze, Georgia and Tommy, the programme chronicles the progress of ‘the Whirlwind' from discovering his natural talent for the sport as a youngster through his years of drinking and gambling to his current small hope of winning that elusive world title.
Jimmy says he discovered snooker after his dad took him to the Devonshire pub in Balham, where he learned to play pool. After that, he joined a snooker club and realised his aptitude for the sport: “I remember my brother bought me a bike, he said, ‘Do you want a snooker cue or a bike?’ I was about 13 or 14 and I didn’t know really what I wanted but all my friends had bikes and I [chose] a bike. And the very next day I went down the snooker hall and it got nicked from outside. That sort of made sure then that I was just going to play snooker.”
After progressing through the amateur ranks Jimmy turned professional, joining a sport which pulled in millions of viewers on television. After he had started gambling at the age of 14, he says he began to enjoy his life in the ‘circus’ of professional sport with the opportunities on offer: “I was getting a lot of attention, getting a lot of money, you know, and having a lot of fun. I would drink too much and I would be out too late. And obviously the gambling, you would be gambling when you’re drunk so you’re making terrible mistakes. But I sort of quietened down on the gambling and it went to the nightclubs and messing about, you know, seeing that side of life. There was just a lot of drinking going on.”
But the drinking and the gambling led to a chaotic home life for his then-wife Maureen and their children, he says: ”Me and my wife because of my behaviour, we had an up and down relationship, a love-hate relationship, all the time we would split up, I must have re-furnished 50 flats over the years. But, you know, she’s a wonderful woman, a wonderful mother.”
In the meantime, his snooker career went from strength to strength as his natural talent began to blossom. In 1984, he lost his first world snooker final to Steve Davis, who he describes as his toughest opponent. He describes his emotions after losing the final: “I lost to Steve Davis 18-16. I wasn’t bothered at all. In my mind, I thought there was no problem at all. Because I just thought it was close enough - he won 18-16 and he fell over the line.”
But on reflection, he says his drinking and gambling may have prevented him from winning and dominating the sport: “No disrespect to the players that I beat but my preparation was bad. Obviously if I had my time again I would have prepared better and I would have won more tournaments but there was no balance at all. I was pretty selfish in the way that I thought that if I practiced I could still drink and party.”
Jimmy’s hero was Alex Higgins, a double world champion who helped bring the sport to its peak of popularity in the 1980s, and who Jimmy helped in his ailing later years. Ronnie O’Sullivan describes how White and Higgins electrified the sport at the time: “He literally was like the first rock star snooker player, along with Alex Higgins, they were very different but in their charisma they were the same, because they were like the peoples’ champion, if you like. They played with their hearts on their sleeves. I think [Alex] looked to Jimmy as a younger brother and someone who would carry on the mantle from him.”
Jimmy went on to lose the world snooker final to Stephen Hendry in 1990, 1992, 1993 and 1994, and was defeated by John Parrott in 1991. He describes the agony of losing to Hendry in 1994: “I got myself in a winning situation and then twitched. It was 17 each with him and I twitched on the black. I rushed the black. Even when I lost I would have grown men crying in my hotel rooms and that. I got as much excitement from playing the way I played as the people watching it. And as the years went by I think they started to feel sorry for me, keep getting beat.”
Jimmy developed testicular cancer in 1995, but managed to beat the disease. Yet six months later he lost his brother Martin to cancer, and four months after that, his mother died. He says: “One minute you’re going along, everything’s wonderful, and then all of a sudden you walk into cancer and it just knocks you for six. I was very lucky, I didn’t have to go through much treatment, just an operation.”
Yet he found solace in going away to tournaments which meant he could drink and gamble, which took him away from his family. Eldest daughter Lauren explains how she learned to cope with him: “I basically have to tell him off like he’s my child all the time, which is annoying, but that’s my character anyway. I’m sort of in charge and he has to sometimes say to me, ‘You’re not my mother!’ I don’t want to be his mother either, but because he does have these tendencies he’s quite easily bossed around.”
Now Jimmy says he’s off the alcohol, the cigarettes and the gambling and gets his thrills through playing snooker. He also retains a small hope that one day the world title will be his: “You know, to get to six [world] finals of a game like snooker playing the style that I do is a feat in itself. If I didn’t think I could win I wouldn’t play. Realistically, you know my boat has sailed.”