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Tuesday, 24 April 2012

China wins the snooker

Jimmy White really did play the bad guy in a Hong Kong snooker movie versus Stephen Chow (Shaolin Soccer)
It's the World Snooker Championship at the moment. This annual contest is in the first round and will continue for three weeks. I'll be watching a lot of it regardless of whether I want to or not, because China is playing.

My wife's Chinese, from Taiwan. The political situation out there is complicated, but no matter what, she'll always regard herself as Chinese and cheer on the Chinese participants in... well, pretty much anything. And snooker's pretty popular in China these days thanks to Ding Junhui. Ever since DingDing (as he's known in my household) appeared, snooker has been changing.

Being female and attractive are important
qualities in a snooker referee
In 2001, professional snooker was in decline. The banning of tobacco sponsorship had hit snooker especially hard and there were problems with trying to attract new sponsors. One thing the WPBSA (World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association) tried was to bring in a female referee to uh, spice things up (they imagined). Although Michaela Tabb has proved popular with both fans and players and her refereeing has been solid, her rapid elevation caused a lot of ill-feeling with other snooker officials. Not for her the five year apprenticeship required of all other referees and, when the WPBSA needed to sack two of its ten referees to cut costs, she was oddly exempt from the last-in-first-out rule that had always applied. Oh and she attracted neither new fans nor sponsors.

In 2003, Ding Junhui turned professional after winning many under-21 competitions and becoming China's number one player. When DingDing appeared on our televisions, it wasn't obvious just how much snooker was about to change. There had been other Chinese-ish players before - Marco Fu of Hong Kong had been playing professionally for a few years for example - but Ding was the first player from mainland China to break into the professional game. Ding was living in England in order to better practice his game and he was already famous among the other Chinese living in the north of England. As soon as Ding appeared on television, yellow faces appeared in the crowd at his matches. Chinese TV channels began to cover the sport and there was a sudden influx of Chinese sponsorship. The mere arrival of Ding had rescued the game of snooker pretty much overnight.

It's a few years since then and there's isn't a player's waistcoat that doesn't have Chinese characters on it. Many tournaments are sponsored by Chinese companies you've never heard of. The China Open was revived and suddenly the Shanghai Masters competition was created. Every player benefited from new sponsorship, new prize money, new tournaments and a whole new audience. And still the commentators couldn't pronounce Ding's name (丁俊晖 - Dīng Jùnhuī - ding june-whey). But they really had better start practising their Chinese names as Ding's success didn't just create new fans, but a whole new generation of players and even a referee.

Zhu Ying - professional snooker's newest referee
Michaela Tabb might be officiating the finals of the World Championship this year, but Zhu Ying will be refereeing several matches and is younger, prettier and, being Chinese-ier, appeals to a much bigger audience. Oh and no one cheated or bent the rules to get her a job.

There's a whole bunch of Chinese players suddenly appearing in the competitions too. Appearing alongside Ding Junhui in the 2012 World Championship are Cao Yupeng, Liang Wenbo and Liu Chuang. Marco Fu's in it too, but as my wife puts it "No Chinese wants to see his ugly Cantonese face. He's a Hong Kong bastard - he's not real Chinese!"

Liang Wenbo and Ding Junhui - one lives in Romford, the other in Sheffield
And the new crop of Chinese players aren't slouches. On Saturday, Liang Wenbo took number one seed John Higgins down to the last frame before missing a crucial shot. Sunday saw Cao Yupeng beat world number seven, Mark Allen. (Note to commentators: it's pronounced ts-ow you-pung whereas you're calling him "cow" or "sow" which both mean "fuck" in Mandarin). Although Liu Chuang is unlikely to beat Mark Williams on Wednesday, Ding will likely beat Ryan Day leading to a match between him and Cao Yupeng.

As well as those in the World Championship, there are a whole lot of other Chinese players zipping up the rankings. You can expect to see Jin Long, Li Hang, Li Yan, Liu Song, Lu Ning, Mei Xiwen, Tian Pengfei, Xiao Guodong, Yu Delu, Zhang Anda on your TV shortly and it'll be hilarious listening to the commentators stumble over their names.

One of the main differences with the Chinese players is the approach they take to their snooker careers. As well as being a professional snooker player taking part in all the main contests, Ding also has to take part in every major Asian event as he's got to be China's number one guy in as public a manner as possible over there. A further demand on Ding's time is that he's a student at Shanghai Jiao Tong University studying Business Administration and Management. Oh and he now has a chain of snooker clubs across China (although this tends to be the kind of thing you let your family run if you're Chinese, heck it was probably their idea). He's easily the busiest of the pro players and it's interesting to see just how much Ding is concentrating on securing his future after snooker; something that many other players would do well to emulate.

It turns out that many Chinese actually are inscrutable

Ding Junhui is a quiet and gentle man with the extraordinary burden of being a national hero from a country where that means much more than the chance to appear on ballroom dancing shows. Reading his (Chinese language) blog shows Ding going out to play in the English snow with his friends and it's quite touching to see how he shares details of his student life, encouraging his Chinese fans to study as much as they can (Ding will post pictures of things like his enrolment certificates and class schedules so his followers can see exactly what university is like). It's quite astonishing how quietly dignified Ding is. I'd be freaking out if I had the kind of pressures that he does and I definitely wouldn't be able to bear them with such serenity.

My wife fucking loves Ronnie O'Sullivan for the respect he shows to Ding
Ding rarely shows any emotion in any of his matches and, although he is very polite, you don't get much hint of friendship between him and other players. Other non-yellow players that is. Amongst the Chinese players, Ding is god-like. He opened the door to international snooker for China and it's doubtful that any of the new generation of players would be there without him. Liang Wenbo was the next guy to make it up to the top ranks of world snooker and it's clear that he and Ding, both living in England for a few years now, are genuinely friends. But emotion is clearly something to keep private. Occasionally a small smile might be visible when he wins, but there's really only one time that Ding's been seen to emit an actual feeling and that was when a match with Ronnie O'Sullivan went badly wrong and Ding walked off thinking it had finished when it hadn't. I was very impressed that O'Sullivan was the first to go after him and spent time calming him down and cheering him up enough to return to the table. They're clearly stayed fairly close friends since then.

There are snooker soap operas in China now, there's even a cartoon series specifically about Ding (no kidding)
Ding's status as a legend is assured, but what's less certain is the future of snooker. It's already slightly weird that the majority of the money and TV audience comes from China and yet most of the competitions are in England. Luckily most of the players are still English, but with waves of eager young Chinese players on the way, how long is it before they're in the majority? And when that day comes is snooker going to be a game where all the audience, money and players come from China and yet the games continue to be played in England? Well, goodness knows what's going to happen, but I'm going to be watching it (I don't have any choice in the matter).

Proper writers like to do a little trick to round off articles where they make reference back to the opening sentence or the title, even if it means fudging in a semi-pun, telling a lie, saying something slightly pretentious or even merely repeating a word or two. My wife glanced over at the television earlier today after a non-yellow match and asked me "Who won the snooker?" China did, oh wife of mine, China won the snooker...

People think that Confucius is the great philosopher sage of China, but actually it's Jimmy White
"Legend of the Dragon" 1991


  1. It's funny how people attribute national pride to a sport for individuals. Dad could never understand why I didn't like Stephen Hendry even though he was the first Scottish player to really hit the big time. Dad liked him because he was Scottish. I disliked him because he was boring.

    I watched Higgins narrowly beat Liang (or Scotland narrowly beat China) the other night, and he acquitted himself really well. The China dude came within a couple of shots of knocking out the World Champion. I think it won't be long before Chinese players are the norm, especially since the WPBSA (headed by Barry Hearn) is promoting the game so heavily over there.

    1. It'd be interesting to examine just how the money flows in snooker. Barry Hearn's got his fingers in many pies. I hear tell that Terry Griffiths makes a fortune from the management and coaching of young players.

      I think you're quite right though in that nationalism in snooker seems a bit weird and I feel the same way about Hendry. China seems to make everything nationalistic and it's astonishing just how fervent the nationalism of many young Chinese is.

      Mark Allen has now made some unfortunate comments about his match with Cao Yupeng, accusing him of cheating (double-hitting the white ball when the score was 5-4 in Cao's favour) although he didn't mention it at the time. Mark Allen also went on to say:

      "It seems to be a bit of a trait for Chinese players, because there have been instances in the past, of fouls and blatant cheating going on. It needs to be corrected. He's a good enough player and he doesn't have to that. I'm disgusted."

      Noticeably various media outlets are reporting his initial comments, but not including his accusation of routine Chinese cheating. Hopefully the Chinese internet won't notice, otherwise they're going to go mental and then we'll see what nationalism is all about.

    2. Mark Allen has previous with upsetting the Chinese, as well - it was him that accused Haikou of being full of dead cats: "Journey a nightmare. People are ignorant. Place stinks. Arena's rubbish, tables poor, food is horrendous. Other than that I love China."

      He knows how to make himself popular.

    3. 中國1號!

    4. He did push shot that ball though. The commentary box even said it, and they said it in the studio and even Yupeng himself kinda looked at the referee before taking the next shot. There is a video of Marco Fu very blatantly fouling a red ball without calling a foul on himself as well. Thats 2 incidences I know of that there was cheating. Allen got fined 11k though for his comments.

  2. By the way, the pink is on fire. That can't be good...

  3. Honor of the kingdom of Shi Toshifumi 奧沙