In they file, bringing with them their large jugs of lager at 12.30 in the afternoon, ready for another four days of merriment.
These are the loyal yearly attendees of the Snooker Shoot Out, an event which laughs in the face of snooker’s traditional grace and decorum, placing cheap, poorly-fitting polo shirts on the normally smart professionals, and placing a beer cup in the hand of normally solemn spectators, along with an invitation to shout, guffaw, and generally degrade themselves.
Originally a one-off event held in September 1990, the Shoot Out returned to the professional snooker tour in 2011 and has held its place in the calendar ever since.
It is a fast, frantic form of the sport, each match comprised of a single 10-minute frame, with a 15-second shot clock that falls to 10 seconds for the final five minutes. Any foul results in ball in hand for the opponent. The crowd are encouraged to chant and holler in what is snooker’s answer to the beered up, rootin’ tootin’ atmosphere of live darts.
The commentary drowns out much of the boorish crowd, and the frequent wisecracks from members of the audience are, perhaps mercifully, inaudible through the television set.
But to witness the event at the Watford Colosseum first hand sees this seemingly benign event take on a whole new level. Everything is cranked up. The garish bleats and cries of the crowd pervade the atmosphere.
The bleeping of the shot clock timer conjures images of an operating theatre. MC Phil Seymour’s shrill timbre stings the eardrum, along with the dull, humanoid voice that yells ‘10 SECOND SHOT CLOCK NOW IN OPERATION,’ not dissimilar to the warning heard when the luggage doors of a coach are opening.
To derive any semblance of enjoyment from such a clamorous affair requires one to disabuse themselves of any prior held notions of what a snooker tournament should rightfully represent.
This is worlds apart from the soft, silent confines of the Crucible Theatre, where the slightest rustle of a Murray Mint wrapper draws tuts of admonishment.
This is thrash metal snooker, where the core values of strategic thinking and measured pragmatism are flung out the window like a rock star’s hotel TV. The shot clock disrupts players’ natural thought processes, sowing seeds of doubt where there would otherwise be none.
It’s a well-worn cliché that the end result justifies the means, and in this case the end result is exceptional entertainment. There’s something thrilling about seeing these usually level-headed players scrambling around the table while the onlookers howl at them.
Some players crumble underneath the tumult of it all, while others rise to the occasion, almost relishing the challenge and the antagonism of the crowd.
‘Despite the fun image the event seeks to promote, many top pros resent the Shoot Out, and only six of snooker’s top 16 ranked players bothered to enter’
One such example is the eventual winner of this year’s edition, Thepchaiya Un-Nooh. The 33-year-old is the fastest player on the tour, posting an average shot time this season of 16.5 seconds, more than 1.5 seconds faster than second-placed Jack Lisowski. On paper, he’s the most suited player to the unique tempo of the Shoot Out.
And he stepped up to the plate at the business end of the tournament, beating an in-form Stuart Bingham in the quarters before producing a blistering break of 139 in his semi-final clash against Jamie Clarke.
It was the highest break in Shoot Out history, eclipsing Martin Gould’s effort of 135 in 2011. Another quick-fire 74 secured the title against a helpless Michael Holt.
Un-Nooh’s performances were the highlight of the four days, but overall it was a tournament of immense quality. To make a century in a 10-minute frame while the manifold sounds of the bleeping shot clock and the beery, shouty crowd pervade, is a remarkable achievement.
The total of four centuries during the tournament is itself a Shoot Out record, as the tournament seems to rise in quality year upon year.
A hive of stories
Despite the fun image the event seeks to promote, many top pros resent the Shoot Out, and indeed only six of snooker’s top 16 ranked players bothered to enter.
However, the absence of the sport’s usual suspects allows lesser spotted amateurs and youngsters to have their moment in the spotlight. The Shoot Out is a hive of stories, the result of the presence of so many underdogs combined with the unpredictable nature of its format.
It offers a glimpse of the sport’s future, as talented prospects are given an opportunity to flaunt their wares on live TV. Perhaps the biggest story of this year’s edition was the emergence of 16 year-old Ryan Davies, a spotty skeleton of a teenager blessed with a cue action as smooth as silk.
The youngster saw off Robbie Williams, 14 year-old Ben Mertens, and the very capable Sunny Akani to reach the last 16 before succumbing to eventual runner-up Holt.
Mertens himself caused quite a stir in round one, knocking out the venerable Thai James Wattana by a single point in a Shoot Out classic. Former world number three Wattana needed just the pink to claim victory, but saw the match clock elapse agonisingly before it could be dispatched.
Liam Davies, 12, was the youngest participant, but saw his hopes swiftly dashed as first-round opponent Ricky Walden knocked in a rip-roaring 132 break to send the young Welshman packing.
Even still, the chance for these youngsters to pit their wits against seasoned pros is thoroughly uplifting, and it’s an opportunity that would not be possible if it weren’t for the Shoot Out.
Here come the girls
Two of the sport’s best female talents, Reanne Evans and Emma Parker, were also invited to compete. Indeed, Evans’ matchup with snooker legend Jimmy White was arguably the pick of the first round ties.
Parker went out with something of a whimper, losing to Indian amateur Laxman Rawat. It felt as though it was a missed opportunity for both Parker and Evans to make a statement of their talents.
Evans in particular, who has toiled for some time to make an impact on the main tour, didn’t play to her potential, but that is the nature of the Shoot Out, where a player’s chances can go up in smoke with one long pot by an opponent or an unfavourable run of the ball.
It’s a fascinating question as to why Evans has been unable to gain a place on the main tour.
In a sport that is less concerned with physical aptitude, and more to do with mental strength and level-headedness, how can the sport’s most decorated female player, who has won a plethora of titles in the women’s game, be so far behind even the lowest-ranked male players?
Why so serious?
There is much to enjoy and much to despise about the Shoot Out. It is not for everyone, and its ranking status is a bone of contention amongst many. Many attendees flock to binge drink with their mates, call out nonsensical gibberish, and generally indulge themselves in nincompoopery.
Yet others seem to be there to try and enjoy the snooker, longing for the peace and quiet of other events. You can hear them tutting and see them frowning at the uncouth drunkards.
Many die-hard fans will refuse to tune in to the Shoot Out, such is their animosity towards what they view as a debasing of the long-held values of snooker.
But then, perhaps the key to enjoying the Shoot Out lies in simply embracing it for what it is, to leave preconceived notions at the doorstep and revel in the revelry. Snooker is a tense, high-pressured sport at the best of times, and this once a year chance for players and fans alike to let their hair down should be welcomed, cherished even.
Sport can be a lot of fun when everyone’s not quite so serious all the time.