Given that it has become the most popular and widely played type of cue game, it would be easy to assume that snooker is also the oldest one, but this is not the case. The creation of billiards pre-dates snooker quite considerably – going back as far as the 1300s and the reign of Louis XI in France. However, despite not being the original cue game, there is no question that snooker is now the most famous one.

The birth of snooker

Snooker is believed to have been invented in India around 1875, and was developed by officers serving in the Devonshire regiment, as they amused themselves while unable to go outside due to the monsoon rain. The credit for devising crucial aspects of what we think of as snooker – including the different coloured balls – has gone to Colonel Sir Neville Chamberlain, who also gave the new game its name, having described someone who failed to pot a ball during a game as a “snooker”.

The snooker tables

8ft oak snookerIn these early days the game was not played on the specialist snooker tables that we would recognise today, as it was seen merely as a novelty variant of billiards. The development of proper snooker tables did not begin until the game reached England, towards the end of the 1800s. It was the existing billiard table manufacturers who spotted the potential of providing alternative equipment for this new game, which led them to begin producing snooker tables, even though at this stage the game interested only a handful of the British public.

The beginning of competitive snooker

While the fact that snooker tables, cues and balls were available in shops in the UK at the turn of the 20th Century was a vital step towards the game becoming more popular, it was still seen as a game for the upper class. It took the brilliance of two brothers – Joe and Fred Davis – to bring the game to the attention of the working classes, alongside the creation of a World Championship tournament for the game. The Davis brothers dominated the snooker tables for more than 50 years, with Joe in particular going down as the first really legendary practitioner of the game thanks to his astonishing achievement of winning 15 World Championships in a row; a feat even later dominant forces in the game such as Joe’s namesake Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry would be unable to match. Joe Davis possessed a level of skill and technique that set him apart from all other players in this era, and he could be said to have been the first real star of the snooker tables.

The role of television

The peak years of popularity for snooker came in the 1970s and 1980s, and television was to play a crucial role in transforming it into one of the most popular games in Britain – and a new generation of players into household names. The combination of the show Pot Black and the decision to televise the World Championship in the new medium of colour television saw the popularity of the game skyrocket. Colour television made the game easy for viewers to follow, and the arrival of charismatic players such as Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins and Jimmy ‘The Whirlwind’ White saw snooker reach a wider audience than ever before.

Aside from making celebrities of these players, and providing millions of television viewers for the World Championship, this also had a beneficial effect on the game at the grassroots. More youngsters than ever were playing the game, either at youth clubs, snooker halls or on snooker tables at home, and this enthusiasm increased with the arrival of Steve Davis as the dominant figure in the game. Davis claimed the World Championship six times during the 1980s, although his most oft-remembered final – and perhaps the most memorable moment in snooker for many people – was his defeat to the underdog Denis Taylor in 1985, which was watched on television by a remarkable 18.5 million people in the UK, despite finishing at 12.30am.

The popularity of the game continued throughout the following decade, as snooker tables became a fixture in many homes throughout Britain and millions of viewers tuned in to watch the World Championships. A series of finals involving the game’s new top player – Stephen Hendry – and Jimmy White, who was a firm public favourite, helped to maintain audience enthusiasm into the new millennium.

The present day

The new century saw new players emerge to battle on the professional snooker tables and thrill the watching audiences, with perhaps the most charismatic and mercurial being Ronnie O’Sullivan. The Englishman belongs to a tradition that began with Alex Higgins in the 1970s and continued with Jimmy White, of hugely entertaining, gifted but inconsistent players that the British public have adopted as favourites. However, while Higgins’ talent burned out amidst his demons and Jimmy White was to fall agonisingly short of claiming the ultimate prize, O’Sullivan has managed to keep his personal problems in check sufficiently to win this title on a number of occasions.

Now in the new decade, it is players such as Judd Trump who are attracting audiences to watch snooker on television or live, and youngsters to pick up snooker cues and learn the game. While Trump may have become the latest in the line of flair players so beloved by fans of the game, there are a number of other top players – including Australia’s Neil Robertson – who have made a major splash. If the game has lost some of the appeal it had for audiences in the 1970s and 1980s, the new Head of World Snooker Barry Hearn is aiming to restore it to the position it held then. He has introduced more tournaments, and fewer frames, in a bid to shake up the game and make it appealing to modern audiences in search of faster-paced entertainment. These changes may divide opinion amongst snooker purists, but if they ensure the continued popularity of the game into the digital era, it is unlikely that many will be complaining.