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The Limits Of Control: Why The Covid Lockdown Is Like A Game Of Snooker
Ryan Alexander Diduck , October 3rd, 2020 08:48

Written on a typewriter in the fever dream of high lockdown, Ryan Diduck’s new book for Repeater, The Limits of Control, is a restless meditation on discipline and mediation. In this exclusive extract he recalls Ronnie O’Sullivan’s record break at the World Snooker Championship on 21 April 1997

An avalanche of metaphors appeared across media during the COVID-19 pandemic: mostly war metaphors (we’re fighting an unknown enemy; we’re winning the battle on several fronts, etc.); and sports metaphors (the game has changed; the playing field has shifted). Sport is apt here, but which sport? I submit snooker.

Since the beginning of the self-isolation period in Montreal, many of us sought some sort of online tonic, something to take our minds off the fact that for the moment we were submitting to the most totalitarian control measures in generations. Most people chose Netflix series that they’d been meaning to catch up on beforehand, but that seemed like a race to the wrong finish line. It’s not about platform, it’s entirely about affect: snooker, more than other boring sports, meditative sports, strategic and extremely arcane and complicated sports, esoteric sports, possibly alchemical in origin and symbolic in execution, characterized the COVID pandemic.

A break-off shot. A slow game of safety shots at first, then an explosion of movement, plenty of side, plenty of spin, all the angles, fast cloth, heavy nap, bad luck, good luck, century breaks, eleventh-frame deciders. Snooker on YouTube also scared me, reminded me of the extract from Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life, published on The Quietus, August 28th, 2013. Fisher describes the British TV series Sapphire and Steel, “in which life continues, but time has somehow stopped.” All the furious live streaming and uploading of mixes immediately following the lockdown order betrayed a wider need to believe that time was still moving forward, that we weren’t stuck in some looping non-place forever. At the same time, delving into history provided some comfort, to recall that a: similar things have happened and been overcome, and b: that the archives need combing when history gets messy. I had to start somewhere, so I started with the World Snooker Championship on April 21st, 1997 at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.

Snooker is a beautiful game of skill, strategy, patience, and chance. And Ronnie O’Sullivan might be the game’s greatest player. At the Crucible that night in 1997, O’Sullivan set the world record for the fastest maximum break of all time – five minutes and eight seconds – against opponent Mick Price. In snooker, a player’s turn at the table is called a break. The greatest number of points a player can rack up in a break is 147, given the point values of the various balls, and the order in which the player must pot them. O’Sullivan earned the nickname “The Rocket” for the speed with which he built breaks and cleared tables.

One of the key elements of snooker, and one of its sources of extreme frustration, is that there is nothing you can do when it’s your opponent’s break. If they’re on a roll, it doesn’t matter how much skill you have, all you can do is sit and watch. And pray that they fuck up. This is the first lesson that snooker can teach us about Control in this particular situation: there are turns at the table, and so we are stuck watching from the sidelines when it’s not our break, through the distorted media lenses, our communications funnelled down ever-fewer channels, telescoping reality. But when it is our break, we mustn’t let our opponent’s swift clearance shake our concentration or knock our confidence. We will all have to be little Ronnie O’Sullivans, calmly stepping to the table with all the angles already in the imagination. There will be a time to act, but it will be in our interest to recognize when it’s not our break and sit quietly. Do nothing. Whenever the camera catches a glimpse of O’Sullivan at rest, he’s usually picking at his fingers, picking at his teeth, picking at the tip of his cue – mind a million miles away from how well or poorly his opponent is doing. The only time that matters to O’Sullivan is the time at the table, the time spent in control. He understands the profoundly simple snooker principle: you cannot control your opponent’s skill, strategy, good or bad fortune.

On April 21st, 1997, Mick Price made a standard and competent break-off shot in the match which would become part of snooker lore. O’Sullivan responded with another fairly standard and competent safety shot, sending the cue ball back behind the brown and the green. Price countered with another safety shot, but this one bounced a little too far from the cushion, leaving a window for O’Sullivan to see a red ball into the corner pocket. From then on, it was Blitzkrieg. O’Sullivan potted the black ball (the highest value ball, worth seven points) and continued alternating red, black, red, black, red, black, red, black, red, black, red, black. At this point, O’Sullivan screws the cue ball directly into the cluster of reds, opening the table up wide. He sinks a red ball into the left centre pocket, sending the cue ball back into ideal position to begin the alternation game again. O’Sullivan now leads 57–0. The commentators realize what they’re witnessing. Legendary referee Len Ganly, of Ganly stance fame, steps up his pace, adjusting to O’Sullivan’s hastening speed.

With the frame now won, O’Sullivan shifts into high gear. “I know you’ve commentated on a maximum before,” says pundit Dennis Taylor to his partner, “and I’m starting to get a bit excited here.” The audience watches in rapt attention, exploding in applause as the score hits 102, 105, 112, 113. O’Sullivan’s concentration is absolute, as he sinks the yellow, the green, the brown. “Perfect!” Taylor exclaims: “I don’t believe this.” The crowd erupts as he pots the final black. O’Sullivan thrusts his fist in the air, whipping the crowd into frenzy. O’Sullivan first shakes his opponent Mick Price’s hand, takes a sip of water, and vibrates. “The speed in which he plays,” says John Virgo from the commentator’s box, “that’s what gets people on the edge of their seats. That was pure excitement, he was running on adrenaline, absolutely unbelievable. And they still won’t quieten down!”

Surely, Ronnie O’Sullivan’s secret name could be Dromos, from the Ancient Greek meaning “running; racetrack.” O’Sullivan seems to be tapped into something otherworldly, an agent of pure dromocratic intelligence. I am fascinated not just by O’Sullivan’s modus operandi, but also with his biography. It’s as if he was programmed to play snooker, like a soldier is programmed for battle, or a writer is programmed to produce reports. He was the youngest ever player, at 17 years and 358 days, to win a UK championship, and the only player to claim 1,000 career century breaks (a break of 100 points or more).

O’Sullivan’s father, Ronald John O’Sullivan, operated a chain of sex shops in Soho, and was imprisoned for eighteen years for the 1992 murder of a man called Bruce Bryan in a bar brawl. As crimes go, murder is a bad one. O’Sullivan’s mother, Maria, was also imprisoned on a 1996 tax evasion rap. These kinds of traumas can either shatter or strengthen the subject, and O’Sullivan appeared able to spin his troubles into gossamer strands. But even Ronnie O’Sullivan eats a loss from time to time, both on and off the table. He survived bouts of depression and substance abuse in his twenties and spent nine years out of the world number one ranking slot.

On December 5th, 2019, O’Sullivan’s 44th birthday, he lost the UK snooker championship to Ding Junhui, a young Chinese player who trained professionally with the Chinese national snooker team. Ding’s success in Asia was interrupted in 2003 when all snooker tournaments were cancelled due to the SARS virus outbreak. After Ding beat O’Sullivan in 2019, he rose to ninth in the world. Following the match, O’Sullivan remarked: “I’ve got no complaints, you know, I’ve enjoyed the tour, I’ve enjoyed the week, the table was fantastic… great crowd, great tournament, sorry to lose.” When asked why he and Ding seem to bring out the best in each other, O’Sullivan replied: “I don’t really know, sometimes like sausage and mash, they go together sometimes,” concluding, “I’d rather get beat six-four in two hours than win six-four in six hours.”

As in snooker, we are learning to think of things one or two or three moves in advance. Seeing things through time. We have progressed from thinking in tweets, 280 characters, to thinking in sentences, pages, two pages, infinity. Finger through machine, through time. Building breaks. Planning escape routes, escaping.

“Make The Most Of Every Crisis”, say The Invisible Committee: “‘So it must be said, too, that we won’t be able to treat the entire French population. Choices will have to be made.’ This is how a virology expert sums up, in a September 7th, 2005 article in Le Monde, what would happen in the event of a bird flu pandemic. ‘Terrorist threats’, ‘natural disasters’, ‘virus warnings’, ‘social movements’ and ‘urban violence’ are, for society’s managers, so many moments of instability where they reinforce their power, by the selection of those who please them and the elimination of those who make things difficult.” (The Invisible Committee, 2009, p. 119.) GULP. Throughout history, there will never be another you, another me, another now, another just now. How will we smear now into the future?? Radically and gently? A balance must be struck.

We are getting closer, and further, and closer. Mistakes have and will continue to be made. But this machine is accompanying me through this madness, ordering madness into sense, sense into thought, thought into word, word into action. Cut-ups are proving confounding, a mixture of messages, from past, from future, to myself, to others. We will only know in time whether these experiments have borne fruit. There is much nonsense, for the sake of what? A laugh at the expense of great writers, historians that preserved the flame? No. Nonsense in the face of not just sense but also insanity. Insanity is not the opposite of sanity, just as hatred is not the opposite of love. All sanity is lost in the wager. The willingness to gamble life for gain, personal or collective, the leverage is the ill.

Imagine two, three, four words, sentences, paragraphs in advance. Now imagine two, three, four generations, centuries, millennia ahead, and project there. It won’t be easy. To breathe. I have endured the trip and it takes endurance. Air is short. The test is to put your lungs in long-term parking. Buy the ticket, take the ride. Hold your breath for as long as possible and rely on faith. Not some imaginary faith in an unseen and unproven force. But faith in the souls that are like you, alien, weird, unfathomable, misunderstood, not from around here. How far or how near our saviours might be is not for us to determine, and that is written in the stars, not in my hand.

There are so many things I have not revealed about method, and will in time, it is not because of deception, rather out of wonder. I wonder about the meaning of it all, and my position in it.

The Limits of Control by Ryan Diduck is published by Repeater Books