"A gentleman's game." That's how my father refers to snooker. To be honest, for me, discovering Cliff Thorburn (and the sport of snooker on a whole) was an accident, revolving around snowboards of all things. Which becomes even more confusing once you know (if you didn't) that snooker is like the game pool or billiards, a cue sport typically played on the green clothed tables, not a snowy hill. It was about 2:00am, I was laying in bed wide awake, and decided to look up "famous Canadian snowboarders". As anyone with an iPhone knows, you occasionally mess up with your spelling and have weird auto-corrects, exhaustion not helping one bit. I ended up looking at the results for "famous Canadian snooker Players". The top result was a Wikipedia list titled "Canadian Snooker Players". What the heck, might as well click it. First name I decided to click on was Cliff Thorburn, and after reading about him, he seemed pretty interesting. So I wrote down his name, went to sleep, and sent him an email explaining my work the next day. I never expected I would have the chance to challenge the only World Snooker Champion to come from Canada to a game of pool, but I did! What I also didn't expect was to find out Cliff happened to be one of my step-dads' sports idols, but he is! It turned out to be an unexpectedly great experience.
The day came to meet Cliff, and for about the fifth interview in a row, it seemed the weather hated everyone in Canada, especially my photographer Victoria and I. Driving an hour an a half to Mississauga in a non-air-conditioned car is bad enough on any day, but when it's forty degrees out, it's a whole lot worse. By the time we were about 20 minutes into the drive, all we cared about was if the place we were meeting was air-conditioned, thankfully it was. After the handshakes and the joy that for the first time in about twenty interviews I didn't get lost on the way, I had the chance to sit down with Cliff, a legend in his sport. Getting right in to it, I asked “The Grinder” Thorburn when he first heard about his sport...
Cliff telling his story, photo by Victoria Alexander
Little 10-year-old Cliff was living in Victoria, British Colombia with his father and grandmother. His father, a bowler, had invited Cliff to come watch his game one day. An invitation that would change his life. Around the booming of the bowling balls, he heard a quieter, clicking noise. He followed it to a partially open door hiding a spiral staircase down. Intrigued, he followed them. There he saw for the first time, a pool table. With bright felt, bright balls and cool tassels hanging on the light fixtures overhead. Then an adult banked a ball off the side of the table, into a middle pocket. Groans came from the others who reluctantly threw money to him for his feat. That's when little Cliff ran, straight to his father, out of breath and in awe. His fathers reply? “You're not allowed to play that game.” This would become Cliff's greatest encouragement to start.
After trying snooker out a few years later, and losing money to a friend, he decided to try and enhance his game by playing in some pool halls. He would play for about an hour a day, until his father told him to stop playing. That encouraged Cliff to go from one hour to four. What he found though was that he was getting a love/hate relationship with the game. He wasn't doing to well early on, and frustration led to eleven broken cues in the early days, but snooker was all that was ever on his mind. The owner found the broken cues, and barred Cliff from the hall for good This encouraged Cliff to try harder somewhere else. After a while, that's what he did. His skill enhanced, as well as his maturity and respect for the game. Two years after being barred from the hall, he ended up winning the Western Premium Championship. He decided he wanted to go back and let the owner know, not to brag or hold it in his face, but to show he was sorry for the early years and prove respect. Unfortunately, the owner had passed away. It was then Cliff feels he truly matured, and hoped the owner heard where he had made it before he passed away.
It was harder back then for someone to pick up snooker, to learn how to play. There were no books to read or videos to watch, you simply had to learn by observation, and maybe a skilled player would occasionally answer a question or share a pointer. With that in mind, Cliff never really knew about tournaments or even that there were titles you could earn from championships, he just followed his nose to find games were ever he could, if they were competitive or for fun.
After the Western Premium title, Cliff took a train across the country to Toronto around 1968 when he managed to win the Toronto City Championships, only two points shy of a perfectly scored snooker game (147 points). Seeing as he had gotten that good in only about four years of play, he started to realize he could have the makings for more than he expected. Two years after this came a title he thought would be the best he would get, the North American snooker champion. But believe it or not, these titles in fact led to two completely different outcomes. One being that Cliff was barred from nearly every single pool hall in Canada for being “too professional”, and the second being that these titles encouraged Cliff to do what it took to become professional. Which he learned meant leaving Canada. This is how my stepfather would first hear about him, but that's for a bit later.
The final straw to convince Cliff to go the United Kingdom though, was a man named John Spencer, his idol. Right after Cliff had won the North American championship he heard that John (two time world snooker champion) was coming to Calgary for a few exhibition games. Although Cliff was in Toronto, there was no way he was going to miss seeing his idol, so again he hoped on a train and made his journey back across Canada. When he arrived, he had the chance to play Spencer and ask if he believed Cliff had it in him to go professional, keeping in mind there were only about 25 professional snooker players at the time, and only one from outside the United Kingdom. Spencer said yes, and Cliff started playing the United Kingdom tournaments.
Perfecting my technique with Cliff, photo by Victoria Alexander
A year later, Cliff made it to the World Championship finals in England, a pretty big transition from were he was before. He opponent? John Spencer, who talked him into being there in the first place. Cliff though, lost. Needless to say, he now had his name on the world stage, he was professional. A teenage boy in the hills of Scotland remembers watching Cliff on television with amazement, thinking he could very well soon be the World Champion. A few years later that boy moved to Canada, settled down, had two children of his own and three older step-children. Then his second-oldest stepson mentioned how he was meeting his guy in a few weeks who was good at snooker, “if you even know what that sport is, Bob.” My step-dad turned his head really fast and said excitedly “NOT CLIFF THORBURN IS IT.” When I told him it was, he had the biggest smile on his face, topped only when Cliff called me one day and I put Bob on the phone. Anyway, Cliff started becoming big in Canada, aided by people like my step-dad, who followed the European snooker scene in Canada. Canada learned his name most though in 1980, when Cliff Thorburn became the first person outside the United Kingdom to become the snooker world champion, with snooker idol John Spencer watching him win the title from the sidelines.
One of the biggest highlights in Cliff's career came three years later, the Maximum Break, also known in snooker as a perfect game. I must admit, I know nothing about snooker. All I know is that if you hit every single ball in, in one turn, you're impressive. I watched it on YouTube, and you just see Cliff slowly going, one ball at a time. When it came to a few ball left, he needed a water break. I could feel the tension from my laptop that's how intense it was, this could be the first perfect game ever at the World Championships. The people from the other games in the tournament came to watch, and the crowd was silent. Then, he hit it in perfectly. There was cheering and Cliff fell to his knees with happiness, hugging his opponents and others playing from Canada.
That year, Cliff was honoured with an Order of Canada medal, and in 2001 was given a spot in Canada's Sports Hall of Fame. All I could think was, “he did it.” He really defied a lot of people by making it to where he was. From hearing clicks in a bowling alley, to having a chance to play against the Governor-General in his house, on a table who's cloth was ripped from a 12-year-old Justin Trudeau.
The of meeting Cliff ended with me playing against Cliff in a game of pool. Needless to say, I lost badly. In fact, really badly. But it's the experience that counts... right? Anyway, remember how I said this was the first interview in about twenty that I didn't get lost going to? I ended up taking a wrong turn home and went a half hour out of the way.
The pattern continues.
Playing with the legend, photo by Victoria Alexander