Snooker - perhaps the most dignified and gentlemanly of all sports - has long been associated with images of waistcoats and smoke filled drawing rooms. Invented by the Chinese several thousand years ago - probably - Snoo-a-Kah, as it was then known, was one of the most highly disciplined of all martial arts. It was originally brought to the west by someone who hung out with Marco Polo, and eventually evolved into a game requiring players to knock little coloured balls down holes in a table.
Nevertheless, some of the traditions of honour and self-discipline still remain. Modern snooker players may have exchanged their kimonos and black belts for waistcoats and bow ties, but they are still expected to compete in a spirit of impeccable sportsmanship. Or at least, this is the case as far as the professional game is concerned. Away from the fame and the big money prizes of the major championships, hidden away in the back streets and deserted warehouses of northern England, unlicensed 'bare-knuckle snooker' - the bastard cousin of its more reputable relation - is rapidly growing in influence.
Free of the restraints and controls that regulate professional snooker, the bare-knuckle variety is an often brutal and vicious game, in which the emphasis is not so much on potting balls, as on reducing your opponent to an unrecognisable mass of flesh and bone. The cue, the balls, sometimes even the table itself can become lethal weapons in the hands of a skilled player. And it's not unusual - indeed, it is rapidly becoming customary - for the spectators to join in.
Several recent bouts have escalated into full scale riots, and police now recognise that it is a real problem. The Home Office recently announced a new initiative to crack down on instances of snooker related violence. Local police forces have spearheaded the campaign by announcing an amnesty, in which the general public have been encouraged to turn in cues, rests and other snooker weapons. Sergeant Gerald Pimple, of the Manchester Serious Sports Squad, told us a little more about the new campaign.
"There's no doubt that bare-knuckle snooker is gaining in influence, especially amongst impressionable youngsters. In inner city areas, it already accounts for ten percent of violent crimes, and by this time next year it could rank alongside all-in darts, unarmed scuba diving and kamikaze table tennis as one of the biggest threats to law and order since badminton."
So why is it that so many youngsters are drawn to the illegal snooker joints of Great Britain? Sergeant Pimple has his own theories on this matter.
"I think it's the trousers," he claims. "You look at any snooker player's trousers and you'll see exactly what I mean - always neatly pressed, elegantly tapered, and there's plenty of room to manoeuvre when they are reaching for those difficult shots. Oh yes, trousers like that could easily turn a young man's head."
Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of bare-knuckle snooker is that it is a sport in which everyone loses. There are no winners, only casualties. Jack Draylon, a retired shipyard worker from Leeds, has been officiating at illegal snooker fights for over fifty years - a remarkable record for a man still in his thirties. We asked him if he could explain the basic rules of the game?
"There are several different schools of thought when it comes to bare-knuckle snooker," he told us. "Some of the finer points are really quite obscure. Basically, though, the idea is that two men gather around a snooker table with long pointy sticks, and attempt to beat the living shit out of each other."
In the case of such a violent and unpredictable sport, it is difficult to enforce any sort of order. Throughout his career, Draylon was forced to develop his own particular refereeing style.
"What I do is, I blow a whistle and then get out of the way pretty sharpish," he told us candidly. "You don't really want to be too close when the aggro' starts. Preferably, you want to be in another room. Remember, these are hard men. If they tear your leg off and stuff it up your back passage, then that's just their way of saying hello."
Hard men indeed. One such man, who has both dealt and received his fair share of disfiguring injuries, is Dennis 'Whopper' Boff. Now, after twenty years in the top ranks of bare-knuckle snooker players, Boff has decided that he has had enough.
"I've seen too much violence, suffered too many broken bones," he told us at his four bedroom bungalow in Essex. "It's time to hang up my cue and retire. If I want to surround myself with horrifying scenes of mutilation and despair, I may as well stay at home with the wife."
These days Boff is content to spend his evenings watching television, or sticking sharp needles into Muffin, his pet Airedale Terrier. But there was a time when he was a vicious, sadistic thug, and a regular contestant at illegal snooker brawls.
"I was young when I started," he explains. "Like most kids of my age I was drawn to snooker by the glamour of it - the smell of the chalk, the feel of the baize, the fame, the groupies, the trousers. Of course, real snooker is very different to the sort you get on the telly. Many of us didn't know what we were letting ourselves in for. You had to be ruthless, merciless - most of the lads didn't make it. I've seen many a promising young hopeful taken out in the prime of life by a cue through the chest, or a well aimed ball to the head."
But Boff's hunger for success gave him the strength to struggle through. "I saw people like Steve Davis and Ray Reardon and I thought, yeah, someday I'm gonna be just like that. Those guys were our heroes. I still go weak at the knees whenever I see Jimmy White sink a green."
For 'Whopper' Boff, those days are now over, although he will never be able to shake off his reputation as a snooker hard man. He claims to have turned over a new leaf, and yet he still brags about how people would steer well clear of him as he walked the streets of his home town, with his chalk on open display.
"Whopper will never really turn his back on bare-knuckle snooker," claims Sergeant Pimple. "He's done too well out of it. Trouble is, the youngsters coming up now see people like him as heroes."
So are we on the verge of a snooker epidemic, or can something be done to reverse this disturbing trend? It has been suggested recently that snooker licences be introduced, making it illegal for any unauthorised person to be in possession of a cue in excess of three feet in length. Such a move would be unpopular with legitimate snooker players, and is bound to meet with opposition. Sergeant Pimple believes that tougher sentencing is the only answer.
"At the moment, the harshest sentence that a bare-knuckle snooker player can receive is a fortnight's community service. Well, that's no deterrent, is it? Two weeks digging some old biddy's front garden is hardly going to deter your hardened snooker bandit. These are rough men, and they must be treated rough. Extreme violence - that's the only answer. Look at how they treat their bare-knuckle snooker players in Sweden. I read about one man - they spent over an hour beating him savagely around the head with a cricket bat. The guy just shrugged it off. So next, they pumped thirty rounds of machine-gun fire into his chest, at point blank range. He just laughed! In the end they stapled his lips together, set fire to him and dropped him ten thousand feet from a hot air balloon. That shut him up. Now, we should have something like that."
Sergeant Gerald Pimple of the Manchester Serious Sports Squad would like to make it clear that he is not and never has been a member of the British Caravan Association. His new album, 'Wot's All This Then: A Selection Of Songs For Young Lovers' will be out next month, and a video: 'Gerald Pimple - The Vegas Years' is already available from most good stockists. We would like to take this opportunity to thank Sergeant Pimple for his help in compiling this article, and to wish him every success for his six month tour of South America.
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