Jimmy White’s new autobiography Second Wind vividly brings to the page a life well lived – perhaps too well lived in terms of his wider snooker career.
White was a prodigious talent who learned his trade in the hard living London snooker scene of the 1970s. His down to earth manner and eye-catching style of play made him a natural crowd favourite, in the mould of his great hero, Alex Higgins.
But, as with Higgins, the tendency towards excess had a negative effect on a professional life which demands discipline and precision. Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry, single-minded, ruthless and determined, did everything right. Even then, they didn’t always win but they won more than most.
White can’t be said to have done everything wrong but at times he certainly didn’t give himself the best chance.
Even so, it is unfair for Jimmy to be defined purely as a player who lost six world finals. That doesn’t begin to tell the whole story of his remarkable career.
He was of that generation who were teenagers during the first stirrings of a boom in the 1970s. Snooker clubs starting cropping up around the UK and with them more competitions and therefore players. The sport was becoming more prominent on British television, thanks largely due to the interest generated by the intoxicating Higgins.
White’s manor was Zan’s Snooker Club in Tooting. He played truant from school so often to play there that he eventually came to an arrangement with the head-teacher. At least if they knew Jimmy was playing snooker, then they knew where he was.
There wasn’t much money in the game then so the notion of earning a living from snooker seemed remote, but it was obvious to anyone who saw White play how talented he was.
Not educated but streetwise, he was toughened up by money matches, won the English amateur title at 16 and the world amateur title at 18.
As a result he turned professional and within a year was winning tournaments. Having just turned 20 he found himself 15-14 and 59-0 up against Higgins in the World Championship semi-finals. Higgins produced a miracle clearance, much replayed since, to save the match and won the decider to deny White a place in the final.
Some still argue this was White’s best chance to become world champion, that he would have rolled over Ray Reardon in the final. We’ll never know. Their career head-to-head ended just 5-4 in White’s favour and Higgins only beat Reardon 18-15.
White, though, reflected on ITV4’s Life Stories programme last year that, had he won in 1982, it may have killed him, such would have been the temptation to go off the rails.
As it transpired, the rails were never his favourite hang-out but White won the Masters in 1984 and in six years from 1986 was a regular winner of ranking tournaments.
In his book, he discusses the heavy drug use which followed his first world final defeat in 1984. He had come very close to pulling off an incredible recovery against Davis, rallying from 12-4 down to trail just 17-16 before Davis scrambled over the line.
This was just before drug testing became established in snooker, as a result of various tabloid exposes. They were damaging to the game but not as damaging as the drugs themselves were to the players – Kirk Stevens later confessed to a cocaine addiction which nearly killed him.
At the time, the circuit was underpinned by another dangerous substance – tobacco – but this happened to be legal.
White said recently he could have won ten world titles but for his lifestyle. Well, possibly, but this seems to be a number pulled out of the air. The facts are that, as well as what was happening off table, White had formidable obstacles to face on the green baize itself.
First there was Davis, then Hendry. In between, John Parrott – all too often forgotten from this era – played the best seven frames of his life against White to lead their 1991 world final 7-0 and nursed this lead efficiently to beat him 18-11.
The White/Hendry rivalry is one of snooker’s most fascinating. They were different characters but similar players. White had inspired Hendry’s all-out attacking game. Safety play was an afterthought. Their 1990 world final had an average frame time of 12 minutes.
The difference on big occasions was Hendry’s superior temperament. He was arguably even more driven than Davis, who seemed fascinated by snooker, by the mechanics of it, while Hendry just wanted to win.
And yet in 1992, he looked sure to lose when White forged 10-6 ahead overnight. Hendry didn’t pot a ball for two frames as White made it 12-6. At 14-8 victory was still seemingly assured.
There was one shot at 14-9, a death-or-glory brown, which Hendry potted to win that frame which in some ways defined their rivalry. It was bold, brave, possibly reckless but it came off. Hendry won all eight frames of the final session, the last two with centuries.
A year later, he buried White 18-5 with a session to spare. Then came the real sickener for fans of the Whirlwind, in 1994.
A great final came down to the 35th final frame. White was in, balls lying ideally, closing in on his heart’s desire. But at this moment, the intense pressure of finally moving towards winning the trophy that everyone in the sport and millions of fans wanted for him became too much. He twitched a black and Hendry, as Hendry did, cleared up.
“He’s beginning to annoy me,” was White’s quip afterwards, the sort of modest, unassuming remark which endeared him to so many. But there was a feeling that the chance had gone for good at the Crucible, as so it’s proved.
However snooker isn’t just played at the Crucible. Indeed, it isn’t just played in professional tournaments. White has gamely trodden the exhibition circuit, entertaining fans around the UK and beyond. In some ways he’s been one of the hardest workers in the game. He seems to like people, and they like him. Many still support him, long after he has threatened in a major event.
White had to swallow much disappointment but did so with great humour, not just on table setbacks but testicular cancer and various upsets in his private life.
At the end of 1992, he won the UK Championship but his days as a ranking event winner looked to have waned as the millennium ran out.
But White, whose love for snooker remained, enjoyed a resurgence. He reached the 2000 British Open final and then within a few weeks in spring 2004 was runner-up in the European Open and won the Players Championship.
This was White’s tenth ranking title. Taken with sundry triumphs in invitation events and it’s a career far more successful than most.
And what can’t be quantified by mere statistics is the joy, the excitement and, yes, at times the despair he has given to so many for so many years.
It’s been a career full of ups and downs. However, White is a survivor. At 52, he is the oldest professional currently on the tour. He’s seen them all off: Steve Davis, John Parrott, even his old nemesis Stephen Hendry, all of whom must rely on discretionary invites to play.
White cannot last forever but as long as there’s snooker to play, and as long as he can usefully wield a cue, he will continue doing the thing he loves and which people love watching him do.
Second Wind by Jimmy White and published by Trinity Mirror Sport Media is out now.