Searching for Ronnie O'Sullivan
The following post was originally published in the January 2019 issue of Collected Magazine.
Snooker, the British cue sport, is fucking difficult. It’s played on a table nearly 12 feet long with pockets and balls far smaller than the ones you’ll find in the game’s American cousin, 8-ball pool. A “simple” shot is hard for players of all levels.
But Ronnie O'Sullivan? He makes it look effortless.
The first video I watched of Rocket Ronnie was the clip that might have given him his nickname. The camera is stationary with an aerial view of the snooker table. Ronnie's opponent starts the game by hitting a pack of red balls arranged in a triangle at one end of the table, but leaves the white (cue) ball back on the other end to make it difficult for Ronnie to start potting the balls.
The game is a bit complicated. In essence, you’re supposed to pot a red ball followed by a ball of a different color, over and over. If you miss, your opponent gets a shot. Since the table is so large, the pockets are so small, and the order in which you have to pot the balls is so specific, snooker can go on for a very long time as both players inevitably make mistakes.
Ronnie steps up to the table to play his first shot, hitting a red with no intentions of potting it, and then guides the cue ball back up the table. His opponent steps up and takes another such shot. But this time, he leaves the cue ball a bit too close to the middle of the table, giving Ronnie an opportunity to pot one of the reds—a mistake, but not a costly one. With Ronnie's next shot, he pots the first red. And so begins one of the greatest highlight clips I've ever seen.
I've played pool. On a small American table with big pockets that make for easy targets. I'm terrible at it. It's hard to hit a ball even six feet across the table in a perfectly straight line. The reason I started playing pool was that I saw clips like the one I'm describing and thought it would be a fun game to pick up. Ronnie makes it look easy.
After potting the first red, he decides to take a shot at the black ball, which gives him the most amount of points. This guy proceeds to pot a red, a black, a red, a black, a red, and each shot is within seconds of the last.
He does this—over and over—and doesn't miss. He hits the same black ball every single time. After a while, he sweeps all the reds off the table and proceeds to pot the other colored balls in the correct order (yes, there's a correct order) punctuated by hitting the black ball one more time. Thirty-six shots in a row, in five minutes and twenty seconds. In total, he scored 147 points in what snooker calls a “maximum” or “147” break, which is extremely rare. To score a 147 in five minutes? Beyond extraordinary. It's a record that hasn't been broken since, not even by Ronnie himself.
“Sensational,” the commentators called it. It's still the quickest 147 ever recorded, and it was Ronnie's first in official play. This break, along with many others, showcased his fast-playing style and energy, which you could feel through the television screen. It was 1997. Ronnie was only 21 years old.
Three names summarize the history of snooker: Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry, Ronnie O'Sullivan. Steve Davis was the first dominant world champion. Tall and lean, he used to walk around the table with the confidence of somebody who knew they were the best player in the world.
Steve passed on the torch to Stephen Hendry, a young and promising player representing the Scottish. He proceeded to dominate the sport even more than Davis had.
It's now 2006. Ronnie is playing against Stephen Hendry. Nearly ten years have passed since Rocket Ronnie’s lightning-fast 147 break in 1997. Ronnie’s won two world championships, and the snooker world has no doubts about his tremendous talent. He's achieved a maximum break on five more occasions since his 1997 speed-run, rivaled only by John Higgins, also with five in the same period.
Hendry won't retire until 2012. In 2006, he’s still a major force in the game. Ronnie is the next to take up the torch and dominate snooker. He's done an excellent job of that in the last decade, but today, in the UK championship, he's not playing very well; he’s already down 4 games to 1 against Hendry and just played a horrible shot. “That,” remarks a commentator, “is one of the worst positional shots I've ever seen Ronnie play.”
Ronnie walks away from the table, seemingly to allow Hendry to get up and take his turn, but then stops and shakes Hendry's hand to concede the match. It's not even close to over, and Hendry is visibly stunned while Ronnie exits. Ronnie shakes the referee's hand as well and proceeds into the dressing room. He conceded the entire match in disgust of his own play, and the fans and commentators are shocked.
One of the many episodes of Ronnie O'Sullivan's insane perfectionism.
“I was sabotaging myself, allowing my mind to tell me: ‘I’m shit, I’m not going to play well, I can’t win this tournament, you might as well as get beat, go home.’ And then I would act on that. I’d go, ‘Well, fuck it, if I’m going to get beat, so what, lose the plot, shake hands, get out.’ That was what I’d done for 10, 12, 15 years.”
So that was the internal dialogue of one of the most dominant sportsmen ever. “I'm shit.” It was never as simple as one shot gone wrong. Ronnie's smallest failures cut deeper than they should have. He was harder on himself than anyone else could have possibly been.
Ronnie was diagnosed with clinical depression and dealt with drug abuse, which led to him being suspended from play in the late 90s. None of this helped by the fact that his father had been in jail for 18 years since 1992, when Ronnie was only 16. He was already winning major tournaments and putting on a show with his career, and he lived to make his father proud even behind those prison walls, putting more pressure on himself to play a perfect game every time he stepped to the table.
Ronnie's life seemed like a rollercoaster ride. But it was down even when it looked like his snooker career was on the up.
“During the 2001 World Championship, in Sheffield, where he won the title for the first time, at the age of twenty-five, O’Sullivan called the Samaritans, a suicide hotline, and started taking Prozac. The unpredictability was exhausting. He was desperate for a thought system that would make sense of his life. He saw shrinks and gurus. He tried Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam. After recovering from his addiction to marijuana, O’Sullivan tried all of the Anonymouses, out of a sense of completism. He went to sex-addiction meetings even though he was not addicted to sex.”
Ronnie’s life is perhaps best summed up with this quote from an interview he gave after he won his fifth world championship:
“...everyone knows me, I'm up and down like a whore's drawers.”
A large part of Ronnie's struggle with mental health appears to stem from his perfectionism. The abrupt exit while playing against Stephen Hendry, the pictures of him with a towel over his head during a frame, the comments about being up and down—much of it comes back to whether he's playing well.
If you want to play on as high a level as Ronnie O'Sullivan, be a perfectionist. Right? He's the absolute best there is. Surely, it's no accident that he's also the hardest on himself. If you emulate that, maybe you’ll become great, too. I suppose if playing snooker was your only priority for years on end and you were truly dedicated, that might prove true.
Ronnie is the most popular and well-known snooker player ever, achieving more celebrity status than Davis or Hendry did in their day. Primarily, this is because of his enigmatic behavior (caused by a struggle with mental health), not in spite of it. We adore him far more than the other great players: for example, John Higgins is the same age as Ronnie, went professional the same year, won four world championships, and is in third-place all-time for career-ranking titles.
But who gives a shit about John Higgins?
When I see mediocrity in my work, whether it's on a snooker table or a printed project, I tend not to react well. A few years back, I had built a dining table that I thought was horrible. I had improved a lot at woodworking, and sure, I had made a neat table with no help at a young age. But after seeing the result, all I could say to myself was, “I'm shit.”
Why the severe reaction? I figured that to be great, I had to be a perfectionist and express contempt for all of my failures to push myself forward. Since I was a kid, I've been threatening myself in many ways: If you don't pot this ball, you should never pick up a cue again. If you don't make this shot, you should never pick up a basketball again. If you aren't perfect, you shouldn't exist at all. How the fuck can you live with yourself if this is how you perform?
Violent perfectionism has served me well, but I recognize that it can just as easily destroy me. Is it worth it? I'd argue not, other than for a good story. And if my motivation to self-destruct through perfectionism is because I want to be a good story, then I give way too much of a shit about what other people think.
I've learned this from Ronnie: there's no pot of gold at the end of the perfectionist's tunnel. I'll look elsewhere before it's too late.
 "The long road back: Ronnie O'Sullivan's journey from sabotage to solace," by Jonathan Liew for The Independent, October 12, 2017