§1. What is the meaning of “snooker”? As a name, it can be used to refer to a certain game (or, more accurately, to a certain cue sport) or to a certain position (or even, if preceded by the modifier “Chinese”, to another position) in this game and other similar games. As a verb, to leaving someone or being left in a difficult position, to prevent or being prevented from finishing an intended plan of action, or to trick or trap or being tricked or trapped. In the game of snooker, to be “snookered” is indeed to be trapped, to be left in a certain difficult position: one where the player cannot hit the intended (object) ball directly and so requiring to look for an escape (of course, some are far more difficult than others). A “Chinese snooker”, in its turn, is a reverse snooker position where the cue ball is in front of, rather than behind, a ball that is not on, making the shot quite tricky because the players’ bridge is hampered and the cueing angle higher than in usual situations.
Someone who does not know what the game of snooker consists of would at best understand half of what has been said so far. A definition might help, then: snooker is a game played (especially in the UK and China) with cues on a 12 ft. billiard table in which the players use a (white) cue ball in order to hit (often to pocket) the other balls (fifteen reds and six of different colours) in a certain order. Sure, there is nothing wrong with this definition, but it is still dramatically incomplete, perhaps even misleading. Unlike “cue sport” (or “billiards”, when used with the same sense as “cue sport” and not referring to the particular games of “billiards” or “carom billiards”), “snooker”, when used to refer to the game of snooker, and not in a loose sense (equivalent to that of “pocket billiards”), is not quite a family resemblance concept, which means it is perfectly possible to offer a more or less precise definition of it, comprising all its relevant features. But would it not be much simpler (and more effective) to explain what the game of snooker is and what being snookered is by showing an actual game being played? Absolutely. And then explain the rules, techniques and terminology as the game goes on, most of the time by pointing to something that is happening and saying “this is a cue”, “you see, he potted a red, now he is going to do such-and-such”, “there are such-and-such points remaining, so if he pots this his opponent will need a snooker”, “he missed the pink but the frame was already won”, etc. Everything said in the preceding paragraph would shortly become crystal clear to most.
Now just think that certain people are still bothered with attempts of offering definitions of ultra-general family resemblance concepts such as e.g. “art” (or, worse, “Art”, although I do not really know what the difference between “art” and “Art” might be) and, precisely because all such attempts are bound to fail, think that questions such as “What is the meaning of [the word] art?”, “What is art?”, or maybe the even queerer “What is the meaning of art?” are of extraordinary importance. (And one need not go as far as talking about magical powers or hidden properties or essences.)
§2. As in any game, a relatively complex set of explicitly framed rules is followed in snooker. One of its most fundamental rules, however, does not belong to this set. It cannot belong to it. In a certain sense it is not even a rule. Perhaps we should better call it a principle. But the fact is that it is constantly followed as arguably the strictest of rules in the game. I am thinking about what could be called the rule (or principle) of sportsmanship (or fair play), as prominent in snooker as in very few other sports. (1) When a player commits a foul and notices it but the referee does not, the player calls a foul upon himself. (2) When a player scores a maximum break (147 points) his opponent congratulates him, often enthusiastically. (3) When a player is awarded a free ball that is not completely clear, he might check it himself, suggest a correction and thus reject the unfair advantage he would have had. (4) The way players select their shots usually conforms with what are generally considered (by fellow players and connoisseurs) to be certain standards or fairness or reasonableness peculiar to the game of snooker. Everybody tries to win as hard as they can, but not at any cost.
To sum it up, snooker is played in a certain spirit in which such sportsmanship is key. There is a strict ethical conduct, not written anywhere (points 1-4 above are mere descriptions of recurring situations) but almost as univocal as the fact that after the final blue comes the final pink. And it is not quite a sense of a moral obligation as if the snooker gods or the snooker community would punish you. It is something that many follow without even questioning it (at least as soon as reason takes over instinct) simply because that is the way things are. Going against it would constitute a severe aberration. And that the local club trophy or 100.000.00£ or more are at stake should not make any difference in this respect. Someone who does not resonate with it can, of course, still play the game (following all the official rules), even at a high level. He will, however, go on to be seen by his fellows players as some kind of a foreigner, i.e. not exactly as a snooker player but as something else.
§3. Nic Barrow, one of world’s top snooker coaches, has outlined a set of coaching, learning and practice principles. One is the so-called deliberate failure principle: if you are scared of missing, miss on purpose (in practice, of course, and certainly not all the time) and the fear might eventually vanish; and being able to deliberately make the mistake at will can help you to understand why you were making the mistake that was leading you to fear that particular shot. E.g.: Mr. X is scared of miscuing while attempting to screw the cue ball back (a shot that requires striking the cue ball below center), something that often happens to him; Mr. X is therefore asked to strike the cue ball as low as possible in order to miscue on purpose a few times; the sensation of miscuing will eventually become something natural to him and at the same time this exercise may also help him realize that, due to an excessively tense grip, he had a tendency to drop his cue and to thus hit the cue ball lower than where he was actually aiming; it is then made clear to him that miscuing was not the problem, but rather the result of a technical mistake he was previously not aware of. As most (if not all) methods, this does not work all the time, but whenever the trainee genuinely understands its point, it can certainly yield enlightening results.
In philosophy, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus seems to play a similar role. It could be called the deliberate nonsense method. And now just think of how foolish it would be to pretend that Barrow’s principle would serve as a way of elucidating ineffable truths about snooker.
§4. Most people who follow snooker assert that Ronnie O'Sullivan is the most naturally gifted player to have ever played the game. Unless maybe some unknown Chinese hustler that has decided never to turn professional suddenly emerges from a remote place and proves himself to be as talented as him, which is highly unlikely, such position stands for now quite firmly as true, although a few others may also be acceptable (though probably harder to sustain). And it is indeed possible to have, up to a certain point, rational discussions about the matter. More or less the same happens with discussions about art, food, wine and so many other things. It is undeniable that some people are more talented than others in certain activities, as some products are of better quality than others. The discussion gets tougher (and sometimes pointless) when people of very even talents are being compared (this is usually when personal preferences and emotional motives begin to be more strongly felt, even among genuine experts) or due to the variety of senses of the words “talent” or “talented”.
But then some people insist that statements such as “X is the most talented” or even “X is talented” are necessarily empty. The problem with this position is simply that it presupposes that, contrary to these, other statements somehow contain something (a picture of a fact?), which is equally disputable. Others suggest something even more baffling: “X is the most talented” might make sense if, with the progress of science, a method of measuring talent with clinical precision is discovered – we could then carefully examine e.g. snooker players’ brains and finally prove the so far widely shared but empirically unproven belief that Ronnie is the most talented among them. Apart from the delusion manifested by the very suggestion of measuring human talent scientifically (analogous to the idea of measuring human intelligence, whatever that may be), it is clear that even if such examination would take place and result in interesting and even illuminating new information (which is a definite possibility), something that science achieves on a regular basis, it would have nothing to do with any supposed verification of the already verified (yes, through experience – the experience of following and understanding the game of snooker and what talent or being talented is) evidence that Ronnie is the most talented player, at least in some of the main senses of “being talented”. The exact same point would hold, of course, for someone who elected e.g. Alex Higgins instead.
This can perhaps be put more clearly: “Professor Y is a brilliant mind” = “Professor Y is brilliant” = “Professor Y is extremely intelligent”, etc. I am of this opinion (or I know this) because I have had the opportunity to read texts by Professor Y, attended debates where he participated, discussed with him, etc. If I was able to look into Professor Y’s brain, what difference would it make in this regard? Quite simply, none. (And one need not be a behaviourist to accept this.) It is as wrong to suppose that the content of many of our beliefs (notably beliefs about values) stands in need of further justification as it is to suppose that the role of science is to confirm or refute metaphysical articles of faith (as Wittgenstein, who did not believe in transubstantiation himself, remarked somewhere, a chemist who believes in the transubstantiation of wine and bread into the blood and flesh of Christ is, of course, not failing to note certain scientific facts about the chemical composition of wine and bread).
§5. One can often tell whether a player is going to miss his next pot or not, especially when the balls are in certain (more or less tough, although not necessarily the toughest) positions. And perhaps this has even more to do with knowing his strengths and weaknesses and understanding how the game has gone up to that particular point than being able to interpret his general body language and facial expressions, which are also important. While playing, one might suffer from a sudden or more prolonged confidence deficit and have thoughts like “I don’t like this shot” (I remember a multiple world champion once saying it aloud and, as expected, missing it a few moments later), “I’m not sure about this one”, “I just don’t see how I am going to get this” or “I knew I was going to miss it!” even about not so difficult shots according to his own standards. While watching a game, one often guesses (or, perhaps more clearly put, perceives) such thoughts. A player misses an easy shot and this might be utterly surprising to some and quite obvious to others. And there is nothing queer or mysterious about this. It is most of all a matter of being acquainted with the game in certain ways. This happens, of course, not just in snooker but nearly everywhere.
How misleading is an expression such as “perceiving [or feeling] a thought”? In certain contexts, and in the hands of certain people, it can indeed lead to all sorts of confusion. But often, like in the aforementioned context, people can say something such as “I felt the thought” or even “I felt the thought in the air”, which might look like obvious nonsense, and still be perfectly understood. Surely “feeling a thought in the air” in this sense is not like feeling a breeze stroking one’s face. But this is simply how language works, which is not too different from saying this is how we (humans) go on around the world, and nothing is in principle fundamentally wrong (nor right) with it.