A Brief History Of Crucible 147s
In 1982, the newly crowned world champion Alex Higgins launched an assault on the music world. His single failed to chart, but the lyrics are revealing about the mindset of snooker players: “One four seven, that’s my idea of Heaven.”
By David Hendon
A year later, his great rival Cliff Thorburn achieved snooker perfection by making a 147 at the World Championship. In 46 years at the Crucible, with its many thousands of frames played, there have only been 14 maximum breaks, compiled by a total of ten players. It remains the Holy Grail.
Thorburn’s 147 famously began with a fluke. Never one to be rushed, the tension slowly built as he set about his task. On the 14th black, he declared “let’s have a little break here” before going over to his chair to blow his nose.
“When I was down on the brown, I was every spectator in the place,” he recalled. “I just knew I was going to do it. It was as if I was watching myself.”
The scenes at the end were genuinely iconic. As Thorburn stood over the final black, BBC commentator Jack Karnehm simply said, “Good luck, mate.” Thorburn potted it and sank to his knees, raising his arms aloft in triumph. He was hugged by his opponent, Terry Griffiths, and fellow Canadian Bill Werbeniuk, who had peeped around the diving wall to monitor the break’s progress.
A 147 attempt creates a nervous energy in the arena, drawing in the audience like nothing else. Occasionally they get over-excited. Late on in Jimmy White’s 1992 maximum, referee John Street bluntly told a spectator to “shut up.” It did the trick.
There was little time for the crowd to get nervous on Ronnie O’Sullivan’s behalf in 1997. His maximum was over in a flash as the 21 year-old cleared the table in just five minutes, eight seconds before throwing his chalk into the crowd, a dazzling display of sheer skill which cemented his status as a superstar.
Like O’Sullivan, Stephen Hendry has constructed three Crucible maximums and was the first player to do so in the single table set up, during his 1995 semi-final against White. 147 breaks were still relatively rare. This was only the sixth on television and came smack in the middle of the Scot’s imperious reign of dominance.
“To do one at the Crucible was special,” Hendry said. “It’s weird because when the frame is still live you’re torn between taking a risk or not. There was a shot in the middle of the break where I had to pot a plant and take the cue ball through the reds. It was a shot I didn’t really have to play.”
One shot he of course did have to play was the last black, a nasty cut-back after he potted the pink to a middle pocket and took the cue ball in and out of baulk. It continued to travel, leaving him low on the black. In BBC commentary, former world champion John Spencer said, “this would be a pressure shot to win a frame, but for a 147 the pressure’s got to be the greatest ever.”
Hendry at the time seemed immune to such concerns, but admits he had to shut out the financial windfall at stake. “The only thing good about the black was that it wasn’t a natural in-off. If I’d stopped to think before I played it that it was worth £163,000, I probably wouldn’t have potted it,” he said.
Even Hendry’s trademark poise was affected by this huge moment and he lost the last three frames of the afternoon. “I was fuming at the end of the session,” he said. “They wanted to do a picture and I point-blank refused. I went straight to the hotel.”
“The most important thing to me was that it was the semi-finals of the World Championship and I’d lost ground. People were offering me their congratulations and I was like, get out of my way! It was only a couple of hours later that I calmed down and was able to appreciate making the 147.”
Hendry repeated the feat against Shaun Murphy in 2009 and Stuart Bingham in 2012 in what proved to be his Crucible swansong.
O’Sullivan made his third Crucible maximum in 2008 but was forced to share the £157,000 prize when Ali Carter made one the following day.
For Carter, the break was a transformative experience. He had been knocking on the door for a while but was feeling left behind by contemporaries such as Murphy and Stephen Maguire, who had already won major titles.
As he set about the clearance, Carter recognised its importance: “I remember saying to myself on the final black, ‘your whole life boils down to this moment. You can turn a corner or you can miss it, and be a victim again.’ I thought, I’m having this, and I potted it.”
The 147 proved a huge boost of confidence and Carter reached the final, going on to become a multiple ranking event winner.
Mark Williams’s 147 in 2005 completed his first win over Robert Milkins and brought the crowd to their feet. John Higgins, though, received no applause at all for his maximum in 2020, which was compiled in the eerie silence of an empty Crucible during the Covid pandemic.
Neil Robertson joined the Crucible maximum club last year, in his second round match with Jack Lisowski.
Robertson had previously made a 147 in the 2015 UK Championship final but, like every player, appreciates the special significance of compiling it at Sheffield’s theatre-in-the-round, especially as his mother had flown over from Australia to watch him.
“As a kid it’s your dream to make one at the Crucible. It was one of the few things I wanted to add to my CV,” he said.
“It was on early, the balls were split perfectly from 32 or 40. When I played the black to go up to the colours, the crowd just roared me on.
“It’s an amazing feeling. Not many people have done it at the World Championship. You get that great cheer from the audience and all the handshakes. Then you have to try and calm yourself down. I was 10-8 down when I made it, so I had to concentrate.
“To do it with my mum there was amazing, to look up and see her was special. Fans go there and hope to see a great match, but if they’re extra lucky a 147 too. They don’t happen that often.”
Maximum breaks are special for the players, but also memorable for the referee in charge. Jan Verhaas has refereed every Crucible since 1995. In 2003, he was to officiate his first final but enjoyed a career high point in the first round when O’Sullivan made his second World Championship 147 against Marco Fu.
“When he got to 88 I thought, wow, he’s on a maximum here,” Verhaas said. “I’d done 147s before, but to do one at the Crucible is one of those boxes that you’d like to tick as a referee. I was just willing him on as much as anyone else was, and when he did it I was elated. I know it’s nothing to do with the ref, but I’m really glad I did one there.”
A maximum is one event guaranteed to excite players, officials, media and fans alike. We saw that again at the Crucible this year, first thanks to Kyren Wilson’s 147 in the opening round and then, in one of the great moments of the season, when Mark Selby became the first player to make a max in a world final, triggering something akin to a Mexican wave at the theatre of dreams.
On the 40th anniversary of Thorburn’s break, the words of Alex Higgins’s little known record still resonate.
For those players who are members of this exclusive club, a 147 is truly snooker Heaven.
Cliff Thorburn: 1983
Jimmy White: 1992
Stephen Hendry: 1995
Ronnie O’Sullivan: 1997
Ronnie O’Sullivan: 2003
Mark Williams: 2005
Ronnie O’Sullivan: 2008
Ali Carter: 2008
Stephen Hendry: 2009
Stephen Hendry: 2012
John Higgins: 2020
Neil Robertson: 2022
Kyren Wilson: 2023
Mark Selby: 2023