Master of Ceremonies Rob Walker on Ally Pally, introducing Steve Davis as Dennis Taylor and becoming a father for the first time.
By Tim Poole
What does the Masters mean to you – and what’s unique about it compared to other tournaments on the calendar?
“The Masters is quite interesting, really, because it’s an invitational so, on the one hand, you imagine it’s not going to mean as much as winning a ranking event. But it really does. This tournament is absolutely steeped in history. From a spectator perspective, it’s immense, because you’ve got one table throughout the tournament, it’s the best of the best. So your inclusion in this means you’re dining at snooker’s top table.
“If you take someone like Robert Milkins, for instance, it’s his very first time competing as part of the Masters. It just confirms that he’s part of snooker’s elite. He’s waited a long time and worked really hard to get there.
“It’s a tournament with a lot of prestige and a lot of money. Some very, very special players have won this, playing some very special matches. It has a unique appeal and is at least on par with the UK Championship, without a shadow of a doubt. Plus, the winner gets £200,000! The only prize money bigger than that is the World Championship.”
As an MC, do you have any particular players you enjoy introducing to the crowd?
“You love introducing players where the crowd are really going to get excited. A few years ago, I think it was when he had just got out of the jungle, I got the chance to introduce Jimmy White here, though it was at the Masters in Wembley not Alexandra Palace. That was really special. In terms of the bulk of MCing career, I came after Jimmy’s peak years. So I didn’t have many chances to introduce Jimmy, especially not in front of a big crowd.
“So you really enjoy the intros where you know the crowd are going to enjoy it. I remember Steve Davis’ run to the quarter-finals [of the World Championship] a couple of years ago, bearing in mind he was in his fifties. I always love introducing Steve when he qualifies for a major tournament – because of the history and what he’s done in the game.
“In terms of the modern-day players, it’s a bit of a cliché but I enjoy introducing them all. None of them have ever been rude to me, they’re all nice people and they all deserve that moment where they’re made to feel special when they walk down the stairs.”
What about any particular superstitions before you go out on stage?
“Not really. You just make sure you’ve gone over it a few times because you never want to get complacent. It’s very easy to make a mistake. I’ve made a few – some higher-profile than others! Like the time I introduced Steve Davis as Dennis Taylor. I got ribbed for that and justifiably so. But, generally, you just make sure you’ve practised it in your mind a few times and got the stats right for the players. You don’t really want the players getting annoyed or having their minds taken off the job in hand because you’ve given them a garbage intro.
“The best thing you can do, in any context, is to humanise it. Don’t try and pretend it hasn’t happened. As a viewer, if you see someone make a mistake and then say ‘sorry about that, what I meant was…’ it’s forgotten the moment it’s happened. If you sense any awkwardness or discomfort in front of the camera, it immediately creates that cringeworthy feeling. The biggest lesson you can learn is: if you make a mistake, just own up to it and move on. The less you try and hide it, the quicker people will forget about it. It’s a very human thing to make a mistake – but how you react to that determines whether people remember it.”
How have you found the switch from Wembley to Alexandra Palace?
“It’s better here! There were, don’t get me wrong, some superb matches at Wembley. I can remember the atmosphere when Ronnie [O’Sullivan] played [Mark] Selby and they both came down for the second session in the evening [of the final]. There were at least 2,000 people in there and it was absolutely incredible. But, at Wembley, that was the exception rather than the rule. Because that venue was so big, you could find 200 people and the place would feel really barren.
“The crowds are better here and, because it’s a smaller venue, 500 people feels so much more than 500 people felt at Wembley. So I much, much prefer it here; Wembley was far too big. It’s nothing against it, it’s just a gigantic venue.”
You became a dad recently (congratulations!), how has that impacted on your life?
“It hasn’t really yet! I haven’t spent any time at home. There are going to be days where you’re knackered and your mind is elsewhere and there’ll be days when it’s a piece of cake. You’ve just got to get on with it really. It’s a great feeling, I’m nearly 40 now so I’ve waited a long time to become a dad. I’ll be away a lot – in February, I’ll be at the Winter Olympics for six weeks – so you just want to make the most of the time you have got with your family, when you’re not going away to earn the money that pays for the toys, sausages and roof over the child’s head!”
Do you play much snooker yourself?
“No – you’d only have to speak to the rest of the press boys here, I am absolutely garbage at snooker! I do enjoy it but I’m just no good. I used to play as a student, paying £1.50 for the table and one pound a pint – and that was a superb way to spend a night on campus! But I’m not very good. I’m quite happy watching the experts do it and leave the achievements to them.”
As a spectator, then, do you prefer watching century breaks or tactical frames?
“For me, nothing beats seeing a player in the groove. Say when you’ve got someone like Mark Allen. You don’t have to be watching someone making a 147 but, when you watch someone stroke the balls around with absolute effortlessness, and they rack up an 80 in the space of three or four minutes or something, it’s just incredible to watch. So any fluent breaks are superb. It doesn’t have to be over a hundred but it’s just watching someone at their peak making a very difficult game look ridiculously easy.”