The Cue For Success
The importance of a cue to a snooker professional transcends its basic function. For many players, the cue feels like an extension of the arm, and is almost as valuable.
Some players create an irreplaceable familiarity with their cue through thousands of hours of practice and playing matches. Others frequently (and literally) chop and change, forever in search of a piece of timber which is perfectly in tune with their own technique. So what makes finding a cue with the correct attributes so crucial?
The striking thud of impact, the collision of the white against the object ball and the crunching crack against the back of the pocket are a triumvirate of sounds which every snooker player is instinctively accustomed to hearing. So far this season, Neil Robertson has played 12,836 shots in competition play and the entire tour collectively have hit 627,136. And that’s before practice sessions are taken into account. Such is the amount of time spent with a cue, it is clearly important to find the right one.
Seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry didn’t take long to find his perfect match, though it wasn’t the pristinely hand-crafted timber that you may think would befit the King of the Crucible. The Scot used a £40 machine-made cue, a Powerglide Connoisseur, which his dad bought for him at the age of just 14. He went on to win all seven of his world titles and claim 34 of his 36 career ranking victories with it.
Disaster struck in 2003 when the cue was broken by baggage handlers while Hendry was on his way back from tournaments in Hong Kong and Bangkok. That proved a significant factor in his decline which led to his retirement nine years later in 2012.
Hendry said: “When it came off the carousel I just thought to myself that my career was over. I had used that cue for my entire time as a professional and because it was a mass-produced machine cue it wasn’t something that would be easy to replace. Despite what you may think, it wasn’t as simple as buying the same model.
“A cue is such a personal thing. Alex Higgins always said the only thing my cue was good for was holding up tomatoes in a greenhouse, as the end was actually bent. However, it was right for me. When I got back from Thailand I had John Parris try to replicate it. He is the best cuemaker out there. He made me three cues, but because they were such high quality compared to my old one it was actually harder to get used to them.
“I’m not saying that was the reason why my game wasn’t as good, as I was starting to decline anyway, but it certainly is a hard thing trying to get used to a new cue having had the same one for so long. When you get a new cue you have to readjust to how the balls react. It isn’t like a tennis player who will have six rackets out on court with them at once.”
Six-time Crucible winner and fellow all-time great Steve Davis was also deeply invested in looking after his cue and was fortunate enough to avoid any serious damage. Although, Davis would probably argue that it wasn’t luck, but rather a fastidious attachment which kept it intact.
“I always kept my cue within my reach and never let it leave my sight,” said Davis. “I’ve been downstairs after many hotel fire alarms during tournaments at 2am with my cue and people would ask what I was doing. I never left it in my car in case the car itself got stolen. I would never leave it anywhere around the venue like the tournament office. All it takes is for someone who is looking after it to go to the toilet and someone could pinch it while they are away.”
By contrast Graeme Dott took drastic action against his own cue after a 5-1 Welsh Open loss against Dominic Dale in 2004. On his way home from the tournament, Dott decided it was time for a change and took matters into his own hands.
“I was angry with myself and the way I was playing,” he recalls. “I hated the game. I couldn’t stand practising and I’d even stopped enjoying going to tournaments. I was sat in a motorway service station talking with Alex [Lambie, his late manager and father-in-law] and he said that I should go back to the car and smash my cue up. So that’s what I did.
“It was basically the last chance. I was forcing myself to start playing with a new cue and try something fresh. I’d made up my mind that if it didn’t work and I carried on losing I would chuck it in.”
The change worked wonders for Dott’s confidence. Three months later he reached the World Championship final for the first time, and two years after that he would secure the defining moment of his career so far with his 2006 Crucible triumph.
Ronnie O’Sullivan was Dott’s opponent in the semi-finals that year. After losing 17-11, O’Sullivan gave his cue and case away to a young boy in the crowd. The five-time world champion is known for being comfortable adapting to different cues and has used several across his career. He once even considered using a purple version, saying: “If people can adapt to being in Guantanamo Bay and those conditions, I can surely adapt to a purple cue.”
The most notable switch for the Rocket came when he broke his cue ahead of the 2009 Masters. O’Sullivan had just an hour to practise with his replacement before his opening match against Joe Perry. Remarkably, he won the match and went on to take the title, beating Mark Selby in the final. Renowned cue maker Parris remembers a race against the clock to get the cue ready in time.
Parris said: “Ronnie phoned me five days ahead of the Masters and told me he had broken his cue. That was a bit out of the ordinary. Luckily, we usually have a few cues on the go for people who may want to get the exact same specifications as Ronnie. We were able to take those as a starting point and get one made the way Ronnie wanted it. For him to then go on and win the event with it was absolutely amazing.”
Canadian Alain Robidoux reached the semi-finals here in Sheffield in 1997, however his game was subsequently left in tatters when his cue was snapped into several pieces. He had it sent for repairs, but when the cue maker noticed a sponsor’s logo had been fixed to it, he took offence and set about it like firewood. The following season, Robidoux failed to win a single match.
Triple Crown winner and 2005 world champion Shaun Murphy believes that a scientific outlook is best when selecting a cue. The Englishman feels that different sorts of cues are suited to certain conditions and climates.
“Cue ball physics are massively important,” he said. “You need to understand how that cue ball moves around the table and what degree of deflection the cue generates. That is directly related to a player’s performance. A stiffer cue pushes the ball more off line while a whippier shaft soaks up the impact, a bit like the kick point on a golf club and that keeps it straighter.
“When you go to places like Shanghai, where the humidity is high, the white doesn’t deflect as much around the table. The cue can make the difference. My coach Chris Henry and I actually contemplated the idea of walking out into the arena for the Shanghai Masters with three different cues. One standard cue, one for higher deflection and one for lower deflection. I’d start off with the standard one and go up or down depending on what was required. It is just getting over the stigma that you play with one cue and that is it. Until it works, everyone thinks you are completely off your head.
“I’d never rule out doing it because I think it is the future. We are a good way behind in snooker as far as technology is concerned. I believe in 50 years everyone will look back on us and think we were relics. You take one cue everywhere and expect it to perform the same. Roger Federer doesn’t use the same string tension wherever he goes. However, if a player came out with five different cues at a major snooker event you would think he had lost the plot.”
While Murphy is considering using multiple cues from a scientific perspective, two-time ranking event winner and cue collector Dale likes to make regular changes for aesthetic reasons. The Welshman has used upwards of 30 different cues throughout his career and attributes his switches to a fascination in the craftsmanship which goes into making them.
“You’d never see me play with a cue that didn’t look good,” he said. “I have never changed because I thought I was playing poorly or I was looking for a quick fix. The good thing is that when you try a new cue out you probably know within 10 minutes if it is going to work for you.
“When I won the 2007 Shanghai Masters, I only had the cue for a week before the event. After my first round match I decided that I needed to do some work on it because of the humid conditions. I am a self-taught French polisher and woodworker, so I can taper cues. With the help of one of the Chinese volunteers I managed to go to a shop and buy some sanding sealer with some abrasives and I tapered the shaft to create a tiny bit more flex. It worked out well and I played great for the rest of the week.
“I just love timbers and find them beautiful. The sheer variety of woods, from coromandel timber to beautiful satinwood inlays, make cues amazing to hold and aesthetically pleasing. I have got rid of my cue collection now, but I used to have over 100 of them. I have actually considered going on the Antiques Roadshow a few times. I certainly could be their billiards expert if they ever needed one!”