A colossal milestone is about to be smashed in the world of billiards. Five-time world snooker champion Ronnie O’Sullivan, fresh off winning his 19th triple crown event at this year’s UK Championship, is on the verge of making 1000 century breaks in competition. He has three already in early UK Masters play, bringing him to 989 for his career. It’s even more impressive than it looks.
O’Sullivan, 43, is arguably snooker’s greatest ever player, a towering figure in the mold of Tiger Woods or Roger Federer. So far, he’s having a ridiculously good 27th season. He’s won five of the ten tournaments he’s entered and is playing the most consistent game of his career. He recently surpassed ￡10 million in career prize earnings, more than any professional cue sportsman in history, and talk of taking a sixth world championship is brewing among pundits. O’Sullivan is also the capricious face of the game, a former child prodigy whose life has been under intense media scrutiny since he was 11. At 17, he was the youngest winner of the UK Masters, but celebrated his victory in prison while visiting his father; at that time, Ronnie senior had just been handed an 18-year prison sentence for murder. O’Sullivan’s mother was arrested for tax evasion shortly after.
As might be expected of someone who has lived in public for so long, O’Sullivan has fallen in and out of love with the game. He’s made several early retirements, one trip to rehab, and was once fined ￡20,000 for headbutting an official; he was tagged an underachiever relative to his potential during his twenties, although you don’t hear that one as much anymore. “Snooker isn’t necessarily a physically demanding game,” says Jason Francis, World Senior Snooker chairman and a former manager for O’Sullivan. “It’s a mental game. Everyone can pot balls [at the pro level].” But what separates the good from the great, Francis says, is “dealing with pressure, dealing with the demons in your head.”
Tournaments can run for weeks, and players must maintain focus and confidence through countless hours of play. The difference between a successful pot and a miss can be a few millimeters, and a single mistake can cost you a round (known as a frame), or at the very least keep you off the table for a long time. Trust in your form and your eyes is paramount, and players crumble when they begin to question themselves. Not to mention that sitting down to watch your opponent clean up the table for twenty minutes after missing an easy shot can make it hard to maintain composure. “[O’Sullivan] has frailties,” Francis says. “He’s vulnerable. He had a very challenging childhood.” But when he’s on form, Francis continued, “he can play a game that no one else can play.”
O’Sullivan’s resolve has been reinvigorated since he enlisted the help of sports psychologist Steve Peters, a nutritionist, and a variety of coaches in the past four years. O’Sullivan runs ten kilometers every day and has become the fittest player on the tour, a rare trait in a game that once let players drink beer and smoke during matches. Since his comeback, O’Sullivan is closing on a never-before-seen record: making 1000 century breaks. Unless you follow snooker, which is highly unlikely, you probably have no idea what that means, although you’re correct if you suspect that number seems notably high. Deadspin has a guide to snooker, but allow me to quickly break down what this all means:
Snooker is a billiards game where you score points by sinking colored balls valued between one and seven points. The catch is that you have to sink them in a sequence: a red ball (worth one point), then a colored ball, then a red ball, a colored ball, and so on. The non-red balls are placed back on their designated spots after you sink them—that is until all 15 reds are gone, at which point the players must sink the colored balls in order of their value: yellow (2), green (3), brown (4), blue (5), pink (6) and a final black (7). Though players will sometimes concede matches early, the winner is whoever has the most points once all the balls have been sunk. This sequential order makes cue ball control a necessary skill; to access the high-valued balls and rack up points, you need to string your shots together. Those who can thread simple and straightforward shots make life easiest for themselves, but judging the pace, cue ball spin, and angles to not only sink a shot but land on position for the next one is an incredibly difficult skill. Watch the cue ball in these dazzling shots from Jimmy White, how the white swerves and bounces around the table to get in position for hard-to-reach balls. At its highest level, where scoring big breaks is key to securing a win, players are thinking several shots ahead. The benchmark for a high break is a century, or 100 points in a single turn, which involves sinking at least 25 shots in a row, although more are often needed. At some point this year, Ronnie O’Sullivan will do that for the thousandth time.
The challenge in putting up a century, beyond potting 25-plus shots in a specific sequence, lies in the fact a snooker table is more than double the the surface area of a standard pool table, with narrower, rounded pockets. Shooting from 10 feet away with to-the-millimeter accuracy while managing to control the cue ball is a stunning feat of muscle-memory and hand-eye coordination. Snooker also features complex defensive play, as hitting a ball out of sequence awards points to your opponent. Because a red needs to be hit at the start of a turn, players often try to “snooker” their opponent by hooking the cue ball behind a colored ball, pressing the opponent into playing a blocked off shot in the hope they miss or foul to rake in a few points. In tournament matches, you aren’t given many easy shots to open your turn.
Snooker is a game so naturally stacked against you between the table size, the precision, and grueling length of matches that making centuries was once considered a statistical impossibility. For much of its early history, snooker was a low-scoring potting contest, until Joe Davis set out to reinvent it in the 1920s. After Davis had perfected the simpler English billiards, he set his sights on elevating snooker into a highly strategic, measured game that centered around break-building and snookering your opponents. It was more than 30 years after the game’s invention that the first recorded century was made, and it took Davis another 50 years to make the first maximum break—the mystical ‘one-four-seven,’ or the top possible score of 147 points in a single turn. Even O’Sullivan has only made a handful of one-four-sevens in competition over 30-odd years and over 10,000 frames played. He has 15, another world record.
Over time, snooker’s metagame and technique has been fine-tuned, and centuries are now far more common. Still, O’Sullivan is head and shoulders above anyone else when it comes to making them. As of now, he’s made 988 in his career—40 so far this season alone, with plenty more tournaments available to enter. The modern tour has more tournaments, which makes the 1000 century milestone far more accessible than it was two decades ago, but O’Sullivan has over 200 more centuries than any other player. It surely helps that O’Sullivan is ambidextrous, which opens up shot options that other players don’t typically have. But the mix of his prodigious skill, work ethic, and supreme mental toughness are what make him so dominant.
“Before Ronnie O’Sullivan starts a match, he carries an aura about him that probably gives him a one or two frame advantage over almost any player in the world,” says Francis. “He’s intimidating because he has so many shots in his armory, and he can play every shot well.” As with Tiger or Federer and his other Olympian peers, O’Sullivan is not just a brilliant competitor but a sort of litmus test of an opponent’s skill. “I really enjoy planning Ronnie,” said opponent Mark Allen after losing to O’Sullivan in this year’s UK master’s Finals. “It’s the ultimate examination of your game.” Even when he isn’t 100 percent, the man can steal frames when given the slightest opportunity for a shot. “He’s never more than ten or fifteen minutes away from playing sensational again,” says Francis. You just can’t give him an inch.”
In 2012, after winning the world championship, O’Sullivan backed out of the upcoming season. Twelve months later, he returned to the Crucible Theatre as champion and successfully defended his title, winning consecutive championships after a year-long break. “I can’t think of any other sport where a world champion can literally put his feet up for a year and come back and still win it,” Francis says.
Francis figures O’Sullivan can make his 1000th century before the end of this season, but O’Sullivan has joked that 999 centuries sounds better, and might well hold out on passing the milestone. O’Sullivan is “rubbish at understanding at what he’s achieved in the game,” according to Francis. “But Ronnie will probably pick and choose when he makes [1000 centuries].”
Francis believes he might wait until the world championships in April to make and pass the 1000 mark. “Knowing the devil in Ronnie,” he says, “that might be what he thinks.”
Nick Dunne is a journalist who writes about culture, sports, and sometimes both at the same time. He has yet to make a century.