This “splitting the reds” is usually done while potting the blue or black. Imagining that all colors are on their spots, a player may aim to set him or herself up on the blue ball by playing the white ball to a few inches “above” the blue (that is, higher than halfway up the table, when looking down the table lengthwise). The player can then rocket the blue into the side pocket, and use the angle and speed to run the white ball directly from the blue into the pack of reds. Ideally, the reds will split, and the balls will come to rest with one or more reds in pottable position. (Seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry is widely credited with first using the blue as a weapon for opening up the bunched reds while break-building). Equally common is to cannon the cue ball into the reds off of the black, leaving it “low” on the black—roughly in a line with the black parallel to the top cushion—and then slamming the black into the corner pocket with deep backspin (“screw”), sending the cue ball into the reds.


A maximum break in snooker is where a player pots all 15 reds with 15 blacks, and then clears up the colors for a total of 147 points. A “one-four-seven” maximum break is a rare and special achievement, at the time of writing having occurred a total of 131 times in official competition since the 1980s. While mentioning the prospect of a perfect game in baseball is sacrilege, mentioning a potential 147 is not subject to the same embargo: Commentators will often note when a player has taken (for example) five reds with five blacks, although that is not always the case.

Owing to the possibility of scoring points through a free ball, it is possible for a player to end up with a score greater than 147 in a frame. This has been achieved once in competition, when Jamie Burnett made a break of 148 in the UK Championship qualifying in 2004.


The other phase of a snooker frame is a safety battle. If a player does not think that he or she has a good opportunity to pot any “on” ball on the table, or if that player needs to make their opponent commit a foul so as to score points, he or she will play a “safety” shot: not intending to pot any ball, but intending to legally play the white ball into a difficult position, normally to finish far away from any “on” balls, obstructed by balls which are not “on.” The most successful safety shots will leave an opponent snookered, with no choice but to play a difficult escape off multiple cushions, running the risk of fouling (by not hitting the object ball first or at all), and of leaving the cue ball in an easy potting position for the opponent. A shot is more difficult if a player cannot put their bridging hand on the table, and is even more difficult if the cue ball is nestled against the cushion, leaving only the top 25 percent or so of the white available for striking with the cue.

The Players and Global Context

Snooker is a game with genteel traditions: The players wear bowties and waistcoats, the referees are dressed formally with white Mickey Mouse gloves, and the crowd is mainly hushed and silent.


Professionally, snooker is largely focused in the British Isles, in that most top players hail from that region, and the highest-money tournaments are held there. The big exception to that general rule is China, which has two of the top 12 and 13 of the top 100 players, and holds two big-money ranking tournaments every year. The 2016 World Championship final between Leicester’s Mark Selby and China’s Ding Jun Hui gathered a TV audience in China of 45 million people. The world tour has visited India, Latvia, Australia, Brazil, and Thailand in the past few years. Just two players from outside the British Isles have won the World Championship—Canadian Cliff Thorburn in 1980 and Australian Neil Robertson in 2010.*

Snooker players play on a tour similar to that in tennis and golf—traveling all over the snooker world to compete in tournaments in different cities to accumulate ranking points and compete for prize money and trophies. Each yearlong season begins in May, with more and larger tournaments held toward the end of the season. The three most prestigious annual tournaments—snooker’s Triple Crown—are the UK Championship, the Masters, and the World Championship to round out the season. Most tournaments are played in knockout format with a seeded draw as in tennis, with each match being won by the player who is first to win a determined number of frames. (The UK Championship and Masters finals are best-of-19, while the World Championship final is a marathon best-of-35.)


Some Fun Stuff

Here’s a short compilation of “exhibition shots”—trick shots performed long after the frame has been decided, in order to please the crowd—from the 2016 World Championship:

Here’s my vote for the greatest single shot of all time, by convicted match-fixer Stephen Lee in the first round of the 2011 China Open. Note the scores: he’s behind in the frame, so this is no exhibition shot. How he even conceived of this path to landing on the red is beyond me.

And here’s a collection of great snooker shots. Note that just like in every other sport, by internet law, all compilation videos must feature terrible motivational music in the background. Enjoy!

Ben is a Deadspin reader who likes snooker. He previously wrote The Complete Guide To Understanding Cricket.