This week marks 20 years since the greatest frame of snooker ever played. Englishman Ronnie O’Sullivan’s 147 break in his first-round match against Mick Price at the 1997 World Championship is indisputably the pièce de résistance of O’Sullivan’s 25-year-long career, snooker’s advertisement to the world, and a YouTube and highlight show favorite in the years since. The break is famously claimed to have taken five minutes and 20 seconds, a time that has become the most famous phrase in the sport; a number as famous and as oft-referenced in the snooker world as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak, or Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game.
The anniversary marks a chance to savor one of sport’s most brilliant performances, but also to correct the record: 5:20 is wrong.
Ronnie O’Sullivan had announced his presence on the professional snooker circuit four years earlier by winning the 1993 UK Championship at age 17, becoming the youngest ever winner of a ranking title, a record which stands to this day. Since day one, O’Sullivan had been drawing in fans with his attacking and free-flowing play, bemusing commentators with his speed and occasionally playing one-handed to close out frames.
Scotland’s Stephen Hendry dominated 1990s snooker, and in 1997 was attempting to win his sixth consecutive World Snooker Championship, and seventh overall, at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, England. Hendry would be beaten in the 1997 final by Irishman Ken Doherty—legend has it that not a single call was placed to the Dublin central police station on the night of the final, because the entire country was watching it on TV—but would win a record-breaking seventh title in 1999. As the eighth seed, O’Sullivan was looking for his first world title. He exited the tournament in the second round at the hands of Welshman Darren Morgan—he wouldn’t win his first world crown until 2001—but not before creating a piece of snooker history.
With the first-round best-of-19 contest at eight frames to five in O’Sullivan’s favor, the match broke for an interval, and the players were forced to wait 10 minutes longer than usual so that the match could be broadcast on live television. As the players returned to the table, O’Sullivan whispered to Price that he was feeling tired. After Price hit a safety shot too thin, O’Sullivan stepped up and produced snooker’s answer to Mozart’s 40th Symphony.
A maximum break is snooker’s equivalent of a perfect game. A maximum is achieved when a player pots all 15 one-point reds, paired with 15 seven-point blacks, followed by the six colors, for a total of 147 points. Stringing together a large break on snooker’s jumbo-sized tables is difficult enough, and clearing the entire table in one visit is exceptional. To continually maneuver the cue ball so as to only take the black ball with each red—potentially forgoing easier positional shots in play for lower-value colors—is a special achievement.
Snooker allows for great creativity in its play because players are faced with several options of shot at each juncture, and may choose a variety of methods to carry out each shot. Throw in the degree of difficulty posed by the huge tables and narrow pockets, and the spectacle of a player carving up a snooker table is pure sporting beauty. At his best, O’Sullivan—a five-time World Champion and owner of the all-time records for the most century breaks (874) and most maximum breaks (13)—directs traffic around a snooker table with brain-surgeon-level precision and Kasparov-esque creativity. O’Sullivan is snooker’s equivalent of Roger Federer, Lionel Messi, Brian Lara, or LeBron James. The frequent rejoinder that O’Sullivan is snooker’s answer to Mozart is made for good reason—when in the zone, he seems to have mastered the natural universe around him. His play is symphonic, orchestral, balletic, majestic, beautiful. Watch some examples of his best play here, here, here, here, and here. At his best, O’Sullivan makes the sport of snooker look ridiculously easy. On this day in 1997, it had never looked so easy, and it never has since.
The famous 147 break had everything: The white ball obeyed O’Sullivan’s every command, every shot looked easy because he made it so through his honeyed cueing and Juno-level precision positional play, the break was fast—the fastest maximum break ever, by a long way—and yet he looked like he had oodles of time. O’Sullivan said at the time that he knew a maximum was on after the second red, and the result never looked in doubt. O’Sullivan moved around the table with grace and ridiculous ease, like a concert pianist preparing breakfast in his kitchen.
As was customary at the time, O’Sullivan won a prize of £147,000 for scoring a maximum in the World Championship, plus £18,000 for the highest break of the tournament. (Doherty was awarded £216,000 for winning the title.) “The money means nothing to me,” O’Sullivan said. “I don’t spend fortunes, I have got a cheap lifestyle. I buy a car every year and that’s about it. I’ve bought a house that’s paid for. I’m going to buy my Mum’s and my Dad’s for them.”
His form is today is mostly similar to what he showed as a 21-year-old. The same bend in the left leg and bridging arm, the same tapping of the fingers on the table as he sets for a shot. There were no left-handed shots, although O’Sullivan already had that capability; the infamous match against Canada’s Alain Robidoux—in which the latter lost his temper because he thought O’Sullivan playing with his left was disrespectful—had happened at the Worlds one year earlier. In later years as his southpaw proficiency increased, he may have taken several of the shots in this break with his left, rather than stretching with his right.
Similarly, the 1997 O’Sullivan elected not to attack the bunch of reds until he had picked off all the available loose balls. A hallmark of his stratospheric best in later years was to disturb the reds at the earliest possible opportunity. One gorgeous O’Sullivan shot also does not appear: He developed an intricate shot on the black to set up the next red into the same pocket, playing with sidespin off the top cushion, rather than with stun and/or backspin, an incredibly subtle variation which the later O’Sullivan may have chosen to utilize.
The most iconic individual shot in the break is the cannon off the black and top cushion to break up the two bunched reds when he moved to 96. But did you notice he actually attempted a stun shot off the black for the same result two shots earlier, only to slip by the two reds and free up a different one? And, did you notice O’Sullivan spilling his chalk when potting the blue, causing it to bounce off his leg and under the table? He also dropped his chalk in his 2008 maximum and in the infamous final-black 147 against Mark King in 2010.
Opponent Mick Price is caught on camera cracking a smile as O’Sullivan brings up his century. He wasn’t the first, nor would he be the last.
The time of five minutes, 20 seconds was proclaimed as the headline at the time of the break, and it has been repeated ever since. It’s endorsed by World Snooker (the game’s governing body), perennial World Championship broadcaster BBC, and Guinness World Records. It absolutely shattered the previous record of 7:09.
But, looking at footage of the break, it’s evident that this measurement was the result of human error.
Breaks are not officially timed in snooker. Because there are no restrictions on the speed of play (except under the shot clock format in the late Premier League Snooker, a tournament which O’Sullivan won 10 times), the timing of breaks has no official function and is primarily of fan interest. The official rules of snooker do not provide guidelines for the timing of breaks.
Logically, there must be a point at which a break is deemed to begin and a point at which it is deemed to end. It is uncontroversial that the break must end when the balls come to rest after the final shot, but the correct starting point is open to debate. Is it when the balls comes to rest from the opponent’s previous shot? (This is how the shot clock worked in the Premier League). It cannot be any earlier, for until all balls come to rest, it cannot be definitively known that an opponent had not potted a ball, or committed a foul (potentially requiring him or her to re-take their shot), and a player cannot legally take a shot before all balls are stationary. Alternatively, does the clock start when a player strikes the cue ball for their first shot, thereby eliminating the preparation time before that first shot and arguably more purely measuring the break time? Or, is there some other logical starting point?
A timing graphic shows up on the screen of the original BBC broadcast as O’Sullivan is potting his ninth red. Extrapolating from that time—the clock does not reappear—to the end of the break would indeed yield a time of 5:20. However, working backwards reveals that this timer must have started while the cue ball was still in motion from Price’s safety shot, an untenable starting point.
The famous “five minutes, 20 seconds” does not appear to match any plausible start- and end-point combinations. To ascertain when a break is deemed to begin, I contacted World Snooker and Guinness, as official endorsers of O’Sullivan’s record, as well as BBC Sport, as the entity which displayed the time-in-progress graphic in its original broadcast.
The fact that the match occurred in the comparatively technologically primitive 1990s has undoubtedly contributed to the misreported time. World Snooker and BBC Sport each now employ modern recording techniques (World Snooker through its data partner and BBC through scoring software), and both thought it likely that the time was originally measured simply by viewing the recording of the break, but neither could confirm that point conclusively. The break precedes Guinness’s digital database.
For its part, BBC Sport confirmed in an email that it begins timing when the cursor on the graphic moves to the active player. This seems to be an unhelpful policy—when, then, does the cursor move to that player?—and does not match the start point of the graphic on O’Sullivan’s 1997 break: this method would produce a break time of Five minutes, 17 seconds.
Guinness stated by email that “the record is measured from when the cue ball last strikes a cushion from the [opponent‘s] last shot.” This method would indeed yield a time of 5:20, but, frankly, the explanation smacks of reverse-engineering. It’s entirely implausible that the timing of a break would commence upon that event, because the fact that the cue ball strikes a cushion is a wholly arbitrary event—indeed, it’s equally likely that it would never strike a cushion—and a shot may not be played until the cue ball (and all others) stop rolling after striking the cushion.
World Snooker originally told me that a break starts when the player “hits the cue ball for the first red.” This is an intuitive starting point, and coming from World Snooker, would appear to be authoritative. However, the footage shows that O’Sullivan strikes his first cue ball Five minutes, eight seconds before the end of the break. When asked about this discrepancy, a World Snooker representative proffered another theory: “I guess the answer must be that the time starts from when the white stopped moving on the previous shot (ie Price’s last shot) and stops when the white stops rolling on O’Sullivan’s last shot.” By this standard, the correct time of O’Sullivan’s break would therefore be Five minutes, 15 seconds.
So, how did we end up with an incorrect measurement as snooker’s most famous number? It seems likely that the number originated with the BBC broadcast, which for no reason other than human error started the timer too early. That timing produced the now-legendary 5:20, and it stuck. The footage wasn’t checked at the time, so the measurement wasn’t immediately corrected, and the error was never noticed or disputed. No matter the origin, the time cannot be said to be correct—we know when the endpoint must be, and no plausible start points yield a time of five minutes, 20 seconds. Incredibly, every plausible start point would make O’Sullivan’s break even faster than that.
What is the correct time? With no official method for calculating these things, there isn’t one, but 5:08 and 5:15 both seem logical. It seems there should be an official method for calculating maximum breaks, if for no other reason than fan interest, and that anything endorsed by the game’s governing body should be properly measured.
Ronnie O’Sullivan is one of the greatest players in snooker history. And that’s even with his greatest feat getting shortchanged for the last 20 years.
Ben is a Deadspin reader who likes snooker.