Cliff Thorburn Interview (1/3)

by Roland Cox

Cliff was recently in the UK to take part in the Snooker Legends Tour which pitted a range of household names from the 1980’s against each other in the name of entertainment, and it proved to be an overwhelming success, so much so that another season is in the planning.

Between the interview taking place and being published, the sad news was announced that one of the games true legends, Alex Higgins, had passed on. Cliff talks about Alex and their relationship in part 2 of the interview. Since the news was announced, Cliff has paid tribute to the man calling him an “unbelievable snooker talent” and that “as a player he tried so hard and he never gave up, it was literally life and death with him when he was playing a match”. He also recounted with sadness that when he played Alex at the Crucible Theatre in the Snooker Legends Tour earlier this year, he would “rather have sat down with him and had a coffee than played him” such was the frail state of the once snooker bad boy.

When I knew I was going to interview Cliff, I felt a buzz of anticipation because I had so many questions I wanted to ask him. I remember sitting watching Grandstand on BBC1 one Saturday afternoon in 1983 with my dad, and even though the programme was due to finish and switch to BBC2 they held off the News to focus on the man himself as he carefully constructed the first ever maximum break at the World Championships. I was 8 years old at the time and I remember being so excited at seeing a 147 (before that Doug Mountjoy’s 145 was repeated at every opportunity and even featured on childrens TV programme Record Breakers with Roy Castle!), and I even remember being nervous as he took a time out on a difficult shot to “blow his nose”, as play stopped on the other table and Bill Werbeniuk poked his head around the Crucible divide. From that moment on, I was a fan of Cliff Thorburn.

me with Cliff

So without further a do, here is part one of the interview in which Cliff talks about the Snooker Legends Tour, snooker in Canada, and how he came to love the game of snooker.

You’re currently in the UK for the Snooker Legends Tour. How is it going and are there any plans to expand it?
Well we’re actually talking about doing something next year and as far as how it’s going, yeah it’s going great! We’re having so much fun and the audiences are having a great time as well, and there’s a lot of laughter. It is a little bit competitive as well, one night Jimmy White made a 147 and then in the first frame of the final which was the very next frame he missed the pink for another one! So it’s tough but I’m really enjoying myself.

It’s too bad that Alex Higgins couldn’t carry on but Dennis Taylor has taken his place and as far as Jimmy is concerned, well it’s almost like a love in with the crowd. Boy, the amount of people that love him!

I’ve had a look on the website and it looks like Jimmy and John Parrott are doing rather well which is no surprise given they’re still on the main tour – or until very recently in John’s case – but I noticed that you were beaten in a couple of finals by Jimmy and then won a couple of finals against him later on. Is this a sign that you’re benefitting from match practice and finding your game?
Well it certainly helps. I can’t remember what went on in those finals to be honest with you but the event has certainly got my competitive juices flowing again, although I don’t take it too seriously. We have two frame semi-finals and if it goes to 1-1 we have a re-spotted black and I cut one in against Ken Doherty and left the black over the jaws a couple of times too, so it’s competitive but it’s not. It’s more of a package but yes, it’s certainly helped my game and I know I’ve got to put some more work in to get to where I want to be.

I suppose you came up against these players anyway during your career so the fact you’ve been away so long doesn’t mean you can’t still beat them because they are the same people.
Well, I’m not the favourite that’s for sure but yes if my memory serves me right I’ve beaten almost everybody but I’m not in it to win it, the main thing is to take part and have fun. The fact is I’m not getting upset if I lose.

'It really is great to see Jimmy playing so well and I’m really enjoying watching him'

Have you got any plans to enter the World Seniors later this year?
Yes I’ve been slotted into that. But once again I think more than half the players are still playing so that’s going to be tough as well. I played Stephen Hendry recently and I lost 5-0 and I felt lucky to get nothing! But I’m still looking forward to it and being competitive again. My objectives are just to compete first, and if anything comes of it fine, but I’m not too worried about it.

So how would you say your game is now compared to how it was 20 odd years ago, I mean are you still knocking in the century breaks?
Yes I’m still knocking in centuries although I haven’t made one on the Snooker Legends Tour yet. I’m still making them in practice and I won a pro-am back in Canada in February with players like Kirk Stevens, Bob Chaperon and Alain Robidoux playing so I can still play a bit. That was my Canadian Championship because I didn’t play in the main one.

I’ve fielded some questions from the Snooker Islanders and a number of them want to know about the game in Canada so I’ll start by asking if you still see Kirk, and how’s he doing?
I played golf with him the other day actually along with Jimmy Wych, and a very good friend of mine Harry Chaggaris, who is the only person I will let touch my cue, and we had a great time. But Kirk’s fine. I mean he’s gained a little bit of weight but he still looks great and I don’t know what his ideas are about playing again, but don’t count him out of playing in tournaments in the future.

Well he would be a great addition to the Snooker Legends Tour.
Yes there is talk about Kirk playing in some of them so that would be great.

What happened to snooker in Canada? When I was young there was a triumvirate of you, Kirk and Bill Werbeniuk, and that was followed a few years later by Alain Robidoux and Bob Chaperon, but those are the last that I can remember so what happened?
And also Jimmy Wych.

Of course although I and other Brits know him more for his pool commentary on Sky Sports these days, but he was a quarter-finalist in the World Championships in 1980.
Yes he actually got to three quarter-finals, which is pretty good because he didn’t play all the time. But about Canadian players and what happened, until I can do something about it I really don’t want to say too much. Playing pool didn’t help, but if someone is going to leave snooker to go and play pool then they’re not a snooker player anyway. I mean pool is a heck of a game, but if people want to stop playing snooker for whatever reason then unless I can do something about it I really don’t want to get into it.

I was about to ask if there are any names breaking through and if there is a chance of a resurgence, but it seems from your last answer that it’s not going to happen any time soon unless you can play a part to get the game back somehow?
To be fair I’m not around the snooker. I don’t see any young players coming up so I’m not the best person to ask, but there are pockets of snooker around Toronto and Montreal… and well that’s about it! In a lot of places there aren’t really any snooker tables anymore, they’ve all been replaced by pool tables. Calgary, Alberta used to be a hot bed for snooker but now from what I hear there’s only one or two snooker tables left in the whole of Calgary and that’s a pretty big city. I don’t know what happened quite honestly.

Obviously you know Rob Waddell (aka sickpotter) who is a member of Snooker Island and recently he went to play a pool tournament in Las Vegas and he seems to play it because that’s all there is. Obviously he’d much rather play snooker and you can tell by his diary of the event that he almost treats pool with contempt because he knows snooker is much more skilful, so what is your opinion of pool and do you play it much yourself?
I tried a bit of 9-ball, and in my first ever Canadian 9-ball Championships in 1995 I finished runner up to a very good player. And then a few years later I qualified for the World 9-Ball Championship in Taiwan in 2004 and I think I finished 4th of the Canadians. We’ve got some very good players but as far as coming from snooker and then going to 9-ball and suddenly being asked to hit the ball as hard as you can AND be accurate… well! In snooker you’re not actually hitting the ball that hard and you’re being careful as though the balls are eggs and you don’t want to break them!

There’s so much emphasis on the break-off shot isn’t there? I mean the players have two cues, one heavier just for the break. But snooker players like Tony Drago are doing OK so I guess it suits some and not others?
Well I got very upset with players when, you know, the rack’s not tight enough so re-rack the balls, and that sort of stuff just gets to me. And then there’s the fact that the money isn’t as good as snooker plus the fact there’s a million good players out there. But it’s still a good game, I’m not knocking the game at all, but it just doesn’t suit me.

Going back to snooker then and another question from a member who wants to know how easy is it to follow the professional game over there?
Well thank god for sites like yours! And I know they’ve got streaming going on too but my god, before that there was nothing! I mean unless you bought a video or something. I lost complete touch with it for about ten years. But it’s got to be on TV otherwise the general public have got no chance to see what’s going on.

On a computer you’ve got to know exactly where to go to see the World Championships or any professional event. But if stuff is on TV then all you’ve got to do is change channels and people chance upon it and that’s how you get to see snooker. But even in the 80’s it was on quite often but you still had to have Canadian content to make it go anywhere. And right now we have no Canadian players so until that happens we’re obviously in a bit of trouble. But if they introduce a pool channel or a snooker channel or something like that then quite possibly that would help.

So were you, Kirk and Bill ever household names over there in the 80’s like you were in the UK?
Well we were but never like that. For years and years I was the best player people had never seen, that sort of a thing. But then once we started to do well in the World Championships they would send a TV crew out for the second week. And though it would get on the TV it would be about 3 or 4 days behind so we never actually had live snooker in our country, ever. So I would say “household names” is pretty strong, but if people ever talked about snooker or pool then Kirk and Bill and my name would come up, yes. But you’d have to be a sports fan to know that.

To finish off on Canada this question is more of a personal question because he writes for my website. Rob – he’s obviously pretty handy but he didn’t have the opportunities. How well do you think he would have done?
Well Rob is certainly capable of making century breaks and 147s. Did he ever actually spend any time over in Britain?

Not as far as I know, but I know he ended up getting a full time job and earning a living doing something else and I guess the game must lose a lot of potential players that way.
Well obviously you’ve got to be around the game all the time, and to make a living out of it you’ve got to be over here in Britain especially if you’re a young lad. And you’ve got to win a lot of matches to start off with anyway. I think eventually he’d have caught on to it and had some kind of career out of it. But until somebody is put under the gun all the time and proves they can learn from the experience then you don’t know how good someone can be. But Rob can play, and he’s a very attractive player.

Cliff in a familiar pose as referee Michaela Tabb watches on

So when did you start to play snooker?
The first time I saw the game I was about 10 or 11 years old and I was at the bowling alley watching my dad bowl and I guess I got bored of watching him, and I heard this strange clicking noise coming from down the stairs. So I went down and peeped my head around the corner to see what was going on, and they were actually playing 8-ball but on a snooker table so obviously the table was big. And I remember this guy banking the 8 ball into the side pocket and a big groan went up and everybody came to the table and put money on it and naturally that really caught my attention! And I remember a cigarette was on the rail and the smoke was rising up through the shades and of course the bright green cloth and the numbered balls and all this money and well, that was just fantastic! And then someone saw me and said “Hey kid, get outta here!” so I ran back up the stairs.

And then another time I was caddying at a golf tournament away from home and it was pretty good money at the time for a 14 year old kid, and I remember a so called friend beating me at 8-ball and taking 10 dollars off me. But after that I never actually played again until I was about 16 by which time it had me completely. You know I couldn’t wait to wake up to play, I couldn’t sleep, and on the bus on the way to the snooker hall I’d see all these angles and as the bus was moving along I’d be trying to cut, say, the telegraph pole into a doorway. You know I was really really into it.

This game gets you like that doesn’t it?
Yes it does. Do you know I always had trouble with sighting the ball too. I’d always have left hand side on the ball. You know I actually won the World Championships putting left hand side on centre ball shots!

But anyway, I wanted to see the best players in Canada play so I left home and spent my time playing them and watching them and asking them questions, and I was a real pest. But I learnt a lot and although I have my own way of playing, a lot of different people are in my game.

Who were the players you used to look up to around that time?
George Chenier. He’s the only other player (than Cliff) in the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. At one time he held the record competitive snooker break which was a 144 he made over in England in about 1948 or ’49, and he was the first person in the history of Straight Pool to make a 150 and out (i.e. a perfect game). So I try to talk about him as much as I can because he was a hero of mine.

And about that time I was hanging out with Bill Werbeniuk and we were gambling a lot, and we’d have backers but a lot of it was our own money. And we would play like a best of 19 for two grand or something like that, and when we didn’t have any money we’d play for punches in the arm – and if you think that playing for money is pressure then no, pressure is playing Bill Werbeniuk for punches in the arm! One time I won about 6 frames in a row and I guess I must’ve hit him too hard because after he won a frame I couldn’t play for about ten days! He gave me a real clobber, you know right on top of my shoulder and even to this day I can sometimes feel it and I think to myself “Bill, you son of a gun!”

'Bill was a delight to be around if you didn’t mind someone trying to get into your pocket all day!'

You still miss him?
We were good friends. He was always the best card player of us all and the best chess player and the best 9-ball player and the best drinker. He was a delight to be around if you didn’t mind someone trying to get into your pocket all day! That was part of his make-up though, maybe I was being paranoid but he always seemed to be scheming about something or other and when he walked into the room I would think “uh-oh!” But he was a good man to have on your side. Most people have got a good story about Bill but he pissed a lot of people off too because he was the reason the WPBSA started charging players for booze in the players’ lounge!

He was actually the professional at my local snooker club in Harrogate for a while but unfortunately I joined up just after he left so I missed him which was a shame, but people always had nice things to say about him.
Yes Bill was a great guy and larger than life and a very under rated player, but you know he came out of our system with no tournaments along with Kirk. I must’ve played only about 5 or 6 tournaments because if you got too good they barred you and then you’d have to go to another town and then you’d end up getting barred from that town so you’d have to move on and in the end you were too good for Canada so you had to turn professional. So I want to thank everybody that barred me!

Kirk and Bill came out of the same system and Kirk was more of a free flowing player whereas myself and Bill were more stop and start, but we were playing for pints of blood out there and we never thought about the audience, we thought about somebody trying to get into our pockets, you know? But we met a lot of wonderful people along the way. I’m not saying some of them were slippery but they could slide under a snake with a top hat on if you know what I’m saying?!

But there was always an honour, like an unwritten code between the players in snooker. And I don’t know if it had something to do with 9-ball pool in Canada but suddenly in the mid 80’s I noticed that people weren’t fielding the balls for their opponents and that really gets under my skin! It’s your penance that if you’re playing snooker you get the balls out of the pockets for your opponent to help him get some fluency, and if you hate spotting balls well then you’ve obviously got to get better. But in Canada you’d see people spotting their own balls when they’re at the table which is like in golf not getting the pin out when the other player is putting.

Yes etiquette. So that’s obviously what people thought about the whole game, they just left that out and it’s really sad. I mean spotting balls is all part of the game, it’s how you learn. If you don’t care about your opponent and don’t want to learn then why even play? If I say I find it all really disappointing then I mean REALLY disappointing! I remember one time the player I was playing wasn’t even watching me, he was sitting there talking to other people and I was on for a 147, and I remember really wanting to get it fielding my own balls without anybody watching me, but I missed the 14th black and I was really disappointed!

But snooker deserves more respect than that. I would play players like Kirk Stevens and other top players and we would play for money, but even guys as good as those would get the balls out for you when you were at the table. It’s about respect.

I agree entirely with those sentiments! Moving on, how do you think your game in the 1980’s would cope in today’s game?
Well I think I would’ve had the odd win. I certainly would’ve won tournaments, I mean I never gave up trust me, but I would’ve had to change my game. My shot selection would have to be different and I would have to go for more balls. I wouldn’t have the control of the situation that I used to have, but that’s the way it goes and you just have to do that. Getting to be world number one would’ve been a lot more difficult that’s for sure.

You’d have been a tournament winner definitely, and I think you would have the measure of most of today’s top players.
Sure. I know I would definitely enjoy the era, I mean boy is it competitive now. But it’s a different game for sure.

'I remember watching Mark Williams’s first World Championship win against Matthew Stevens in 2000 and I was really impressed with his safety play'

The margin between the players is much smaller now?
Yes. You’ve got maybe 6, 7, 8 players who can win. But even with the safety shots now, the cloth is much thinner and it means the safety shots are different and it’s a lot more difficult to play safe. A lot of the time the shot to play is to go for the pot because the safety’s more difficult. For example with the thinner cloth the safety shot to spin the white off the reds and black cushion, side cushion and send it between pink and blue is a lot more difficult to play now because the cue ball throws a lot more with the faster cloth.

How about safety in today’s game?
Well I remember watching Mark Williams first World Championship win against Matthew Stevens in 2000 and I was really impressed with his safety play. When I first saw Mark he was potting them off the lampshades and there wasn’t too much safety play going on, just crazy stuff, but his safety play in that final session was unbelievable and I was really impressed. So it wasn’t until that time that I realised the safety was every bit as good as when we played, for the shots that they actually played with the lively rails and cloth. So yes, I was very impressed.

Yes he was 13-7 down in that final and I remember being totally gobsmacked at how good he was to get back and win from that point.
Yes well he’s a two time winner of the Worlds so that puts him in a special category as well.

In part 2 Cliff talks about mind games, slow play, integrity, dump shots, his proudest moments, the loss to Nigel Bond from 9-2 ahead, and of course Alex Higgins.

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