Jimmy White


Jimmy White pots a red.

The cue ball stuns off the red and holds perfectly for the black. He then pots the black virtually instantaneously, screwing the white ball back, effortlessly freeing a red, which he pots casually into the corner.

Leaning forward in that familiar sharp silhouette, the middle finger of his bridge hand taps once, twice, before he cuts the pink agonisingly slowly into the corner.

The cue ball runs on off two cushions, and with dramatic left hand side, brakes miraculously as if it had a mind of its own back on to a red, which with nonchalant disregard, he rolls into the middle.

By now, there is a sense of sulky petulance coming from him, from his insolent expression and bored body language, like a teenage tearaway being forced to do detention, pointedly potting each ball as if to emphasise that the task he has been given is beneath him.

It’s no surprise when the next red leaves him with a long, difficult, diagonal blue that he releases the tension within, smashing into the pocket with a strike as clean and lethal as a shot from a crossbow.

The applause that automatically accompanies such a shot on TV or in a tournament goes ringing through my mind. But proves to be a trick of the mind.

The room – in Jimmy’s house in the stockbroker belt of Oxshott in Surrey – is silent, empty apart from Jimmy and myself. It’s ten thirty in the morning, and though the sun is blazing away outside, the room is still dark and dusty with a sort of morning-after feel – which is probably exactly what he wants it to have.

The meticulous click of shots continues with the relentless rhythm of one of those metallic executive toys, until all the balls are nestling in their pockets.

Jimmy wanders round and lines them up again in a long line down the middle of the table, leans down, and starts again.

WATCHING Jimmy White – The Whirlwind ! – practice like this may not sound spectacular, but to fans who have followed him, suffered with him for years, the news that he is doing this sort of drill for four or sometimes five hours a day will be music to their ears; enough to revive the glimmers of hope.

It represents Jimmy White knuckling down. Jimmy White addressing the day-to-day disciplines that, after six World Championship Finals might finally help him to victory.

The room is cluttered with Whirlwind memorabilia – trophies, photos with his mate Ronnie Wood, a Status Quo gold disc, cartoons of Alex Higgins. In the corner, a bar is lined at the base with old snooker balls, dead snooker balls, and littered on top with letters from the police about another Whirlwind speeding infringement.

Pride of a place is given to a photocopy of a list of this season’s tournaments pinned to the wall, like a challenge.

“I’ve got a secret weapon,” he says. “This year I want to win badly.” (Not very secret but still…)

In contrast to recent seasons in which he has been edgy, frustrated or demoralised as a result of too many tabloid stories about his drinking and his domestics, the string of five consecutive defeats in the World Finals, or a slump in form prompted by the death of both his mother and elder brother from cancer two years ago, Jimmy seems positive and relaxed, full of the cheeky grins and cocky confidence that sealed his place as snooker’s “People’s Champion.”

When I ask him if he has considered following Dennis Taylor’s career change (into after-dinner speaking), he interprets it as “brown-nosing you mean.”

He says so many nice things about some of the players, eventually he checks himself, muttering, “I mean, I wouldn’t exactly go to the pictures with any of them…”

His maverick status confirmed, it’s safe to say Jimmy White is in good humour, though he stresses that he doesn’t want the exact nature of his practice routine revealed. (Mind you, you’d think they’d all know what they were doing by now.)

Stephen Hendry for example, treats it all like an office job, working pretty much 9 to 5, with an hour for lunch.
Despite his best efforts, this is not really Jimmy’s style. (The number plate on his BMW is CUE B0Y.)

“Doing that all day in ‘ere would drive me mad,” he grins. Most evenings, he likes play a couple of the younger professionals down in one of South London’s less salubrious snooker halls.
“With a bit of atmosphere, you know what I mean ?” he winks. “Where you don’t know who’s coming through the door.”

With his wife Maureen and their four daughters out shopping, he seems quite happy to let his more laddish, indiscrete instincts get the better of him. During one story about a bribe of £ 30, 000 he was once offered, he compares the briefcase full of money to being “like a lump of gear – you can’t resist touching it, can you ?”

He compares playing well in a big match to “a fantastic buzz, I mean better than anything we’ve ever tried, d’you know what I mean ?”

If the twinkle in his eye hints at slipping back into bad habits, he is absolutely insistent about the need to practice, “keeping your swing sweet” and “getting the back-up for when you really need it.”

Incredibly after 18 years as a professional, the prospect of practising every day hasn’t dimmed his enjoyment of the game at all.

“Nah !” he says, his face lighting up.
“Love it. Live it. I love it more now probably cos you realise where you are really, the stage in your life. Two years ago, I’d more or less given up… It’s like an addiction you go back to. I mean, I have been known to bunk off, yeah. Go down the pub. But not these days… I want to get to a better level this year. Get my game going.”

And how is your game at the moment ? I ask.
“My game’s alright,” Jimmy White smiles. “My game’s not too bad.”


THE news that Jimmy White’s game is alright, is not too bad, has to be one of the greatest under-statements in sport. Just to play one of the shots he has just played in practice would be enough to make most men happy.

Despite a dodgy perm and a few sartorial misdemeanours, Jimmy White has been an icon and hero to two generations of men; the George Best of the baize. He once said even being mentioned in the same breathe as Best “gave him the horn.”

In a world increasingly taken over by super-clean Daddy’s boys, trained from an early age to bore you rigid with their proficiency, Jimmy White was a Jack-the-Lad, rough-around-the-edges diamond whose life was as lively as his game.

Even when he was ranked as high as Number Two in the world, he continued to live the life, making headlines for his drinking and gambling, for drugs and prostitutes in Bangkok, and a drink/driving offence for which got 120 hours community service, painting and decorating in an old people’s home. (Until one day when one old day he had taken to the races “had a few drinks and couldn’t take his medication – they put me on cleaning floors after that”)

After an incident during the Brixton riots, he even faced charges of theft and handling stolen goods, for which he and his wife were cleared but denied costs because, the judge said, “their conduct led to this case.”

But he remained an irresistible rogue, popular with men and women alike, renowned for his skill, his charm and his sportsmanship, to which the failure to the World Championship only added a kind of poignant pathos.

Besides the death of his mother and brother, he then (very publicly) endured a disastrous hair transplant, cancer tumours in his left testicle, and so many ding-dongs with his wife that she told her solicitor to keep the letter filing for divorce for the next time.

Now 36, White’s currently rated 18th in the world with a provisional ranking of 9 for this season. And yet again, his following are persuading themselves he can still do it, especially after last season when he wiped the floor with Darren Morgan and Stephen Hendry (winning 10-4) – only to suffer the typical heartbreak of losing to Ronnie O’Sullivan.

“All I done last year was put in about 3 weeks practice before the world championships !” he enthuses. “I was 10-1 to beat Hendry ! I didn’t even play that brilliantly.”

Hope strings eternal for One More Season.

The youngest of five children, James Warren White was brought up in South London, specifically Zan’s billiard hall in Tooting.

He started playing when he was 11 – seemingly on the grounds that, as he was always playing truant in there anyway, he might as well have a game.

In those days, he says, the clientele was “villains and thieves mostly” with “a stash of watches under the table, a delivery of stolen televisions every week.”

Eventually, his headmaster did a deal with him that if he went to school in the mornings he could go and practice in the afternoons.

Stories of Jimmy’s exploits around this time are legion – like his boyish habit of taking home his winnings and ironing the money to keep it nice, or the time when he was 13, when he borrowed two pounds stake money and turned it into £ 1000.

At 14, he could win up to £ 1500 in the morning and lose it by 4.30 in the betting shop.

These were the days he was being ‘managed’ by a London cab-driver (“Dodgy Bob”) who would drive White and his schoolfriend and fellow future pro, Tony Meo, to snooker halls around London, challenge the club’s best players and clean up a la Paul Newman and Tom Cruise.

“We was gone before they realised they’d been hustled,” he smiles. “It was amazing we never got our ‘eads kicked in, yeah. But we used to spot the trouble. We could feel them getting the ‘ump. I don’t think you could get away with it now.”

He was the British under-16s champion and at 17, the English amateur champion.

Though in 1992, at the Crucible, he won
£ 114, 000 for a 147, he’s said his most important maximum break was his first – when he was 15, in the Pot Black Snooker Centre in Battersea, in front of a growing crowd of people who’d come in from the market stalls outside.

“We’d already been playing six hours and I’d already made 13 century breaks.”

Despite a career earning in excess of £ 3.5 million, Jimmy’s spent most of his life ducking and diving through escapades like these.

Only recently, he says, there was an improbable episode in which his black Staffs terrier, Splinter, was held to ransom by someone he calls “a right proper sort of dog knapper.”

“It’s got Beware of the Dog on the gate,” he grins, relishing telling the story, “and he got fucking stolen ! There was a fair on. They teach ’em to fight.”

After the police wouldn’t give him any information (“usual police”, he mutters), Jimmy rang “this gypsy I know” and ended up at Epsom clocktower at midnight one night with the warning, “make sure you’re alone” to pay up (£ 300).

“The geezer’s turned up. Opened the van door. Splinter’s jumped out and the van’s gone to pull off and he’s only run after it and tried to jump back in !”

When I suggest – jokingly – that it might have been someone trying to lean on him – perhaps to throw a frame or two – Jimmy White admits “well, first of all that’s what we thought.”

But in fact he says it’s never happened much.
“I did have one time, in 1984, the Benson & Hedges, where the winner got £ 35, 000 for the tournament. This little geezer comes in my dressing room back-stage. He says ‘can I talk to you ?’ I said ‘not really mate’… He give me this briefcase and says, open it up. I opened it up. There was 35 grand in it. He says, ‘all you’ve got to do is lose to Willie Thorne and you can have that’. I said to him, look mate, leave it out’ – cos I love the game. Anyway, I beat Willie Thorne. Won the tournament actually. But the thing is…’ he pauses, “I was just laughing the whole match.”


THE first trophy he ever won was a badge for the London Boys tournament, when he was 12.

He shows me he recently had it mounted on his cue case – “which shows you how much I’m getting back into it. I haven’t won a tournament since 93. Fucking 1993 ! It’s not just about the Worlds,” he says – the way he refers to what has become his personal Holy Grail, “I want to win quite a few tournaments. If I don’t win 2 or 3 tournaments this year, I’ll be very disappointed.”

Although as he gently reminds people that he was the youngest-ever player to win the World Amateur Championships (in Tasmania, appropriately enough), his fans’ fear is that Jimmy White will go down as the greatest player never to win the World title, snooker’s own Stirling Moss.

John Virgo has pointed out that Jimmy’s six world championship defeats represent unbelievable bad luck.

In the 1991 final, White says John Parrott “played like God”. Even Parrott admitted “it was the best I ever played.”

And in the other five, in Stephen Hendry and Steve Davis, White was up against the two greatest potting machines the game has ever known, as just as John McEnroe did for tennis, Jimmy White seemed to be fighting a one-man rearguard action to stop snooker from turning into a procession of mini-Frankenstein automatons.

“Some of these players today…” he mutters. “Someone in the crowd could get shot and they wouldn’t look up, they’re so switched on… Alot of the young ones get told about the money before they’re even really any good. It stops them from improving. They play the percentage game. They don’t enter the area of danger…”

Do you think they love the game as much as you
do ?
“No I don’t,” he says categorically.

For Jimmy, the point of the game is something like an artform, with his biggest buzz “finding a new shot.”

“Even after I’ve been playing for 23 years, that could happen tomorrow. I might not think about it that night or even driving home, but it will come to me. It’s very strange. Even if they get to Hendry’s level – which is fantastic – certain players at the top just don’t take those chances… I’m not saying Hendry’s like that, cos he likes to go for his shots. Steve Davis, though…” he grins. “He might have a fuckin’ asthma attack.”

Even though he has more respect for him than some players, Jimmy still bridles about the days when “Davis started driving me mad, boring me to death, by playing safety and snookering all the time.”

“Well, you know why there’s no snooker in
America ?” he chuckles. “Cos when it was really popular in 1985 and Taylor beat Davis, they sent Steve Davis and Terry Griffiths to Texas to try and promote it, and that’s been the end of snooker over there ever since ! ”

PERHAPS inevitably, Jimmy’s image as snooker’s wild card tipped over into the rest of his life.

His collection of front-page tabloid headlines has included the News of the World “catching” him
“playing sex games with Bangkok vice girls” and his “secret shame” of being “hooked on cocaine.”

In his time, White smoked, drank and gambled his way to Alcoholics and Gamblers Anonymous and was declared bankrupt over a £ 67, 000 debt.

As for how much he actually lost, he says, almost cheerfully, it’s “at least a million pounds.”
(He once lost £ 44, 000 on a hand of cards.)

“I’ve got no grief for that at all. I enjoyed it and I’m gonna enjoy it again. But I won’t be doing it like that. It’ll be on golfing holidays. Sounds really boring doesn’t it !?”

His disappearing acts became legendary – once when he failed to turn up for an interview live on Saturday morning TV, his wife told them she didn’t know where he was because Jimmy had gone out for a beer – on Wednesday.

His drinking unmistakably played its part in some of his famous final defeats. When he lost 18-5 to Stephen Hendry, he’d gone out drinking night before and in fact carried on for two weeks after he lost.

It also cost him his (fairly lucrative) Top 16 place last year, when, after three months on the wagon, his plane to Plymouth was delayed and he started drinking.

“All of a sudden, I’m paralytic. I lost 5-1. First frame I made a 104 break. But it all come on me – a devil on each shoulder, shaking hands over me ‘ead !”

Even after this year’s victory over Stephen Hendry, he was reported having a beer or two in the press room beforehand before his game with Darren Morgan.

Alex Higgins was always his hero, the player he still declares “the greatest snooker player I have ever seen”, along with O’Sullivan, Patsy Hoolihan, and Charlie Poole “who used to play with his coat on.”

Having “been on benders with Alex thousands of times, nights where we both couldn’t see”, you would have thought his idol’s demise would have served as some sort of warning, but even now he says “I was having too much fun.”

“The first time I met Alex ? I was about 13, a working men’s club in Balham. He come and done an exhibition. He tried to chat my sister up. He drove everyone mad that night ! I left him ‘ere one time in my local, by the time i come back, the police were outside, the owner had him by the neck. I’d only been gone two hours !”

Now though, Jimmy insists these days are over. His strategy for this season is clear.

“Practice hard, get to bed before 12 (coughs). Stay clean…. I have the right tools now. The right mental attitude. Practice, and I will win.”


“It’s age innit ? You tumble it… When I was a kid, I could be out all night and go to the tournament and have a couple of showers, snap out of it. Have a shave, maybe even a bit of eye make-up and as long as no-one comes too close – smelling the alcohol, whatever, I could still focus and win a tournament. But then, everyone would be going crazy, celebrating and I’d just want to go to bed. So I’m not drinking no more.”

What ? You’re on the wagon ?
“Yeah, I am on the wagon. That’s why I’m bored out of me fucking mind.”

On the proper wagon ?
“On the proper wagon.”

How long have you been on the proper wagon ?
“A week. And cut down to about 2 cigarettes a day. No more horses. By now, I’d be getting faxes from Jersey with tips. I should really be having a top-up (at GA), while I’m on the wagon…
The last time I went for a drink, was with my brother-in-law, we was in the pub from 11 in the morning to 11 in the evening. We were the first ones in there and the last ones out. It took me three days to recover and that’s me finished.”

So you’re actually never going to drink again ?
“I’m not drinking, no. I might have a few glasses of wine with dinner…”

Well, I don’t think that’s what going on the wagon means, Jimmy.
“No, it is on the wagon… I couldn’t go down a restaurant and not have a glass of wine. no, no, no. I’ll be within the drinking laws, I shall be driving. So I call that not drinking. Before I play, I shall be totally clean.”

SO, another season and Jimmy White is trying to focus on winning, sort out what one commentator told me was ‘too much sensation” in his life – the hangers-on, the parties, the general whirlwind.

“Years ago, you’d have hangers-on where you didn’t even know there was hangers on,” he says. “My nephew comes with me, watches my back. Instead of going out after a game and getting paralytic, I’ll go off and have a quiet dinner somewhere.”

He sold his take in a nightclub (Whirlwinds) after only one night – “too many gangsters turned up.”

Over the years, he says, he’s had “about 20 people come to me – hypnotists, you name it, telling me you haven’t won the world championships because of this or that. Is it pressure ? Have you got the bottle ? Do you abuse yourself too much ? All the things I’ve asked meself.”

He’s been seeing one of these – a sports psychologist.
“I phoned him up and we met in this caff. They work with blue-chip companies, pump ‘em up and turn ‘em into 25-hour-a-day workers. I just had a few sessions with them and they just made me a bit more positive. About what I wanted to achieve.”

14 million people watched his 1994 final against Hendry, but he insists the phenomenal pressure of the big occasions – which anyone who’s tried to pot a crucial black in front of a dozen people in their local will find unimaginable – is not a problem.

“No, I love it.”

There is one story that, in one final, after Hendry had pulled back from 14-8 to 14-14, in the interval, White was physically shaking, laughing hysterically.

He blames it on one mistake, re-enacting a shot he played they were 14-9 and instead of laying an easy snooker “I went for a long red ! From then on, I just couldn’t gather any thoughts. I wanted to get it over quickly.”

When I even mention the possibility that this season he might be resisting these (the ones he calls ‘a bit tasty”), being sensible, he interrupts, saying, “no, no, no. That’s not my game. See, alot of times when people say ‘play safe Jimmy’, and I won’t, I’ll win the frame. So I’m still gonna be doing it, but once I get my game together, if I’m gonna go for these shots, they’re gonna be going in !” he grins.

What if the devil came down and offered you a deal where could win the World Championship but only by playing really dull snooker ?

“I’d fucking offer him a bit of that ! I’d whirlwind him away. I COULDN’T win it playing like that.”

THE next part of his plan this season (exactly the sort of maverick tactic to fuel his fans’ fears for the worst), is that he is managing himself at the moment, so that rather than simply focus on playing, he has all sorts of calls to deal with.

“Nah ! It’s an absolute doddle. Should have done it ten years ago. You get most of your money playing snooker, in tournaments. All you have to do is have an accountant, send them an invoice.”

We should have known he could never change. We wouldn’t really want him to.

Once he’s got his game sharp enough, his final preparation is playing Best of 17 games against some of the game’s rising stars – for money, much as he was doing when he was 13.

“Not big money, where people get annoyed, your five hundred quids et cetera. Just play for twenty, fifty pound.”

The largest cash pot he ever played for, he reckons was when he was 16.

“£ 15, 000 – against Patsy Fagan. I got 20%. Won 10-1. About 200 punters, a gambling thing. It’s legal yeah, as long as you don’t advertise or sell tickets.”

The last was only a few months ago, for £ 3000,
a challenge by a pro (who he’s asked us not to name) not even ranked in the Top 150.

“You’d think things like that would only happen on the 25th of December wouldn’t you ?” he grins, seeing the look of amazement on my face.

“They thought I was gone, see ? Cos I had a couple of years cracking up… To them, they thought I was on the way down.”

HE refuses to think about anything beyond snooker until it’s finished – “when I stop getting that magical buzz from turning up and there’s a full crowd and you play fantastic. When that goes, I think I’ll stop playing. I don’t really want be one of those players who just turns up, hoping to get to the quarter finals. No, sorry,” he says, almost affronted. “It’s play to win, innit ?”

Jimmy White is one of the people you never hear anyone say a bad word about. From the grannies to the hooligans to virtually all the other professionals, everyone wants him to win it.

I can’t help asking if maybe his real problem is that he’s too much of a Nice Guy; that he lacks a killer instinct. But he won’t have this either.

“This year, I want to stick it up them all. I want to show them all that I am better than them,” he says categorically. “I should have won two or three world championships by now. But I was having too much fun, fucking waking up here, there and everywhere. If I only win won or two tournaments, you’ll see. They’ll all be absolutely petrified, there’s no doubt about it.”

How much does it really bother you that you haven’t won it ?
“Not at all,” he smiles, lining the balls up again, signaling he’s given me enough time. “Cos I know I will win it. Ask me in 5 years time, and if I don’t win it, I will be a very bitter man. But there’s no chance of that happening, cos I’m too good !”

As I leave him to it, the phone is ringing but he doesn’t answer it.

He chalks his cue. He leans down. And Jimmy White pots a red.