This article first appeared in the Sep/Oct 2015 issue of WGM.
Professional snooker hasn’t had too many characters as colorful as the legendary Jimmy White. Having burst onto the scene in 1980 when he won the World Amateur Championship, White quickly made his mark on the professional circuit with his long list of accomplishments including 10 rankings event wins – placing him seventh on the all-time list. But he was just as well known for his wild partying, the full extent of which he only revealed in last year’s autobiography Second Wind. Now 53, the snooker great recently found his way to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas as the new brand ambassador for online gaming giant Dafabet and it was there he sat down with WGM Managing Editor Ben Blaschke to discuss his remarkable journey.
Ben Blaschke: It’s a pleasure to meet you Jimmy and thank you for taking the time to speak to WGM’s readers. You’ve recently become brand ambassador for Dafabet, who sponsored you into the 2015 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event. Although this is your first time at the WSOP, I understand you’ve been playing poker your entire life. How did you get started?
Jimmy White: Well I started playing snooker regularly when I was 15 and going on the road, so obviously by then I had learnt to play poker. It was a different game back then though. We didn’t play Hold’em – we played 7 Card Stud – but Hold’em became famous in the 90s and I took to it pretty well. I played for about five years, several times a week and then ended up winning the Poker Millions in London in 1994. So I know my way around the game but like anything, if you sit at a table with eight top players, eventually you’re going to lose your money!
BB: Those early days must have been interesting then!
JW: Yeah. When I learned to play it was to chase money. If you lost you had no money so you learned the hard way. I played in lots of cash games for years and years and years.
BB: Obviously walking into the Rio to play the WSOP is a long way from playing cash games on the road. What was it like to finally play the Main Event this year?
JW: It was absolutely brilliant. I had such a great time playing in that atmosphere. I’ve played plenty of poker over the years but nothing like that. It was like going to a big snooker tournament. Sure there are only a few tables at a snooker tournament but everyone has their eyes on the green felt. I loved it. I’ll actually have to be careful not to start playing too much or it will affect my snooker and everything. But I’m planning to play in the Aussie Millions next and I reckon I’ll have a great time doing it.
BB: And how did you go?
JW: I didn’t get many cards and I passed a lot of cards I would normally play because it’s a tournament situation. I ended up with 34,900 heading into Day 3 which isn’t many chips. It folded around to me and I had AK of hearts in the hole. I didn’t raise with it and when someone re-raised I just called. The flop came AKT. Now, I can’t read the guy for JQ for a straight. He could have the same hand as me, he could have AQ … or he could have the dreaded trip 10s. I couldn’t get away from my hand and he had trip 10s so I was really unlucky.
BB: Let’s move onto snooker. You mentioned that you were already going out on the road and playing when you were 15. What was it like to live that lifestyle at such a young age?
JW: Looking back now it was pretty dangerous but in those days there was no internet and only four television channels. Snooker was popular in all these little pockets and little towns around the UK so when I was 15, me and a guy called Tony Meo travelled around playing. We had a backer – this guy would drive us around in a black taxi and we’d put a pin in the map to decide where to go! We’d drive to some town in England and all the people in the town would back their best player, so we’d clean up there. We just moved around for two years but then all of a sudden I won the World Amateur Championship and I couldn’t do that anymore. We earned a great living though. My headmaster knew I had a talent when I was about 12 or 13 and we did a deal together. He said, “As long as you come to school in the mornings I’ll let you have the afternoons off.” He’d go to prison if he did that today! Luckily for me it worked out well doing that.
BB: Was snooker something you always had a natural talent for? Did it come easily to you?
JW: It was just a passion for the game and I’ve still got that passion. It’s amazing. Even when I play in tournaments now, I’m 53 so I’m the oldest bloke in the room by six or seven years but I just love playing. I enjoy the practice. I don’t enjoy the travelling anymore. When you’re in your 20s and 30s it’s great fun but when you’ve done it your whole life you’re sick of it. I used to love travelling around when I was young. It’s funny though, people always ask about when we used to hustle people but we didn’t hustle anyone – we were just much better than everyone else! We had our days where we lost but very few.
BB: You turned professional soon after winning the World Amateur Championship. Was it difficult to make that transition?
JW: Well I was playing tournaments every month and winning money so there was no need to gamble anymore. It was a totally different world. I was obviously so proud to win the World Amateur Championships, then I won a tournament in 1984 and got myself established. I was in the top 16 for 25 years so I’ve had a great career and have met some great people all over the world. I even made a film called Legend of the Dragon in Hong Kong in 1994, with Stephen Chow. He asked me to be in it and my part was just to play myself. So in the film he played me at snooker and beat me, then he beat a good fighter in the ring and beat someone else too. It was one of the most famous movies in Hong Kong and for years Chinese people would come up to me in London and talk to me about the film! Stephen is like a national treasure in Hong Kong and they love their snooker there too.
BB: You reached the final of the World Championships six times between 1984 and 1994 but didn’t manage to win it although this was also at a time in your life where you were partying regularly and taking a lot of drugs. Do you feel that party lifestyle affected your success on the tables?
JW: Yes, I would have won three of them. I was prepared for three of them and one I got beat 18-17. One I was 14-8 up and was already in my mind thanking the people I wanted to thank. All of a sudden it was 14-all, so I was a bit disappointed in those. In 1982 I should have won one but I’d probably be dead if I’d won because there were only four TV channels in England at the time so everyone knew you. I already got carried away with the fame side of it.
BB: Despite that, are you pleased with all you have achieved over the years?
JW: Oh for sure. I’ve won 10 rankings tournaments, 48 invitational tournaments and been in the final of the World Championships six times. I won the World Matchplay. But I actually still believe I can win the World Championships. I lost 10-8 this year to get to The Crucible (where the World Championships are held each year in Sheffield) and the guy who won it, Barry Hawkins, only beat the guy who beat me 10-9. That’s just a few balls’ difference.
BB: The game must be getting tougher all the time though, particularly with the huge surge of young players coming out of China?
JW: Yes the level of competition with the Chinese is enormous. They actually play a lot of snooker in Iran too. There is one kid coming through now but in Iran they find it really difficult because they can’t hold any Open events. But it’s smashing it in China and getting big in Germany too so the game is developing nicely. We tried to build it up in America but they like shouting when they’re watching sport!
BB: Snooker’s newfound popularity in China following Ding Junhui’s success has seen a lot more money come into the game although it has also seen the game’s power base shift from Britain with five of the 11 rankings events each year now held in China. What are your thoughts?
JW: I’m a fan that it’s growing. The only thing that worried me was talk that China would eventually host the World Championships. We all got together to make it clear it would never go anywhere. The Crucible – even though it’s not the greatest venue to play at when they put two tables there – when there is only one table it has the best atmosphere. The theater only holds 1,000 people but it was the place that made snooker what it is today. It connected with the game in the 80s and we owe it to Sheffield to keep it there. Moving the World Championships away from The Crucible would be like moving Wimbledon to a different venue. It wouldn’t work!
BB: You went from playing small snooker halls around the UK to becoming a celebrity almost overnight in the early 1980s. Was it tough to deal with that sudden fame?
JW: Yeah because you get carried away and you think it’s real when it’s obviously not real. I met Ronnie Wood from the Rolling Stones when our kids were at the same school and we’ve been pals for 28 years. He has a snooker table put up backstage before each show. I would never have thought a Rolling Stone would know who I was. When they made the “Steel Wheels” album in 1989, I was making their teas for them because we were hanging out! I remember thinking, “Hang on a minute, what’s going on here?” But you know, they’re all very professional. They have one game of snooker every night before they perform. They basically do their rehearsal, hang out all afternoon then have a game of snooker.
BB: Ronnie Wood might be the most famous party animal of all time. You must have had a few wild nights out with him?
RW: He’s actually been sober for seven years now but he’s still exactly the same as when he was drinking! He’s no different at all. He’s a very active fellow. But you can’t party and play a game like snooker like I did all those years. It’s amazing I did as well as I did. What I used to do was party, then stop for a couple of weeks to get ready for a tournament … but sometimes you wouldn’t mind if you lost early because you could go and party again. I still had plenty of time for my kids though because when you’re playing snooker, when you’re home you’re there 24/7. It’s not like you only saw them for a few hours every night like in a normal job. The funny thing is I bought my son a snooker cue when he was 4, another at 8 and another at 12 but he’s not interested at all! He plays rugby.
BB: I read that you would sometimes leave the house to go shopping and not return for days at a time?
JW: I was a bastard in that way. I just used to like partying. I was one of those people that knew so many pubs I would turn into nightclubs. I didn’t care about the money and I enjoyed having a good laugh. I couldn’t drink anywhere there was no music. I used to go to all the nightclub openings. The best one was when I went to Ireland for an exhibition. I had a pair of jeans on and a dress shirt for the exhibition and was staying in the Grisham Hotel. The promotor said, “Listen, you stay there tomorrow while I get a few things done.” He also arranged to send 10 bottles of Dom Perignon to my room every day but unbeknownst to me he got locked up in that time by his family so I just stayed in the room waiting.
As it turned out, the band UB40 were making an album nearby and were coming to my room after being in the studio. And Thin Lizzy were there too, so I’m walking around like I’m Hugh Hefner with my smoking jacket on and I’ve got UB40 and Thin Lizzy in my hotel suite drinking 10 bottles of champagne every day. I wouldn’t let them take the empty bottles away either so by the end there were almost 200 bottles of Dom Perignon sitting there. I ended up staying there 17 days so it took me a long time after that to get back with my wife! I could literally end up anywhere in the world. I always took my passport with me when I went out. But I regret it when I look back now. I should have been better.
BB: You also had your dog stolen one time didn’t you?
JW: Yeah, all these dogs went missing and my staffy was one of them. I found out some fairground people had stolen him so I got in touch with them but they denied it. So I put out a reward of £300. Anyway, through a friend of a friend of a friend I found out that they did have my dog so I arranged to meet them at the clock tower at Hexham at midnight – like something out of a film. So this guy comes along and it was Johnny Frankham who was a bare knuckle fighter champion (and British light-heavyweight champion in 1975) and I’d been to a few of his fights. He said, “Oh Jimmy, I’ve been asked to bring your dog over here and I’m getting £150 but I don’t want the £150.” I said, “Look mate, I don’t care. I’ve got three devastated children at home and I miss my dog. I just want him back – take the money.” So he gives a sign and a white van comes around the corner, opens up the back of the door and pushes the dog out. They start driving off and my dog goes and jumps back in the van! But I loved him. His name was Splinter and we had him for quite a few years after that.
BB: It’s amazing that you managed to put all of these outside distractions aside and still enjoy such a successful career.
JW: Yeah, I achieved a lot because of my love for the game and I’m still playing now. One of the best things that ever happened to me in snooker actually came after a match I played against Ronnie O’Sullivan (in Ireland in 2009). There were 500 people there and someone in the crowd paid £1,000 for charity to play doubles against us. So I broke, Ronnie knocked a red in, made a 147 and everybody went crazy. So he said, “Oh well, we’ll have one more game then.” I said, “Ron the crowd is going mad, what more can we give them?” Anyway, he broke the balls and I made a 147! That’s something that has never been repeated.