Cliff Thorburn and Alex Higgins couldn't have been more different, on the billiards table and off it. Thorburn, the mustachioed Canadian snooker player, was known for his soft-spoken manner and slow, methodical style of play that earned him "The Grinder" nickname. "Hurricane" Higgins, on the other hand, was a brash, braggadocious Irishman whose blistering offensive game was only matched by his volatile offstage antics. Several weeks after beating Thorburn in the 1983 Irish Open, Higgins crossed paths with his rival at a local bar and couldn't help but make his presence known. "You're a Canadian cunt, Thorburn," he jeered. "And you're shit at snooker!"
Thorburn, sick of his guff, punched Higgins square in the jaw and knocked him off his feet. Immediately, the two were restrained as people begged for them to settle down. Seemingly cooled off, Thorburn and Higgins were about to shake hands when Thorburn pulled Higgins in and kicked him in the groin.
"Alex was one of a kind," Thorburn, now 70 and reticent of his feelings toward Higgins, told VICE Sports. "Wonderful player. Every time I beat him, there was always an argument."
Many consider snooker a slow, plodding game. More are totally unfamiliar with it. But its peak in the 1980s has been described as a soap opera with billiard balls, chock-full of partiers, gamblers and characters who brought life to the arcane cue sport. Assaults on officials, beer drinking competitions, and cocaine between matches were all part of the excitement surrounding the game at a time when there were only four channels on TV. Snooker had once reigned supreme in the UK, with a peak of 18.5 million people watching the 1985 World Championship finals.
Leading a Canadian contingent of snooker players, Thorburn earned nearly £1 million in prize money alone, a sum that excludes exhibition earnings and sponsorships over a 23-year career. Not too shabby for a high school dropout who once hopped trains to hustle pool. The Canadians were canonized as larger-than-life folk heroes of the game, but memories of their heyday exploits have faded in their home country. Thorburn, who lives a quiet, relatively anonymous life outside of Toronto in Markham, Ontario, is an ordinary-looking grandfather to those unfamiliar with the billiards subculture.
Though pool halls are a mainstay in most cities and towns, it's hard to come by people playing snooker in Canada these days. Snooker, the odd, brutally challenging British cousin of American pool that we're all familiar with, uses a 6-by-12-foot velvety green monster of a table with narrow and rounded pockets (in comparison, your average bar size pool table is 3.25-by-6.5-feet). Up until 30 years ago, these tables dominated pool halls across Canada. But unlike the UK, which had long-established pro and amateur circuits, Canada didn't have the same level of infrastructure for organized play. Tournaments didn't offer much prize money, so players gambled, traveling from city to city looking for matches in order to earn their next meal. Tensions can flare when money is involved, even in a game steeped in its own etiquette. A fisherman in Campbell River, British Columbia, once threatened Thorburn after getting sorely beat. "Are you hustling me?" the fisherman asked.
"No, sir," replied Thorburn, who just happened to be playing over his ability that evening. He was young and laughing at the shots he couldn't believe he was making, and he had yet to learn the price of cockiness. The fisherman pulled back his coat to reveal a large fishing knife attached to his belt, and patted the sheath with his hand.
"I said, are you fuckin' hustling me?"
Before the fisherman could get any closer to Thorburn, the bartender bolted over and grabbed the fisherman’s hand and diffused the situation.
The road was where Thorburn met "Big Bill" Werbeniuk. Born in 1947, the hulking Winnipegger grew up in Pop's Billiards, a pool hall owned by his father, Shorty Werbeniuk, whom Bill once described as "one of the biggest [crooks] in Canada" who "committed armed robberies, peddled drugs, every larceny in the language." By age 12, the junior Werbeniuk was already betting money on his matches against grown men, and winning. Also skilled at nine-ball pool, backgammon, chess, and poker, Werbeniuk was a natural gambler and constantly propositioned money matches amongst friends, chuckling the whole time as he'd snatch away their cash.
"He [was] always trying to get his hands in our pockets," Thorburn recalled.
The two lived out of shelters, bus stations, and motels across the country in the 1960s, eking out a living with the skills of their misspent youth. But the pay wasn't exactly steady. Thorburn could rake in $6,000 a night, only to lose it all gambling the next day. But life on the road seasoned the Canadians, who learned to perform under pressure. By the early 70s, Thorburn had earned the reputation of being the man to beat in Canada—or, more fittingly, the man you couldn't beat.
Thorburn traveled to England in 1973 to play professionally, and a year later Werbeniuk joined him. Living out of a converted bus, Werbeniuk was known to crush at least 30 pints of lager every day, and even had a doctor's prescription to drink during matches to ease a tremor in his arm. After boasting that his brews were subsidized by medical tax deductions, he immediately became a crowd favourite. Despite his heavy boozing, Werbeniuk was one of the best long shot players in the game, ranking as high as eighth in the world.
"He was a warrior," Jim Wych, a former professional snooker player from Canada, told VICE Sports. "When you had Bill on a snooker table, it was like having a marlin on the line. You better get ready to fight, because that marlin wasn't going to get landed easily."
Kirk Stevens was about a decade younger than the two other Canadians, and had heard tales of Thorburn in Toronto's snooker halls. Stevens had begun cutting class at a young age to play snooker all day after his parents' divorce, spending his teen and preteen years among barflies, bookies and other tough characters. He was 12 when he first met Thorburn, pulling $2 out of his hockey bag for a chance to play his idol. After rebuffing the offers Thorburn had made to spot him a few points and even out the match, Stevens lost handily. Feeling bad, Thorburn told the kid to keep his wrinkled, grubby dollar bills. But Stevens refused.
"You earned it," he told Thorburn. The next time they'd meet would be at the 1978 Canadian Amateur Championship. Stevens, now an 18-year-old, would best Thorburn 7-5.
When Stevens turned pro in 1979, he electrified crowds with his all-out offensive play and bold fashion choices, sporting all-white suits and a feathered mullet. He was a hit, at both the table and with women. Stevens was a part of migration of Canadians who followed Thorburn's footsteps. "Cliff was the advanced scout for all of us," said Wych, who was invited by Thorburn to join the circuit in 1980.
"He was trying to put Canada on the map."
The countrymen spent countless hours together, watching movies and going out for dinner after practice. Stevens and Wych lived with Thorburn and his wife, Barbara, who almost became surrogate parents for the two young players. But Thorburn worried about Stevens, whose mother was killed in a house fire when he was 18, in an apparent arson. "I wanted him to do well, and I could see the challenges [he was facing]," Thorburn said. Despite the concerns, Stevens fit in well with the Thorburn family and became an older brother to Thorburn's two young boys.
"They loved Kirk," Thorburn said, remembering how Stevens would play with them. "And he loved our boys."
From the first time he picked up a cue, Thorburn was enamoured with snooker. "I couldn't wait to wake up in the morning and play. I didn't want to go to sleep. I loved it," he said. Everywhere he went, he saw the world in lines, visualizing how he'd line up an imaginary cue to objects on the street. Thorburn dropped out of high school at age 16, practicing up to eight hours a day in the snooker hall. While not the most naturally gifted player, his determination and unrelenting approach more than made up for it.
The allure of snooker lies in its cruel, unforgiving nature. The game demands perfection from the player, who is expected to master the massive dimensions of the table and eliminate any human error in their stroke. Failing to hit your intended ball rewards your opponent with points, which makes snooker highly strategic. Often, the aim in a shot isn't to score, but to place the cue ball in a precarious spot at the far reaches of the table, trapping your opponent into playing an obstructed shot, leaving them "snookered." A snooker player needs to be equal parts shrewd and daring, leaving nothing on the table for their opponent while pouncing on the smallest opportunities to sink a shot.
Thorburn's strength on the table was his ability to snooker his opponents and remain mentally strong over hours of play. "[Thorburn's] mind was like a steel trap," Wych said. "He played every shot like it was for his life."
Thorburn's ability to grind out matches was on full display in the 1980 World Championship final against the truculent Higgins. The match was settled in 34 frames, lasting two whole days. Thorburn says he lost nearly ten pounds over the course of the tournament, but he persisted as Higgins grew impatient, toppling the Irishman 18-16 and becoming the first overseas world champion and No. 1 ranked player. Three years later, he was awarded the Order of Canada for the achievement.
The other Canadians had their own moments of glory, too. Werbeniuk once made it to the finals of the Lada Classic, but lost to six-time world champion Steve Davis. He also famously outdrank Scot Eddie Sinclair 43 pints to 42. After Sinclair passed out under the table, Werbeniuk proclaimed: "I'm away for a proper drink."
Stevens, meanwhile, made it to the world championship semifinal twice and scored a maximum break in 1984, the height of achievement in a game of snooker. A maximum break, or a 147 (referring to the game's maximum possible score), requires the player to pot all the balls on the table in a specific 36-shot sequence, in a single turn, without missing. Essential to a 147 is the ability to set up your next shot by manipulating the power and spin on the cue ball. In each shot, the top players are calculating each bounce and roll the white ball with pinpoint precision. The maximum break was Stevens at his best: gutsy and unrelenting, firing on risky shots that could have easily backfired on him, all without an ounce of trepidation.
Thorburn believes Stevens was good enough to have become world champion, but had the feeling Stevens "didn't want to be seen trying."
"He was trying, but he wanted to go down with the ship. Win the impossible way," Thorburn said.
For all his flare, Stevens didn't enjoy playing in front of large crowds, and he felt isolated in a new country. Snooker was just a game in Canada, but in England it was a full-time job where winning meant everything to the players, media, as well as the fans. He got caught up in London's club scene at a time when the use of cocaine was soaring, and quickly developed a troubling habit. A reporter caught wind of a dispute between Stevens and opponent Silvino Francisco, overhearing the South African accuse Stevens of being "high as a kite" between frames at the 1985 British Open. Soon after publicly admitting to a cocaine addiction, he was rushed in and out of rehab centres. Once famous for his white suits, he was now known for the white powder he had snorted.
"It was very worrying. It was awful. Awful," Thorburn explained. "If I saw that things weren't going right around him, I would step in." But Thorburn could only do so much.
"We all handle pressure differently," Wych said. "Kirk's was a little bit more documented than most, and that's not to say a lot of other players didn't have their issues."
Burnt out from the game he had spent most of his life playing, and slipping in rank from fourth in the world to outside the top 50 in a matter of years, Stevens returned to Canada in 1993, working stints as a landscaper, lumberjack, and car salesman. He wouldn't pick up a cue for years. But Stevens wasn't the only one who faced troubles. Thorburn was fined £10,000 after testing positive for cocaine in 1988.
"Well…" he explained, pausing, "it's one of the things I [wish I could] take back." Thorburn called it an "embarrassment" to his family. And the drinking that made Werbeniuk famous began damaging his body. Following the International Olympic Committee's list of banned substances, the WPSA fined Werbeniuk for using a beta-blocker to ease his tremor, so he had to rely increasingly on alcohol. Filing for bankruptcy in 1991, he moved back to Canada and lived with his mother in Vancouver until he died of heart failure in 2003 at age 56.
Thorburn remembers how Werbeniuk once stopped his own game to watch Thorburn make a 147 in the 1983 World Championship—the first in the tournament's history. When Thorburn potted the final black and rapturously fell to his knees, Werbeniuk gave him a big hug, telling him, "I always knew you were gonna do it before me."
"I miss Bill," Thorburn said. "He was always happy-go-lucky, wanting-to-take-your-money Bill."
But Thorburn and Wych only look back fondly on their playing days, the long nights of celebrating with friends, playing the game they loved. "I don't remember [Stevens] from that," Thorburn said, referring to his friend's struggles, which were publicly dissected and mocked by the tabloids. "I just know him as a great Canadian player and a wonderful kid."
Wych, who was close to Stevens since their early gambling days, said, "[Kirk] rose above that. He decided to make his way regardless of what people thought of him. It's a sad thing that a lot of people remember Kirk for that, because he did so many great things playing snooker."
After winning the world championship in 1980, Thorburn maintained a solid career through the decade, but his desire to play snooker waned as he got older and focused on his family. By 1992, the game was showing signs of decline in viewership, and Thorburn moved back to Markham, retiring officially in 1996. By the time he came back, pool had taken over billiard halls in Canada. Easier for the casual player, pool hall owners could also fit twice as many pool tables in their room as they could snooker tables.
"We all felt an emptiness," Wych said of the way the game had faded away in Canada. "When you've given decades of your life to a sport, and you've seen the way the sport is revered and how in the UK, to know that tradition hasn't carried on and you haven't passed the torch to any players, that's disheartening."
Still, Thorburn meets up with Stevens every few weeks, chumming it up at Wych's billiards hangout, The Corner Bank, in Scarborough, Ontario. Stevens, who never reached back for comment, is "doing well" and "lives with a lady who grounds him," according to Wych. Stevens, now 60, hasn't played in some time—his eyes can't spot the long balls like they used to, and picking up a cue may remind Stevens of a time he's since moved on from. But "he understands where he is and he understands why he's here,” Wych says. "There's never any negativity with Kirk."
Thorburn often gets recognized on the street whenever he visits England, but in Toronto, he mostly encounters his fans in the pool hall. As we discussed his coaching services, he got up to give me a demo. He asks a large middle-aged man if he could use the table and his cue for a moment. The man beams. "Of course, Cliff."
Thorburn bends over the table and shows me the ideal form. "You don't want to swing the thing like a violin," he says. I give it a try, but Thorburn points out about ten things wrong with my stance. "Smooth, now. Elbow up here. Widen your legs. It's all in the wrist and fingers." I reel in my focus and carefully swing, but I can't seem to satisfy Thorburn. We sit back to talk some more until the man interrupts us, stick in hand. "I just made a 70 break. I don't know what you did to my cue, Cliff." He looks down at it, wide-eyed, as if Thorburn had blessed the thing.
Though the game never fully caught on in Canada, there are a faithful few who still revere the snooker stars of the 80s, like Thorburn, who elevated a pub game into televised sport.