John Virgo Interview: complete and unaltered from Cue World, June 1984

 

Another slice of snooker history

 

John Virgo, Professional Snooker League winner and vice-chairman of the WPBSA, again delighted millions of television viewers with his cabaret act at the Crucible. But when the laughter dies down it's still a serious game for one of our busiest stars, as he explains in this interview with the editor:

JC: First of all, John, congratulations on your Professional League win.

Virgo: Thank you. It was nice to win something after a couple of years in the wilderness. When you know you've been playing well in practice and yet get nowhere in tournaments it really knocks your confidence. The great thing about the league was that it kept going and you could be in with a chance even if you lost a few early matches. I didn't lose once in my first six matches and it helped my confidence tremendously. In a knock-out tournament it only takes one bad performance and you're out.

JC: You'd been quite ill before you started, hadn't you?

Virgo: Yes, but by the time we were half way through and I was top of the league table my confidence was sky-high. To start doing it when it really mattered gave me a great boost - for the first time ever I backed myself to win a tournament. Maybe that's my trouble - I've either got too much confidence or too little. For instance, in the championship first round against Willie Thorne I was really buzzing and after those first four frames I thought I only had to stand up to win. Just to throw it away like that was criminal in view of all the work I'd put in, but I know I can build on my game.

JC: Do you think the conditions of televised snooker are against you?

Virgo: I'm beginning to think so. Look, I've played in eight 4-man tournaments around the country in the last two years and won every one of them. But they were played in the conditions that I like - in fact, the conditions that are more natural to snooker. They were in big venues but what I'm talking about is the quiet and darkness of the arena - the only light is the light over the table and although you can't see the audience you can really feel all concentration centered on the table and nothing else. It's a different atmosphere entirely, a great atmosphere with no distractions and it certainly seems to suit my game.

Of course a win in this type of event pales into insignificance compared with anything on television.

JC: So you're pretty keen on 'live' snooker?

Virgo: Yes, it's still the foundation of our game. When I lose in the world championship I'm afraid to see the public in case they say I'm not a good player. But everyone says, "Unlucky in the championships, John, but I loved the fantastic impersonations." If you do badly on television you can feel absolutely useless and it's good for players like me to know we still have an audience out there. The impersonations kept me going so that I've never been short of work and have always made a good living.

   

Jackie Rea

 

 

 

But it's more than that: when people talk about the professional game being popular we should remember that this strength came from the 'live' circuit. Before Ray Reardon and John Spencer turned professional the man who kept the game alive was an exhibition player - Jackie Rea. If it hadn't been for him the game would have died. Jackie toured up and down the country non-stop, showing the people the professional skills and educating them into an appreciation of the game. All credit to Ray and John - they had to fight for a public - but the groundwork was done by one man, Jackie Rea.

JC: You make it sound like a duty.

Virgo: It is. I think we owe it to the public to go out on the road. If we don't appear in the local clubs we become too distant from our public. What I like best is a little town with maybe one club having about 200 seats. They can't afford much — perhaps one show a year. So they watch TV a lot, but it's no substitute for live snooker. They can't afford Steve Davis or Alex Higgins and it notices - when they talk to me after the show most of their questions are about Alex and Steve. I don't mind - I'm as close as they're likely to get.

JC: I've had the impression that the club circuit is in decline.

Virgo: This was the importance of the Professional League - it took the game back to the people. Some players have made a fortune from the game but they don't want to go on the road and so they charge astronomical fees. All right, the league didn't pay top fees but it paid enough to deserve the support of all players. Nowadays management is advising players to take other work — perhaps in publicity rather than snooker — so the players stay out of some tournaments. The managers claim to be right because they make a lot of money for the players but it wouldn't be hard to do that anyway because the money is always going up. These players should resist this trend: the most important think for any sportsman is to play his sport. That is the first consideration. It's important to take part, to keep the game going and to help develop new events. That's how the present strength was built up.

JC: You really think there's a danger of the game losing support?

Virgo: What I'm saying is it's not just a television program - the tremendous atmosphere of live snooker can't be described. What the league did was to give each local audience its 'own' championship for the night. That television audience of millions can't get into the Crucible Theatre but if they had their own local show they would learn more about the game, enjoy it more and bring in new supporters.

JC: Did it work out like that in practice?

Virgo: I think it did. Apart from one or two venues the response and the crowds were excellent. But it didn't get the backing of certain people and that made it difficult. There is the argument that it was only open to 12 players but now with four qualifying tournaments each year every player has a great opportunity. If they do well they can reach the top 16 and they'll be in everything. So in that sense the opportunity is there.for every professional player. If they're good enough they will make it.

Look at Neal Foulds and John Parrott - what a chance they have compared to the situation of a few years ago. They could quite quickly step into this grade and in a league like this they'd be getting invaluable experience, testing themselves against the best. We've gone about as far as we can go with television so what I'm saying is there is scope to `export' the game to the local areas before trying to export it to countries thousands of miles away.

JC: Coming back to yourself for a moment, I've just watched you do your impersonations for the Crucible audience and a television audience of millions. I was surprised to see how much you've developed the act since I last saw it.

Virgo: Yes, I've developed my Ray Reardon quite a bit and I've changed `Alex' a lot. I'm also getting more out of Steve Davis.

JC: Are you planning any new ones?

Virgo: I've got this great idea for Bill Werbeniuk but I'm reluctant to try it in public.

JC: Why, what's wrong with it?

Virgo: Well, it's almost into acting - you must remember, I'm not a professional comedian, I've never had any training, so I'm a bit nervous about launching a new idea.

JC: You saw the response you had out there - plenty of comedians would be grateful for applause like that!

Virgo: I never know if the public will find something funny just because I think it is.

JC: I read a bit last week where Noel Coward said that all any artist can do is what pleases him and just hope the audience also likes it. You should try it out `on the road' first, like an actor.

Virgo: Maybe I will.

JC: Back to the serious stuff. As vice-chairman of the professionals' governing body you have to think about other trends in the game. What developments do you have in mind?

Virgo: I would like to see closer links with the amateur governing body, particularly regarding players applying to turn professional, and some sort of development of 'club' professionals.

JC: That's not a popular idea among the pros who speak to me.

Virgo: I honestly think the set-up has never been fairer. I've mentioned the opportunities open to all players to get into the top 16. If you're in the top 16 you're guaranteed £20,000 a season just for turning up - things like the Benson & Hedges, Pot Black etc. Nobody can complain - everyone has a chance. But if after three years a player hasn't even earned a merit point then we should be looking at ways of phasing them out and they would then have to compete each year for a 'tournament ticket'. If they didn't get that ticket they would still be `club' professional members of the WPBSA.

For every ranking tournament today there is a qualifying round—there's four of them. We can't refuse good players so we let them become pros but, instead of them playing in four qualifiers they would only play in one big one to qualify for 'the circuit' rather than each separate event. In a way we might therefore come full circle —there would be just one 'qualifier' per year as there used to be for us when only the world championship counted.

JC: I've always said that having a large number of professional players was no problem to anyone but the organizer of the tournament. Of course it costs more but your lot - the WPBSA - is now worth millions, what's so wrong with maybe as many as 200 professionals, playing in four qualifiers a year?

Virgo: There wouldn't be time. Already we're pushing through qualifying matches in the few weeks available to us and many players are forced to start a match at 10am and possibly still be playing another round on the same day. at 11pm. No-one can do their best in these conditions and the players are being forced to play at quite unnatural times of day. Nobody plays snooker at 10 in the morning by choice.

There is another thing: Ray Reardon, Willie Thorne and myself make up the sub-committee that considers new applications. Because there is so much dead wood already in our ranks we have to be very fussy and this means that the young players coming up, however talented, will be refused membership just because of the sheer weight of numbers. That can't be fair to them. Remember, nobody gets too old for snooker, nobody retires, so where do we stop? We're reaching saturation and to me the answer is clear - a professional is supposed to be a person at the top of his sport - not just an average player.

At present we're forced into unsatisfactory conditions to cater for people who should not be professionals. If they've had ample time to prove themselves and achieved nothing they should not be on the tournament circuit. If we accept people who are not good enough we do them no favors — they either crack up under the strain of disappointment or they become embittered. Pressure is something you can't see on television - you can only feel it - and this deceives many good amateurs who think they can beat everyone they see on the box.

JC: It doesn't sound very hopeful for the new generation.

Virgo: The 'circuit ticket' idea won't come about for a few years yet. My advice to all young players is - we've signed all the TV contracts until 1990, so it's not going to end tomorrow. There's no great rush and I firmly believe that the amateur game is still the best grounding. They would serve an apprenticeship and my idea means they'd get three years to do it. They would still have a chance after that to get back in. The door would not be closed.