Ronnie O’Sullivan, one of the finest snooker players of all time, sucks at pool but rules at iPhone games. Flappy Bird, in particular.
Here Dan Masoliver chats with the British legend to find out why he’s so obsessed with the annoying game, as well as discussing his brand new TV show about pool hustling in America.
In your new series, Ronnie O’Sullivan’s American Hustle, you and broadcaster Matt Smith go to the US and hustle some pool. What attracted you to the idea?
It was the travel. Going to places and experiencing things that I wouldn’t normally do. Once my snooker season’s over, I sit on the couch, I chill out, I go running, cook barbecues every night and that’s it. That’s my world. This was an opportunity to go out to somewhere I’d never normally have gone.
You’ve dabbled in pool in the past, playing in the International Pool Tour in 2006. Why haven’t you persisted with it?
I’m just not very good at it. The balls, the cues, the equipment – none of it does what I think it’s going to do. The noise of the cue when it hits the ball [he recoils, cringing], I want to put ear plugs in. It’s like asking Federer to play table tennis – he’s going to be all right at it, but he’s going to say, “Where’s the feel? Where’s the touch?”
You meet 55-year-old Earl ‘The Pearl’ Strickland in episode one, where he declares that he’s one of the greatest athletes that’s ever been born. Bit strong, no?
Most people would think, “F*cking hell you’re mad, how could you be the greatest athlete in America?” But he’s up there. He’s mastered his sport. It’s not as big as tennis or golf or swimming or whatever, but he mastered his sport. How much higher can you go than being the best in the world at what you do, whatever that may be?
What would be the reaction if you made similar declarations of your undeniable talent?
I’d be big-headed. We love it when an American says it, we think it’s funny, but if a British guy says it, you think, “Who does he think he is?”
Americans worship their sports stars – do you think that people here would rather see you fail?
I get a general sense that every snooker fan that loves snooker wants to see me do well. And then I get the feeling that the people that run the sport would like to do what they did with Alex Higgins. While he was good for viewing figures they accepted him, but as soon as he started to not do so well, they threw him out of the game. So the sport will use me while I’m good, but the minute I drop off, it’ll be like, “Get him out.”
You’ve always been a bit of a maverick. Where does that come from?
I was brought up never to get too big for my boots. If I’d won a competition, it was history. Forget about it, move on to the next one. I was always taught to be tough, to not show any emotion, to feel like it’s me against the world. And that had an influence on how I live my life.
Has it made you ruthless?
I’m not like that. I love human beings. If I see a homeless guy, I go and buy him a sandwich and I say, “Look, here’s a bit of food and there’s a tenner, get yourself a packet of fags.” So I have empathy for humans. But as a snooker player, I’ve been brought up, ever since I was 10, to just be a machine.
We hear you’ve got a peculiar way of coping with your chronic phobia of flying.
Flappy Bird is the only thing that got me over flying. I got on a plane once, I had eight per cent battery. I said to the lady, “You’d better get me something [to charge my phone].” She said, “We can’t,” so I said, “I’m a bad flyer, you don’t want to see me if I start kicking off, because your passengers won’t like it.” She said, “I’ll get you some charge.” I was sh*tting myself. That [battery] is normally at 100 per cent the night before I’m going to the airport. Flappy Bird is my greatest cure.
Hold on, the smartphone game where you tap the screen to keep a nearly flightless bird airborne – that cured your fear of flying?
I’m being serious. I love it [he pulls out his phone and starts to play]. It’s the most beautiful feeling ever, when you’re going through [the pipes]. Look: the timing, the angles, the precision. Look! The dip, and then you get up there and you let it drop. That’s an art.
You’re actually remarkably good. What’s your high score?
It’s 295 on my phone, but I have about 350 on my iPad. That’s not bad. And I only do it when I’m on the plane, so I won’t do it for months, and then, boom: within 20 minutes I’m 180s, 200s. I could get 1,000, if I really put my mind to it.
Ronnie O’Sullivan’s American Hustle starts on 26 January on History at 10pm
[Images: JonEnoch, Eyevine]