Snooker: Positive thinking takes Ebdon to the summit

World snooker champion believes psychology was the key to his memorable victory in final at the Crucible

By Brian Viner
Saturday 11 January 2003 01:00

"if you think you are beaten, you are, If you think you dare not, you don't. If you like to win, but think you can't, it is almost certain you won't."

In his study, deep in the kind of chair from which Cyril Fletcher used to read his odes on That's Life, the world snooker champion looks at me rather as a Victorian missionary in a starched collar might have looked at a bare-bottomed Zulu, with evangelical intensity leavened by spiritual tenderness. Then he leans forward. He's not quite finished with the poetry.

Life's battles don't always go

To the stronger or faster man,

But soon or late the man who wins


Just as that Victorian missionary had the New Testament, so Peter Ebdon has "Think and Grow Rich" by the American motivational guru Napoleon Hill. The book, which contains the above poem and is based on the philosophies of the steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, was written in 1937, and has since been reprinted, Ebdon tells me with awe in his voice, 42 times. He shows me a cupboard in which copies are piled high.

"I buy about three dozen every year and give them to my relatives and friends," he says. "You can take one, if you like." He gives one to The Independent's photographer, David Ashdown, as well. Whatever Ebdon's idiosyncrasies, nobody can accuse him of keeping his sources of inspiration to himself. "I think of that poem when I'm playing Ronnie O'Sullivan or Mark Williams, and they're flying," he says.

"Snooker," he adds, "is one of the most difficult sports, psychologically. If you're playing golf against Tiger Woods, he might put his ball to within five foot of the hole from 140 yards, but you still have a chance to sink your shot. Dennis Taylor, whose golf handicap is five or six, says that snooker's much harder. In snooker, when the other guy's at the table, there's nothing you can do. That's very hard to deal with. So I have one or two mental routines, because the line is so fine between winning and losing, that what I do could be the razor's edge.

"I'm very big into personal psychology. I believe that you create your own destiny with your thought patterns, but also that written goals are very important. I notice that when [the golfer] Justin Rose does interviews he always talks about goals now, so obviously he's got into psychology, too."

It was psychology, Ebdon believes, that enabled him to overcome Stephen Hendry 18-17 at The Crucible last year, in the most thrilling climax to a world championship since the aforementioned Taylor beat Steve Davis in 1985. Hendry had beaten him 18-12 in the 1996 final. "And I promised myself that if I ever reached the final again, I would win. I was also telling people three weeks beforehand that I thought I would win it this time. I was physically very fit and swam up to a mile a day even during the world championships. And I felt in a really good state of mind. In those final frames I kept thinking what it would mean to my family and friends if I won, and that deflected the pressure and helped focus me. I really felt there was a collective will for me to win."

The fruit of that collective will, in the form of a vast Art Deco trophy, stands proudly on his study mantelpiece. It was bought, so Ebdon tells me, by Joe Davis, who was so disgruntled not to be given any silverware on winning the inaugural world snooker championship in 1926, that he splashed out £12 of his £15 winnings.

Whatever, it is snooker's holy grail and it lives, at least for now, and unlike most holy grails, in the drab Northamptonshire town of Wellingborough. Ebdon lives there, in a comfortable detached house of no particular grandeur, with his wife and four young children, one of whom, three-year-old Ruby-Mae, keeps bursting in to the study to show off her new party dress. "That's lovely, Ruby-Mae," he coos.

There will, he might add, be plenty more party dresses where that came from if 2003 goes as well as 2002, when his prize-money totalled £450,000. Next week comes the Regal Welsh Open, then the Benson and Hedges Masters.

And in April it's back to The Crucible. But given how much store Ebdon sets by motivation, it occurs to me that he must be less motivated to win a second world championship than he was to win a first. To put it another way, having conquered Everest once, there can't be quite the fire in the belly required to conquer it again. He smiles at my choice of analogy.

"I'm no less motivated than I was last year," he says. "I now want to become the first first-time winner to successfully defend his title at The Crucible. Nobody else has done that."

Such lofty ambitions were well beyond the horizon as Ebdon, now 32, entered his teens. Before he was 14 he had never so much as held a cue, but then a friend of his father's took him for a frame at a club in Holloway, north London. Seeing the green baize for the first time did for him what seeing the pitch at nearby Highbury had done for the young Nick Hornby, the difference being that Hornby didn't go on to grace the turf. Ebdon was instantly hooked.

"I went to Highbury Grove School and I was a reasonably successful student, doing seven O-levels, studying Latin, Ancient Greek, all that sort of thing. And I was pretty good at sport. I'd had cricket trials for London schoolboys as a leg-spinner, I'd swum in the London life-saving team. But none of that was my passion. I didn't know what my passion was until I played snooker. Then I knew that I'd found it.

"So I decided to make a clean break. I left school at 15, which my mum and dad weren't too happy about, and that's understandable. I wouldn't like to see my kids go into professional sport. I'm considered one of the strongest players mentally, but so many times I've thought 'why am I doing this to myself?' The pain and disappointment of getting beat when you've put so much into the preparation for a tournament, it's very hard to take. But with the psychology I've studied, I know that the point at which most people give up is exactly when they should carry on. Napoleon Hill says that nine out of 10 times people have their greatest success one step after their greatest disappointment."

Ebdon joined King's Cross Snooker Club, one of the few at the time to accept junior members. I ask him if he remembers his first century break? I might as well have asked whether he can remember his children's names.

"Table five at King's Cross, against an Indian pro called OB Agrawal. I was 16, I scored 118 and he didn't believe that I'd never got a century break before. That club was a fantastic training ground. Tony Drago, who became a top-16 player, played there. And I learnt a lot from a guy called Joe O'Boye, who never quite made it in the game, but he was a great amateur, a fantastic break-builder."

The King's Cross Snooker Club, I venture, cannot have been the most salubrious of places. "No, there was a lot of gambling there. There's a large Chinese population in King's Cross and they love to gamble. I remember once, when I was about 17, playing this lad for what I thought was 50 quid. I beat him 6-1, and years later I found out there'd been four grand riding on it."

Ebdon, an intense man, doesn't laugh all that much, but this recollection brings a hearty chuckle. By the time he was 17 he was using the cue with which he won at Sheffield, a £20 Steve Davis one-piece Riley, which his parents had bought for him at a sports shop, now long gone, on the Holloway Road. With sublime irony, the first top scalp he collected with it, after turning pro in 1991, was that of Davis. I ask whether I can see this famous piece of maple; he shows it to me with the pride that Ruby-Mae took in her new dress.

"The other thing that felt right before The Crucible," he says, caressing his cue, "was that I had a tip I was happy with, one I knew would last. I've got to semi-finals before and needed a new tip, and you can't be doing that in world championships. It can take two weeks to get used to a new tip, because you get to know the way it throws off on the very fine cloths we play on. Those cloths are so fast and slippery that a valid comparison would be playing on the greens at your local golf club, and playing at Augusta. So you need the right tip, and you never get two tips the same.

"It's funny, people think that if you don't turn up with your usual cue you can just play with another, but it becomes a part of your right arm, more so than golfers with their golf clubs because we're dealing with a natural material, which is affected by temperature, by flying, by air-conditioning..."

Clearly, Ebdon takes an interest in almost every nuance of snooker, yet it is equalled, and perhaps even surpassed, by his interest in horse-racing pedigrees. He has two brood mares at the Collin Stud, in Newmarket, and is as determined to breed Group winners as he was to win the world championship, which doubtless means that he will.

He shows me shelves and shelves of pedigree books and sales catalogues, and says that the deceased person he would most like to have met was not Napoleon Bonaparte or even Napoleon Hill, but the late Harold Hampton, an Englishman based in New Zealand, who in the 1950s wrote books on equine pedigree research that were 50 years ahead of their time.

"He was an absolute genius," Ebdon says. "I spend a lot of time studying champion racehorses, probably a lot more time that I should. I can check lineage going back to 1943. I have a computer system with details of a million horses in the database, and I look forward to doing a lot more breeding in 10 or 15 years when I give up snooker, which I will do as soon as there are 16 players in the world better than me. I won't play if I'm not in the top 16."

While I consider this bold declaration, Ruby-Mae wants her daddy's attention again. It is time for me to leave, although not before asking Ebdon what he would do if he could apply the principles of racehorse-breeding to snooker? What kind of pedigree would he look for in the perfect composite player?

He takes the question seriously, as I knew he would. "I think you need maybe 11 or 12 components to become world champion, and most top players have seven or eight. It's only rarely that someone comes along with 11 or 12, and when they do they lead the field until the field eventually catches up. That's what happened with Davis, and then with Hendry, and now it's more competitive than it's ever been. When I look back I will feel very proud that I was competing at a time when Ronnie O'Sullivan was at his best, Hendry, Jimmy White, Mark Williams, John Higgins, Matthew Stevens...

"But to answer your question about pedigree, I would want someone to pot balls like Mark or Ronnie, to have the match temperament of John Higgins, and the all-round game of Hendry, one of the most complete players ever. But for handling pressure, I'd have to say... myself."

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