Jimmy White's jungle noises give snooker a big break | Anna Kessel

Snooker's comeback king feels his sport can be a craze again, thanks to the revivalist powers of Barry Hearn

Jimmy White chews thoughtfully on a chocolate-coated cockroach and lets out a little sigh. "The things I do for Barry Hearn, eh?" he says. It was the new chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association's idea to have White doing bush tucker trials at the Rainforest Cafe in London this week to promote the Masters, which begins at Wembley tomorrow.

White is a wildcard at the tournament but, washing locust legs down with a swig of tea, he does not seem too thrilled about the promo. "Can't be as bad as looking up Jordan's skirt!" says Hearn's son. 'The Whirlwind' does not seem so sure.

Fresh out of the I'm A Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here! jungle, the 47-year-old's voice is barely audible under the canopy of parrot squawks, monkey screeches, waterfalls, and tropical thunderstorm effects at the West End cafe as he recalls his experiences.

"I made a lot of new friends in there. Me and Gino [D'Acampo, the celebrity chef] and George [Hamilton, the American actor] had a great camaraderie because we were the oldest three blokes. If there was a bit of tension we'd nip it in the bud." But what made him think it would be a good idea to go into the jungle in the first place? "Well, snooker had been a bit quiet for a while …" he says, before launching into an anecdote about a one-eyed horse.

"To get to the camp they stuck me on a horse that was blind in his left eye! We had to go down these hills, and for him to see over this ledge sort of thing he had to keep moving his head like that just to see out of his eye!" At this, White mimes precariously balancing in the saddle. "I'd never ridden a horse before and we was on them for three hours. When we got to the camp I laid on the bed and I thought, 'What have I done? What have I come here for? I've not come here for the money, what am I doing here?' My body was aching."

In contemplative mood, the nation's favourite snooker player, who finished third in the reality series' public vote behind D'Acampo and Kim Woodburn (the celebrity cleaner), muses on how his life changed dramatically after that. "Not so long ago I was thinking of moving to somewhere hot and just playing bad golf," he says, "But being in the jungle gave me a lot of time to think and now that's the last thing on my mind. I really do want to pursue my career in snooker, and now Barry Hearn's involved the excitement's come back and I'm absolutely buzzing." What if Hearn hadn't got on board? "I would have played on until I was about 50, and then – if the game hadn't changed – I would have walked away from it. I wouldn't even have considered commentating."

White looks serious, and there is a sadness in his voice as he considers how the game has changed over a professional career that spans three decades. Back in 1981, when White first played in the world championship, it was boom time for snooker. As many as 18 million viewers would camp out in front of their television sets to watch and snooker players were household names – they even had top-10 hits. But the sport has changed. The money has dried up, the crowds have fizzled out, and snooker is fast appearing outdated. "It was depressing to see it go back to Pontins for the qualifying round last year," White says. "I used to go there when I was 13 and there used to be 1,600 people playing snooker tournaments. You go there now for qualifying and you're in a cubicle with a table, a referee, and 10 people watching. That's depressing.

"We've got to the stage where there was no players' room, there was nothing going on. Things have just got worse and worse. Snooker's only popular in China now. Well China's OK to go to once or twice a year but to go and play six or seven tournaments there is too much.

"But I'm sure Barry will change all that. Hopefully we'll have a proper calendar with ranking tournaments spread all over. And everyone will know where they're going to be each month – because for the last five years no one's even known where they're going to play. Snooker's got a chance to grow now. Barry's got a lot of hard work to do but if anyone can do it Barry can."

That's all very well, but has the downward spiral turned the next generation off pursuing a career in the sport? "Absolutely," White says. "I mean what's the point of them becoming professional snooker players? If there's not much money in the game, if there's no guarantee of future tournaments, if no one knows what's going on."

Suddenly distracted, White jumps up to greet a young woman coming down the stairs. "Hello!" he says, hurrying to fetch an extra chair before pulling her in for a kiss, and then a joke about what "disgusting" things he's just eaten. His new girlfriend is probably too young to remember the days of snooker's past glories, but in her company he looks the happiest he has been all afternoon. "She won't marry me, though," he says, in mock indignation, "she says I'm too ugly."

Barry Hearn, the celebrity jungle, the new girlfriend, all seem to have given White a new lease of life. But in a sense White has always been the comeback king. The best snooker player never to win a professional world championship title – "although making the final six times is something to be proud of" – not only did his career require tenacity, but his personal life did, too. In the mid-90s White suffered three torrid years: first he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, then he lost his brother Martin to lung cancer, and then his mother died the following year. Away from the baize he struggled to maintain focus, whether it was suffering from plantar fasciitis – a foot condition that left him in agony if he stood for too long – or going on notorious drinking benders with Alex Higgins or Ronnie Wood, the Rolling Stones guitarist.

He says those crazy days are gone now. "I have more motivation now than I ever did. I used to be jack the lad, I was out a lot, I was mainly waking up with hangovers at tournaments rather than preparing … of course the newspapers exaggerated a lot of that. I do like to have a drink, I like to have a good time, and Ronnie's a good friend of mine, but it's all exaggerated. I don't drink now during tournaments. We've got the Masters, and I shall be on the practice table every morning. Them days of waking up not feeling too good they're all gone. You can't change the past, but you can do your best in the future."

White says the celebrity jungle experience changed him. Not because he earned money, or gained extra publicity – "I've always been famous, anyway" – but in a more profound sense. "It was an opportunity just to find out about myself. I found out that I can be a lot calmer, I've slowed down quite a bit since I've been out of there. I'm usually terrible in traffic, I'm terrible if I'm late where, when I was young, I didn't really care. I've gone back to that and I think that's healthy."

But realistically what can an ageing player ranked 56 in the world expect to achieve? White's response is bright and breezy. "I want to get in the top 32 so I only have to play one round before the TV cameras, and I want to win tournaments. I want to prove to myself I can win another rankings tournament, my last one was in 2004, before that was 1998, so there's a six-year gap between each one. Being in the Masters is the perfect place I want to be."

Tomorrow White takes on Mark King, ranked 16 in the world, attempting to make it past the opening round for the first time in five years. It is going to be a long shot, but White says he is optimistic. "This is where I want to be. Do I have any regrets about my life? No. If I could go back the only thing I would change is to have prepared more. But I've had an amazing life and I'm still here, I've got a beautiful girlfriend and lovely kids. What more could I want?"


Anna Kessel

The GuardianTramp

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