Jimmy White: ‘If I didn’t think I could still win the world title, I’d stop playing’

‘The Whirlwind’ was the biggest snooker talent of his generation – and an equally prodigious party animal. Now he admits he got addicted to crack. So why did he press the self-destruct button?

If I’d read Jimmy White’s new autobiography before setting off to Leicester to meet him, I would have known to pack a toothbrush.

On the eve of publication, most authors follow a disciplined publicity schedule, and so I naively imagine that our interview will take place at 7pm as arranged. But White approaches self-promotion with the same shambolic carelessness that characterised his snooker career.Having finished his book by the time I arrive, I’m not the least surprised to learn that he is still somewhere on an unidentified motorway. Each time I call his mobile number (which ends 147147, of course) he is both charming and quite unflustered, and eventually we sit down together in the Holiday Inn bar a little before 11pm.

I’m not even sure why we’re in Leicester. He’s carrying a battered old cue case, which he duly brandishes for the photographer, but he isn’t here to play snooker. He has driven up from Surrey for some “meetings”, he explains vaguely. About what? “Gritting.” Gritting? He’s gone into business with “some Indians” who have cornered the market in grit for icy roads, apparently. Might he not want to focus on publicising his book, I suggest? He grins. “Well, I was going to do some of that next week, but I’ve had to cancel it.” A snooker tournament has come up instead. Having just written a book about how he blew his dazzling talent on drink and drugs and mayhem for the past 30 years, White feels confident that at 52 he could yet still become the world champion. “Oh yeah,” he nods. “If I didn’t think I could still win it, I’d stop playing.”

When he first electrified the stuffy world of snooker in the early 80s, winning the world title looked like a formality. Fans fell in love with a recklessly daring working-class lad who’d been bunking off school since the age of nine to play in dodgy south London snooker dives. If only the renegade image had been a clever PR invention, White might well have won his first world championship final back in 1984. Unfortunately, as Second Wind reveals, he was in fact considerably wilder than we could ever have imagined.

The book is a riot of a read, cataloguing a rampage of wilful self-destruction. Pathologically hostile to authority, including his own managers, White sabotaged his promise and ambition by gambling away every penny he won, drinking himself to oblivion, progressing to heavy cocaine use and – at the early height of his career – becoming addicted to crack. The crack addiction only lasted one month, but that was long enough for him to blow £30,000 on it. He began weaning himself off cocaine in 1994, and is vague about exactly when he quit it for good. He thinks he probably spent £200,000 on it. Gambling, he estimates, cost him more like £2m.

By any standards, let alone the anodyne culture of contemporary sport, the revelations are jaw-dropping. According to White, until the Sun splashed with them on Monday, only four or five of his closest friends had known about his class-A drug use. His five children had no idea until he told them, before the story broke. Nor had their mother, his ex-wife Maureen, who had been with him throughout the cocaine years.

“I was just a good fucking liar. I’d pretend I was playing poker when I was doing the charlie. You can play poker for days, and I used to play poker, so she would phone up and I’d say I was playing poker. I was a pig, you know. I was a professional rat. Unless I’d told everyone, it would have gone to the grave.”

The first obvious question is why he has finally decided to come clean. The answer, however, is opaque. “I thought if I got out what I’ve been up to for the last 30 years ...” he offers. “I just thought I’d get it out there, bits and pieces, you know?” I don’t think White is being deliberately evasive. It feels more as if, even after 30 years of professional fame, he still observes the conversational code of the pubs he grew up in, where only a mug would give a stranger a straight answer.

young jim
White holds aloft the Masters trophy after defeating Terry Griffiths 9-5 in the 1984 final. Photograph: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

Since the news of his drug use broke on Monday, he says, “A lot of people have been in touch with me who are really shocked by it. It’s been mental. Mostly they want to know if I’m OK.” He’s been worried about what some of his fans would think. “The old ladies, the armchair fans, I was a bit concerned about them.” One of his brothers has been angry with him, and when Steve Davis, his old rival and nemesis, called “on crack Monday”, White wondered what he was going to say. “He always used to have that smirk, didn’t he? We used to call him The Smirk. But he just said, ‘Are we still on for that exhibition match in December?’ He had no idea, he hadn’t seen the papers. So I just said, yeah, I’ll see you in December.”

White reveals that he smoked crack with Kirk Stevens, a young Canadian player, and although his great friend and hero Alex Higgins “liked the weed, but he didn’t like cocaine”, he’s certain no other player touched drugs. “Well, Steve Davis was on it all the time,” he jokes, deadpan. “Now that would be a story, wouldn’t it?” But he swears he always stopped taking cocaine six days before a snooker match to make sure he would pass a drug test – and since he never failed a test, this is probably true. But to admit he’d taken cocaine while competing might risk incurring some sort of retrospective penalty, so I ask if he would, hypothetically, confess to it if he had. “I didn’t do it when I was playing,” he insists. “I couldn’t play stoned, it wouldn’t work. I would play a competition, get beat, and then sort of binge until the next tournament. In a way, sometimes I was quite pleased when I got beat, ’cos then I could do my antics.”

Some of the things he says still make me wonder. At 17 frames all in the 1994 world championship final, with one deciding frame left to play, he writes that he “nipped to the toilets to compose myself”. Is that a euphemism for sneaking a line of cocaine? “Well, if you watch Kirk a few times – but he wouldn’t have been stupid enough to have done it while he was playing,” is White’s puzzling reply. In 1985, an opponent accused Stevens of using stimulants, but White says quickly, “Well, he was 7-1 up and all of a sudden Kirk made it 7-6, but it was just an excuse.” Stevens confessed to his drug problem shortly afterwards and sought treatment. Did the confession panic White? “Yeah, I thought, yeah. He was my man.” But White wasn’t worried for himself, he says, because “I actually wasn’t on it that particular year”.

White’s drug memories are understandably so hazy that it’s hard to get clarity. “I got loads of years and times wrong in the book,” he volunteers cheerfully. “I just can’t remember.” But he can be quite contradictory, even when talking about the present. “I’m such an addictive personality that I can say yes or no. Even though I’m weak when I’m doing [cocaine], before I do it I can say no and not do it. People could be doing it around me and it wouldn’t freak me out,” he says at one point – then, minutes later, “I’m very wary of being anywhere where it’s there. I’ve got to be careful.”

But some of his most outlandishly startling stories have nothing to do with drugs, and are too fantastical to be anything but true. One Sunday morning two henchman – “great elephants” – appeared at White’s door and bundled him off to HMP Parkhurst to visit a fan, Ronnie Kray. The pair took tea together in a private room – finger sandwiches served on fine china, and cakes arranged on a tiered stand – “like a Ritz tea! It was fucking hilarious”. One solitary guard was present; Kray wore a crisp tailored suit. “And his knowledge of snooker was phenomenal!”

A young White faces his hero, Alex Higgins, in 1982.

On another memorable occasion, the night before White’s brother’s funeral, he broke into the funeral home, carried his brother’s corpse out to a car and drove him 10 miles to another brother’s house, where they drank and played cards beside the body before returning him to the funeral parlour in a taxi in the early hours. “He was stiff, so we must have bent him to get him into the taxi. I can’t really remember how, we was all well oiled.”

White hopes his book will put people off trying cocaine, but it strikes me that his much bigger problems have been gambling and drinking. He admits he continues to indulge in both, but says that he does so only rarely and in moderation – which seems astonishing, and would confound the theory that the only solution to addiction is abstinence. But I suspect that all of White’s various addictions were only ever functions of a much more fundamental problem.

He was, by almost universal consent, the most naturally gifted player of his generation. But despite reaching the world championship finals six times, he never won the title. White blames cocaine, and thinks he would have won 10 times had he never touched the drug, but I’m not convinced. All his raucous tales of gratuitous youthful delinquency – lying to managers, turning up drunk, refusing to practise – suggest that he was sabotaging his career long before he ever snorted his first line.

“Yeah, absolutely,” he agrees. “Everything for me was to beat the system, the way I played was to beat the system. People were always trying to help me, managers were trying to keep me in my room, but I’d be out the window. I was terrible. I just thought I was that good it didn’t matter if I didn’t win this time. I’d win next year. I was an arsehole, a total arsehole. Because I could do things on the snooker table that no other player could do, I just had this sort of self-destruct button in me. It was the fight for the ultimate buzz all the time. That’s why I got addicted to cocaine and gambling, because I was always trying to push it, to win the hard way. But in the end, it kind of fucked me, because it was too hard for me to do it. I was a mug. I was just a fucking mug.”

By a curious coincidence, while we are talking, a TV in the bar is broadcasting a documentary about White’s life. In old footage from the 80s, he looks almost unrecognisable, but this has a lot to do with a later and disastrous hair transplant, in which surgeons simply tugged his bald patch together. “It was awful, like a semi face lift – my chin went one way, my eyes went the other. We sued them and actually closed them down. The worst thing was I had a driver at the time who was bald, and they had a trainee have a go on him, and he was worse than me. It was literally like something out of Frankenstein.” White has to wear a weave to disguise the scar – “you could slot a coin in it” – but he’s been impressed by Wayne Rooney’s more successful transplant, “So I’m looking into doing that Rooney stuff.”

As he speaks, he glances up at his youthful former self on the TV. When he does so, I try to read his expression, but it is blank. Watching him play, I’m not sure that deep down he really wanted to win. “Maybe in a way I didn’t,” he agrees. “Or I wasn’t ready to win.”

But now, he says, he is. The pathos of White’s ambition at 52 is so poignant that I can scarcely bear it – but his apparent obliviousness to it is so moving that in spite of myself, I can’t help daring to hope.

“I’m playing really well, things are starting to happen for me on the table again. The last six or seven years I’ve been going to Europe, China, doing all these demonstrations and making a lot of money, but I’ve not been giving myself a chance to play properly, play tournaments and give myself a chance to win. So I think it’s time now.”

Second Wind: My Autobiography by Jimmy White (£18.99) is published by Trinity Mirror Sport Media

Contributor

Decca Aitkenhead

The GuardianTramp

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