Swiss snooker star challenges British domination

Alex Ursenbacher (right) shakes hands with Ronnie O'Sullivan before their match at the Welsh Open in 2019. Ursenbacher caused an upset by defeating arguably the greatest snooker player of all time. Swiss Snooker

Alex Ursenbacher recently created headlines by becoming the first German-speaker to qualify for the snooker World Championships. But can Switzerland’s first and only professional potter earn a living from what remains a niche sport in the country?

This content was published on October 19, 2020 - 15:54

“Well I’m still living with my mum, so I think that says it all,” Ursenbacher tells swissinfo.ch in a break between playing challengers at an exhibition event in Bern.

The 24-year-old comes across more like a chirpy Cockney than someone from Rheinfelden in northern Switzerland. This is because, despite still living in Basel, he’s spent many hours in British snooker clubs, home to the world’s best players – and practice partners.

Ursenbacher says he settled in straight away. “I like the mentality. I like the banter. There’s nothing like English humour – it’s just hilarious.”

Enjoy Ursenbacher admitting, in this interview after qualifying for the World Championships, to feeling the pressure and “twitching all over the gaff” – something you probably won’t hear Roger Federer say (a gaff is London slang for a room or house).

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Ursenbacher has come a long way since picking up a snooker cue for the first time aged 11. He explains how he used to play a bit of pool with his father and one day, having seen snooker on television, he suggested they try that.

“The game went on for about three hours! But I just loved everything about it. I didn’t know the rules and I couldn’t pot a ball for I don’t know how long. But when you do pot a ball it’s a good feeling. And I thought it must be an even better feeling at snooker [than at pool] because the table’s bigger.”

What is snooker, and who plays it?

Snooker originated among British soldiers stationed in India in the 1870s. Here is a basic introduction to the rules.

Only three non-Brits have ever won the World Championship, which has been held since 1927 (ignoring the boycotted tournament in 1952): Cliff Thorburn (Canada, 1980), Ken Doherty (Ireland, 1997) and Neil Robertson (Australia, 2010).

The current Top 30 comprises 16 players from England, 5 from Scotland, 4 from China and 1 from Thailand, Wales, Australia, Northern Ireland and Norway (born in London). The Top 10 is all British apart from one Australian.

Snooker unsuccessfully bid for a place at the 2020 Olympic Games. The World Snooker Federation is now considering the 2024 Games in Paris.

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The balls soon started flying in – and motivation wasn’t a problem, despite having plenty of other things on his plate. “I played tennis. I did martial arts. I played a few instruments. Football. But when I entered the snooker club in Basel there was just something about it. It was so much fun. I just wanted to keep playing all the time – I was up until 3am every night watching snooker on YouTube,” he says.

This day-and-night devotion soon paid off. “Yeah, I started winning some junior club tournaments and a year later I played my first international tournament, in Malta,” he says. “That was the under-19 European Championships. I was standing at the airport with my cue in my hand at the age of 13 and I thought, ‘I could get used to this’.”

Lack of competition

Ursenbacher became Swiss champion aged just 15, which reflects not only his obvious talent but also the lack of serious competition in Switzerland.

“For me, personally, there is no competition,” Ursenbacher says, sounding honest rather than arrogant. “I started winning everything here when I was 14. So that just shows you the standard. I mean, I’m not saying I was crap at the age of 14, but I certainly wasn’t a professional.”

Franz Stähli, president of Swiss Snooker, the national snooker association, says there are about 55 licensed players in Switzerland and about 200 players who take part in small tournaments. “So there are maybe around 250 people who play every week. Pool is a lot more popular because it’s easier, there are more places to play and there are more tables.”

Snooker versus pool

Few online debates are as heated as the one between snooker fans and pool fans over which discipline is harder.

Some snooker fans argue, correctly in swissinfo.ch’s opinion, that the top snooker players would have a reasonable chance of beating the world’s top pool players in a match at pool, whereas the top pool players wouldn’t have a chance if the tables, as it were, were turned. Plus the simple table dimensions (snooker has bigger tables and smaller pockets) mean snooker is more difficult. Would Ursenbacher care to settle the matter?

“That’s an interesting one. You can’t say snooker is more difficult. You definitely need more technique in snooker than in pool – that’s just a fact and you can’t claim otherwise. But I play pool as well – I absolutely love pool – and pool isn’t easy. You can basically lose a whole match if you make one mistake. You can’t do that in snooker: you’ve got a chance in every frame – you have many chances to put your opponent into trouble. But in pool you can break [hit the first shot in the game] and the white goes in, for example. So I don’t think you can really compare pool with snooker. But to all snooker players who say pool is easy, it’s not. You need a lot of skill in both games.”

So, apples and pears to an extent. However, it’s actually a trick question because the hardest cue discipline is in fact swissinfo.ch’s favourite, three-cushion billiards, isn’t it?

“I’ve played three-cushion billiards. I just don’t think you need a lot of skill, because all you need to know is the angles. Obviously you need a bit of cuing – you can’t just go and hit the white any old way – but no.”

Ursenbacher and swissinfo.ch will have to agree to disagree on that issue...

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Stähli, who has known Ursenbacher since he was a junior, owns Benteli’s, the snooker and pool hall just outside Bern where Ursenbacher has agreed to appear for several hours and play anyone who fancies a good thrashing. There are five snooker tables and 11 pool tables.

“Although people in Switzerland knew about snooker and played it in the 1970s and 1980s – there were some private tables in clubs – the start of the big time in Switzerland was the early 1990s,” Stähli says.

“Now it’s more the older people who play – 30 plus or the people like me who started in the 1990s. The point is that Alex has nobody to play [of his own generation].”

Ursenbacher left school at 16 but didn’t start an apprenticeship like many Swiss school-leavers. “If you’re Swiss and you finish school, you can always work. You’re probably not going to have a lot of options, but you can always earn money. So I thought why not just give snooker a good go?”

Turning pro

He turned pro in 2013 aged 17, having won a two-year card on the World Snooker Tour. He lost this in 2015, but in 2017 he won the European Under-21 Snooker Championship and re-qualified for the main tour. 

Alex Ursenbacher

Alex Ursenbacher was born in April 1996 in Rheinfelden, canton Aargau. His father is Swiss, his mother is from the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira.

He became Swiss champion aged 15 and turned professional at 17. At the Welsh Open in 2019 he beat Ronnie O’Sullivan, arguably the greatest snooker player ever. Here is that match.

In July 2020 he became the first German-speaker to qualify for the World Championships.

He plays at the Snooker Club Basel.

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Since then Ursenbacher has beaten many of the game’s biggest names, including former world champions Shaun Murphy, Ken Doherty and even snooker’s Roger Federer, Ronnie O’Sullivan.

And then, the Crucible. The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, northern England, has hosted the World Championships since 1977 and is considered the spiritual home of snooker – the sport’s Wimbledon.

At the end of July, Ursenbacher, then ranked 86 in the world, held his nerve during a gruelling qualification process to knock out several higher-ranked players and become the first Swiss player to reach the World Championship. Something very few non-Brits – and no German or Austrian – have achieved.

“I’d never been to the Crucible. I said to myself, ‘You’re only going to go there if you’re playing’.”

One possible dampener was the fact that, being held during the Covid-19 pandemic, there was no live audience – just two players, two camera operators and the referee.

“When I walked out, it was good. I was excited. But once I sat down, I realised that actually it was quite sad.” Was he nervous? “Nothing. I was surprised, actually. I didn’t feel anything. When I was 9-2 down that’s when the nerves started kicking in because I realised that one mistake now and I could be out of the tournament. But before that, I was as cool as a cucumber.”

Despite taking the first game, Ursenbacher ended up losing 10-2 to the experienced former finalist Barry Hawkins. “But overall it was definitely a positive experience,” he says.

In this video he looks back at his Crucible experience and explains what separates the men from the boys:

Earning a living

As a first-round loser in Sheffield, Ursenbacher pocketed £20,000 (CHF23,700). Eventual winner O’Sullivan left with £500,000. This is very good money compared with pool: the winner of the US Open 9-Ball gets $60,000 (CHF54,600). Mind you, these sums are dwarfed by the cheque for $3 million written to the winner of the US Open tennis championship.

He says it’s certainly possible to earn a good living from snooker, but you probably have to be in the top 30. “Obviously your goal isn’t to earn just four grand a month because there’s no pension in snooker. So you need to earn a few quid before you retire.”

To that end, Ursenbacher practises up to six hours a day, five or six days a week. “You don’t want to go to a tournament and feel rusty. You need to be hungry and push yourself all the time.” He adds that it’s very much a psychological game and confidence is vital. “In my opinion, more than 85% [of snooker] is inside the head.”

Ursenbacher’s achievement in Sheffield was no surprise in expert circles. “Insiders have long believed him capable of this. It’s very impressive to see such a talent come out of little Switzerland. Everything he did was of a really, really high standard. Even though he lost in the World Championships, it was still a very impressive match,” Stähli says.

“But he is still nowhere. His goal must be to establish himself in the top 50 over a longer period.”

Stähli, 49, used to be a strong player himself, boasting a top break of 139 (out of a possible 147 – Ursenbacher’s top break is 141). Having himself played against O’Sullivan and Scottish star Stephen Hendry, he stresses the importance of moving to Britain for young ambitious players.

“Alex still spends a lot of time in Switzerland. But what he needs is a perfect practice table. He needs competition. He needs a club with a high standard where he knows he could walk in and maybe lose ten times in one day. That’s what’s missing here.”

Plan B?

Whereas the snooker scene in Switzerland is “small but healthy”, as Stähli put it, in Asia it’s booming, especially in China. Snooker is so popular in mainland China that it’s on the school sports curriculum. More and more young Chinese players are breaking into the top 100.

“I’ve been to China seven or eight times,” Ursenbacher says. “We’re treated like kings! It’s actually quite confusing sometimes because I don’t feel like I’m a great player yet – I know I’m professional and there are only 128 professionals in the world and only 64 go to China for each event. But still, they treat us very well. Snooker’s very, very big in China.”

But all the travelling required of professional athletes is not only physically but also financially demanding. Four years ago swissinfo.ch spoke to an up-and-coming 19-year-old Swiss tennis player ranked 527 in the world (he was the highest-ranked Swiss player under 21). He said that if he was 26 and still ranked only 400 or so, he’d probably give up tennis because of the money (he’s currently ranked 549). Does Ursenbacher, now ranked 66 after his success in Sheffield, have a similar target or a plan B in case the snooker doesn’t work out?

“I’m just trying to do what I love, because if I couldn’t make a living out of snooker, I don’t know if I’d care what I’d have to do to earn money – whether it was behind a bar or behind a desk. I’m a sociable person, so I’d probably be behind a bar somewhere in a club,” he says.

“But as long as I can play snooker and make a few quid, I’m going to do that.”

[A previous version of this article said Alex Ursenbacher was not the first Swiss snooker professional because Darren Paris had played on the pro circuit in the mid-1990s. In fact Darren Paris represented England on the pro circuit before moving to Switzerland, becoming Swiss and playing in amateur tournaments. Alex Ursenbacher is the first and only Swiss snooker professional.]

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