Jimmy White: ‘I’d such fun, even though I can’t remember much’
After overcoming cancer and losing six world championship finals he is still grinding away
Jimmy White during the BetVictor Snooker Shoot Out earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images
“I’m flying,” Jimmy White says with that cheeky old grin. He pats his waistcoat, loosens his tie and looks ready to celebrate his 39 years as a professional snooker player and the even more incredible fact he is still here one early morning in Sheffield. After overcoming cancer, crack, a gambling habit that cost him over a million pounds and the heartache of losing six world championship finals, the Whirlwind is ready to show off his much younger girlfriend and his renewed determination to keep playing.
As always with White, a residue of hurt lingers. Just before his 57th birthday he had hoped to return to the Crucible in the world championship, which began on Saturday. After winning his first qualifying match, White faced the world No 19, Ali Carter. White zipped into a brief lead before his dream died with a 10-4 defeat.
“I’m disappointed,” White says, his smile crinkling into a grimace. “I didn’t produce and that’s sickening. It’s frustrating because, at my age, I’m not expected to win. But I prepared well, making 147s in practice, and I’m 3-1 up. I’m in control and then little errors creep in. Maybe I put too much pressure on myself, because I’d been practising really hard for three months. I might have burnt myself out.”
White lost nine of the next 10 frames. “He got his confidence back,” he says of Carter. “This game is very mental and I lost focus. So if I have to go to Q School to get back on tour I will. But if they give me another wildcard to stay on tour I’ll practise five hours a day so I’m ready.”
I’d be a great cocaine policeman. I can spot people on it from miles away
If I am stunned that White, such a gifted player in his prime, wants to keep grinding away, the Whirlwind seems blown away to have survived this long. When we remember Alex Higgins, his fellow snooker genius and reprobate who died in 2010, White suggests that losing their epic semi-final at the worlds might have saved him.
“I would’ve died if I’d beaten Higgins and won the world championship in 1982 because I’d just found cocaine and I liked to drink,” he says. “I always liked cocaine – whether drunk or sober. It was no one’s fault but my own. I’d just become famous, because we only had four channels in them days and, instead of queuing round the block to get into a West End nightclub, I was getting the treatment. I had such fun, even though I can’t remember much.”
Years of cocaine use led to the dark spiral of crack. “I’d knock about with Kirk Stevens [the former snooker pro from Canada] and he’d be on crack. One day I tried it. It’s the most addictive thing ever. Kirk had no idea how to get cocaine. But I’d come from the street, so I knew 20 dealers. For me to get cocaine was easy. So I became hooked on crack for a few months. It’s like being an alcoholic. The first hit is the best – like your first drink. When you’re smoking crack it’s pure but you never hold on to that first hit either.”
How did he kick crack? “I couldn’t get any money out one night. I had drained one account completely. I got the heebie-jeebies. I had a day trying to think and then I knew. I had to stop.”
White laughs. “I’d be a great cocaine policeman. I can spot people on it from miles away. So I stayed away from them because I shat myself. I’d let a lot of people down.”
How is Stevens? “Kirk’s a tree-surgeon now. He’s fit. He’s happy.”
White is also cheerful. “I don’t drink. Don’t smoke,” he says before turning to his girlfriend, Jade Slusarczyk, a 32-year-old who used to be a walk-on girl at darts tournaments. “If we have a bottle of wine I want to start dancing in the restaurant.” White cackles and then, after he and Jade stress their sobriety, he says: “I’ve got five grandkids. And I’ve got Jade. I keep her away from Specsavers.”
Higgins, in contrast, could not save himself. “I first played Alex in an exhibition when I was 13,” White remembers. “He came to a working men’s club in Balham, which my dad ran, and tried to chat my sister up. So my brother wanted to knock him out. It was the most horrendous first meeting with your hero ever. I should’ve known.
“But the only time I fell out with Higgins was when I had a mansion in Surrey. Swimming pool, snooker room. Higgins came over and we went drinking. My friend drove us in a Mini Metro. We were drinking all day and I decided to drive after another two gallons of wine – for which I apologise. I crashed into a wall. The windscreen flipped out and Higgins, who never wore a seatbelt, flew out.”
White shakes his head. “Higgins stands up and he’s shouting: ‘I’ve got nine lives, baby!’ I’m feeling sober now and I drive to my house … the windscreen wipers are attacking us. I drive into the garage and the engine falls out. If we’d been driving we could have been seriously hurt. But Higgins is flying, saying, ‘This is great!’
“After I get my friend to pick up the windscreen, because it’s got my name on the tax disc, I feel safe. But I’m not ready for Higgins. He takes me to the snooker table and says: ‘Let’s play for money, baby.’ He wouldn’t stop. I threw him out. He knew the neighbour and I didn’t get on so he went next door and said I’d attacked him. That was Higgins.”
What happened when they next saw each other? “He said: ‘Hello, babes. How are ya?’ He had ways where you’d be fuming with him and then he’d say something and you’d forget about it.”
In the grip of throat cancer, Higgins barely ate in the last months. “It was horrific,” White says. “As much as me and his sisters done things for him it was no good. They did far more than me, obviously, but he fell out with them. So he wasn’t found for 10 days. He died of malnutrition. It was horrendous.”
White and the sisters had raised money to buy a new set of teeth for Higgins’s ravaged mouth. “We raised three chunks of money for him,” White says. “But you give money to a gambler it’s like giving heroin to a junkie. The money just made him eager to gamble more. I think Guinness kept him alive – the iron in it – because he wasn’t eating much. He was his own worst enemy.”
The funeral was delayed to allow White to return from Thailand. “When I got the call saying he had died, I was numb. It was evil.” White helped carry Higgins’ coffin and “4,000 people lined the streets. It was unbelievable – but so sad.”
Higgins’s last world championship title came in 1982 when, in that unforgettable semi-final, White was 15-14 ahead. White was 51-0 up in the next frame, which would have won him the match, when he gave Higgins, who had been drinking heavily, a chance. Taking on shots that needed outrageous courage and daring, Higgins cleared the table with a break of 69. “That was his best. There were three or four shots in there which – under the pressure – will never be repeated. The drunker he got, the calmer he got.”
White looks away, lost in the memory. “I was in awe of him. I was watching my hero playing. That clearance is the best ever made.”
Snooker fans drool over the brilliance of Higgins, White and Ronnie O’Sullivan. But who does White consider the best of a troubled trio? “O’Sullivan. I’ve probably got more natural talent than both of them. But what O’Sullivan done was special. He took a bit of Higgins, a bit of me and a bit of [Steve] Davis, and made his game complete. Perhaps his greatest gift is his positional play.
“I fancy Ronnie winning the worlds again this time but it’s going to be one of the best world championships. I’ve come from this minefield of qualifying and every one of the 16 who qualified are super match-sharp. Last year Ali Carter beat O’Sullivan in the first round. So he can be vulnerable early but the longer it goes the harder it will be for anyone to stop Ronnie.”
On my 50th birthday the Rolling Stones played at my party at Grosvenor House. That’s not bad for a kid from Tooting
White and O’Sullivan make a fine punditry partnership on Eurosport. “Yeah, we have a bit of fun. It’s not so serious. The BBC is a little bit predictable but with me and Ronnie you’re not sure. I really enjoy working as a pundit.”
Surely he wishes he was playing rather than watching? “Yeah, I feel sick sometimes. Obviously I’d love to be playing.”
This year marks the 25th anniversary of White’s sixth and last world championship final which he lost 18-17 to Stephen Hendry. In the deciding frame White only needed to sink a few more balls to secure his first world title when he missed a straightforward black. “He was 16-14 up, but I won the next two frames and it was there for me in the last. But I twitched on the black. In snooker you’ve only got to slightly move your head to find trouble. It’s probably the abuse that’s gone through my body that gives the sudden movement.
“But my life’s totally different now. I want to produce some of the snooker I show at exhibitions. I played Ronnie on the Legends tour and held my own for 10 nights. You can’t do that unless you’ve still got it – because Ronnie’s the best player I’ve ever seen. So I just want to get back to the Crucible.”
White speaks so endearingly it prompts a cliched question. If he had the chance would he do anything differently? “I would have prepared differently before big matches but I wouldn’t change my life. I’ve had a right crack. On my 50th birthday the Rolling Stones played at my party at Grosvenor House. That’s not bad for a kid from Tooting.”
We swap contact details and I smile when I see his number ends in 147147. It seems just right for the maestro but I fear the end for White. Q school is a notoriously difficult route into the main tour as it is filled with hungry young players from around the world.
On Saturday evening, as a beautiful day fades away, my phone pings. I see White’s name. He needs two tries to send me the glorious news as the first text suggests he has won a “tool” card. I imagine him chuckling as he rails against predictive text in his second message. Then, saying “I’m delighted”, the polite old charmer confirms he did not need a wildcard to avoid Q School. World Snooker, knowing how much they need his enduring popularity, have returned his full tour card. He will be back playing after the world championship.
I think of Alex Higgins shouting “I’ve got nine lives, baby!” after their drunken car crash. His great friend has escaped the end again. Jimmy White, the Whirlwind from Tooting, will savour every last drop of life he has left in snooker.
Watch snooker’s world championship live on Eurosport and Eurosport Player