An old colleague of mine used to wonder at snooker's propensity for propagating the long-time survival of the disturbed, erratic genius. I reasoned that its non-combative nature was perhaps the genetic source. After all, it's hardly in the spirit of this noble art to throw a punch, smash a ball past a rival, tackle them headlong, or even ride them off the road.
Instead, when your opponent is attacking you (or "break-building", as I believe is the popular term) you just have to sit back in your seat and take it quietly. And in the absence of any cathartic way to fight back or rage, many exponents of the game - above all, the supremely talented ones - can be left with some unresolved issues.
The progenitor of the species was Alex Higgins, snooker's original bad boy. His towering but tottering talent eventually came crashing down around him in a heady mix of delusion, remorse and alcohol. The Hurricane whipped his audiences into a frenzy and divided public opinion like few sportsmen before him, as he struggled to discover whether his genius was a gift or a curse. But for all his dazzling play (two World Championships hardly do justice to his skills), wayward tendencies and curious sound bites, Higgins became enduringly The People's Champion.
Even before Higgins was gathered to God, another was there to take up his mantle. And Jimmy White enjoyed a gentler DNA to his own flawed genius, which made him more endearing. No less talented, his genius with the cue was never matched with the killer instinct to pull off a World Championship.
Of course, The Whirlwind had the misfortune to ply his trade during the game's golden era, where the more prosaic and stable minds of Steve Davis and Hendry would help render him The Crucible's bridesmaid no fewer than six times. White was the modern-day Sisyphus, condemned by the gods of the green baize to forever push his boulder up a mountainside only for it to roll back down just as it reached the peak.
Who could find joy in such a struggle where one is always left a ****-paper shy of greatness? Booze and depression were inevitably the demons that circled, but so pure was his love of the game that White has been able to return to the battlefield time and time again. His eternal labour continues.
However, neither of these two geniuses was forced to scale the brick wall of neuroses that faced Ronnie O'Sullivan. The Rocket has taken characteristics, both disreputable and redeeming, from his forefathers, added his own, and then fused them with an ability that surpasses all before it.
O'Sullivan's own father also brought a heavy burden to bear. Ronnie Senior served 18 years for murder and was only released this week, having been imprisoned when his son was 16. Since then, O'Sullivan has often struggled with guilt. His performances and titles at the table were a way to keep his dad going through the dark times. So if he lost - or didn't win in style - more excruciating self-blame and reproach would follow for failing his father.
A spell in The Priory and some psychotherapy-speak have at least saved snooker's major draw from himself and papered over the cracks of his tormented talent. The game certainly needs Ronnie at a time when its reinvention is required to attract a public basking in quick-fix culture. O'Sullivan has already proven himself the master of the game's new high-speed formats like Power Snooker (snooker's answer to 20/20 cricket) and the stop-clock of The Premier League. The latter competition draws to its thrilling climax this weekend on Sky Sports and O'Sullivan is rightfully installed the 2.02 favourite to win his seventh crown (and 1.47 to beat Neil Robertson in Saturday's semi-final).
No event is better tailored to O'Sullivan's skills than the Premier League. It diminishes his lofty expectations for perfection, alleviates his boredom, and makes a virtue of his ambidextrous cuing and rapid-fire play. The layers among you will doubtless counter that he too readily sows the seeds of his own destruction. You may be right. But odds against for a genius in a field of four seem fair enough to me. Even a mad genius.
By Romilly Evans
(Read more at betting.betfair.com)