As readers may be aware, former world number 7 and current incumbent of one of the prized seats in the BBC commentary box Willie Thorne has recently released his autobiography ‘Taking a Punt On My Life’ which looks back at the highs and lows of his at times turbulent life to date.
First things first, I can already hear the voices saying ‘hang on a minute, hasn’t Willie already brought a book out?’ Indeed I was one of them when I first heard about the new title and yes, seven years ago Willie did release a copy of his first book, Double or Quits.
Upon reading Taking a Punt on My Life however it is evident that a lot has happened during those intervening years for Willie Thorne and that at close to double the size in terms of page numbers, the new title does offer a far deeper look into the life of the man known to many as ‘Mr Maximum.’
Given the title of the book it may come as no surprise to hear that the focus of the book is very much on the addiction to gambling that one Monday afternoon in March 2002 led Thorne to attempt to take his own life as described over the course of the opening two chapters.
“The television was on, but the sound and pictures meant nothing to me. I couldn’t tell you what was on or what it was about. I can’t remember having any last thoughts in my head as I started to swallow the sleeping pills, washing them down with water.”
The attempt came following the culmination of several years of gambling, of attempting to ‘beat the system’ as Willie often refers to, which left him feeling that there was no way out from his problems.
In the early years there were highs, such as the success of a horse called ‘Treasure’s Jubilee’ which he had co-owned at the time:
“As the horse went over the line I felt like jumping in the air, but somehow I stopped myself from doing so. I couldn’t have been happier or more contented with life during that split second when I realised that Treasure’s Jubilee was the winner. The money was great, but it was more than that. I suppose it had a lot to do with that old feeling which I never tired of, that feeling of beating the system.”
The highs were however were eventually to be overshadowed by the lows and while at the time Thorne claims not to have accepted the fact that he was addicted to gambling and the consequences that this would later have, now describing his behaviour at the time as ‘short-sighted and stupid’ it is evident that he now realises the full extent of the situation that he had found himself in.
As stated previously, much of the book carefully recollects Thorne’s addiction and the various forms in which this would manifest itself, such as horse racing, backgammon and ultimately shares. Thorne states that it was the latter shares incident which would prove to be the final straw for him, while the now infamous incident involving a match between John Parrott and Ken Doherty during the Scottish Masters was also a devastating blow to him.
Thorne also explains that rather than choosing to ignore his past, he has decided to explore it and in doing so for this book it is evident that he deeply regrets not only the decision to attempt his own life, but the events that led him to reach this point and he is keen to stress that he does not want sympathy for his actions.
Happily however the book ends on a positive note as he explains how with the support of his friend John Hayes and a loan of £100,000 from a businessman who Willie had opened up to during a round of golf, he has now managed to overcome his problems and is determined to take the chance that he has been given to rebuild his life.
“I might have wanted to kill myself once upon a time, but that is all behind me now. I have a lot to live for and I want to stay fit and healthy.”
As well as his off the table troubles however, another aspect of the book is of course that of his playing career which as he admits himself saw him fail to achieve the level of success that his talented perhaps warranted. Thorne describes himself as at one point following his sole ranking event triumph at the 1985 Mercantile Credit Classic as being ‘probably the second-best’ player around.’
“I under-achieved and know I should have won more…I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t think about what might have been. If only I could have got past that quarter-final stage in the World Championship during the two years I reached it.”
A common theme during the book, indeed I counted at least seven references to it terms of his playing career was Thorne’s self-confessed ‘mental fragility’ in tournament play.
“I would often ‘twitch’ (mess up shots I would normally expect to get) at vital stages of an important match and I didn’t have the mental strength I should have had to go with my natural talent.”
This was particularly the case during the famous UK Championship final against Steve Davis where leading 13-8, Thorne gave himself he chance to move 14-8 ahead only to miss a simple blue off the spot.
Davis would eventually go on to win the match 16-14 and as Thorne explains this was a hugely significant result in the context of his career.
“Defeat in that match was a big turning point for me. Even though I went on to have other successes, I began to doubt myself. Deep down I knew that all the excuses I might have made to myself in the past didn’t really wash anymore. My bottle had gone against Davis; there was no way of dressing it up, not even to myself, and no matter what sort of front I put on in the future, deep down I knew what had happened and I think key part of my original game – an unshakeable confidence in my ability – went.”
Insofar as snooker is concerned Willie also recounts tales from the circuit, particularly during his early years such as the rise of Pot Black and the important of this tournament to him, while he also remembers the time that he locked horns with the great Fred Davis at the working men’s club in Evington.
Overall the book is a well-written and honest account of the life of Willie Thorne during which he opens up to the events that led him to rock bottom and how he has since been able to turn his fortunes around.
From the perspective of a snooker fan I would have perhaps liked to have heard more about his playing career, his commentary career or his thoughts upon the current crop of players. While snooker is of course covered however, the focus of the book is very much on his addiction to gambling and bearing in mind the depth of his problems, understandably so.