For the man bringing Cyprus onto the sport’s world stage success is a result of practice over talent. THEO PANAYIDES meets a player who says if you enjoy something, just do it
Here’s all you need to know about Michael Georgiou: “My daily routine is, I get to the snooker club where I practise in Leytonstone, in East London – a place called Legends Academy – I normally get there for about 10-10.30 in the morning, and I don’t leave there until 9pm.”
Does he do this every day?
“Six days a week. I’ll always have Sunday off.”
And, out of those eleven hours, how many are solid practice hours where he does nothing but pot balls and size up shots?
“A good nine.”
There you have it, Michael’s life in a nutshell. But of course it’s not so simple. For a start, that daily routine only applies when he’s back in London, between tournaments – which is increasingly rare nowadays, indeed he only spent six weeks at home during the whole of last season. (The snooker season ended in April, with the World Championship, and resumes in July.) Even now, though ostensibly on holiday, he keeps busy. He won a (non-ranking) tournament in Vienna the week before our interview, and will soon be heading – following a few days’ R&R in Cyprus – to a charity match in Antrim, Northern Ireland.
But there’s also a more important reason why that daily routine seems inadequate to describe him: because it makes him sound like a ruthless machine, and that’s not who he is. Yes, Michael is the No. 49 snooker player in the world – but he’s also, for instance, “very forgetful,” as he puts it; “I’ll always double-book myself, and have to cancel on someone”. His organisational skills could use some work – or perhaps it’s a case of being rather laid-back and unsystematic by temperament, snooker being the one thing that really drives him.
Even in snooker, he doesn’t have the monastic dedication that, say, Roger Federer brings to tennis. Hours of practice are one thing, but he’s not a sporting ascetic or fitness obsessive; he smokes, drinks in moderation, and could stand to use a few kilos (his words, not mine). Simply put, he enjoys life. When we meet, in a Larnaca coffee shop on a Friday morning, he actually looks so rough that I can’t help asking if he had a late night. (He was with some friends he hadn’t seen in a while, he explains with a chuckle.) He loves restaurants and trying new food, and is currently – when not playing snooker – working with some techie pals on creating a restaurant website where you’ll be able to search online menus and see a photo of each dish before you order it. He’s never been especially academic and, for instance, never went to Greek school on Saturdays as a London Cypriot kid (“I kind of preferred to stay in bed and watch cartoons”). Most strikingly of all, when he quit snooker in his early 20s, he didn’t do the obvious thing and go to university, drifting instead into office jobs that soon made him pine for the sport again.
That may be the best starting point in talking about his achievements – though of course the obvious starting point, chronologically at least, is Michael at the age of two or three, sitting on a parent’s lap and (so he’s been told) playing snooker with his veggies, using a cucumber as a cue and a tomato as a ball. He assumes he’d seen the game on TV and been charmed by the pretty colours – though he also, intriguingly, rejects any notion of natural ability. (He agrees with a recent book on the subject, Bounce by Matthew Syed, which also ascribes sporting success to practice over talent.) “I couldn’t hold a cue when I first started! There was nothing natural about me.”
He would always have been drawn to the game, believes Michael, would always have enjoyed watching on TV and maybe playing for fun – but his success as a player wasn’t down to any natural genius, it was down to practical factors. The fact, for instance, that a family friend was a former pro, and taught him some rudimentary technique, or the fact that his parents – working-class, British-born Cypriots – encouraged their son’s obsession with snooker, and accompanied him to snooker halls which were “intimidating places” in those days. Practice makes perfect and the boy practised hard, working his way up the junior circuit; he finished at No. 2 in the UK, at a time when the standard was especially high (enfant terrible Judd Trump is his contemporary) – then, at the age of 19, won the World Under-21 Snooker Championship, making him the world’s top junior player (at least in theory) and gaining him entry to the professional tour. Three years later he left abruptly, being unable to make ends meet just from snooker. “When I quit, I thought that was it,” he recalls. “Because I was having such a bad year, and I was being put off the game so much. But I didn’t know back then what I know now.”
Most of the change since then has been in snooker; but some of it has been in Michael himself. The structure of the sport has been modified (“Barry Hearn, absolute genius,” he raves, speaking of the British promoter who led the changes). There used to be just a handful of tournaments, and about £3 million in prize money; now there are close to 30 (which explains his constant travelling) and about £20 million in prize money. The sport has been cleaned up; snooker halls are no longer intimidating. A system is in place – the so-called ‘Q School’ – which allows amateurs to turn pro, churning out a dozen new professionals a year. Above all, you’ve got China, a gigantic market that’s crazy for snooker (it’s their fastest-growing sport, in terms of viewing figures). Money’s being sunk into the game; one Chinese sponsor bought every player on the tour an Apple watch as a gift, 70 watches in all. “Ding Junhui in China,” says Michael, speaking of the Chinese champion who’s now No. 6 in the world – “how can I put it? – is probably similar to how David Beckham would be in England, or Dwayne Johnson in America. He’s that big! I’ve been there, and people just lose their minds when they see him.”
In short, it’s now possible to earn a living – and an excellent one – out of playing snooker; Michael’s career earnings, according to Wikipedia, are over £100,000, almost all of which has come in the past year. His timing is fortunate, though admittedly “I wish I was 20 years old now, you know?”. (He’s actually 30.) He himself has also grown, however, in the years since he first tried and failed to go pro. “I probably appreciate snooker a lot more now. Because I’ve seen the other side.”
As already mentioned, he didn’t try for a college degree when he found himself at a loose end. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he explains. “Literally had no idea… And it was such a weird feeling – knowing your whole life what you want to do, then all of a sudden you can’t do it. So I was jumping from job to job.” Snooker had been his life, and now it was gone; as a working-class boy of no great pretensions – his dad is a chauffeur, having previously been in catering; his mum is a hairdresser – he joined the rat-race, ending up at a recruitment company working with banks (basically acting as a middleman between banks and short-term contractors). It sounds awful, and indeed it was: “Sitting behind a computer for eight hours, hating your boss, looking forward to your Fridays, hating your Mondays…” He vividly recalls being about to go on holiday, scouring the internet on his lunch-break for good deals to exotic places, only to be brought back to earth by the realisation that he’d be back behind the computer, sitting in the exact same spot, once the holiday was over. “So that kind of hit home. I was like ‘You just need to get out of here’.”
Now, on the other hand, he’s walking down red carpets and watching himself on jumbo-sized screens (at least in China). Even a small tournament, like last week’s in Austria, offers €2,500 in prize money – not bad for a weekend’s work – and a chance to “see a bit of Vienna as well”. People are forever finding excuses not to do what makes them happy, muses Michael, “but I’m always encouraging people: if you’ve got, like, a dream or something, go for it! If you want to start a business, or take up a sport, or start writing or do photography, whatever – just do it. If you enjoy something, do it. It doesn’t make sense to do something you don’t enjoy, just to earn money to carry on doing things you don’t enjoy. It’s crazy.”
His own dream is clear enough: keep playing, keep practising – nine hours a day, six days a week, if possible – keep getting better. His target last year was to climb into the top 64, so he’d be seeded when playing tournaments; this year, the target is to end the season in the top 32. Snooker is a game one can play into middle age; last month’s world championship final was between two players (Mark Williams and John Higgins) in their early 40s. As you might expect, however, Michael isn’t planning to play himself into the ground. Ideally, he’d like to “get a really, really good 10 years under my belt, get things set up in life, then just enjoy the sport and maybe enjoy life a bit more. But I need to put in the work before I can do that.”
Somewhat surprisingly, the dream also includes Cyprus. You wouldn’t think a London Cypriot, born and raised there by parents who were themselves born and raised there, would have such a strong connection with the mother country, but there you go. He now lives in Forest Hill, but “at my earliest opportunity, I’m going to live out here,” he affirms; last year, despite all the globe-trotting, he visited Cyprus five times. “I also got Cyprus into the World Cup of Snooker,” says Michael proudly, having changed his nationality in order to represent us – and he also dreams of promoting the game here, maybe opening his own snooker club, training players and watching them turn pro. Anything’s possible.
It’s actually quite touching just how Cypriot he is. Unlike most Brits, for instance – who cling to romantic notions of ‘authentic’ Cyprus – he loves that the island’s becoming more developed, “catching up with the rest of the world”, and talks excitedly of the massive Radisson being built in Larnaca and the skyscrapers being planned for Limassol. “When’s it going to stop? Hopefully it doesn’t!” Not only does he like his food, he likes it in big portions: his website idea (the one that allows you to check out photos of the dishes) was inspired by fancy restaurants in London where the menu looked good but the portions turned out to be pitiful. His values are traditional too. He’s currently single, because “I want to be [financially] secure before I think about starting a family”. He wears a cross around his neck, not because he’s religious – he seems too down-to-earth to be very spiritual – but because he’s sentimental: the cross and chain were gifts from his mum and dad when he was a child. “I haven’t taken them off ever since.”
Michael Georgiou seems like a nice guy: friendly, unpretentious, family-minded, maybe a bit old-fashioned if the talk turned to politics (it doesn’t). It’s unclear where he’d be without snooker – but the point is moot because snooker exists, the one thing in his life ruled by an all-consuming determination to “be outstanding”. It may be significant that the only tournament he’s won (so far) is the so-called Shoot-Out, an unusual event where matches last 10 minutes, are decided by a single frame, and reward fast, instinctive play (you only have 15 seconds per shot, decreasing to 10 seconds as the match goes on). One could even hazard – despite Michael’s own theories on the subject – that winning the Shoot-Out is the sign of a player of great natural ability; but maybe nine hours of practice, six days a week, will do just as well.
“I still laugh to myself when someone asks for an autograph. ’Cause it feels surreal,” he admits, sipping his espresso. “Five years ago, I was working in an office!” Michael shakes his head in honest wonder: “Half the time I don’t even know what day it is, because I’m out of that office mentality of Mondays and Fridays. It’s so weird. Like, if it wasn’t for my phone, I wouldn’t know what day it was!… It’s a nice way to live. I recommend it.”
Meanwhile “the serious stuff” commences on July 2 with the Riga Masters, the first of the season (offering prize money and the chance to see a bit of Latvia, if nothing else) – and then come nine months of hectic (but glorious) travel, probably interspersed with gruelling practice sessions in London and a few days of lying on the beach in Cyprus. There’s even a wild-card idea he mentions briefly, a Turkish Cypriot friend in London who might also be turning pro this year; wouldn’t it be great if the two of them entered the World Cup as a bicommunal Cyprus team? Wouldn’t it blaze a trail, cause a stir, raise the profile of the sport on the island? For Michael Georgiou, the dream continues.