Willie Thorne, snooker player and television commentator

Born: May 4, 1954;

Died: June 17, 2020.

WILLIE Thorne proved himself entirely adept at snooker’s ultimate challenge – the ability to achieve the maximum 147 break, something he managed more than 200 times in his career. He was nicknamed Mr Maximum, which underlined the fact that he had the acute eye and the steadiness of hand to ensure multi-million pound earnings and a fabulous lifestyle.

However, he did not manage that at all. His life story was all too often a tale of depression, self-destruction and a continued battle to evade penury.

Thorne, who has died, aged 66, after suffering from leukaemia, twice attained a world ranking of seven and spent two decades among the top 32 players. He twice reached the quarter-final of the World championship.

When snooker became massively popular in the Eighties, Thorne was one of its major stars, his charisma and popularity helping to drive the game forward. At six foot two inches tall with a shiny head and a walrus moustache he was an instantly recognisable and imposing figure.

When his time on the green baize came to an end, he established himself as a BBC snooker commentator and, witty and personable, he developed a lucrative career as an after-dinner speaker.

So what went wrong? What listeners and audiences didn’t know was that Thorne’s natural warmth and self-effacing manner were matched by an incredible addiction to gambling, which played into his innate fear of failure. It would wreck his personal life and cost him fortunes.

Thorne talks about his fear of failure in his biography, Double or Quits. He recalls how a chance remark from his old friend, the footballer Gary Lineker, resulted in his losing the 1985 UK Championship.

Thorne was facing Steve Davis, leading 13-8, only three frames from victory. Lineker told his friend, “One more frame and he’d need to beat you 8-1 to win the match”. And when Thorne stepped up to clear the three colours left on the table, the first being a blue ball on the spot, there was no way he could miss it. But he did exactly that.

“I know he [Lineker] didn’t mean to give me the jitters, but when you’re lacking in mental strength as I was, one phrase, no matter how innocently meant, can lodge itself in your head,” Thorne recalled.

Thorne was born in Anstey, a large village near Leicester. His father, former miner Bill Thorne, ran the village Conservative club, and his 13-year-old son learned to play snooker on its tables. Aged 14, he was so talented that his mother, Nancy, bought him the maplewood cue which he would use throughout his career.

On leaving school at 15, Thorne worked as an estimator for a glazing firm but soon began earning more playing snooker matches for money. In parallel with this betting on himself, he began to bet on the horses. “My dad was a gambler like me,” he said. “He liked to bet on the horses. I take after him. I have never been good with money.”

The money came very easily. In 1975, 21 year-old Thorne appeared in Pot Black, the snooker TV series which had arrived with the advent of colour television. His skill and his poise made him a star. By 1981, he had earned enough to open a plush snooker centre in Leicester city centre, with 28 tables, a bar and a restaurant. It was there he developed his lifelong friendship with Lineker, the young Leicester City footballer .

Thorne’s success continued. “When I won the Mercantile Credit Classic tournament in 1985, I became an ambassador for the brand”, he said. “That meant I got paid an awful lot of money just to go to sporting events I would have gone to anyway.”

That same year, Lineker was best man at Thorne’s wedding to Fiona Walker, whom he met while she was working in a nightclub. The couple would go on to have twin sons, Tristan and Kieran, and a daughter, Tahli.

Financially, Thorne’s best year ever came about two years later when he earned around £100,000 in prize money, and a similar amount off the snooker table. But he did not win the major tournaments. He would choke. It’s perhaps understandable when you consider the pressure to win, given his life away from the tables.

He once estimated that he had gone through more than £3.5 million in gambling. At one stage he was banned from British racecourses, having run up massive gambling debts, betting up to £20,000 on one horse. “Snooker and horse racing had become the twin obsessions of my life,” he said in one interview. “The former helped me make a lot of money, while the latter ensured that an awful lot of it was wasted”.

In one incident when he was a commentator, he bet £38,000 that John Parrott would lose a match, based on the knowledge that Parrott had lost his personal cue and had to use one supplied by the venue. Parrott won. Thorne later reflected: “I’m having to close the commentary by saying it’s unbelievable, spewing up as I say it.”

His first marriage having broken down, he married, in 2003, Jill Saxby, a former Miss Great Britain. In 2007, he appeared as a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing, but his gambling continued. By 2015 he was said to be £1m in debt when he tried to take his life a second time, having made a previous attempt some year earlier.

He and Jill moved to Spain in search of an idyllic lifestyle, but the marriage collapsed. His wife said: “It was like living with two different people. He was a kind, loving man, but there was this addiction.” She spoke of a world of “Sneaking off, placing bets, getting into debt and serious trouble.”

Meantime, Thorne’s health worsened. He suffered a stroke, then prostate cancer. He was diagnosed with leukaemia in March and infections set in.

Friends such as Gary Lineker regretted a life lost too soon. “Deeply, deeply saddened to hear that my friend Willie Thorne has passed away”, he tweeted. “One of life’s great characters. A marvellous snooker player and a lovely man, who’s potted his final black much too soon.”

Former world champion Stephen Hendry described Thorne as “one of my favourite people in snooker”, adding: “I know he had faults and weaknesses (we all do) but he was one of the game’s greatest ever characters. I’ll miss him.”

Willie Thorne is survived by his children and his brother, Robert.