Snooker star Ali Carter is just 36 years old, but what he’s experienced in those years could already fill a book, or two.
“I turned pro when I was 17 but I started playing at a very young age. When I was six or seven I had a little table at home and then progressed through the amateur ranks, the junior ranks, turning pro when I was 17. I suppose I started making a good living from the age of about 19 or 20 onwards. Back in 2008 was when I sort of hit it big time. I made a 147 [the highest possible break in snooker] at the Crucible and got to the final of the World Championships where I lost to Ronnie O’Sullivan. From there on I started winning events and doing well.
“It was my dad who got me started. He bought a little table for himself, a six-foot by three-foot table, and put it up in the front room for him and his mates really. He was a keen golfer and cricketer and he wanted something to do in the winter. I just picked up a cue and took to it; that was it. My dad saw I had a bit of a talent and he just pushed me into it really.
“I used to watch snooker on telly. I remember the final in 1986 between Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor when Steve missed the black and Dennis came round to pot it. When I was growing up there was Jimmy White, who was a big influence on me. He lost all those finals to Stephen Hendry. Everyone wanted Jimmy to win the World Championships but he just didn’t quite get there. Jimmy’s a very good friend of mine now, so it’s funny how I’ve gone from watching him on telly at a very young age to now being part of his circle, being able to phone him and he phones me and all that. It is a weird circle of life really.”
For Ali, that weird circle of life has delivered hard times as well as high points. He received a diagnosis of testicular cancer in 2013. After successful treatment, Ali returned to snooker but it wasn’t long before his illness returned, necessitating another break and more treatment.
“Yes, I’ve been through a lot over the last couple of years. It certainly puts things in perspective but, you know, it’s just one of those things. You’ve got to battle through and sometimes in life these things come along and only the strongest survive really.
“It does kind of change your outlook. I try not to stress myself out. I have been addicted to stressful situations in the past and I used to bring stress upon myself, whether it was financially or the relationships I chose to be in with women or anything like that. I’m conscious now of de-stressing my life and just enjoying myself. I think that’s the key. If anyone’s suffered with cancer or anything like that, being able to de-stress is a big part of beating it.
“Everything is hunky dory now, apparently. It’s an ongoing process: I have monthly blood tests and that. I actually had a test on Monday and I’m seeing the oncologist on Friday. He’d be on the phone to me straight away if there was anything wrong, so while the phone doesn’t ring I know I’m all right.”
Ali is keen to share his experiences and what he has taken away from them.
“I’ve got a book coming out. I was approached to do it, so I’m writing a book to tell my story, like my autobiography, so that should be good. Snooker will be a part of it, of course. That’ll be a catalyst that I can use to promote it, but it’ll be more than that. The Big C obviously affects a lot of people and I’ve had Crohn’s disease quite badly as well in the past and had to live with that. I hope I can try to give people a bit of inspiration, if you know what I mean.
“I won the Paul Hunter trophy a couple of weeks ago. You probably know that Paul died from cancer, so winning that meant a lot to me. I just hope my book can help a few people going forward.”
His snooker and the bouts of illness that have interrupted it would probably have provided enough challenges to last most people a lifetime but Ali finds time for additional demanding interests.
“I play golf quite a bit. I’ve just started playing again with my dad. I used to play a lot, years ago but then my son, Max, came along. I’m quite competitive so if I played sh*t then I didn’t really enjoy it but now I play to de-stress rather than trying so hard to win or to be a professional golfer. I still try to do things right and play well but I try to take in what’s around me rather than stressing out over hitting a sh*t shot. If you’re not careful, before you know it you find that everything you do you want to do to perfection, but you can’t always. Life’s not like that, is it?”
Ali doesn’t feel inclined to mould his son into an image of himself. His aspirations for Max don’t include the green baize.
“I’ll keep him away from snooker, I think. It’s too hard to make a living playing snooker. I’m getting him into a bit of golf and I would like to push him into aviation really. I’ve got a private pilot’s licence and I’d love him to be a professional pilot when he’s older, but that’s probably living my dream through him, which I don’t want to do. I’ll sort of nudge him in that direction and see if he takes to it and we’ll go from there.”
From snooker to flying is quite a leap: certainly a different skill set must be required. But when one thinks about it, a person who has fought his way to a high level in his sport and overcome several significant health issues is unlikely to be intimidated by learning new things.
“I was skint when I got into it and I thought to myself, I’ve got to go and get a job. I didn’t fancy stacking the shelves at Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s or anything like that, or being a car salesman, and I’ve always loved aeroplanes. I bumped into a guy at the snooker club who was a captain for Thomas Cook; he’s retired now but he was a 767 captain. He had a light aeroplane and he said to come up the airfield and have a little go, so that’s what I did. Before I knew it I was doing all the flying and the take-offs and the landings and this pilot said he thought I should go and get my licence.
“There were eight exams that I had to pass, and I’d never passed an exam in my life so I thought, Oh, God. I really don’t fancy doing this. To me, reading the books was like reading a phone book really, but I did it and I’ve got my PPL, so that’s how it happened. It was a goal to become a professional pilot and to do that for a living because at the time my snooker wasn’t going as well as I wanted it to. I’d almost had enough of it about seven or eight years ago, but as soon as I realised I could do something else it lifted the pressure off me, the snooker clicked and the pilot thing went on the shelf.”
That someone could take so many steps along the road to a career as an airline pilot and then simply abandon all aeronautic ambition is difficult to believe.
”Well it’s still there. I do want to do it so I am thinking about doing a commercial licence at the moment. It’s a kind of personal goal of mine to do it just to prove that someone who’s come from nothing can become a top sportsman and a professional pilot. You know, just to prove that you can be whatever you want to be if you put your mind to it. I’ve got the right people around me who will help me do it so it’d be silly not to draw on those resources.
“I fly quite a lot and I own a share in an aeroplane. I took my dad flying on Sunday: took him up and flew him over his house and all around, so that was good. The plane’s on a privately owned airfield, along with 10 or 12 others, so if I wanted to go flying now I could go and get in the plane and go wherever we want really. If you’re going through controlled airspace then you have to file a flight plan but not for just a pleasure flight. I can fly over this house or wherever, as long as it’s uncontrolled airspace.”
At this point, we ask the first of several fairly inane questions. How does Ali know where this controlled airspace is?
“Well, you look at a map and it tells you. [Of course you do.] All the controlled airspace areas are marked on the map, so you know that you can’t go in that airspace from surface to 3,000 feet and you can’t go in another airspace from 1,500 feet to 2,500 feet. You know you can go above two and a half, or below the 1,500, but you can’t go through there at 2,000 feet.
“It’s complicated at the start but aviation has a lot of complicated terms for things that aren’t complicated at all. Once you know it’s like anything. You know, these words scare you to death at the start but then you realise that it means something really simple. They just dress it up and put a fancy word on it. And airline pilots are weird. Some of them will tell you that they’re the nearest thing to an astronaut while others will say, ‘Well, if I can do it then anyone can’. Fortunately, I met a guy who was like that and who had been a captain for 40 years earning a hundred-odd grand a year. But then you’ll get one who’s come out of the RAF or something like that and they talk all posh and want to put you off doing it. They elevate themselves and say, ‘This job’s not for people like you,’ when in reality it is, because I’m just from the street really and I could do it.
“Max is a bit young for the flying at the moment. I’ve taken him up a few times but he doesn’t like the noise when you start the engine. He is a bit sensitive to noise: fireworks and all that, but I’ll get him into it.”
So, Ali does still have aspirations to reach for the skies, but for the moment, his main focus requires that his feet be firmly planted on the ground, beside a snooker table.
“I’m one of the fortunate ones: I’ve made a good living from the game and I’ve still got a few more years left in me. Hopefully, the health issues are behind me and I can kick on and win some more tournaments.”
His personal registration is a memento of one such victory.
“I bought 86 AC when I won the Shanghai Masters. Generally, when I win a tournament, I tend to buy something for myself that I try and keep. I bought a nice watch and I bought my number plate. I’d always wanted a private number plate but I could never afford one when there was always something better to spend five or ten grand on. But then, when I bought the number I just loved it so much and it looks good on any car, you know? If you’ve got a nice car then a nice number plate really does look good. I’ve got a Mercedes now and 86 AC is on that. I think it looks really good.”
Other players have also personalised their cars with private registrations.
“Yeah, Jimmy’s got Cue Boy (CUE 80Y), Selby’s got one on a Range Rover and Murphy had one on an Aston Martin DBS. I’ve also got 79 MAX. I think that’d look nice on the Mercedes too. I decided to buy that because I looked for a MAX number plate for my son. I thought to myself it would be a nice thing for him to have and it could be a good investment. I wanted 79 AC but at the time, I couldn’t secure it. So then I saw 79 MAX and as it was my son’s name I thought it would be a good one. I thought if I could get it for a decent price I’d have it.”
Ali is happy enough to display his number on his Mercedes but he does have his eye on something just a little fancier.
“A Ferrari California, that’s what I’d like. Although I’ll probably go for the new C63 next, the new coupe. I’ll have one of those but at some point I’m going to have a Ferrari California, I think. Maybe after a win or if the book does well I might treat myself out of that. I don’t know, I’ll see. I’ve always wanted a Ferrari and when I was ill I very nearly bought one. It was when I was going through the chemo and all that. At the time, I thought, ‘Just have what you want’. I went and test drove one and absolutely loved it but then I thought about whether it was the right thing to do. I mean, you’re doing twenty-five grand as soon as you drive it away. I decided it wouldn’t be the right thing. I thought that if I got back to health and started winning again I would have one then. So, that could be my next car.”
When a top sports person who has beaten serious illness, and got himself a pilot’s licence along the way, tells you he’s going to buy a Ferrari we can think of no reason to doubt it.
Interview: Angela Banh
Story: Rick Cadger
Photography: Stan Thompson
We visited Ali Carter in Oct 2015.