Hunter was a three-time Masters Champion, winning the title on the deciding frame on all three occasions. Hunter compiled 114 competitive century breaks in the course of his professional career, including a personal record break of 146 compiled at the 2004 Premier League. Hunter also won three ranking titles, the British Open and the Welsh Open (twice).
In March 2005 Hunter was diagnosed with neuroendocrine tumours. He died shortly before his 28th birthday in October 2006. In 2016, the Masters trophy was renamed in his honour.
Hunter was born in Leeds in 1978 and was educated at St Andrews Primary School and Cardinal Heenan High School. At the age of 9 he was awarded best junior snooker player of the year. With some encouragement from friends and family, he spent many hours practising snooker. He often travelled to Bradford to practise alongside Joe Johnson.
At the age of 12 Hunter was considered an "outstanding junior talent". He won many junior tournaments and at the age of 14 won the English Doubles Championship with Richard Brooke. With the help of former professional snooker players Jimmy Michie and Joe Johnson, Hunter made his debut among the professionals in July 1995 at the age of 16.
Four months after his professional debut, Hunter reached the second round of the 1995 UK Championship by defeating world number six Alan McManus 9–4. He followed up that achievement by becoming the youngest player to reach the last four of a ranking event when he reached the semi-finals of the 1996 Welsh Open at the age of 17 years and three months, defeating Stephen Hendry on the way.
Also in 1996, he reached the quarter-finals of the UK Championship, where he beat Willie Thorne 9–0, James Wattana 9–5 and Terry Murphy 9–7, before losing 5–9 against eventual champion Stephen Hendry. Hunter was awarded a wildcard to play at the 1997 Masters, where he lost 1–5 against Mark Williams in the first round.
He was fined £4,550 and docked 1,140 ranking points after testing positive for cannabis during an event in 1997. His first ranking tournament victory came at the 1998 Welsh Open, where he defeated seven players to lift the title and claim the £60,000 winner's cheque: Paul Wykes (5–3), Neal Foulds (5–2), Steve Davis (5–3), Nigel Bond (5–4), Alan McManus (5–3) and Peter Ebdon (6–1), before defeating John Higgins 9–5 in the final. During the final, Hunter made three century breaks (108, 116 and 127). He was 2–4 down at one time, but won seven of the last eight frames to clinch the title. He followed up that success by reaching the semi-finals of the 1998 UK Championship in Bournemouth and was named the Snooker Writers Association's "Young Player of the Year".
Hunter's first appearance at the Crucible came in 1999 World Championship, where he lost 8–10 in the first round to the eventual champion Stephen Hendry. His form that season elevated him to no. 12 in the 1999/2000 world rankings resulting in automatic qualification into the final stages of ranking tournaments for the first time.
After the 1999/2000 season, demoting him to no. 14 in the 2000/2001 world rankings, he reached the quarter-final stage or better in six tournaments the following season. He was a runner-up at the Welsh Open, a semi-finalist at the British Open and Scottish Open and a quarter-finalist at the Grand Prix and China Open.
In the 2001 Masters, Hunter beat his close friend and defending champion Matthew Stevens 6–5 in the last 16, Peter Ebdon 6–3 in the quarter-finals and Stephen Hendry 6–4 in the semi-finals. In the final Hunter recovered from a 3–7 deficit against Fergal O'Brien to win 10–9. Hunter compiled four centuries in six frames, and earned the £175,000 first prize. In his post-match interview, Hunter caused a media sensation by admitting he resorted to "Plan B" with Lindsey Fell, then his girlfriend, during the interval while 2–6 down. The 'B' in "Plan B" purportedly refers to the word "bonk", a British slang term for sexual intercourse. Hunter and Fell retired to their hotel room and he recalled: "Sex was the last thing on my mind. I just wasn't in the mood. But I had to do something to break the tension. It was a quick session – around 10 minutes or so – but I felt great afterwards. She jumped in the bath, I had a kip and then played like a dream. I reeled off four centuries in six frames. I won easily."
In 2002, Hunter retained his title. He defeated Stephen Lee 6–3 in the first round, Peter Ebdon 6–5 in the quarter-finals and Alan McManus 6–5 in the semi-finals to reach the final, where he defeated Mark Williams 10–9, despite at one point of the match trailing 0–5. In doing so, he became only the third player in history of the Masters to retain the trophy along with Cliff Thorburn and Stephen Hendry, and in doing so he won the £190,000 prize money. Hunter also won his second Welsh Open title, defeating Ken Doherty 9–2 in the final, but was defeated 9–10 in the first round of the 2002 World Championship by Quinten Hann.
His success was to continue at the 2002 British Open, staged in Telford, where he captured his third ranking title by beating Ian McCulloch 9–4 in the final. Hunter could not win the Masters for the third time in row in 2003, as he lost 3–6 in the semi-finals to the previous year's runner-up and eventual champion Mark Williams. His greatest success that campaign, though, was only a few months away.
In the 2003 World Championship, he beat Allister Carter 10–5, Matthew Stevens 13–6 and defending champion Peter Ebdon 13–12 to reach the semi-finals. In his semi-final, Hunter established a 15–9 overnight lead over Ken Doherty, however he only could win one of the remaining nine frames, and lost the match 16–17. As a result of his performances Hunter earned a place in the world's top eight in the 2003/2004 world rankings for the first time in his career, having been ranked number nine for the previous two seasons.
In 2003/2004, Hunter won the Masters for the third time in four years, yet again by the score of 10–9. Hunter trailed Ronnie O'Sullivan throughout the entire match before pipping him to the trophy in the final frame. In fact, Hunter trailed 1–6, 2–7, 6–8 and 7–9 before reeling off the final three frames to seal the sixth title of his professional career. He made five century breaks in the match. Hunter also reached the final of the Players Championship, but lost 7–9 against Jimmy White. Hunter reached the second round of the 2004 World Championship, where he lost 12–13 against Matthew Stevens, despite leading 10–6 and 12–10 at some points of the match. Hunter and Lindsey Fell, a beauty therapist, married in August 2004 in Jamaica.
Hunter began the 2004/2005 season, by reaching the semi-finals of the Grand Prix, where he lost 3–6 to Ronnie O'Sullivan. He then reached the quarter-finals of the China Open, just days after discovering that he was suffering from cancer. His career-high ranking was number four in the world during the 2004/2005 season, which dropped to number five in 2005/2006.
On 6 April 2005, Hunter announced that he was suffering from malignant neuroendocrine tumours in his stomach, a rare disease of which the cause is unknown. A spokesman for the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association said at the time: "Paul will undergo treatment to cure himself of this illness. He would like to reassure his fans and supporters that, as with his snooker career, he is tenacious and positive in his fight against the disease." Hunter had been receiving chemotherapy for his illness.
Hunter returned to the circuit for the start of the 2005/2006 season, but lost to Rory McLeod in the first round of the Grand Prix. Hunter's next match of the season was at the UK Championship against Jamie Burnett, in which Hunter dramatically came back from 6–8 down to win the match 9–8. Despite this Hunter lost in the next round 2–9 against eventual champion Ding Junhui. On 26 December 2005, Lindsey gave birth to their first and only child, daughter Evie Rose, who weighed 8 lb 2 oz (3.7 kg). He lost in the first round of the 2006 World Championship 5–10 to Neil Robertson, his last ever match.
He slipped from 5th to 34th in the 2006/2007 rankings. Hunter admitted that he was worse than the previous year and confirmed that he had been in continuous pain. On 27 July 2006, the WPBSA confirmed that, following a members' vote, the organisation's rules would be changed to allow Hunter to sit out the entire 2006/2007 season with his world ranking frozen at 34. He intended to devote the year to treatment for his cancer.
Hunter died at 8:20 pm on 9 October 2006 – just five days short of his 28th birthday – at the Kirkwood Hospice in Huddersfield. Prior to the Premier League Snooker matches on 12 October 2006, players Jimmy White, Ronnie O'Sullivan, Ken Doherty and Ding Junhui, along with referee Alan Chamberlain and commentators Willie Thorne and Phil Yates, all stood for a moment of silence to remember Hunter. He left a wife, Lindsey, and one daughter. His funeral took place on 19 October 2006 at Leeds Parish Church. Many players attended the ceremony, and his best friend, Matthew Stevens, was a pallbearer at the service.
Fellow professionals Stephen Hendry, Mark Williams, Jimmy White, Matthew Stevens and Ken Doherty led calls for The Masters trophy to be named in Hunter's memory. Instead, the non-ranking, and now minor-ranking tournament, Fürth German Open was renamed the Paul Hunter Classic in his honour; a tournament first won by Paul Hunter. On 20 April 2016, the Masters trophy was indeed renamed in Hunter's honour. World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn said that the organisation "messed up" by not doing so sooner.
In 2006 Hunter was posthumously awarded the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Helen Rollason Award – his widow Lindsey accepted the award on his behalf. The Paul Hunter Foundation was set up after his death with the "specific aim of giving disadvantaged, able bodied and disabled youngsters an opportunity to play snooker".