The pointless Goat debate…

The 2017/18 season is about to kick-off with the Q-School starting tomorrow. For the first time since the nineties we have a player truly dominating the game in Mark Selby. Mark has just won his third World title, as a defending Champion, and is a runaway n°1, a spot he occupies since six years, no less. Of course, fans, pundits and “anoraks” alike wonder how many more he could win and for how long he could stay the n°1 player, if/when he will challenge his predecessors  records and … become the GOAT, greatest of all times?

The Goat Debate

In this post I will try to explain why I believe that the “Greatest Of All Times” tag doesn’t make actual sense, what, in my eyes, makes a player a “Great Of  The Game”, who I see in this bracket and why.

In fact, I should have written “Great Of the Modern Era” because I don’t know enough about the pre-Crucible era, pre-1980 to be precise, to have an opinion on players prior that year and as footages are rare, so it’s difficult to really know how well those guys played. 1980 is also when the World Championship more or less adopted the format we know today. There were a few changes since, but no essential ones.

As a premise, I want to state that every player who has won the World Championship more than once, as well as the UK Championship and the Masters during the modern era is, in my eyes, a “Great of the Game”.

That leaves us with this list: Alex Higgins, Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry, John Higgins, Mark Williams, Ronnie O’ Sullivan and Mark Selby. Those are our “Greats”.

So, why am I reluctant to try and name a ” Greatest” among them? Well … because I’m a mathematician. No kidding.

Let me explain: to determine “the best” in about everything, people rely on statistics, but statistics are only meaningful if the “conditions of the experience” are the same for all objects / people subjected to the comparison. When we try to compare snooker players records through history we should be aware that the “conditions” have changed significantly over time and therefore the comparison may not be a valid one.

To be more specific, here are a few examples of those “changing conditions”

  • Who is competing on the tour, and how players can qualify: you can read about how it evolved in this Wikipedia article. For instance in 1990, just before the game was opened, people like Ken Doherty or Peter Ebdon were still amateurs but were in fact far better than most professionals as they swiftly proved once they were able to turn pro. Clearly how much anyone wins depends on how well they play but also on the quality of the opposition they face.
  • The number of events available to the players and which ones are ranking. This is something you want to look into when comparing players tallies of titles and has also varied a lot over time: there were a lot of events but very few ranking ones in the 80th, less events but more ranking ones in the 90th, a serious dip in the number of events in the 2000th and now we have  an almost full calendar as illustrated by the table below :
    1986 / 1987 1996 / 1997 2006 / 2007 2016 / 2017
    # tournaments / # ranking tournaments

    (*)

    28 / 6 19 / 10 11 / 7 24 / 18
    (*) source Cuetracker – excluding qualifying events, team events and events played under variant rules.

    Obviously,  players’ records depend on how much events are available to them during their career, and, in particular during their prime time.

  • The ranking system. This has changed considerably over time as well, and you need to take that into account when comparing how long a player has been n°1 or in the top 16 bracket. It evolved from a system based solely on the World Championship results, to a system based on points collected by competing in “ranking tournaments” with players ranking staying unchanged through the whole season, to a rolling system based on prize money. Therefore when we look at how long a player has been n°1, we look at different things depending if they played under the  yearly ranking system, the rolling one or both during their career.  You can find a bit more about it in this Wikipedia article. The point based system very much favoured consistency, whilst the current money based system favours the winners.
  • The structure and format of the events. In the past the standard format was best of 9, with MSI after 4 frames, now, since Barry Hearn took over,  it’s best of 7 without interval. The shorter format is a leveler. The interval quite often changed the psychology of the match, each player having had time to reflect on the state of the game “mid-match”. This aspect has now largely disappeared. Also most events had qualifying rounds played separately with a tiered structure, whilst now most events are played under a flat draw, random or not. The current system is more brutal, both for the low ranked players and the top players. It has removed a certain level of protection for top players. For the lowest ranked players though it means that they have to play less matches to reach the television stages but are due to face a top player in their opening match more often than not.
  • The playing conditions. These have changed a lot  over time. The material used to make the balls has evolved, and the balls are lighter now. The cloth as well is now thinner and faster than it used to be. This has an influence on the way the game is played. The current conditions favour an attacking game, and prolific break building, with balls splitting easier and traveling further, but cue ball control has become harder. Some types of shots are easier to play, other are harder, like, for instance, the ones involving a lot of side as the “grip” on a thinner cloth is lighter and the balls are more prone to slide. And kicks have become much more of an issue than they were in the past. Because of the changing conditions, comparing players tallies of centuries over eras may not make sense.

Considering all this, I don’t think that statistics are an accurate and meaningful measure of those players greatness, especially as Ronnie, John Higgins, Mark Williams and Mark Selby are still playing, whilst the others are retired. Mark Selby in particular is only in his prime. The only ones you can actually compare fairly are Ronnie, John Higgins and Mark Williams as they all turned pro in 1992, are all still playing, and are all still in the top 16 as they enter their 26th season as pros. Here is a table that summarises the main stats about their career (sources: Cuetracker, @prosnookerblog, Wikipedia)

Career statistics at the end of the 2016/17 season

Ronnie O’Sullivan John Higgins Mark J. Williams
Pro tournaments played / won / % 293  / 59 / 20.13%  363 / 44 / 12.12%  373 / 26 / 6.97%
Full ranking events won / Majors won  28 / 17  28 / 9  18 /6
 World Championships  5  4  2
 Masters  7  3  2
UK Championships  5  2  2
Matches played / won / %  1156 / 858 / 74.22% 1339 / 920 / 68.71%  1324 / 841 / 63.52%
Deciding frames played / won / %  204 / 127 / 62.25% 236 / 133 / 56.36%  283 / 154 / 54.42%
# Centuries / # 147  874 / 13  672 / 8  383 / 2

As an additional info, there is also this, shown by BBC during the World Championship, telling about the longevity of these players as it stands today. I would be very surprised if Mark Selby didn’t improve on that.

SnookerMajorsTable

What I’m certain about though is that all those “Greats” would have been “Greats” in any era because to win multiple World titles and all the majors, under any system, you need to possess loads of talent, an excellent temperament, a competitive spirit, grit, dedication and put in a lot of hard work. That’s the recipe for “Greatness” and that doesn’t change ever.

Another point of interest is that all of those greats have transformed the game and influenced the next generation.

  • Alex Higgins was a maverick and, in my opinion, not a very nice person at all, but there is no doubt that he very much brought snooker to the media attention and played a very attacking and entertaining brand of snooker. He also was a very imaginative shot-maker and a better safety player than people give him credit for. He got people hooked and talking. And precisely because he was far from perfect as a person, many were able to relate to him. He changed the image of snooker.
  • Steve Davis was a student of the game. If you read his bio “Interesting” you will see how he approached his snooker in an almost scientific way. He was constantly assessing his technique, as well as experimenting with new things. He also was the first player who, through his association with Barry Hearn, treated his sport with the kind of professionalism that is now expected from top performers in any mainstream sport. Steve was also able to reinvent himself after his prime years were gone. He managed to work on his approach as well as on his technique in such a way that he was still in the top 16 at 50, and famously reached the QF at the 2010 World Championship, aged 52, knocking out the defending champion in the process.
  • Stephen Hendry introduced a radical, all out attack approach that profoundly changed the way the game is played. When he came on the scene, he was very young, fearless and devoid of battling scars. If he could see a ball, he would go for it, and more often than not get it. Gone were the days when putting a ball on the baulk cushion was “safe”. He also used to keep his opponent in their seat, setting a new, very high standard for breakbuilding. And of course for about 7 years he was winning everything that mattered. He was the ultimate ruthless predator. He never compromised on this approach and, maybe, this is why, after losing to Ken Doherty in 1997, aged only 28, he only won one major, the World Championship in 1999.
  • The “Class of 92”, Ronnie, John Higgins and Mark Williams – England, Scotland and Wales. Three very different men and players who incredibly have won 129 titles, including 74 majors between them, being in their prime at a time when the number of tournaments was at its lowest, and, in their 26th year as pros are still all three in the top 16. What they did is learn from their predecessors, integrate all the lessons from the past and build their own style, each playing to their considerable skills: Ronnie is flair, attack and breakbuilding, Higgins all-round super solid in every aspect, Williams the lethal potter, cunning and patient when it gets scrappy. They also had a true rivalry, being all in their prime at the same time, and elevating the standard of snooker to a level that had never been seen before and was higher, in my opinion, than the standard we have today. And they lasted … they still last, which means they found the right balance between their sport and their life.
  • Mark Selby, still only 33, is dominating the sport in a way that has not been seen since the Hendry days. In the studio during the world Championship, Ronnie tweeted ” If you want to win events you need to play like selby. It’s the new modern way of playing..“. Mark is capable of playing like Ronnie, like John Higgins or like Mark Williams, depending on the situation he faces and mentally he’s absolutely granite. Could he win another 4 of 5 World titles? Possibly, especially as I can’t see anyone, except Ding Junhui maybe, who could stand up to him currently. Think about this: he won 5 ranking titles this season and made another final. Lets forget the Paul Hunter Classic that is no more than a glorified PTC , early in the season and with a very short format. Who did Mark Selby beat? In the UK Championship, it was Ronnie, in the International Championship, Ding, in the China Open, Mark Williams, and in the World Championship, John Higgins. So, the 40+ “Class of 92” are the ones who are still challenging him in majors. Only Ding, who beat him in Shanghai, seems able to live with Mark. And that’s worrying for the future of the game. Where are you Neil Robertson, Shaun Murphy, Mark Allen, Judd Trump?

So here is my stance: instead of bikering, and at times being rude to fellow fans, over who is the greatest, we should watch, admire and cherish them all. We are being spoilt, and have been for about 3 decades. Lets enjoy it and be grateful for what they gave us, still give us.