By Shabnam Younus-Jewell
This is the year the Doctor regenerated as a woman for the first time, landing in Sheffield and declaring: “Half an hour ago I was a white-haired Scotsman.”
Well, the city’s very own Tardis that is the Crucible Theatre has seen plenty of steely Scottish men playing indomitable snooker over the years, one of them holding a record seven world titles. But is it an alien thought to imagine a woman joining the cast at the World Championship one day soon?
The eleven-time World Women’s champion Reanne Evans has come the closest. She has competed on the professional circuit and became the first woman to qualify for the venue stages of a full-ranking event at the 2013 Wuxi Classic. In 2017 she was just two wins away from making more history, after beating Robin Hull 10-8 in World Championship qualifying at Pond’s Forge. She called it her “best win.”
Evans remains the greatest player the women’s game has seen but she’s had to relinquish her number one status to a new, worthy rival, Hong Kong’s Ng On Yee. Could she now be the one to break through the snooker stratosphere and go where no woman has gone before?
The petite potter has won three world women’s titles and four UK championships. She’s also been recognised in her country by being named ‘Best of the Best’ at the Samsung Hong Kong Sports Star awards twice. However she hasn’t yet managed to beat a male player during any of her three opportunities to qualify for the World Championship in Sheffield.
One of the game’s greats, six-time world champion Steve Davis once commented that women may not be as “obsessive” as men, which could be why they are not reaching the higher levels of the game yet. On Yee believes men and women are not on different planets mentally, they just need to play against each other more. “We need experience at the same venues and environment, everything,” she said. “The first time I went to the World Championship qualifiers everything was new to me. The audience, the big venue, cameras. If we can have more experience and practice, then we can be the same.”
The sport’s governing body, The World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, continues to encourage women to play the sport and insists there is nothing stopping them from going to the top.
Chairman Jason Ferguson said at this year’s Ladies’ Day at the Crucible in May: “There is no reason why a woman can’t achieve the same as a man in snooker. There are no physical barriers. We’re trying to remove any barriers. We just want more women to play.
“This is an amazing sport, a mixed gender sport, our World Snooker Tour is open to anyone, it’s all about being good enough. We’ve had progress, the players have been around for many years, it’s just clubs and facilities haven’t been attractive for women to take up the sport.”
The World Women’s Snooker Championship started running in 1976. For six of those years, around the turn of the century, the final stages were held alongside its professional equivalent, at the Crucible Theatre. The name Selby is a familiar one in today’s game and funnily enough, it was one Vera Selby MBE who lifted the first World Women’s trophy. She did it again in 1981, beating Mandy Fisher, who went on to win her title three years later.
Fisher has been instrumental in creating World Ladies Billiards and Snooker and is now President of the body. “Back in the 80s, I would go to challenge matches and exhibitions all around the country and very often I’d go to clubs where it said no women allowed in the snooker room,” she said. “Thankfully the world has moved on a lot since then.”
If the sport is now more welcoming to women, what is preventing them from turning professional and reaching the top of the game? Fisher said: “We need to see more women playing on the television so they are role models for other girls. It will also attract more sponsorship.”
So how soon could we see a female player in the first round of the World Championship? She added: “I’ve been involved in women’s snooker and running it for the past 40 years. I just hope in my lifetime I will see that happen.”
The chance to perform on the game’s biggest stage is earned only by the most consistent and resilient of players. They all want to play under the spotlight at the Crucible Theatre, where stars can shine. But the majority admit it’s the most intimidating of spaces, where they feel like they’re doing battle in a parallel universe.
On Yee touches the goosebumps on her arms as soon as the iconic venue is mentioned and her eyes light up brighter than her eccentric yellow-framed glasses. Does she want to be the next Time Lord, with her cue a formidable weapon in the snooker galaxy? “Of course my ultimate goal will be playing at the Crucible, with the live broadcast, so my family and fans can watch me back home,” she says, with her endearing giggle. “I don’t know if I can be the first woman to do that, but I’m working on it. I also have a slogan. If you believe it you can achieve it.”
On Yee will be defending her world title as part of the World Snooker Federation Championships at the Dubai World Trade Centre in the UAE from 28-31 March 2019. The winner will earn a place at the Betfred World Championship qualifiers in Sheffield in April.
First … I want to thank Matt for inviting me to post on his blog and offering the opportunity to share some of my views on a not so well known area of snooker, the Ladies’ game.
I’ve been following the ladies for a while now and I have been in three ranking events already this season. There is no denial that the level of the ladies’ game is way behind the men’s. Reanne Evans, 24, is the current WLBSA World Champion; she’s won it five times, she’s also the current IBSF World Champion. She’s undefeated for 49 matches in WLBSA ranking events, and counting. Her high break in competition is 140. That’s pretty impressive and yet she hasn’t been able to qualify for the main tour, despite taking part of the PIOS in the past. Also she will certainly lose her IBSF crown in the coming days because she hasn’t been able to travel to India to defend her title, by lack of a sponsor. So what’s wrong? Will we one day see a female amongst the game elite, or not?
“No, because girls are inferior …”
Yes, I’ve read that, literally, on forums. I’m hugely interested in neuroscience and I’m the first to accept that, on average, there are significant differences between “women’s brain” and “men’s brain”. While girls are usually better at verbal and social skills, boys have a better eye-hand coordination and spatial perception, both characteristics that would make them more apt to a game like snooker. They are also more competitive, again on average.
I wrote “on average”… because that does not mean anything when considering the individual. So you would expect that, given snooker does not require real physical strength, provided enough girls play the game, and proper coaching, at least some of them would be able to compete with the top boys. Today this isn’t the case. So why?
The answer is: because not many girls take on the game… although according to some coaches their number is increasing. There are several reasons for that situation to happen.
- Only too often, clubs are not very welcoming to females, if they are allowed to play at all. Certainly in the UK, many clubs are “men only”. I must say that for a mainland Europe citizen this is shocking but there we go. Even Reanne confirmed to me that she’s not allowed to play in some clubs near her home, and that in clubs where she is accepted some men don’t want to play her because she’s a female. Hannah Jones (13 years old and currently ranked 12) and her father also complained about the patronizing attitude they were facing in clubs. Girls tend to be ridiculed or hassled. This is hard to take especially for teenagers. Another consequence of this is that girls find it hard to make progress because they are not allowed or encouraged to play against tougher male opposition. This is particularly problematic when they reach a good level as having challenges is essential to motivation and improvement.
- Girls are not encouraged to play snooker. Rarely will you see a father introducing his daughter to the game and to the club. From a parent’s point of view this is understandable. Not only because of the unwelcoming cultural/societal context but mainly because there is not much hope for a girl to make a living out of snooker in the present state of the game. Prize money is so low that even the world champion can’t make a living of it. It wasn’t always that bad though. In the eighties and nineties there was a much stronger ladies field, not only in UK but worldwide, with the likes of Allison, Mandy and Kelly Fisher to name only a few. In the fall of 1997, just after the Grand Prix, the WLBSA joined the WPBSA. Snooker was still huge and the ladies had big expectations. It turned out that actually WPBSA did very little to support the ladies and when the tobacco ban entered into force they pleaded poverty and just dropped WLBSA penniless. That was early 2004 and since then the ladies game has been in a real slump. The most prominent UK players at the time fled to the US to make a living out of pool, very successfully, Allison Fisher being the prime example. The Asian players didn’t have the means anymore, or the interest to come and play in WLBSA events. It hasn’t changed unfortunately. I learned very recently that Hannah is making her debuts in 9-balls as well. There at least she has a professional future.
- Girls are not shown and not sponsored. Both things go hand in hand of course, sponsors typically want exposure. The girls are never shown on television, very rarely on streaming. If you search for Allison Fisher on YouTube you will find plenty of pool and just one example of her playing snooker, a frame in a match of doubles with Steve Davis. Knowing that Allison is most probably the greatest ever lady in the game, that says it all … When WPBSA was in charge of the Ladies’ game the finals were played in Sheffield at the Crucible. All the necessary equipment was available to record at least some of the games. It could have been shown during the men’s matches mid session intervals, or during the various diversions BBC always offers during the World Championship. No, preference was always given to snippets about the male players … playing golf or fishing or whatever. The situation hasn’t improved. This year the World Championship will be played in Cambridge in a club where the ladies are very welcome. But it’s not an actual arena, so only a very limited audience, mainly friends and families will fit in the available space. And it’s not equipped even to allow for streaming. As a consequence, not only are the girls actually paying from their own money to compete but the whole WLBSA is largely relying on people, like Mandy Fisher, Tim Dunkley and Mark Jones who do it for the love of the game, on their spare time and at their own expense. And that’s also why the IBSF defending champion is not currently in India to defend her title.
- Women find it hard to put the hours into practice. Obviously when you have to earn a living and you can’t live on your sport, you need another job. When kids come around, it’s mainly the women who take care of them, especially when they are young. This not only limits the time they can devote to practice, it also limits their freedom to travel around to venues. Simple facts of life but they add up to the other difficulties.
Having been to several ladies events over the last year, I’m convinced their snooker is every bit as interesting and enthralling as the men’s. Not so many big breaks but, partially because of that, a lot of twists and turns, drama and tension. Bringing the ladies in the media could attract a different type of audience and sponsors. After all it’s mainly the women doing the shopping. So it’s well worth to try and improve the situation. But how?
The floor is yours for comments and suggestions…
I want to thank Chris Turner, Mandy Fisher, Janie Watkins, Mark and Hannah Jones, Tim Dunkley, Marianne Williams, Dan Lewis, Simon Markham and Reanne Evans for taking the time to discuss this subject with me and providing me factual information that contributed to the “birth” of this article.
I’m happy to say that there has been improvement since then. In particular we have seen more young women entering events, and the standard is definitely getting better. But there is also still a lot of room for further improvement. Prejudices are still very much alive. Events like the WSF Championships are important because the women there are playing under the same conditions than the men, they get the same exposure and the main Championship is mixed genders.