Reflecting on the decade – The Q-school

Another major initiative by Barry Hearn was to establish the Q-school as the main qualifying route to the Professional Tour.

As most of you, readers, will know the Q-school is a set of qualifying tournaments played shortly after the World Championship. They are the first events of the new season and open to amateurs, as well as to the professionals who are being relegated from the main tour at the end of the previous season (*). The format is straight knock-out. All matches are best of 7, from start to finish. The flat draw is random, without any kind of seeding. The winning Quarter finalists get a 2-years Main Tour card.

The number of qualifying events has varied over time, and in three of the last four instalments, there has been an Order of Merit awarding for additional spots.

Here you will find the outcome of the Q-school events since they were organised for the first time in 2011.

Q-SchoolResults.png

Looking at those results, it’s clear that the system has benefitted returning professionals more than amateurs who had never before be on the main tour. That’s not really surprising as those events are played under professional conditions and the returning professionals are used to them, whilst for the “pure” amateurs it’s largely uncharted territory. It can’t be helped and it’s certainly not a dig at the returning pros who only deserve praise, many of them finding the inner strength to immediately get over the disappointment of relegation and going back to work right away. At the same time, as a fan, you would want to see young players finding their way to the professional tour as they are the future.

From all those players who got on the tour via the Q-school, the only one to win a full ranking tournament, is Michael Georgiou who won… the Shoot-out. He had been a pro before returning to the main tour via the Q-school.

Also, only one player in that list above to get into the top 16 AFTER (**) qualifying via the Q-school is David Gilbert who has done very well in the last couple of seasons. He’s currently ranked 11, his highest ranking was 10.

Only two players who turned pro in or after 2011 won an individual full ranking title at a really young age: Yan Bingtao who got on the tour after winning the Amateur World Championship in 2014 at 14, and Luca Brecel who got a wildcard to the Main Tour in 2011, notably after becoming under-19 European Champion in 2009, also just 14. Both are of course extremely talented. Yan benefitted form the strong structures and circuit available to young snooker players in China. Luca was coached by Chris Henry from a very young age and played in many European and Belgian snooker events. This was only made possible by the strong support of his family and being home-schooled.

So, overall, it’s not a great record for the Q-school graduates.

It’s also not a great record for the young ones. I covered that aspect when I looked at the rankings.

The Q-school structure as it is has a number of flaws.

  • The straight knock-out system combined with a random flat draw means that some of the best amateurs possibly meet in the first round – and we know it happened more than once – automatically depriving one of them of a chance to go deeper, whilst weaker players also meet in early rounds and, with some luck progress through two or three rounds. Even if they have little chances to win, it ehances their ranking in the Order of Merit. In short, that system does not guarantee that the best players progress.
  • Unless the number of players happens to be a power of 2 (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512… etc), there are byes in the first round, and actually in the second round as well. In fact there have been a very significant number of them. The players receiving a bye, not only progress to the next round, but they get “points” in the Order of Merit as if they had won by 4-0. This is a major distortion of the Order of Merit ranking. Again, that system does not guarantee that the best players progress.
  • Players who get knocked-out early, don’t gain much experience from the tournament … and it’s a shame because it’s not cheap to enter especially if they have to travel from abroad. This is a disincentive to enter unless the players are funded in a way or another.

You will tell me that it can’t be helped. WRONG.

Actually, there is a system that would allow for a fairer reflection of the players real “value”, and that, in addition, would require less matches to “select” the required number of  main tour graduates: the “Swiss system”.

What is it? The Swiss system is a non eliminating tournament format: all players, unless they wiwdraw, play in all rounds of the tournament.

The first round “pairing” can be random, or use a seeding or rating of sorts, if available. Currently, in snooker, it would probably be random. If the number of players is odd (as opposed to even), there will be one “bye” to the next round. But just the one bye.

In the second round, the first round losers will be paired together, and the first round winners will also be paired together. Possibly there could be one match between a “winner” and a “loser” as well as one bye. The pairing method doesn’t matter, the only constraint being that players who have met in a previous round, should not meet again, and if there is a bye, it should not benefit the player(s) who already had one. The pairs play each other. At the end of this round you will have players with 0 wins (rougly 1/4 of the field), players with 1 win (roughly 1/2 of the field) and players with two wins (roughly 1/4 of the field).

In the third round, again players will be paired within their “win group” whenever possible: those with 0 win between them, those with 1 win between them, those with 2 wins between them. At the end of this round yo will have a group with 0 wins (roughly 1 in 8), a group with 1 win (roughly 3 in 8), a group with 2 wins (roughly 3 in 8) and a group with 3 wins (roughly 1 in 8)

You get the idea … depending of the size of your “population”, you can have any number of rounds, until your group of undefeated players reaches the size that suits your needs.

The most players the Q-school had was 218 … I made a “Swiss simulation” with 224 players, a realistic number of entries for next season. Here is the outcome:

SwissSimula.png

One tournament, four rounds deliver 14 “graduates” to which you can add two by a predefined method of choice (most frames won, frames difference, most points won… any combination through the tournament). And you also have a natural “Order of Merit”, the group with three wins being the obvious group of candidates for the Challenge Tour in its current form.

Even if the tournament lasts longer than one current Q-school event, it’s significantly shorter than three of them. In fact it’s roughly equivalent to two of them. It’s cheaper for the players, and it’s cheaper for Worldsnooker. Indeed getting 12 “graduates” with the current system would require 660 matches (224 players straight knock out)

In addition, everyone gets to play 4 matches, gaining the maximum experience from the tournament, win or lose and, on average, the matches should be closer and more competitive whatever the players level.

Drawbacks? It’s more work to maintain/update the draw for the tournament director and their team, but then it’s just once, not three times.

More drawbacks? It may not be so attractive for the betting lot … Now, you know me by now, I won’t cry over that one!

It’s never going to work in cue sports? Well … it is used, and has been used in Pool by the English Pool Association

You like this? Please credit Lewis Pirnie who regularly comments on this blog.  His very relevant input  inspired me to have a closer look at this system and write this piece. Thank you Lewis!

(*) This is important because the entries for the Q-school close before the previous season is actually over. This to allow enough time to proper organisation of the events.
(**) Joe Swail of course was ranked as high as n°10 but that was in 2001/02

2 thoughts on “Reflecting on the decade – The Q-school

  1. Yes, thanks for looking into it. Swiss is very successful in other disciplines, and would meet the objectives of Q School perfectly. In fact, you would need many more rounds than 4 to make this work fairly. Essentially, your simulation actually boils down to a knockout, as players who lost a match can’t qualify, so it is susceptible to the random draw problem.

    The key with Swiss is that they play against someone with the same score so far. If they are winning they can expect their opponents to get tougher, if losing the opponents will get progressively weaker. Ultimately everyone settles to their level.

    My approach would actually be a 12-round Swiss elimination. Everyone plays 5 rounds, then the weaker half are eliminated: they lost 3 or more out of 5 (against weaker opponents), and thus “missed the cut”. The successful players keep going, but are eliminated after their 4th loss. After 12 rounds you will have approx 1 player on 11 wins (the “winner”), 3 players on 10, and 11 players on 9 wins. Taking into account frame scores, you get a complete ordered list of players, which works perfectly for tour card allocation, top-ups etc.

    Benefits:
    (1) You get your tour card qualifiers
    (2) You get a winner (always nice for promotional purposes)
    (3) You get a fair order of merit
    (4) Everyone knows where they stand
    (5) The qualifiers play 12 matches, mostly against the strongest opponents. After getting through this, they are as well-prepared as they could be
    (6) Others still play plenty of matches, which would improve their game

    Potentially, you could award development tour cards, e.g. the highest-placed woman, perhaps with a minimum expectancy (e.g. 6+ wins). Also, an odd number of players can be addressed by having a “marker” (usually some kid who plays when necessary to make up the numbers).

    All this would take 812 matches, so would take 15 days assuming 10 tables. The first 5 rounds would be busy, with 112 matches. That would either take 2 days, or you could split the field into two halves, and have them play 5 days’ worth of matches each, then bring the two halves together. Taking this further, you could split the first 5 rounds across different venues (e.g. north, south, Europe, China). All of this massively reduces costs to players, who currently have to come and go for three tournaments every 6 days.

    Towards the end, the number of players is reduced, from your 224, down to 52, 36, 24 in the last 3 rounds. It then becomes possible to have two matches per day. Ultimately the final 7 rounds can be played in 5 days. Yes, it’s gruelling, but that’s partly the objective, to toughen them up! They can afford losses along the way and yet still qualify.

    Has this been considered? Probably not. Just like the ranking system, there’s a paralytic fear of considering something new, even if it can be proven to have massive advantages.

    • I’m well aware that my example is simplistic, but I wanted it this way so that it’s very easy to understand and readers don’t run away scared. Some important features still immediately appear, notably the elimation of the “byes” issue and the fact that all players are guaranteed to play several matches and so get more value for their money. And even is that minimalist example, players who lose in first round are not completely out as the number of possible “perfect scores” is inferior to the number of desired graduates. You would think that the “lucky losers” would come from the group with just one defeat and would take orther stats into account, like #frames won, frames difference etc. Even if my simulation boils down to a knock-out, those advantages are still there, and it’s still significantly less matches overall which would possibly open the door for a best of 9 or even best of 11. That in itself would favour the best players.

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