Barry Hearn has made no mystery that he is very keen to have the 2020 World Championship organised and run as soon as possible. This is a tournament that carries a lot of prestige and is very lucrative. For the snooker players, who are self-employed, the lack of playing opportunities is a disaster.
WST has rescheduled the Tour Championship to be now played end of July. This is an eight men tournament and it could, if needed, easily be played without an audience, hence involving a minimal number of persons on site. The coronavirus crisis is expected to be under control, or about, by that time, but nobody can guarantee that social distancing measures will be completely lifted. That’s actually doubtful.
The World Championship itself is a 32 men event. Even played without an audience, it would still involve more people on-site than the Tour Championship, hence present a higher risk. I heard from a trustworthy source that WST and WPBSA are confident that by early September the situation would be such that the tournament could be run safely, and that, hopefully, it could be played at the Crucible.
The real challenge though is the qualifiers. They involve 128 players, coming from all parts of the world, and involve a considerable number of referees, fitters and officials. They require a huge venue, with proper security, and decent conditions. This, in turn, means, in addition to the aforementioned persons, that there will be security personnel, cleaners, on-duty paramedics and minimal catering. This presents a much bigger health risk than the World Championship itself and it’s difficult to see it happen before later in autumn, therefore pushing the main event even further towards the end of the year unless … it goes virtual.
From what I understood, WST and WPBS are considering the possibility to have the World Championship qualifiers run on Snooker 19, the licensed game developed by Ripstone Games in collaboration with Lab42 and World Snooker. The game is available on various platforms and allows for players to play each other online. It has been praised for its very realistic gameplay.
Players would be offered a free copy of the game, on the platform of their choice, and a webcam. The budget initially planned for the rental of the venue would be used for this instead. The shipping should happen in the coming weeks, so that they have time to set the equipment up and get familiar with the game. A help desk will be made available, under the supervision of Paul Collier who is well known amongst the fans and players for his abilities to fix recalcitrant scoreboards. Paul will also organise workshops for the referees involved in the tournament.
During the tournament itself, the webcams will be used to allow the referees on duty to supervise the game remotely, making sure that the players operate the console or computer without external help, but without the need for physical proximity with the players. For technical reasons, frames will be timed – limited to 20 minutes – and played under a 30 seconds shot-clock. The format will remain best of 19 over two sessions but without interval. The player with the most aggregated points will be deemed the winner. There will be prize money for the highest break, but centuries won’t count towards the official tally.
If the experience is a success, the same technology could be used for the Q-school, limiting the need for players’ travel and allowing the Asian Q-school to be held despite the difficult circumstances.