The Year 2022 – The Ugly

This one is of course about the match fixing inquiry that lead to the suspension of eight Chinese players.

Before I start … I’m very aware that the way my mind functions and the way I see things is not always in line with the opinions and beliefs of most people and I expect some of you, maybe many of you to disagree with some of the ideas I will express hereafter. I’m not trying to convince anyone, I’m not expecting you to change your mind about this affair. What I’m asking you though is to read this piece with an open mind, think about it before replying, and if you chose to comment to do it without aggression.

It all started with Liang Wenbo

On the 4th of June 2022 WPBSA decided to suspend Liang Wenbo for a duration of 4 months. The motive of the suspension was that he had brought the sport in disrepute, which he accepted. Liang had been convicted by Sheffield Magistrates Court for domestic-related assault by beating where he pleaded guilty. He was fined a total of £1,380 and given a 12-month community order. He had been caught on CCTV, in the streets of Sheffield, beating up a woman and dragging her on the ground.

WPBSA was criticised for not handing him a harsher punishment. Jason Ferguson explained that the only motive they could use against Liang was that he had brought the game in disrepute, because the assault itself had previously been dealt with by a different authority, namely the Sheffield Magistrates Court. It is a general principle in law that you can’t be judged twice for the same offence. That said, Liang’s “punishment” ordered by the Magistrates seems very “light” considering the nature of the offence. But, we can’t really judge on that because we don’t know the full facts. We don’t know anything about the situation in the family, if, for instance, there were tensions or conflicts. Violence in a family can take many forms and is not necessarily physical. One of my sisters worked as nurse for many years in one of the biggest hospitals in Brussels, at the A&E, and told me that as much as 40% of the cases of domestic violence they had to deal with involved a male victim, and in the majority of those cases the nature of the violence was not “physical”, it was primarily psychological. She also told me that males were often embarrassed about being abuse victims and only asked for help in last resort. I’m not saying that this was the case in Liang’s family, all I’m saying is that the rather lenient punishment may have been motivated by a situation that we are not aware of and that we have no particular right to know about.

That said, Liang has always been rather “volatile”, but in recent times he had appeared increasingly unstable. I know for fact that I’m not the only one to have noticed the signs.

Now … a personal and, likely, highly unpopular opinion. Many of those snooker fans who asked for Liang to be “hanged and quartered” are big fans of Alex Higgins. I know how Alex changed the game, I admire the way he played when at his best, but I also read his bios, read Jimmy White’s bio and Jason Francis’ book about the origin and development of the “Snooker Legends”. In the latter Jason explains why he had to sack Alex after just one show. The truth is that he was a charismatic snooker player but a terrible human being, He could be nice and generous when he wanted to but, more often than not, he was manipulative, obnoxious, dishonest, violent and… he was a women beater as well. The fact the he was a drunk and a gambler is no excuse for his “problems”, that was part of the Problem (with capital P), and Alex never really tried to change either. I don’t do double standards … I’m not getting this, guys.

But back to Liang … as he came back to play but not for long. Indeed on 27 of October 2022 WPBSA issued a new statement, suspending Liang again, this time for “allegations of misconduct”. The suspension duration was not specified but it would last at least until the end of the investigation regarding those allegations.

The nature of the “misconduct” was not specified either but it became rapidly clear that this had something to do with “manipulating the result of matches”, in other words match fixing.

Then in December, as the investigation progressed, WPBSA issued no less than three more statements: on 9th of December, on 12th of December and on 23d of December . Other than Liang Wenbo, seven other Chinese players are now implicated: Li Hang, Lu Ning, Zhao Jianbo, Bai Langning, Chang Bingyu, Yan Bingtao and Chen Zifan.

We don’t know much details about the allegations, but here is what we do know:

  • Of the first five listed above, three are implicated about only one match. One of them denies the allegations.
  • Chang Bingyu is one of the three who are investigated for just one match. He doesn’t deny the facts, he will accept his punishment, but he explained that he was threatened by Liang Wenbo into doing it. Liang denies these allegations.
  • From what transpired on weibo, the facts incriminating Yan Bingtao are not very recent, they happened before he won the 2021 Masters, nearly two years ago.

All those players have now been suspended by CBSA as well.

One (ex) blogger on twitter reacted to Chang Bingyu’s “defence” by saying it’s all nonsense and an attempt at “damage limitation”. That person claims that had Chang just said no, nothing would have happened, Maybe, but I wouldn’t be so sure as Liang’s family is very wealthy and likely has “connections”. I’m not thinking “mafia” but I’m thinking influential people who could help or destroy a career.

It’s easy for a mature man, established in his own country to see it that way. But things look very different for a young lad – Chang is just 20 – away from his family in a foreign country. His command of English is probably rather basic. Like all citizens of countries living under an authoritarian regime, he wouldn’t trust the police, especially if the “other party” is a wealthy man with “connections”. And some stories in the news about how the police, in the UK, sometimes treats persons belonging to “minorities” will do nothing to help his confidence. Unless Liang is indeed proven innocent regarding these threats allegations, I believe Chang when he said he was scared and it’s a very uncomfortable feeling.

Shaun Murphy is never afraid to voice strong opinions and here he what he told the media:

Specifically for players who are found guilty of match fixing, they should never compete on the professional tour ever again. A complete life ban – from professional and amateur snooker. 

Their existence in the snooker world should be terminated. So strong is my feeling on it, it’s part of the reason, a multi-faceted reason, it’s part of why I resigned from WPBSA board many, many years ago. 

You know, I knew too much about what was going on with certain players who were under disciplinary inquiries. As a board director I was privy to information that the media and the public aren’t. 

For me it will be completely black and white. I know the world has gone greyer over the years, we have gone from an old fashioned black and white view of the world to quite an opaque one, often for the better. 

But I think cheating is one area where we should be a bit more black and white

If you are found guilty through the correct processes, if you are given the chance to defend yourself, and found guilty of match fixing, then in my opinion that should be your involvement in the snooker family finished. 

I am someone who tries with every fibre of my snooker being to help try to make this game better.

I have joined the board and sat on the players’ commission and everything I have tried to do in my professional career is to leave snooker in a better condition when I walk away from it compared to 1998 when I turned pro

You know things like what have happened in the past week with all the announcements of the players again – and we understand due process, they are innocent until proven guilty – it’s just heart-breaking.  

The people who matter the most, the fans, it just leaves that shadow of a doubt when they are watching what is arguably the hardest single player sport on the planet, such a skilful game

There is that little doubt when a player misses a pot that they think they should get – things like this sows that seed of doubt among the public

Did they really miss that? Was that on purpose? It’s heartbreaking for a player whose first love is snooker

It’s reputation around the world, we trade off that gentlemanly image, if these players are found guilty, then in my opinion they have no business being part of the snooker community anymore.” 

In principle, I agree with Shaun but would I feel uncomfortable if this was applied here, especially when it comes to the younger ones and in particular if it is proven that some of those players have been threatened. I also feel uncomfortable with the fact that such radical call has never been made when UK players have been under suspicion in the past. Some of them got away very lightly IMO, and before anyone digs that out again, it’s NOT John Higgins I’m about here.

When it comes to the Chinese players, UK fans appear to be far less forgiving or forgetful. Dishonesty is an individual trait, not a racial or national feature. Being away from their family, in a foreign country and culture, with a poor command of the local language makes non UK players more vulnerable to approaches by unscrupulous individuals, especially if they are fellow citizens.

I would be happy if there was a statement by WPBSA stating that, from January 1, 2023 every proven attempt to manipulate the outcome of a match will be punished with a life ban. For past occurrences though, the approach should be what it has been so far and punishments proportionate to the offence.

For the record…

The longer suspension ever imposed in the past was Stephen Lee’s in 2013.

Stephen Lee has been banned for 12 years after being found guilty of seven charges of match-fixing. The 38-year-old was found guilty of seven match-fixing charges by an independent tribunal last week. The tribunal chairman, Adam Lewis QC, also ordered that Lee pay costs of £40,000. The player plans to lodge an appeal against Wednesday morning’s decision.

Lee, the former world No5, was found guilty of match-fixing charges relating to seven matches in 2008 and 2009. The matches in question were three in the Malta Cup in 2008, two in the UK Championship in the same year, one in the 2009 China Open and one in the 2009 world championship.

A statement from the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA) said: “The suspension is to be calculated from 12 October 2012, when the interim suspension was imposed. Therefore Stephen Lee will not be able to participate in snooker before 12 October 2024.”

The WPBSA had been seeking a lifetime ban but the organisation’s head of disciplinary Nigel Mawer insisted the 12-year suspension was effectively the same thing.

We did say we were seeking a life ban because if it was seven matches that had been fixed including during the world championships. But in effect it is a life ban because I think it is highly unlikely that Stephen Lee will be able to come back to the sport at this level.

We don’t take great pleasure out of that – this is a case of a fantastic snooker player who has thrown it all away through making the wrong decisions. It is only human to have a degree of sympathy for him and it is going to be very difficult for him but we have to send a very strong message that match-fixing is not going to be tolerated. To my knowledge this is the longest ban ever handed down and there are £40,000 costs to pay too if he ever wants to come back.

It’s worth noting that there had been strong suspicions about the outcome of other matches played by Lee, notably at the Premier League Snooker but that were not taken into account when the 2013 decision was made. Lee was making a good living from the game as well.

Also, Lee has got himself in trouble again after that. He got two more criminal convictions:

Indeed, On 9 June 2014 Lee pleaded guilty to fraud at Swindon Magistrates’ Court and was fined £110. Lee had sold his personal snooker cue to a Facebook fan for £1,600 but when he failed to deliver the cue the fan reported the matter to the police. Lee was also ordered to repay the £1,600 cost of the cue.

Also on 12 April 2018 Lee was arrested in Hong Kong following an immigration raid at a billiards hall. Lee was charged with teaching snooker without a work permit and appeared in court on 14 April where he pleaded not guilty to breaching the conditions of his tourist visa. Lee was forced to surrender his passport and was bailed until June. Lee changed his plea to a guilty plea on the first day of his trial, and the case was dismissed after he agreed to a 12-month good behaviour bond of HK$1,000 (£95).

So, given the current “jurisprudence” in the sport, giving a frightened young lad a life ban for fixing one match in a relatively minor event would definitely be over the top and when the same person who dismissed Chang’s fears, said on twitter that Lee was a “small time fixer”, I’m seriously nonplussed.

Also, Nigel Mawer said they wanted a life ban, but eventually that’s not what Lee got and I’m not sure why. At the time, it looked indeed very unlikely that he would come back to the sport at 50 … BUT … we now have three players aged 47 in the top 8 of our sport, and Jimmy White still playing at 60. Things may be get “interesting” in 2024/25, especially if life bans are actually handed to the Chinese players. WPBSA might have a bit of a headache if Lee decides to enter the Q-School.

And about the Q-School … we also had the “Thanawat Tirapongpaiboon” affair.

Thanawat had qualified for this season and the next via the Asia-Oceania Q-School. He wasn’t given a tour card though … instead he was sent to face the disciplinary committee.

Here is WPBSA statement

WPBSA Statement – Thanawat Tirapongpaiboon

 WPBSA Statement 18th November 2022

 The WPBSA and Thanawat Tirapongpaiboon

 At a hearing that took place before the independent WPBSA Disciplinary Committee on 25th October 2022, Tirapongpaiboon admitted serious breaches of the WPBSA Conduct Regulations. This followed investigations, working closely with Sportradar in 2013, 2015 and 2022. 

 As a result of the decision of the WPBSA Board to refuse Tirapongpaiboon membership of the WPBSA in June 2022, he fully cooperated with the new WPBSA investigation into match fixing. He admitted to fixing the outcome of six matches between 2013 and 2015.

 The finding of the Tribunal was that the starting point for Tirapongpaiboon was a suspension of nine years. He was given credit for his plea of guilty which reduced the suspension to six years. Of that period, he will serve a suspension of two years nine months unconditionally. The remaining three years and three months will be suspended, provided there is compliance with the terms agreed between Tirapongpaiboon and the WPBSA to provide significant assistance to the WPBSA in its anti-corruption work.

Provided he complies with his agreement with the WPBSA, his suspension will run from 15th June 2022 until 14th March 2025. He was ordered to pay £1,925 towards the WPBSA costs.

Jason Ferguson Chairman of the WPBSA said “This case shows that if a player chooses to fix a match they will be caught, no matter how long after the event. Thanawat has shown true remorse and wants to help ensure that other players do not make the mistakes that he did as a young player by assisting the WPBSA in its player education program. This has been reflected in the sanction. This case shows how seriously the WPBSA treats match fixing.”

The full findings of the Independent Tribunal can be found HERE.

Tirapongpaiboon has until 1st December 2022 to appeal the decision of the Tribunal.

 Tirapongpaiboon charges admitted:

  1. That you fixed the outcome of your match with Noppon Saengkham at the Australian Open Qualifier in Gloucester on 1st June 2013 in breach of Rule
  2. That you fixed the outcome of your match with Ross Muir at the Shanghai Masters Qualifiers in Doncaster on 7th August 2013 in breach of Rule
  3. That you fixed the outcome of your match with Ding Junhui at the China Open Qualifiers in Gloucester on 16TH February 2014 in breach of Rule
  4. That you fixed the outcome of your match with Martin Gould at the Welsh Open in Wales on 19th February 2014 in breach of Rule
  5. That you fixed the outcome of your match with Stuart Bingham at the UK Championship in York on 25th November 2014 in breach of Rule
  6. That you fixed the outcome of your match with Martin O’Donnell at the PTC European Tour 2 in Furth, Germany on 28th August 2015 in breach of Rule

For the avoidance of doubt, Tirapongpaiboon’s opponents in the matches in question were not involved in any way in these rule breaches.

WPBSA Conduct Regulations extract:

  1. Betting misconduct

2.1   It shall be a breach of these Rules for a Member to do any of the following:

  • Corruption:  to fix or contrive, or to be a party to any effort to fix or contrive, the result, score, progress, conduct or any other aspect of the Tour and/or any Tournament or Match;

The full WPBSA Conduct Regulations can be viewed here.

And of course, this very recent decision makes a life ban very hard to justify for the eight currently implicated – should they be found guilty – unless something extremely serious came to light.

As a conclusion …

WPBSA has a duty to protect the integrity of the game, but they also have a duty to care for their members. If the ongoing investigation uncovers individuals or groups of individuals who approach(ed) young vulnerable players and coerce(d) them into manipulating the outcome of matches, WPBSA has a duty to try and sue them. If Liang is found to have threatened some of his young fellow citizens, he definitely should get a life ban from the sport. His victims (if any) though should get ONE second chance. Any (proven) recurrence should lead automatically to a life ban barring proven truly exceptional circumstances.

8 thoughts on “The Year 2022 – The Ugly

  1. Thank you for your thoughts and efforts to share them with us in a well-written article. I came searching for opinions online today following news of an 8th Chinese player being suspended.
    I think, on the balance of everything I have read, that WPBSA perhaps do not have the most approachable or inviting process for reporting corruption. I mean, if so many players are being implicated in match fixing, possibly by coercion, I can only presume they do not feel safe reporting the issue. Why?
    I am picking up on the foreign player notion you mention and with which I agree about feeling vulnerable to refuse approaches from corrupt people.
    This is the most important factor for me… why do they feel vulnerable and cave in to pressure?
    I think the WPBSA are a little bit crap tbh and we have several examples of thoughts from top players about how the organisation function and their priorities, i.e. money. Perhaps they are not doing their bit regarding duty of care to their members very well and this is showing itself like this when it comes to foreign players in vulnerable situations.
    If not, it must be a wholly active and chosen involvement in which case punishment should be harsher. However, I trust the words of many pros who have been active since long before this decade of growth who have expressed numerous times that they do not like the way the WPBSA are treating players or what is becoming expected of players. It sounds a bit too business-y and less sporty, I’d say. That culture may have something to do with the culture of members joining. Maybe.

    • Thank you Elias for reading this blog and taking the time to react with a well elaborated answer. There are two separate bodies dealing with snooker. WST is the “commercial” body. They own the majority of shares in the sport and they are indeed very “businessy”. WPBSA is the governing body dealing with the sport itself. Jason Ferguson, the chairman, is a very approachable person and he’s been a player himself. He understand their problems. For instance, since Hearn “retired” from the “head” of WST, WPBSA has managed to get an agreement for 20000 pounds guaranteed which is massive for the players. I have no doubt that Jason would listen to any player expressing concerns about an approach or being pressured. BUT, there is the barrier of language, AND, probably more significantly the cultural background. In all countries I have been to – and there are quite a few – I have noticed that in those that have, or had an authoritarian regime for a significant amount of time, there is a profound distrust in the authorities. People will nearly always try to sort their problems out by themselves because they fear what could happen if they involve the authorities. It’s a very strong psychological hurdle.

  2. Just want to clarify one thing What Alex Higgins has done doesn’t even come close to what these Chinese players has been Accused of For a sport fixing results is the worst thing they can do as far as I’m concerned

    • My reference to Alex Higgins was not in the context of match fixing, but in the context of people’s reaction to Liang’s conviction for domestic violence. Remember that, at that time, there was no known implication of Liang in a match fixing affair.

  3. I only comment one aspect of your post.

    “I would be happy if there was a statement by WPBSA stating that, from January 1, 2023 every proven attempt to manipulate the outcome of a match will be punished with a life ban.”

    I don’t think ‘life bans for all’ is the way to go.

    First of all, there are offenses of different severity. If the approach is to ban everyone for life, these differences are not taken into account. That way someone taking part in very systematic fixing gets the same sanction as someone who makes a mistake once. Is that fair?

    There are additional mitigating factors. Should a stupid whim (see Leo Fernandez) be penalised as hard as a thoroughly planned act? Should it carry any weight whether someone benefits financially from fixing a match? How would you penalise someone who fails to report an approach or doesn’t notify the authorities of the information he possesses (see Jamie Jones)? Is there any difference between being in a desperate financial situation (see Cao Yupeng) and being greedy? Would someone cooperating in investigation get the same ban as someone who is not cooperating at all? How about being pressured to fix a match versus being self-initiated? If the only tool you have is a hammer, you see every problem as a nail. In reality, there are different degrees of severity to manipulation.

    When it comes to disciplinary sanctions, the most important objective should be to get rid of match-fixing. Punishing the offenders etc. are only secondary goals that indirectly support the primary goal. If there is no incentive to cooperate with the authorities, there would be no whistleblowers, nobody would help in battling the issue – all accused players could only deny everything.

    The £20,000 “basic income” is a great improvement for many reasons. One benefit is that it disincentivises match-fixing as it helps to make ends meet. Less and less players should be in a situation where they could consider match-fixing to get money to survive.

    In general, I find it very populist to advocate for life bans for all offenders. All of us want to get rid of match-fixing and taking an absolute stance is an easy way to demonstrate being right-minded. In reality, I find ‘life bans from the smallest offense’ very unfair as this approach 1) doesn’t differentiate between different forms of match-fixing (that are of different severity), 2) is not the best way to actually combat match-fixing as it won’t make anyone to cooperate – vice versa.

    I hope my post isn’t read as sympathising with match-fixers. I’m only saying there are different kinds of offenses and ‘one size fits all’ is not the best solution to root out match-fixing.

    • I don’t for a second believe that you are on the side of the match fixers but I don’t see how being harsher on match fixing would stop anyone to cooperate. On the contrary. If I was a player, and I was approached, knowing that NOT reporting it could end my career if discovered would certainly motivate me to inform the authorities, not the other way around. Of course, once they have done it and have been caught they would have no incentive to “cooperate” but I’d rather give the players the highest incentive to inform the authorities before anything happens.

      • It’s not even clear that a ‘life ban’ is even lawful. It may not be possible for WPBSA to impose one, just like they weren’t able to sanction Liang Wenbo for his criminal offence. Instead, they ban for 12 years, and rely on things like £40000 legal fees charges to make it very difficult for somebody who is irredeemably corrupt to appear again. High-profile figures who call for life bans probably know that it’s not feasible: they are doing it for effect, most likely in order to ensure the longest possible bans.

        Cao Yupeng got 6 years for throwing a couple of matches for £5000 each when desperate. His ban was ‘suspended’ after 3 years, with some conditions for return. Now with this subsequent crisis, of much larger scale, the climate is more intense. It’s hard to see anything less than the same 6 years, but without a suspension, for the current players who have fixed any match willingly.

        There was a cricketer who was banned for 5 years (at the age of 18) who did return, but his comeback was quite short-lived: he had missed out on too much development and his physical conditioning was no longer adequate. In snooker, Cliff Wilson didn’t hit a ball for 15 years, remarkably returning to reach the top-16 in his 50’s. But that was in the 1980’s when the standard was incomparably weaker. In the present day, a ban of over 5 years would probably be enough to end a career, certainly a top career.

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