The goal of this piece is to share some ideas about the current state of the sport we love, snooker, and how something most fans never question, the ranking system, shapes the sport. It also discusses a radical alternative to the ranking system, a rating system, that would bring benefits but also huge challenges.
As premises to this piece, I want to state a triplet of important things
- This article wouldn’t exist without the major contribution of Lewis Pirnie. Lewis is passionate about snooker and its future, He has put a lot of work into this website where he explores the opportunities a snooker rating system would offer, explains the maths behind such a system, and provides tools and simulations to help us understand the benefits and challenges such a system would bring. Thank you Lewis.
- In this piece, I DO challenge the current definition of “professional snooker player”. The current common understanding by fans is that a professional snooker player is someone who holds at WST Tour card. My definition of a professional – not just in snooker but in any endeavour – is someone who actually earns a living out of their occupation. In snooker, “occupation” would mean playing it for a living and or coaching for a living. In that light there is probably a significant number of snooker professionals in China, players who are not on the “Main Tour” but play in CBSA events, whilst, on the other hand, probably half of the WST card holders are only part-timers. The £20000 guaranteed income of course is a big step in the right direction, but for players with a family in particular and those residing in the UK as ex-pats, it isn’t enough to make a living.
- One of my main motivations for this piece is the utter absurdity and unfairness of the “money list ranking system” if pushed to the extreme. The unfairness is obvious: depending on the sponsor(s), events requiring similar efforts, are possibly rewarded with very different retributions, money-wise and ranking-wise. As for the absurdity … just imagine that some oriental prince or princess would decide to offer crazy money to hold the Shoot Out in their country, as a one-off, and that they would offer ten times what’s on offer today for every round, bar the final that would be rewarded with £50 000 000 … just because they can. Would the players refuse to play in it? I doubt it. Would it completely send the ranking system into absurdity? Of course it would. The winner of that would be “World Number One”, with all the spin-offs that come with it, for two years and nobody would be able to catch them, even if they don’t win another match during those two years.
Ranking and Rating … what is it about?
A ranking system aims at presenting its population – in our case the WST tour card owners and some amateurs who have been offered the opportunity to play in WST “ranking” events – in an “order” that reflects their value in reference to certain criteria – in our case the money they earned in those events over the last two years.
A rating system aims at determining the strength of the members of its population in accomplishing certain activities or tasks. In sports a rating system aims at determining what the strength of its exponents are at their sport: the higher the rating, the better the sportsperson. One of the best-known types of rating systems, is the Elo type and the study Lewis presents on his site uses a rating system of that Elo type.
I suppose that the readers of this blog are familiar with the current ranking system used in snooker, but not necessarily familiar with the way an Elo type of rating system would work. It’s all explained in detail by Lewis, with examples and simulations.
I will however (try to) explain the fundamental principles of such a system as applied to snooker, without any mathematical formulas.
Every time a match of snooker is played between two players who own a rating, both players’ ratings are likely to change depending on the outcome of the match. These changes are the result of a transfer of points between the players. In most cases, the winner sees their rating increase, whilst the loser sees their’s rating decrease. Here are the statistical principles that will determine by how much:
- The number of points transferred from one player to the other, and the “direction” of the transfer depends essentially on the likelihood of the actual outcome. The more likely the outcome, the smaller the number of points transferred, the lesser the impact on both players’ rating. It’s no rocket science. If players are close in rating, they are supposed to be of about the same strength and therefore, the match is expected to be close, especially in longer formats. If that is what happens indeed, the rating of both players will change, but not by much, the winner will gain a few points, the loser will lose a few points … that’s all. If one of those players whitewashes their opponent in a best-of-25 though, that’s a different story. It’s highly unexpected and the number of points transferred between players will be much higher, impacting their rating more significantly. Using Lewis (not zero-sum) model, in some extreme cases, when the ratings of the players are significantly different, the loser of the match may even see their rating improve, whilst the winner see theirs impacted negatively . This could happen for instance if a player with a very low rating were to lose in a decider to one of the “top” rated players in a long format match. In such a scenario, despite the defeat, the low-rated player will have done much better than expected, and been rewarded for it, whilst their top-rated player will be “punished” for underperforming badly.
- The likelihood of each of the various outcomes in any specific match is obtained through a mathematical method taking both players’ rating into account. Each possible score has a probability of actually happening, The higher the probability, the likelier the outcome. Lewis explains this with graphics in the piece referenced above.
As you have understood by now, the rating of an active player evolves constantly. It’s susceptible to change after every match played. Of course a mechanism has to be put into place to prevent a player from “sitting” on their rating by simply not playing.
Some of you will tell me that this is far too complicated and cant be used in snooker, but actually it is used. Indeed this is the kind of mathematics that the bookies use to “price” the snooker matches they offer for betting. They, no doubt, have their own internal rating of the players and when huge amounts are placed on a very unlikely outcome, this triggers “alarm bells”.
Of course, it is well known that an Elo rating system is used in chess. You might be surprised however to learn that a “players rating system” and a “team rating system” are used in basketball, including in the US NBA. Table tennis federations use/used rating systems as well. Even the FIFA World Football rankings now use an Elo formula! It’s used outside sports as well.
What would be the benefits of a rating system in snooker?
Provided that the necessary guarantees about proper conditions, refereeing, and integrity can be met, there would be quite a few benefits but here are, in my perception, the main ones:
- Inclusiveness. This is a system that could be used at all levels of the sport, anywhere in the world: debutants, club players, proficient amateurs and professionals (i.e players whose main source of income is snooker), women and men.
- Fairness. It would be independent of the amount of money this or that promoter – or any country going after sportswashing – would be willing to put in any event. The available earnings would still be a major factor to attract the best players, but it would not impact the sport’s rating.
- Flexibility. This is a particularly important one. A rating system would allow WST to offer tournaments for specific groups of players without impacting the rating of those not in those groups. It would also allow to organise or participate in concurrent events, including pro-ams, maybe in distant locations, offering more opportunities and giving players more choices. For the older players, it would mean that they can keep their rating without playing in everything. They just need to play enough whilst progressively building a “post-snooker” career.
- No need for a Q-School … if WST wants to be, and sell itself as, the promoter of the best events for the 128 best snooker players in the World they can still do so … all year long. There is no need for a Q-School. The official rating could evolve all year long and be available at all times. Players could and would join and leave the “best 128” elite as their rating evolves.
What are the drawbacks then?
Because of course, it’s not just that simple. Here are a few pitfalls I can think of.
- To bring the full benefits of a common rating system the various bodies involved in snooker at all levels need to agree and work together, including when it comes to safeguarding the integrity of the sport. We all know that this isn’t currently the case and that this is a major issue with no solution in sight! Currently the necessary constructive collaboration is probably a utopia.
- It would deprive Matt Huart, and a good few others, of his/their favourite occupation: predicting what will happen in the rankings, what round should this or that player needs to reach to stay on tour, or qualify for this or that event. That would become a very arduous because the combinatorics would become far too complex.
- Everything currently based on the “one year list” would need to be rethought. Maybe “biggest upward movers” in the last 12 months, or since the last World Championship, rated above a certain threshold or something like that would do …
- WST would need to re-invent themselves as the notions of professional and amateur would be blurred. It would break their “monopoly’ to an extent, maybe making the negotiations of certain contracts, notably with broadcasters, more difficult.
Lewis was traveling yesterday. He’s attending the 2023 German Masters starting today. He had a difficult trip because of works on the tracks. Despite the tiredness of the long trip, he took the time to read this piece and send me his comments. Thank you Lewis and enjoy the snooker.
Hereafter you’ll find Lewis feedback that I have not otherwise already included in the text above:
- I think Pankaj Advani said it costs around £25000 simply to play snooker professionally. Perhaps he means as an overseas player, whereas many young British players still live with their parents, or are dependent on wives’ income, etc. Others of course have to have jobs to supplement their income. Overseas players don’t get a British Working VISA, so cannot work and play. Soheil Vahedi wrote about that.
- I would still have ‘tour cards’ and therefore some kind of Q School (although I’ve had words to say about its format). The fact is, players need to have some kind of guarantees – they need to get mortgages or bank loans. So to allow some of them (but maybe not 128) guaranteed entry into many of the tournaments is probably necessary. But there could also be some tournaments whose entry is solely determined by their Elo Rating. This gives the tour variety and flexibility. There could also be tournaments (mainly Pro-Am) where players needed to be BELOW a certain Elo Rating to enter. This is what is called ‘stratified’.
- I’m not sure that snooker governing bodies need to work together, at least not very much. If WST are responsible for a global ranking system, that’s up to them. They don’t need to consult anyone. Of course, it then gives them new powers (over the amateur game) as assigning amateur events ‘ranking status’ would be much sought after. For example, if a club held a tournament which refused women entry, then WST could simply not count the event for ratings, which would likely lead to fewer players entering. Power!
- One-year ‘money lists’ could still be used, for example as qualification routes for events like WGP, Players’ Championship and Tour Championship. If WST really are wedded to the idea of highlighting how much money the top players earn, they could still do that. But not for things like promotion and relegation, top-16 qualification (Masters and World Championship seedings), and any situation involving amateurs.