An interesting perspective on the current match fixing situation

Yesterday, scanning the snooker related news as usual, I stumbled upon this piece by Al Jazeera

Don’t stop at the somewhat click-bait title. This piece actually does put the current issue into perspective and it also confirms some of the things Ronnie and Judd hinted at when they said that snooker will survive.

Match-fixing scandal threatens to turn snooker’s boom into bust

Concerns grow over the influence of organised crime in snooker, following charges against 10 Chinese players.

Andrew Wilks

Chinese snooker player Zhao Xintong prepares to take a shot at the table
The 2021 UK championship winner, Zhao Xintong, is among 10 Chinese players suspended over match-fixing allegations [File: Craig Brough/Reuters]

Match-fixing charges against 10 Chinese snooker players in the biggest corruption scandal to engulf one of the world’s fastest-growing sports has left fans and organisers fearful for the future of the game.

The players, including 2021 Masters champion Yan Bingtao and that year’s UK championship winner Zhao Xintong, have been suspended as part of an investigation into claims of “manipulating the outcome of matches for betting purposes” by the integrity unit at the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA).

The revelations have raised questions about the influence of betting syndicates often run by organised crime gangs on a sport with a growing global following.

The rise of snooker – a game invented by British army officers in India in the 1870s – has largely been fuelled by a growing interest in the sport in East Asia, particularly China.

Once largely confined to the United Kingdom and Ireland, where it came to attract large TV audiences in the 1980s and 1990s, snooker’s wider growth was driven by the emergence of Asian players, such as Thailand’s James Wattana and Ding Junhui of China, whose 2005 China Open victory at the age of 18 kick-started a Chinese snooker boom.

The sport is now played by more than 120 million people worldwide and attracts TV audiences of 500 million. It is striving to complete its image transformation from a game played in smoky back-street halls by vying for inclusion in the 2028 Olympic Games.

Snooker underwent a transformation from about late 2009 when Barry Hearn took control of the professional game,” said Marcus Stead, editor of Snooker Scene magazine, referring to the businessman credited with popularising the sport in Britain in the 1980s who became the WPBSA chairman two decades later.

The game was at a low ebb but there’s now a lot more snooker being played. If you go back to the so-called golden age of snooker in the 1980s, most of the players were from Britain or Canada or a few from South Africa.

It’s now much, much more global. The sheer number of players in China is absolutely enormous. You’ve also had growth in continental Europe and Australia.”

While some have questioned whether this growth has left snooker open to match-fixing, experts in sport integrity say it is at no greater risk than many other sports.

Snooker is not the most at-risk or most affected sport,” said Tom Mace, director of global operations for integrity services at Sportradar, the sports technology company that monitors betting and worked on the WPBSA investigation.

Because of the scale of this current action and the WPBSA’s strict zero-tolerance approach, where you’ve got 10 players from China being suspended, it may appear that snooker is the most at-risk or affected sport compared to others but from our perspective that’s not the case.

It currently sits seventh in our all-time list in terms of matches detected per sport. The likes of football, tennis, basketball, table tennis, ice hockey all have higher numbers of suspicious matches detected. Snooker is not exceptional in terms of match-fixing risk.

Sportradar’s 2021 annual report on betting corruption and match-fixing recorded 903 suspicious matches in 10 sports, across 76 countries – a record over the 17 years it has monitored sports integrity.

The company, which has its headquarters in St Gallen, Switzerland, estimated these matches generated some 165 million euros ($180m) in match-fixing betting profit. As the world’s most popular sport, football accounts for 694 suspicious matches, or 77 percent of the total, followed by basketball with 62 and tennis with 53.

This means one in every 200 football matches monitored by Sportradar in 2021 was suspected of being influenced by match-fixing.

The propensity for betting-related corruption is closely tied to the level of gambling associated with a sport. So while snooker’s risk is not as high as some other sports, “it does have a very consistent and very strong global betting coverage”, according to Mace, largely due to the fact that it is popular in places where there is a well-developed betting culture.

As an individual sport, snooker is vulnerable to fixing as a single player has a greater influence on a match than in team sports. While match-fixing is a global phenomenon – Sportradar’s report found Europe accounted for more than half of fixed matches – there is a perception that Asian snooker players touring far from home are susceptible to approaches from criminals.

The 10 players who’ve been suspended are all young Chinese players,” said Snooker Scene’s Stead.

They’re thousands of miles away from home, a lot of the time their English isn’t particularly good, they’ve only got each other for company and they’re not being managed particularly well.

That leaves them very vulnerable to being approached by well-connected people from the Chinese criminal fraternity,” added Stead.

The implication has been that these young Chinese players had been told there would be unpleasant consequences for themselves and their families if they didn’t do as they were told.

An independent hearing will evaluate the evidence against the 10 players, who face lengthy bans from the sport if they are found guilty.

There are also concerns about the effect the scandal could have on the sport’s following in its largest market.

Yan Bingtao is spearheading a generation of Chinese players at the moment who are said to be the future of the sport, so this news comes as quite a disappointment, mainly to [fans in] China who follow these players and hold them in high regard,” said Shabnam Younus-Jewell, host of the BBC’s Framed podcast.

Over in China, because snooker is such a massive sport out there – they absolutely love it, kids play it in schools – there will be a real feeling of dread there about what’s going on,” she added.

This feels like a huge investigation, one of the biggest carried out by the WPBSA, and there’s a feeling – people have called it a dark day but it could be more than that … It’s a really difficult and quite a murky situation.”

Many acknowledge that the WPBSA has done much in recent years to tackle corruption, with clear rules and methods for informing the authorities about approaches to throw games.

If you are approached you’re supposed to inform them using a confidential phone line or email address and the procedures make it very clear that if you are found guilty you will face a very long ban, which will ruin your career,” Stead said.

However, the disparity in earnings between those at the top of the sport and those who fail to progress in tournaments is thought to be an element driving corruption. Of the 130 players on snooker’s main tour, fewer than half earned more than 40,000 pounds ($49,600) prize money last season, from which travel and accommodation costs must be paid.

For risk profile, we look at the betting coverage versus the wealth of the athletes, how much money players earn,” said Mace.

In snooker, the top 16 are fairly comfortable but if you look at the prize money distribution and players’ earnings, once you’re outside of the top 16 or top 32, these players are not making huge money.”

We live in a dreamworld, if we think we can eradicate [corruption] completely, there still needs to be a greater investment in this on a global scale. It’s now on the agenda and there are not many sports that don’t recognise it as something they need to tackle and invest in but still the money needs to improve,” Mace added.

Highlighting some parts in bold/underline is my doing.

Again a lot of the quotes above hint at a strong possibility that some, if not all, of the currently suspended players might have been forced into this, as Ronnie and Judd both suggested in their reactions immediately after the suspensions were announced.

They are easy preys for crooks when they arrive in the UK. Just imagine … you’re a teenager, you barely speak the language, your family is on the other side of the world. The money you earn, if any, may seem to be a lot at first, and there are many temptations around, nice clothes, restaurants, maybe the casino … But the cost of living is much higher than at home. Before you know it, you have debts. And there comes a fellow citizen, an adult, who lives in the country for while, offering to help you… It’s easy to fall in that trap.

Of course we have to wait for the full investigation results. Meanwhile, I think that we should keep an open mind. I have read things like ” But how??? Zhao Xintong and Yan Bingtao have been earning good money from the sport!”. That’s true, they have earned good money in the last couple of years, but maybe the facts that they are investigated for are older than that, dating back to a time when they weren’t earning much.

18th of January 2023 – WPBSA statement regarding the ongoing Match Fixing Enquiry

This has just been published:

WPBSA Statement | 18 January 2023

Following a detailed investigation by the WPBSA Integrity Unit, working closely with Sportradar, the WPBSA has decided that ten snooker players have a case to answer in respect of the following alleged breaches of the WPBSA Conduct Regulations.

Liang Wenbo has been charged with being concerned in fixing matches and approaching players to fix matches on the World Snooker Tour, seeking to obstruct the investigation and failing to cooperate with the WPBSA investigation.

Li Hang has been charged with being concerned in fixing matches and approaching players to fix matches on the World Snooker Tour, seeking to obstruct the investigation and betting on snooker matches.

Lu Ning has been charged with fixing a match and being concerned in fixing matches and approaching a player to fix a match on the World Snooker Tour, seeking to obstruct the investigation and betting on snooker matches.

Yan Bingtao has been charged with fixing matches on the World Snooker Tour and betting on snooker.

Zhao Xintong has been charged with being concerned in fixing matches on the World Snooker Tour and betting on snooker.

Zhang Jiankang has been charged with fixing a match on the World Snooker Tour, failing to report approaches for him to fix matches and betting on snooker matches.

Chen Zifan has been charged with fixing matches on the World Snooker Tour.

Chang Bingyu and Zhao Jianbo have each been charged with fixing a match on the World Snooker Tour

Bai Langning has been charged with being concerned in fixing a match on the World Snooker Tour.

The players are currently suspended from attending and competing on the World Snooker Tour and in other WPBSA governed events until the conclusion of the hearing or hearings and the determination of this matter.

This matter will be referred to a formal hearing before an Independent Disciplinary Tribunal that will take place at a venue and on a date to be confirmed.

THE WPBSA Conduct Regulations

Part 1 WPBSA Conduct Regulations – Betting Rules 

  1. 2Betting and Corruption Misconduct 

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

2.1.1.    Betting: 

2.1.1.1.   to place, accept, lay or otherwise make a Bet with any other person in relation to the result, score, progress, conduct or any other aspect of the Tour and/or any Tournament or Match in events sanctioned by the WPBSA or its affiliates

2.1.2. Corruption: 

2.1.2.1.  to fix or contrive, or to be a party to any effort to fix or contrive, the, score, progress, conduct or any other aspect of the Tour and/or any Tournament or Match 

2.1.2.4.   to solicit, induce, entice, persuade, encourage or facilitate any Member to breach any of the foregoing provisions of this paragraph 2.1.2.

2.1.4.1.  to engage in any other conduct (ie beyond that specified in paragraph 2.1) that is corrupt or fraudulent, or creates an actual or apparent conflict of interest for the Member, or otherwise risks impairing public confidence in the integrity and/or the honest and orderly conduct of the Tour and/or any Tournament or Match

2.1.5. Attempt or complicity: 

2.1.5.1. to attempt to act, or to agree with any other person (whether or not also a Member) to act, or to intentionally give the impression to any other person that the Member is attempting or agreeing to act in breach of these Rules

Part 1 WPBSA Conduct Regulations 

4.2. Any Member becoming aware of an Approach (as defined in clause 4.1 above) being made to another individual shall report such Approach to the WPBSA (via either the Company Secretary, a Tournament Official or the Anti-Corruption Hotline) as soon as reasonably practicable and in any event within 24 hours of becoming aware of such Approach.

4.4  Each Member shall co-operate with the WPBSA in any investigation carried out by the WPBSA under the provisions of these Rules including (but not limited to): 

4.4.1. providing a written statement setting out in detail all of the facts and circumstances with respect to any alleged breach 4.4.2. attending to answer questions and provide such information at a time and place determined by the WPBSA 4.4.3. providing to the WPBSA upon its request any documents, information or any other material of any nature whatsoever held by the Member and 

4.4.4. procuring and providing to the WPBSA upon its request any documents, information or any other material of any nature whatsoever not held by the Member which the Member has the power to obtain and 

4.4.5. providing the WPBSA with access to all records relating to the alleged breach. This includes, but is not limited to; betting accounts, bank records, telephone records, internet service records, social media accounts, email and other records stored on phones, tablets, electronic devices, computer

So… here we are.

Clearly Liang Wenbo and Li Hang should get very lengthy bans if a lifetime ban isn’t a realistic option in law.

I’m not entirely sure what “concerned” means in this context. Does it mean that they were aware of approaches or actual fixing and failed to report?

There are a variety of offences indeed. Apparently, Bai and Zhao Xintong did not fix any match. Chang Bingyu and Zhao Jianbo fixed just one match. The above does not say if they the were or may have been coerced into doing so.

The three older players are also (probably) guilty of obstructing the investigation.

It’s quite awful but at least it’s in the open and hopefully snooker can move on once the hearings are done and their outcome made public.

Day 1 at the 2023 Masters and other Snooker News

It was a snooker-packed Sunday with three events running concurrently yesterday.

Of course most of the attention was on the opening day at the 2023 Masters.

Here are WST accounts on what happened at Ally Pally:

Shaun Murphy beat Neil Robertson by 6-4:

Robertson Falls At First Hurdle

Shaun Murphy believes that success at the highest level is “just around the corner” and his 6-4 victory over Neil Robertson at the Cazoo Masters suggested that the Magician is getting back to his best.

Robertson’s title defence failed to go beyond the opening match at Alexandra Palace, though he was barely able to prepare for the contest having suffered from the effects of a bout of flu over the Christmas break. After falling 5-1 behind he rallied to 5-4, but eventually Murphy crossed the winning line to set up a quarter-final with Kyren Wilson or Stuart Bingham.

Murphy has struggled with neck pain and a loss of form over the past two years and hasn’t reached a final since the 2021 World Championship. Last summer he had gastric sleeve surgery to lose weight, and in recent weeks he has shown more regular glimpses of the game which won him the 2005 World Championship and 2015 Masters. He was a quarter-finalist at the Cazoo UK Championship and came within a few balls of beating Mark Selby in the last 16 of the English Open.

I haven’t forgotten how to do it, I’m just not as used to doing that as some of the top guys,” said 40-year-old Murphy. “If I can get on a run, as Mark Allen has done this season, I could take some stopping. Something good is coming for me, my game is trending the right way. I have been practising very hard and something is around the corner.

Robertson started brightly as a 73 clearance gave him the opening frame, but Murphy responded with breaks of 98 and 53 to go ahead, and he also got the better of a scrappy fourth frame to lead 3-1. In the fifth, Murphy missed a straight-forward green when he led 61-42, and Robertson had a chance to clear, but his attempt to roll the final pink into a top corner stayed in the jaws. Murphy potted the pink to snatch it, then compiled a run of 100 in the next to lead 5-1.

The Englishman might have settled the tie in frame seven, but again missed the green to a baulk corner, trailing 39-60. Robertson took advantage to close to 5-2, and that sparked his fight back. A run of 84 gave him frame eight, and in the next he potted 13 reds with blacks before missing a tough long red on 104.

And Robertson had first clear chance in frame ten, but overcut the blue to a centre pocket at 35-0. Murphy replied with 54 before missing the penultimate red, but he was let off the hook as Robertson potted the red then failed on the blue. This time world number 11 Murphy took the chance to finish the tie.

I’m delighted,” he added. “It looked like we are going to a decider. The break I made in the last frame, I’m very proud of that to be able to stand up under pressure. It’s up there with my best wins in the last couple of seasons. To beat the defending champion, centre stage, in the first match of the tournament, is very pleasing.

You have to enjoy the performance element. I love walking out there in front of a live crowd and the fans are unbelievable here. It was a privilege to play for them. The World Championship will always be top dog but this is a very close second.

Robertson, who beat Barry Hawkins in the final last year, said: “I was proud of myself to get four frames. I made a real push to try to make a 147 at 5-3, that would have been amazing. I was physically absolutely exhausted, destroyed. I was ill over the Christmas and New Year period and haven’t recovered. It’s really disappointing because at the UK Championship I had a really bad cold, so that’s two big events which have been heavily impacted. There’s nothing I can do about it because my daughter brings home viruses from nursery. I was only able to practise for 45 minutes for a couple of days before today.”

It was obvious from the start that Neil Robertson wasn’t well. He wasn’t well during the 2022 UK Championship either. His explanation is that his daughter brings viruses back from the nursery. I have been there, it’s true that kids do bring viruses home but is it explanation enough for him to be affected that badly? I’m not sure. It seems to me that his immune system isn’t responding as strongly as it should. This is one of the adverse effects of unduly long periods of lockdown IMO. Our bodies only build immunity by being exposed to “the enemy”. Lockdowns and masks were needed at the start of the pandemics to “contain” a very dangerous virus until it was better “understood” and treatments and vaccines became available, but not after that stage was reached.

Hossein Vafaei beat Mark Selby by 6-2:

Prince Of Persia Flies At The Palace

Hossein Vafaei’s Cazoo Masters debut turned out to be one of the best nights of his career as he scored two centuries in a tremendous 6-2 victory over Mark Selby.

A week ago, Vafaei was not expecting to play in snooker’s biggest invitation event, but when Zhao Xintong was suspended he was next in line, and got the call up to join the field at Alexandra Palace. The first Iranian to play in the tournament, he grasped the opportunity with a superb performance to comfortably beat one of the all-time greats.

The past year has seen world number 19 Vafaei make giant leaps forward in his career; he won the Shoot Out in January, made his Crucible debut in April and has now won a match in front of nearly 2,000 fans at this famous venue. Next, the 28-year-old will face either John Higgins or Jack Lisowski in the quarter-finals on Thursday evening.

Selby won the English Open before Christmas but this is a blow to his return to form and a result which extends his poor recent record at the Masters – the three-time champion has not reached the semi-finals since 2014. The world number two has lost his last his three meetings against Vafaei, including defeats at the UK Championship in 2021 and 2022.

The opening four frames tonight were shared, Vafaei making the bigger breaks with 52 and 107. In frame five, Vafaei came to a tough table with seven of the 12 reds close to cushions, but fashioned a magnificent 99, one of the best breaks of the season so far.

The sixth came down to the last two reds and Vafaei, leading 58-31, got the better of a tactical exchange and added the points he needed to lead 4-2. Selby looked set to pulled one back until he ran out of position at 48-8 in the seventh, and he then made a safety error which handed Vafaei the chance to make an excellent 65 clearance.

A missed long red from Selby early in frame eight proved his last opportunity as Vafaei closed out the contest with a 104.

When I got to Alexandra Palace yesterday I was buzzing,” said Vafaei. “I had dreamed about playing here many times. There is so much history behind this event and if you want to be a good player you have to show yourself in front of the London fans. It was amazing, when I play at a venue like this, my best comes out. If you get involved with the fans, they will love you. I was sitting in my chair and people were asking me in between frames to take a picture with me! I got lots of positive energy from them so I had to give something back.

If I didn’t believe I could win this tournament, I wouldn’t be here. I think I belong here, the way I played and I felt comfortable. I don’t want the tournament to finish in the next round, I want to stay as long as I can.

I tried my best to make my people proud. This is what I can do for them, I just want to be with my people.”

Selby said: “Up until 2-2 I felt I was the better player. At 3-2 down I missed a red, and after that little things went against me. A couple of times I went into the pack and didn’t land on anything. When Hossein got his chances he took them well.

This didn’t come as a surprise to me at all. In my preview, I had mentioned that Hossein had beaten Mark the last two times they had played, both times in big events – the 2021 and 2022 UK Championships – and both times in “best of eleven” matches. Make that three now. Hossein is clearly a “big occasion player” and Mark is not back to his best either.

WPBSA Chairman, Jason Ferguson, was interviewed by the ES team, ahead of the event. Of course it was about the “elephant in the room”, the match fixing ongoing investigation. ES shared the interview on their YouTube channel:

Obviously, Jason can’t reveal too much until the inquiry is over. Maybe the most interesting part of this interview is his statement about the “timing”: we should know much more by the end of this month.

Yesterday also saw the conclusion of the sixth and last Q-Tour event of the season. Martin O’Donnell beat Ross Muir in the final yesterday evening, and, as a result, earned the 2 years tour card, starting next season.

Here is the report shared by WPBSA:

O’Donnell Earns Main Tour Return

Martin O’Donnell has defeated Ross Muir 5-1 to win the sixth and final event of the 2022/23 WPBSA Q Tour. The victory means that O’Donnell will finish top of this season’s Q Tour Rankings and will return to the World Snooker Tour from the start of next season.

A professional from 2012-2014 and 2015-2022, O’Donnell has enjoyed an impressive campaign on the WPBSA Q Tour, highlighted by victory at Event 2 in Brighton which helped him to sixth position in the rankings prior to the final event.

In the final he faced Scotland’s Ross Muir – top of the rankings since his victory at the very first event back in September – who was also competing in his second final this term and was looking to regain his professional status for the first time since 2019.

It was O’Donnell who made the perfect start with a total clearance of 142, followed by breaks of 54 and 50 on his way to a 4-0 lead at the mid-session interval. Muir claimed the first upon the resumption of play to keep his hopes alive, but it was ultimately England’s O’Donnell who would claim a tense sixth following a safety battle on the final red to ensure that his absence from the main tour would be limited to only a single season.

It is really nice,” said O’Donnell shortly after the final. “It has been a lot of hard work since I dropped off the tour and it’s nice that it has paid off so quickly and I have finished at the top of the Q Tour this season.

The standard [on Q Tour] is really high, that surprised me actually. I dropped off and I came to these and there are a lot of good players. A lot of good players that I hadn’t seen before and it’s hard. With the best of fives, it’s granite on the Saturday and you can lose at any moment, so you can’t get carried away.

I took a bit of time out after I dropped off and wasn’t really sure what I was going to do. I didn’t want to give up. I ended up changing my cue which has given me a new lease of life and I have also got my head down and tried to think a lot more positively and not really worry about consequences – which I did when I was on tour.

I got caught up and worried about stuff, but you drop off tour and life goes on. You don’t realise it sometimes when you are on tour, I’ve got two kids, beautiful fiancé, good people around me and they pick you up and reassure you that you can do it. We all believe that I should be playing snooker and luckily now I have got my tour card back and hopefully I can kick on.

I need to improve myself every day, keep a good routine and keep doing the right things and just enjoy it. When you do all the right things you go to tournaments and you do enjoy it because you know that you are so prepared so it takes away a lot of the anxiety.”

The manner of O’Donnell’s triumph was all the more impressive as the former Shoot Out semi-finalist had previously missed out on competing in the penultimate event of the season due to illness, which saw him lose ground to some of the players around him. He revealed after the final, however, that this gave him added motivation heading into the decisive competition in Leeds this weekend.

I missed the last one through sickness,” added the 36-year-old. ” It was the first competition that I have ever missed through being sick, but once I got better and then I checked what happened in that event, to be honest I was quite delighted that it was still in my own hands. I knew that if I could meet Ross [Muir] in the final and beat him, that I could still qualify, so I just thought ‘get my head down, come here and give every ball 200%’ and see where it would take me.

I am super proud with the way that I have dealt with my emotions this week. In the past, missing that last tournament from being in a good position would have affected me. But I used it this time to motivate me and just say ‘it’s in my hands, go there and leave it all on the table and if it doesn’t happen there is still the playoff’ and thankfully it has paid dividends.”

O’Donnell was one of 13 players who came into the final event in contention to claim the automatic tour card, but there were just three remaining on the final day with Billy Castle also still in range of top spot.

The trio each won their quarter-finals to progress to the last four, but it would be Muir who would account for Castle following a dramatic deciding-frame in their semi-final, while O’Donnell edged fellow former professional Steve Hallworth 4-2 to reach the title match.

The highest ranked 16 players who did not qualify, will at least have the consolation of having earned a place at the Q Tour Playoffs later this season, with a chance to earn the second World Snooker Tour card available through the Q Tour. Simon Bedford entered the final day needing to win the tournament to oust 17th placed Peter Devlin, but he too would fall to O’Donnell at the quarter-final stage.

The 2023 WPBSA Q Tour Playoffs will be held from 4-5 March 2023 at the Q House Snooker Academy in Darlington and the draw will be published in due course.

Congratulations Martin O’Donnell

Commiserations to Ross Muir who had been the best over the series.

Meanwhile, the 2023 6-reds World Championship qualifiers are under way and you can follow the scores and results on snooker.org.

Some news about the current state of the investigation – 4 January 2023

This was just posted on twitter by Sinosports a few minutes ago

If really no more players will be suspended, it’s somehow reassuring … somehow.

The third point may explain Jason Ferguson’s somewhat cryptic quote about implicated players not necessarily being match fixers

When the first suspensions were announced it was said that three players were under suspicion for just one match. That possibly stands.

With the judgement likely to be announced before the Crucible there is not much left of their season. Especially if it doesn’t come before the World Qualifiers.

And the nightmare goes on…

This has just been shared by WPBSA/WST:

WPBSA Statement | 3 January 2023

WPBSA Chairman Jason Ferguson has taken the decision to suspend Zhao Xintong and Zhang Jiankang from attending or competing on the World Snooker Tour with immediate effect.

This decision is part of an ongoing investigation into allegations of manipulating the outcome of matches for betting purposes in breach of the WPBSA Conduct Regulations.

The suspension will remain in place until the conclusion of the investigation or any subsequent charges that may or may not be brought. Both Zhao and Zhang have the right to appeal this decision.

The WPBSA can confirm that the wider investigation is now at an advanced stage, and it is anticipated will be completed shortly at which point any potential charges will be considered.

No further comment will be made at this time, except in the event of any significant further developments.

This is a nightmare. This is just horrible.

I can only suppose that Zhao will no be replaced by whoever was ranked 18th after the UK Championship.

An Update By Jason Ferguson on the Match Manipulations Inquiry and China

This has just hit the news:

‘We’re close to resolving all matters’ -Jason Ferguson provides update on snooker match-fixing investigation

Phil Haigh Sunday 1 Jan 2023 1:21 pm

Evergrande 2017 World Snooker China Championship - Press Conference & Red Carpet
Jason Ferguson has dismissed the idea of lifetime bans for match-fixers (Picture: Getty Images)

Snooker’s match-fixing investigation is close to an end, says WPBSA chairman Jason Ferguson, who explains that lifetime bans for anyone found guilty are very unlikely.

Eight players are currently suspended from the World Snooker Tour due to allegations of ‘manipulating the outcome of matches for betting purposes’.

Chen Zifan was the latest to be suspended just before Christmas, joining Yan Bingtao, Liang Wenbo, Lu Ning, Li Hang, Zhao Jianbo, Bai Langning and Chang Bingyu in being barred from events.

The World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association chairman explains that there is no limit in how long the players can be suspended for, but he is pushing for the investigation to be completed as rapidly as possible. 

It’s progressing quickly, we were already quite a long way down the road before I had to take the decision to suspend a number of players. Watch this space, we’re moving it on as quickly as possible,’ Ferguson told Metro.co.uk.

There is no limit on time for suspensions, but there are limits in terms of fairness to the players themselves and to the sport. We want to move this on very, very quickly.

We’re pushing as hard as we can because this type of thing is very damaging and we have to prove to the public that it’s dealt with, that we can take swift action.

Betfred World Snooker Championship - Day Four
Yan Bingtao is the highest profile of the suspended players (Picture: Getty Images)

Clearly Ferguson could not give details of specific cases, but did suggest that the players are not all being investigated for the same alleged offences.

As it says in the statements, the suspensions are an investigation into the manipulation of results,’ he said. ‘That isn’t to say that everyone who’s been suspended is guilty of match-fixing, that’s certainly not what it says

We will thoroughly go through everything and I’m sure it will all come out in the public domain. I’ll get the result from the independent hearing and at that point we will publish.

When we started this, we made a number of initial suspensions, we weren’t expecting that things would go further, but you can never say never. Let’s just hope that we’re at the bottom of this, and I will say, if we’re not at the bottom of it, we’re very near. We’re close to resolving all matters.

Former world champion Shaun Murphy called for any player found guilty of match-fixing to be banned from the sport for life.

I think anyone guilty of match-fixing, their existence in the snooker world should be over,’ the Magician told Eurosport. ‘And if any of those players are found guilty, I hope we never see them again.

However, Ferguson says lifetime bans are pretty much untenable, so, although there will be heavy punishments for those found guilty, it will not be a ban for life.

Life time bans do not stand up in law, quite frankly,’ he said. ‘I get Shaun’s statement and I understand why he’s so passionate about it, because I feel very strongly about it as well, especially as a former player. Every ball you pot must mean something. But we do know from legal advice that lifetime bans do not stack up in court. It’s completely challengeable.

We have in our rules that players may receive up to a lifetime ban, if found guilty of match-fixing or manipulating results, but there has to be a range. If you take, for example, a player who’s a serial match-fixer and just keeps doing it, that’s at the high level. But if you’ve got some young kid with a gun to his head or a gun to their family’s head and they’ve crossed the line once, is that the same as a serial fixer? These are the things that any responsible tribunal will take into account.

In better news for snooker, China announced earlier this week that quarantines for travellers are coming to an end in January as they relax their strict Covid restrictions.

There has not been a WST event in China since 2019, which has been a huge blow to the professional game, but Ferguson says this is a step in the right direction to returning.

2019 World Open - Day 7
Judd Trump was the last player to win a WST event in China, at the 2019 World Open (Picture: Getty Images)

However, he urges caution, and it looks like next season is the realistic target to get back to China for tournaments.

It’s really exciting,’ he said. ‘Obviously we’ve been keeping close tabs on travel and government policies for international sport, but it’s really exciting to see some movements, We’re aware there’s been some outbreaks so we can’t just rush straight in. But I can tell you that we’re in contact with all our promoters in China, the demand is there for the events. We’re thoroughly excited about coming back.

‘We still believe there will be government meetings in March that will outline international sport policies. That’s what we were told in our last correspondents and we believe that’s still the case. We’re not diving in, but we’re planning and dates will start to be put aside. It’s great, I’m looking forward to getting back there. It’s a huge market for us and I love working there. Of course we miss it. The players miss the events, the earning opportunities, the opening ceremonies, they feel like stars at these events.

Realistically we are looking at next season. We’ve been holding potential dates in the calendar, but realistically it’s a next season project. That’s probably summer, maybe the end of summer. We have to monitor the situations with the outbreaks, there’s lots of complications to it over and above just basic travel in and out of the country. Flights are hard to come by at the moment, not so many airlines going in and out, so we need to see some improvement there. But hopefully we’ve turned a corner and things can look more positive.

On the possibility of China not returning to the snooker calendar next season, he said: ‘Of course we’re always looking at contingency planning. You can put temporary events on to plug gaps in dates, or you can plan ahead to put events on in new territories and we’re looking at both options.

With eight Chinese players currently suspended from World Snooker Tour events, it is not ideal for the image of the sport in their home country, but Ferguson insists it will not hamper a return to China when it is possible.

It’s obviously big news in China, it’s hit the headlines but likewise there’s a respect for the way we’re dealing with it,’ he said. ‘It’s a concern, but I think the authorities there can see we’re a very responsible sport and that’s what will carry us through on this.’

It’s good news that the inquiry is progressing, and it is certainly a good move by Jason Ferguson to keep the press and the fans in the loop.

A possible return of the Chinese events next season is certainly positive. At the moment there is a surge in covid cases in China, but that was to be expected. Immunity is built through exposure to the viruses or microbes. Long periods of isolation – like lockdowns – weaken the immune system because it is not stimulated. Measures in China have been very stringent for a long time and therefore their population is now left more vulnerable, not just to covid but to all viral agents. It will take some months for the situation to return to “normal”.

Lewis was right when, in a recent comment, he pointed out that a life ban may not be “legally” possible.

I highlighted some of Jason’s quotes by giving two paragraphs a different background.

There are some interesting nuances in his choice of words in the first: the inquiry is about “manipulation of results” rather than “match fixing”. But isn’t that the same thing? And if not, where is the difference? Of course, all the suspended players are presumably innocent until proven guilty.

In the second I find it interesting that he emphasised the difference between a “serial match fixer” – Stephen Lee was one – and “some young kid with a gun to his head or a gun to their family’s head“. Maybe I’m wrong but his choice of words suggests to me that some of the young players might have been seriously threatened. If this is indeed the case, WPBSA will have to think about ways to better protect their players, particularly the young ones who are separated from their families. Another question is what can they do against individuals who would be total “strangers” to the official circuits of the sport sport but would engage in this type of blackmail.

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 2.1.2.1.
  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 2.1.2.1.
  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 2.1.2.1.
  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 2.1.2.1.
  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 2.1.2.1.
  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 2.1.2.1.

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:

2.1.2.1  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.