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What’s a World Championship Worth?

With Ronnie in form and the World Championship here, a common discussion among snooker enthusiasts is, who is the GOAT and what is a World Championship worth? To some, Hendry’s 7 World Titles is the pinnacle of the sport and, until that record is beaten, he is the undisputed greatest. Others see Ronnie’s 5 Titles and 1000+ centuries as superior. With these conversations, the topic of the standard of play is often brought up. Some, myself included, believe it has improved vastly since players like Steve Davis and Hendry dominated the game and therefore a World Championship means more today than it did 20 or 30 years ago. Others believe that the standard of safety and match play has actually dropped and that prime Davis would do even better in the modern game!

Luckily for us, snooker is a game of statistics. Although 1-1 comparisons are difficult (as will be addressed later) break stats help us look at how effective players in different decades were at potting balls and controlling the white. For this analysis, I’m using CueTracker statistics to see if the standard of play has improved, and therefore if it’s harder to win a World Championship today. From this, we can see if the greats of the past would have had the same level of achievement if they brought their best game to the present.

Methodology

Since it’s 2019, my sample will be the last season of each decade back to 1979, the end (and presumably best) of each decade. We will take a look at century stats and 50+ breaks, and discuss if those really tell us enough about how well players played. The focus of these discussions is usually Ronnie Vs Hendry, but I’m also going to focus on how well the entire professional field was playing. This should give us a feel of the level of play required to win a World title, not just how good the top player was. We will start with everyone’s favourite stat, century rate.

Centuries

With Ronnie recently breaking the 1000 mark, centuries are a hot topic of discussion. It’s fairly common knowledge that players like Trump and Ronnie make centuries at the highest pace ever recorded, but what’s the average like?

Average frames required per century by year
https://cuetracker.net/seasons

From 1979-1999, players averaged somewhere around 1 century per 40 frames played, dropping to 18 in 2009 and 12 and 2019. So this season players are making 100+ breaks 3 times as often as they were before 2000. Put another way, in 1999, unless you matched with Steven Hendry, your opponent was likely to make 1 or fewer centuries over the course of the match. Now, in any long form given match against any player, you could expect 3 centuries against you. Ronnie’s current century rate is 6 times better than the 1999 average but only double the current.

It’s interesting that the century rate actually got worse between 1979 and 1989. Instead of players getting worse, this is likely because 1979 only had 52 active players, so the average is really for the top 50. 1989 had over 200 active players, which pulls the average down. Still, 2019 includes almost 500 active players and events like qualifiers and Q school, making the overall 1 in 12 century rate even more impressive.

The best century rate achieved by one player each year

When looking at just the best century rate each year, we get a very similar story. Not only does the average improve every season, but the best players have to play better every season to stay on top. What was dominant in 1999 is already below average. Since the field and top rates are both improving every decade, it seems that the level of play required to win a World Title must naturally be higher as well.

So it is clear that the standard of play in terms of centuries has dramatically improved. Although, some think this is a rather meaningless stat. I have heard that players in the ’80s and ’90s weren’t really trying to get centuries because they didn’t care all that much about them. I believe the fact that 100+ breaks became more common between 2009 and 2019 disproves this as the reason. In 2009, everyone wanted to run centuries, the post-Hendry attacking style of play was in full swing, and still, ten years later players are 50% better at making tons. Clearly then, in the last decade, the standard of play has improved. So it is fair to assume that in the last 20 years the improvement has been even greater.

50+ Breaks

Still, centuries do not win frames. By the time a 100 is made the frame is well over and it is possible players try harder for them now. Instead we can look at frame-winning breaks. Scoring a 50+ in one visit tends to secure the frame, and the players that do it the most often are usually the most successful. Here are the best at doing that by year.


The player with the best 50+ rate and their chance at making one in any given frame.
Source.

Here we see who had the best 50+ break percentage by year, and what it was. As you can see, there has been a steady improvement from Davis’s 25% (1 50+ in every 4 frames played) to Ronnie’s current 51% (1 50+ in every 2 frames played). It’s interesting that the player with the best percentage each year is also the commonly accepted best player of each generation, indicating that 50+ breaks are a very good measure of how successful players are.

This stat also gives us a good way to measure how competitive peak Davis and Hendry would be in today’s game. At his best in the mid-1980s, Steve Davis made 50+ breaks in around 30% of frames he played in, which would put him somewhere around 40-50th this year. Hendry’s 1999 37% puts him around 15th. Clearly, both players would be competitive in the modern game, but the break-building prowess that earned them to 6 and 7 World titles respectively would not be enough to dominate modern players. Put another way, if you sent 67th ranked, 22-year-old Zhao Xintong back in time to 1999, he would be the best break builder in the world.

Comparing the best break builder of each year to the next ten best, we see that the top ten on average tend to play close to as well as the best player a decade prior. The top ten players (excluding Hendry) of 1989 put up similar breaks for Davis’ dominate 1979 performance. Looking to 2019, any one of the best ten players this year would have been virtually unplayable just 30 years ago. Perhaps in 2029, we will see many players hit the 50% mark Ronnie has this season.

Table Conditions, Styles of Play, and Safety

The common answer to why players make bigger breaks now is that the table conditions have improved. It is certainly true that a table in 2019 is faster and therefore reds are easier to break open than in 1979. But what about in 2009? What major changes have taken place since then? Even with no major changes in equipment, break building is improving for both elite players and the entire professional field. Decade by decade, and even year by year, even in the absence of table condition changes, players get better at making big breaks.

Play style is another often touted reason for low breaks in the past. The idea being that players were happy with a 40 or 50 and hiding instead of trying to finish the frame in one go. This is undoubtedly true, players play far more aggressive now, but why were the players of the past satisfied with a lower break? Modern players don’t shoot 4 blacks and hide instead of cracking open the pack because in the modern game that is not a winning strategy. Letting your opponent back to the table, even in a snooker, when they make 50+ breaks 40% of the frames they play in is dangerous. In Davis’s era, the reason that play style was effective is simply that the players were weaker, it was unlikely that leaving a long red on would mean you did not return to the table. The difference in play style then is actually proof of the increase in the standard of play, not a refutation of it.

Finally, safety play. Were Steve Davis and his peers better defensive players than Trump, Ding, or Robertson? Maybe. Unfortunately, I do not know of any stats that cover this. What I do know is successful safety play involves 3 things: seeing the shot, controlling the white, and controlling the object ball. The latter 2 are also the key components of break building, so it stands to reason that great break builders like Trump and Ding also have the ability to play great safety shots. Does anyone doubt that Ding, or really any modern pro is able to place the cueball exactly where he wants on the table?

In addition, when all players are better at putting together frame-winning breaks, playing good safeties is even more important, so why would modern players be worse at it? They may choose to play safe less often, but they are doing so because aggressive play and frame-winning breaks are the most successful strategies against the current standard of play.

Conclusion

The point of this analysis is certainly not to disparage the greats of the past. My favourite player is easily Steve Davis. In fact, I believe if you brought a teenage Steve Davis to the present, he would, within a few years, play as well as anyone in the top 8 today. The level that won him 6 World Championships, however, would not be enough. The same can be said of Stephen Hendry. These players changed the way the game is played and are the reason that modern players play so well; they have had the benefit of learning from the greats. Reardon, Davis, and Hendry dominated at a level that Ronnie may never reach, but the current competition simply plays the game better than ever before.

What I hope you take away from this then, is a greater appreciation for the fact that we are lucky enough to see the best snooker ever being played. Any player capable of winning the 2019 World Championship plays to a standard that would have dominated the 20th-century game. Players like Ding and Trump have not, and may never win a World Title, but in the “Golden Age” of Snooker may have never lost. Even middling players struggling to earn a living play with a level of precision that would have been unimaginable to Fred Davis and Ray Reardon. What do future generations have in store for us?






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7 Comments

  1. my personal list is :
    1) Ronnie
    2) Hendry
    3) J Higgins
    4) S.Davis
    5) M . Williams
    6) M. Selby
    7) J Spencer
    8) N Robertson
    9) J .White
    10 ) F.Davis

    1. Excuse me, but Joe Davis won 15 World Championships, and retired undefeated. He is far and away the best player of snooker history. If you say the players of today or the table/ball conditions of today weren’t present in Joe’s era, well the same applies in reverse. He rightfully achieved his record, and it deserves to be recognized, and he did it without the financial motivations of today. Also, he invented the World Championship and donated the trophy. Surely that counts for something.

  2. Great article.
    Hendy had his domination, Ronnie had his longevity relatively. I suppose that if exchange the two of them into their respective eras, Ronnie could probably maintain his longevity, but Hendy could hardly maintain his domination. From this point of view, I would rather put Ronnie on the top.
    my list:
    1 R.O’Sullivan
    2 S.Hendry
    3 S.Davis
    4 J.Higgins
    5 M. Williams
    6 M.Selby
    7 J.Davis
    8 A. Higgins
    9 J.Trump
    10 N.Robertson

  3. It is difficult to compare eras in any sport. When Steve Davis started in the 70s, snooker conditions had hardly changed for 50 years. The lighting, the tables, the cloth, the heating and ventilation, the balls and the cues were inferior to those of today. The much heavier balls and slower cloth made it more difficult to split the reds. Much of the snooker in the 70s was played in dark, smoke filled halls where you were likely to catch some disease. The were also far fewer competitions to play in than today’s conveyor belt, and a lot less money. So – conditions need to be part of any comparison, but really you can only judge a player by what he achieved in his own era.

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