Flat 128 v’s Tiered: What Has Been The Impact?

by Roland Cox

Since Barry Hearn took over at the helm of World Snooker, he has changed the game as we knew it beyond all recognition. Rather predictably at each stage he received criticism for the changes, yet pressed on regardless having full confidence in his 5 year plan to revolutionise the sport.

As a general rule people don’t like change from their comfort zone, but in the real world you need to move with the times or you get left behind. The state snooker was in back in 2009 was pretty dire. We had just the 6 ranking events in a season with players feeling like they were part timers with often months between events. We had the media proclaiming the death of snooker with article after article doing its damndest to kill the sport off. If enough people believe it, then it must be true.

We had a serious level of paranoia within the snooker community at the dwindling interest in their sport leading to some crazy suggestions at how to make the game more appealing to a TV audience, ranging from the ridiculous OneFourSeven to Power Snooker and shot clocks. Yet the game was never the problem as the current situation now proves beyond doubt. The problem lay in decades of mis-management and a protected Top 16.

The first big change came in the form of PTCs which initially took place behind closed doors in the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield. The significance of these early PTCs can now be fully appreciated. It was the first time the flat 128 structure was used in tournament play. The first time the Top 16 players in the world had to start from Round 1 along with the rest of the professionals.

Of course some of those in the Top 16 at the time were unhappy with the changes. Others put self interest aside and went with the flow, acknowledging serious change was needed in order to repopularise the sport with the general public and that Barry Hearn was the man with the best reputation to do it.

So what has been the impact of the Flat 128 compared with the old tiered system?

First and foremost the most significant change has come in the form of the previously protected Top 16 losing their aura among fellow professionals. It sounds crazy to think about it now, but when the Top 16 only played at venues there were many professionals who had never even met, let alone played some of the big names in their chosen profession.

Under the tiered system the emergence of young talent was stifled by a brick wall of qualifying rounds which took place in soul destroying grey cubicles with no spectators, against formidable seasoned professionals well used to the conditions. These seasoned professionals would then, as a general rule, qualify to the venue where they would lose out to a Top 16 player more familiar with the large audience and TV cameras that came with it. A significant advantage.

Add this to the fact that rankings were only updated once per season and you had a situation best described as stagnant, and certainly unfair.

The plus side to the old system was that the TV audience became familiar with the big names and were able to recognise the players on their screens. The downside being the apparent lack of new talent emerging to the casual armchair viewer. The argument was that if you were good enough you would get there in the end, yet this could take many years even for the very best to achieve. It was also very frustrating as a viewer to see an exciting young prospect have a run in a big event, only to not see them on your screen again for another year or years, sometimes never again.

Look at some of the names making headlines in this years’ UK Championship: James Cahill, Kyren Wilson, Davy Morris, Anthony McGill. Would we have even heard mention of these names under the old system? Possibly but far less likely given the number of qualifying rounds they would have needed to win in order to reach the venue stage. But players like these have always been around in the professional ranks, only now are the wider audience becoming aware of them.

Next you have to look at the group of players who were ranked below the Top 16. Under the previous system those in the 17-32 bracket were on a hiding to nothing. Not good enough to get to the venue by rights, yet forced to play a qualifying round against an opponent with more recent match practice under their belt. If they came through that then they faced the strong possibility of playing a top player (50% chance of facing one of the Top 8 players in the world) in a match in which they would be more under pressure to win in order to escape the 17-32 bracket. The Top 8 player with less ranking pressure and more at ease with the televised conditions would be more likely to see their first round as match practice for later in the tournament, and go on and win comfortably.

You only need to look at the records of players like Stuart Bingham, Barry Hawkins, Ricky Walden and Mark Davis to see how much the extra match practice the Flat 128 system has given them has helped them fulfil their previously stifled potential.

Under the old system which was tiered in groups of 16 (1-16, 17-32, 33-48 etc) you had a phenomena of groundhog day match ups. Tournament after tournament with the same players facing each other over and over again. How frustrating if you were a player whose playing style wasn’t suited to the opponent you were regularly coming up against and who had the psychological advantage over you from previous meetings. This also encouraged a levelling off of standard with players of similar ability playing most of their matches against each other.

With the Flat 128 system and the top 64 seeded against 65-128 opposition theoretically you only have a 1 in 64 chance of playing the same opponent in the opening round of consecutive tournaments. Your game will be tested against a much wider variety of playing styles which surely any player in their right mind would prefer in order to improve their own game.

For the likes of those players mentioned above it meant they finally had the chance to ease themselves into tournaments before clashing with one of the top players in the game, by which point confidence levels would be higher with the extra match practice, they are as used to the playing conditions as the top players and they have a much better chance of being competitive. And look at them now, regularly reaching the latter stages of events and becoming top players in their own right.

So what about the new professionals and those in the lower reaches of the rankings?

Under the old system it could be argued that they were broken in gently by facing opposition more at their own level and which they stood a better chance of winning, thus gaining experience and confidence to help ease them upwards into the next level of opposition. Whereas now they have to face stronger opposition including the possibility of a whitewash by a top player they never had a realistic chance of beating.

I would argue that getting a thrashing off a better player is the best way to learn your trade and improve your game to higher levels in a shorter space of time than under the previous system. It is important that the lower ranked get an opportunity to play your Ronnie O’Sullivan’s and Mark Selby’s under televised conditions so they can experience this level of opposition at an earlier stage in their career and know what to expect. It is far healthier for the growth of the game that the younger players get this vital experience at an early age, and the knock on effect will be a higher standard of snooker in years to come once they reach maturity.

Yes it is harsh on those who are struggling with finances and who get a number of bad draws in consecutive events, and there are bound to be a few who lose heart and pack in. But now you have a 2 year tour card and many more tournaments to play in than under the previous system of a 1 year card with only 6 events, and in which you needed to win more matches to stay on tour than a Top 16 player needed to stay in the Top 16. Was that fair?

Previously if you fell off tour you had to spend a season on the secondary PIOS tour to regain the place. There are more opportunities now to get straight back on tour with Q School and the PTC list, and with 2 years experience playing high ranked players under their belt many will breeze back on tour for a fresh assault with a second 2 year exemption. This will see many of these players get a foothold and climb faster up the rankings than they would have done under the old system. And if this doesn’t work and after years of trying they’re still not getting anywhere, then they have to face facts that they are not good enough to earn a living as a professional snooker player so maybe it’s time to move on and look for another career option and let someone else have a chance. The conveyor belt of talent is never ending, there will always be someone else willing to fill the spot. It’s a competitive world out there.

With the UK Championships at the Barbican in York currently in play starting with all 128 players at the venue, there have been a number of issues which have cropped up due to the new Flat 128 system.

It has been interesting to note that most of the complaints from players have come from those previously protected Top 16 under the old system. Of course when you are used to getting straight through to a 2 table televised set up in front of big crowds, then anything other than this will be seen as inferior.

Speaking as someone who was made redundant as a consequence of the global recession of recent years, and with first hand experience of the spending cuts enforced on businesses by the economic climate and the enforced changes upon the workforce, it is hard for me to find sympathy with such viewpoints. As far as I am concerned they had it too good for too long and the current system is a hell of a lot fairer for everyone.

Of course a sport needs to look after its star names because these are the ones who bring in the paying public. But there are still opportunities of straight to one/two table venues in the form of invitational events such as the Masters and Champion of Champions, Crucible spots as well as the big money PTC Grand Finals which reward those who have put the effort in to qualifying by entering the standard PTC events.

The big names also get the advantage of playing on the TV tables in multi-table set ups, and in the case of the Barbican I think only one current top 16 player had to play in the now infamous Sports Hall. Under the previous system nearly every single player who played a Sports Hall match would have had to play in a grey cubicle in front of no one.

The main problem with the Flat 128 is logistics. The fact that the draw for the UK wasn’t announced until a couple of week before the event left a lot of players in a situation where they couldn’t find a hotel room because York is a popular destination at this time of year. I don’t know a solution to this other than World Snooker block booking hotel rooms in advance and selling them on to players once they know when they will be playing.

The other major complaint this week has been about playing conditions and obviously with more tables in play this puts more pressure on the table fitters to come up with the goods. I would hazard a guess that had the tables in the Sports Hall been playing at 100% then the number of complaints wouldn’t have been half as high as they were. All in all though playing conditions are a separate issue to the Flat 128 system, and hopefully a solution will be reached in future to get the tables to a higher standard consistently, allowing the players to play their natural game without fear of taking on certain shots because they don’t know how the table will react.

From a spectator point of view in the early stages there are more matches going on than is reasonable to keep track of, but there is a great choice. I hope one day all tables will be streamed giving the viewer the opportunity to pick and choose which matches they want to watch. In a way though, I can see how for some this devalues an event such as the UK because with so many matches going on results passed me by and I didn’t even look at the draw until the quarter-final stage once the sheer volume of matches were down to something more manageable. Has this affected viewing figures and interest from the general public though? Apparently not. In fact it seems to be the opposite.

The main thing to note is that the structure is now firmly in place and there is no going back to the old system. Players who constantly complain and hark back to the old days are not doing themselves any favours and sympathy for their viewpoint is in short supply. As time progresses though, these complaints will start to fade away and constructive suggestions will be listened to and improvements made accordingly. As with most things in life you need a start point to build on, and the building process is still ongoing. It may be a couple of seasons yet before things settle down and a happy medium can be reached. This is still work in progress.

There are still problems to be solved such as the rolling rankings and late draws giving players little time to book flights and accomodation. Where do you play the first round, at the venue or at a separate qualifying event? Should the qualifiers take place in the country of the final stages of the event i.e. Flat 128 at the venue no matter where it is? Until then should any matches be held over in special circumstances?

The latter appears to have been addressed following the early exit of Ding Junhui from the Wuxi Classic (an event which wouldn’t exist without him) and the International (where he was defending champion) which was a commercial disaster. Now the defending champion and world champion will have their matches held over and I personally don’t have a problem with this. I don’t think it is unfair to anyone (there have been cries of “not a level playing field” from some quarters), these players have earned the right to special treatment and one extra match at the venue is more disadvantage than advantage if that player goes deep into the event. Also the lower ranked opponent will be subsidised for the additional costs in travelling to the venue.


At the time, the previous system was accepted as the norm yet only now can we fully appreciate how unfair it was to all professionals bar the Top 16. Credit must be given to those Top 16 players under the old system who embraced the changes: Mark Selby, Shaun Murphy, John Higgins, Neil Robertson and Mark Williams to name 5. The previously protected Top 16 were the main players to lose out with the changes, but for the good of the growth of the game these changes were necessary and snooker is in a much healthier state now than it was 5 years ago. This cannot be denied.

Under the new system the overall standard of snooker has risen. Higher ranked players have more match practice with the extra rounds and perhaps less pressure given a loss can be forgotten about a lot quicker with the next tournament only days and not months away.

The formerly untouchable elite are losing their fear factor and we are seeing more shock results as a consequence. Yet under the new system once we get to the latter stages the same names keep cropping up. Yes, those big name players who under the old system would have been there anyway. The top players.

The selection of televised matches is a tough one for the authorities to decide on. There will always be players miffed at being scheduled on an outside table which is a problem not encountered under the old system. There will also always be big names slaughtering lower ranked players in the early rounds which doesn’t make for great television. Again, a happy medium could be reached. With two televised tables and eight matches in play maybe occasionally in the early rounds one televised table could include a more evenly matched encounter between players who are exciting to watch and who the TV audience will be drawn towards. One of the best matches I saw at this years’ UK Championship was Robin Hull v Thepchiaya Un-Nooh in the Sports Hall but unfortunately it hardly got noticed, yet it always looked like being a good match on paper.

The general public at large now have an appreciation of the strength in depth of the professional field. It amuses me at times to see bandwagon jumping on young players who have caught the eye as being the next big thing. James Cahill was referred to as the new Ronnie O’Sullivan on the BBC website the other day. Of course this is crazy talk, no disrespect to James who is a genuine prospect. Last year it was Mitchell Travis, at the Crucible it was Michael Wasley, but the point is that these players are being treated as professional snooker players and are receiving the adulation for good performances against the top players they deserve. Previously only snooker obsessives would have been aware of these players, and they wouldn’t have been playing let alone beating the big names in the sport in front of a wide TV audience.

There are still issues which need ironing out, and over time I’m sure these will get better. Overall though the rebuilding of the game under the leadership of Barry Hearn and Jason Ferguson has revolutionised the sport of snooker and the once bleak future is finally look very bright indeed.

Discuss this article..