She started out refereeing pool before being talent spotted by World Snooker and fast tracked into becoming snooker’s first high profile lady ref. Since her debut in 2002 she has risen all the way to the top, taking charge of the 2009 World Championship Final between Shaun Murphy and John Higgins, and becoming one of the games most recognisable faces in the process. She is of course Michaela Tabb, and she’s not just a pretty face who knows how to control a crowd, she is also a diehard fan with in depth knowledge of all cuesports as I found out when I had the chance to interview her prior to the current season.
RC (Roland Cox): I’ll start with a question from an Islander and this one comes from wildJONESEYE: I was aware of you long before you refereed snooker. My question is did it cross your mind you wanted to referee snooker one day or was in never a goal of yours and it just happened?
MT (Michaela Tabb): Yes it did. I started out as a snooker fan and it was after that I picked up a cue myself and started playing, so then when I became a pool ref it obviously did enter my head because snooker is the much bigger, higher profile game. But as much as I saw myself thinking it would be lovely to do it, I didn’t realise at that stage it could be a possibility. I hadn’t done any training in it and wasn’t a member of any association and didn’t actively pursue it, but it had crossed my mind that it would be fantastic to be involved.
RC: You were fast tracked through the training weren’t you? Someone saw you on TV refereeing pool and thought you were just what snooker needed.
MT: I don’t know who it was who actually saw me but it was the Chief Executive at that time Jim McKenzie who got in touch to ask if I was interested. I know it’s because they’d seen obviously I was a high profile female ref, but also because of the televised reffing. That’s a big part of it; being able to handle the television side. You could take a good amateur ref who knows the game inside out and then put them in front of the cameras and they’ll fall down. So there was an opportunity there to change the profile a little bit which they hadn’t been able to do before and have a female involved, and I was obviously very capable of doing the television side of it so they contacted me and asked if I would do it.
RC: A question from SnookerFan who asks: You refereed the Snooker Legends events – how much fun was that to do and are there any past players you never got the chance to referee that you wish you had?
MT: The Snooker Legends were the most fantastic evenings that I’ve ever had the joy to be involved with in snooker. It was a brilliant way to spend my summer after the World Championships, it was a real high.
As far as reffing anybody that I’ve never reffed, I can’t say that there is. My hero watching when I was growing up was Alex Higgins, and then you had Dennis and Steve and Jimmy White and they were my heroes too. Actually, another player at that time who was a favourite of mine is Kirk Stevens, and there’s a possibility that he might be doing some Legend events, so I might even get to tick that box as well but right now he’s the only one of my heroes that I haven’t reffed.
RC: Cliff Thorburn also mentioned in the interview I did with him that Kirk Stevens might play in the Legends next time around, and I think he would go down very well with the audiences.
MT: I think it would just be amazing! For me a lot of it is about ticking boxes, little ambitions, and for me to ref Kirk would be another box ticked.
RC: I hope you’re reading this Kirk! So how long have you followed the professional game of snooker?
MT: I remember crying with Alex Higgins when he won in 1982 and I remember Kirk Stevens 147 in 1984 and Cliff’s 147 which was played over and over again so those are my main memories.
RC: What about pool players? When you started reffing pool were you aware of any of the big names?
MT: I honestly didn’t have a clue who any of them were! When I started reffing these were all just names to me, I didn’t know anybody. The only player I’d heard of around that time was Ronnie who I think played in the first World Pool Masters I reffed in London, and I remember reffing him and I was absolutely cacking my pants!
RC: So what about now? Who do you think are the best pool players out there?
MT: Well it’s very much China and Taiwan at the moment, but also the Europeans are doing very well and Mika Immonen seems to be storming through the whole of the world at the moment. But in terms of favourites, my all-time favourite and he always will be is Efren Reyes. I can always say that there’s never been anybody on that pool table who I’ve never known what they were going to do other than Efren. He pulls off shots that I would never have dreamed of were possible. Unbelievable!
RC: A lot of snooker fans are probably unaware that the pool world has their own Ronnie who the fans adore.
MT: Yes and I’m one of them.
RC: How do you think he would fare at snooker?
MT: He can actually play the game. I remember him and Earl (Strickland) had a challenge match and I’m sure it was Efren who won it. I don’t know how he would compete against our guys, but he could put his hand to anything, he is one of these superbly naturally talented guys.
RC: It would be interesting if say Barry Hearn set up a series of challenge matches where you put the best snooker and pool players together and pitted them against each other at both disciplines and see who comes out on top.
MT: The only thing there is that snooker is far far harder than 9 ball pool and the pool players would definitely struggle. They can obviously play because it’s another cue sport you adjust to, but I don’t think they would be able to compete with the professional snooker players.
RC: Do you think the snooker players could compete at pool?
MT: Yes they can but it’s a learning experience. They would need to dedicate themselves to it. Steve Davis tried it and he did ok but I believe it screwed up his snooker cue action so it’s got to be a matter of dedicating yourself to one or the other.
RC: Do you miss refereeing Earl Strickland?
MT: (laughs) I actually have a lot of respect for Earl. He’s quite similar to my husband although he won’t like me saying it, but Earl’s an older player and he is extremely talented, and what happens now is that he doesn’t have the ability that he used to have, and he takes that frustration out at the table. And that’s exactly the same as my husband because I live through that and understand that, he looks at shots that he should be getting and it’s just not happening, and it can be very frustrating. But Earl definitely spiced things up and I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy it because most matches you’re just standing there and nothing else out of the ordinary is happening, but you always knew you would be in for an exciting time when you reffed Earl.
RC: So you would look forward to refereeing his matches? (An example of what he’s like)
MT: I always looked forward to reffing Earl. Through a period of time I knew that he would never win over me, and I don’t mean that in a negative way just that I learned how to ref him and where the line was, and he learned where the line was. So when it got to the stage where I had to say “Ok that’s enough” or “I’m going to foul you”, he never stepped over that line. And that’s something I learned with experience, how to deal with him. It was good then because we both got to know where we stood so he got to throw himself about a little bit, but he also knew if I said to him “That’s it!” then that was it.
RC: I guess where the question comes from is the time he told you to “Shut up!” and you then gave him a good bollocking, and then he brought you some flowers at the start of the next match.
MT: Yes I really appreciated that a lot. The thing you’ve got to remember is that 9 ball pool is not the professional game snooker is and it never has been. It has only ever been a pub game and a hustling game. What they’re trying to do now is to try and make it more of a professional game and we’re already there with snooker and have been for a long time. So with him, we had a fall out, it was dealt with and he was warned, and we brought in some other guidelines following that actually because that was the first time anybody had had to deal with such a thing in the world of 9 ball. But for him to publically apologise on live TV in front of the world, that was massive because that was him showing the world that he knew he was wrong and it was really appreciated.
RC: It certainly kept the viewers entertained anyway and I for one made sure I didn’t miss his matches after that! He talks a lot as well; on TV you don’t get to hear most of it but there are always comments flying around at the audience or his opponent.
MT: Honestly he just blathers away, and I think half the time he’s trying to get under the skin of the opponent, and he’s also trying to get himself up and get a bit of fire in his belly to perform, and that’s where I understand because he’s not playing as good as he used to.
Next question also from SnookerFan: Do you think referees should come out to entrance music and which song would you pick if they did?
MT: We’ve actually been mulling that over in our heads, and my initial suggestion was the Black Eyed Peas and Tonight’s Gonna Be A Good Night because when you go out to ref a match, and we’re all the same, all we want is a good match. Obviously as a referee you don’t want to be involved in any controversy – whether you’re right or wrong it almost always seems to be the referees fault. So I don’t see why we shouldn’t come out to music because if the players are coming out to music it’s a bit bland having us coming out to nothing, and I think it’s a catchy song and it would be nice to come out to.
RC: When you see other sports, do you keep an eye on the match officials’ performance and focus on what they’re doing? For example in football the referee can get a lot of stick, like in the England v Germany game at the World Cup where the ball clearly crossed the line and the goal was disallowed. You probably don’t care about that particular example being Scottish (!) but maybe you can empathise with the referee?
MT: I don’t tend to watch what the referees do because in other sports and I wouldn’t know the rules anyway. If I’m watching snooker I do and if I’m watching pool I do too because those are the sports I know well. What I do have though is total empathy for any official in any sport because I know how difficult it is.
And as it happens I will correct you there because I am actually English, and I was supporting England and watching it live and I was screaming at the tele as I’m sure everybody else was. The downside with football though is: why are they not using modern day technology? Because when you are reffing you don’t want any decision of yours to be wrong, especially if it costs someone a match. I mean that’s what happened to us because it was clearly over the line and it was a massive turning point, and you could say that referee cost us that match. And it’s not right; if they have the technology to stop incorrect decisions like that then they should use it.
RC: We have our own “technology” in televised snooker of course where if you call a miss and have to replace the balls, you can study a monitor to get the ball positions right. I have to say though it does seem that sometimes the before and after overlays on screen show a ball can be more than half a ball out.
MT: The difficulty is that the DVD player is just a guide, and the camera angle is wrong for us. Ideally there would be an overhead camera but we can’t do that because it’s not high enough to cover the full table, so we have to judge from a camera that isn’t from the best angle, and it’s also not a good enough image, so it is only a guide. Unfortunately it can make us look foolish but it’s not currently good enough for pin point accuracy. But between us and the players we like to think we can get it back to an acceptable position, and very rarely is there any controversy.
RC: Can you explain to the readers what you are doing when you have a stint behind the cameras?
MT: That’s the markers desk. We’ve got the remote controls for the scoring so all the scores you see on television or on the internet, that’s all coming from me sitting there pressing the buttons. And we also keep a manual record just in case anything happens and the scoreboard goes down. And we also control the DVD player. So we might look as if we’re doing nothing but you try getting a match where there’s lot of safety play going on (and for anybody that has a DVD recorder then maybe they’ll know) and you’re having to time flip and pause. And then when that shot’s ok you have to start it again and then time flip and pause. And at the same time you’re doing fouls and misses and writing it down, so it gets quite interesting.
RC: What is your opinion on the shot clock? Because if it ever came in then obviously someone would have to control it, and from what I’ve seen of the Premier League the timing is inconsistent as to when the clock is started and it makes a bit of a mockery of the concept.
MT: I can’t actually comment because I’ve never been there to see it in operation so I wouldn’t know. But we use it in pool and it’s done by a specific scoring person who’s not in the room.
RC: So how does it work in pool?
MT: When all the balls have come to rest then the clock is started, and it stops immediately at the point the tip of the cue comes into contact with the cue ball. I don’t know where the controversy would come from in snooker because I would have thought it would be the same. I mean occasionally it’s not accurate because the person operating the clock maybe can’t see that a ball is still spinning and we’ve got to ask them to reset it, but it’s more of a guide to make the players play within a certain time period than an exact science. In pool I love them, because it means you’re never going to have a long match. Obviously I’m talking about pool here but you’ve also got your extension which you’re allowed to take once per rack to give you some extra time.
RC: I think in snooker it’s fine for certain events to add a bit of variety, but it’s not something which should be introduced in the proper events because it changes the essence of the game completely.
MT: Yes it’s catering for different audiences which I think is a good thing. But ranking events, should you mess with them? Well we’ll leave up to somebody else to decide. That’s obviously where you get your bone of contention.
RC: Next question is from case_master: Do you make a full time living out of snooker?
MT: No I don’t because I choose only to work part time because I’ve got a family, two young boys and my husband. We have our own company as well running pool tournaments, so I only work part time with the snooker through choice. I could go full time if I wanted to, but not with having two small boys.
RC: How much do you travel as a referee and how hard is it to be away from your family?
MT: Yes it’s hard but I don’t accept work that means I’m going to be away from home for too long, like moving straight on to the next event then the next. What we do is we agree whatever is going to work for us as a family. It is difficult being away but I do know that when I am away my kids are being looked after perfectly by my husband and the house is ok. What is also good is that I get to spend the whole of summer with them and that’s not something you get in a lot of jobs, so it works out quite well.
RC: How did you start off getting involved with cue sports? I know you had a successful career as a pool player, is this something that started off from playing friends in a pub?
MT: Yes it did actually. I was dating a guy who took me along to his local and there were two pool tables in it and everybody there played pool so I started there. I’m one of these people who can be intense and I have to be the best that I can be so I wasn’t one to sit and watch, I wanted to get involved. And then my next boyfriend who is now my husband Ross McInnes is a professional pool player, and he was invited to play in a tournament which was 9 ball pool and he recommended that I could be a referee because they didn’t have many in Scotland. You know how in a league match you all have to ref each other’s games? Well I tended to be the one who did all the reffing so he spotted that, and I sent my CV and they invited me to do one event in Glasgow and I did it and I’ve been with Matchroom ever since!
RC: Can you tell the readers about your pool career and what you achieved?
MT: Well I started playing properly in 1991, and by 1992 I was asked if I would play for Scotland for the ladies international team. And I stayed in the team until after I started refereeing snooker, and in that time we won a number of World Championships. My best achievements myself were winning the British Championships and the Europeans. So I was quite handy!
RC: How good are you at snooker and what is your highest break?
MT: Rubbish at snooker! What I used to do was to use snooker purely to aid my pool. After a couple of hours playing snooker when you go back to a pool table suddenly the long pots seem really easy. And my highest break is 26 and I was quite proud of that until some kid told me at a Snooker Legends evening that his was 60 something.
RC: Next question is from N_Castle07: Do you think the players give the referees the respect they deserve?
MT: Yes I do. I’ve never personally had a problem; I don’t ever feel there’s been disrespect towards me. There have been disagreements which is what you would expect, but it is a very gentlemanly game and I feel everybody is treated the way they should be. I’m there to look after the player that’s sitting down and assist the one who’s playing and it doesn’t often get into a position where it’s much more than that, which is good.
RC: Let’s move on to a proper refereeing question: if you could change one rule in snooker, which one would it be?
MT: It would have to be the push shot. I am not a lover of that rule. I think it’s been taken advantage of over the years by the players who decide what is acceptable amongst themselves. Because I referee 8 ball and 9 ball, to me I see a lot of push shots that if it were pool I would call them, but because a leeway has been allowed over a period of time, it’s become acceptable so the rule either has to be done away with or reworded because the way it’s worded now, it’s not being adhered to.
RC: I’ve been involved as a player and a marker in league matches and sometimes it’s hard to work out if it was a push or not, and I’ve called fouls on myself when maybe afterwards I’ve thought the shot was actually legit especially after seeing professionals do the same, and also if I’m not sure I’ll leave it for the marker to decide whilst avoiding eye contact, and if I’m the marker I’ll look at the player to see if he makes eye contact. I agree it is an awkward rule as it stands.
MT: Yes it’s very hard for the refs to call it and over time the players have given themselves more and more of the ball they can hit. What I mean is instead of glancing off a ball to get back in baulk, they’re as good as hitting into the object ball now half ball and that is a push shot. And they’ve decided it is an acceptable shot and they’re not calling the foul on themselves and the player incoming is not looking for the foul which means the wording of the rule is not acceptable any more. (example of push or not)
RC: If push shots were legal how would that affect the game?
MT: I don’t think push shots should be legal, just right now the wording needs to change. I certainly don’t think you should be allowed to do the really big push shots where you shove the cue through and obviously they don’t do that, but it’s a grey area for us to define if it’s a foul or not.
RC: Has there ever been a scenario where you didn’t know the rule?
MT: Not when I’ve been out there reffing. There were a couple of situations earlier on where I learnt things through experience. People think it’s very easy learning the rule book but it’s not the learning of the rule book it’s putting the rules into operation that can be difficult.
RC: When I played in local league matches where you have to mark games as well as play if you’re at home, the situation I used to dread was the miss rule. One time I called a miss on my own player and it was a blatant miss, he could hit other reds and chose a more difficult shot, and after the match my captain took me to one side and told me in no uncertain terms that I should never call a miss on my own player.
RC: There would often be fights or close to fights over the miss rule in local league matches. If I was marking a game, calls of “That was a miss” from the visiting team was something I didn’t look forward to, put it that way. So any rule changes made should be made with the club players in mind and how the rule will be interpreted in snooker clubs everywhere.
MT: Well actually fairly recently there was a meeting between the referees about the concession rule and the reason was that it was causing problems in clubs. Why should club players be playing to the concession rule? And I made the point that we should have a set of the rules and guidelines purely for tournament play and not for clubs because of exactly that. The rules committee is no more at the moment, but maybe when we get back up and running this should be discussed again.
RC: The concession rule needs to be sorted out because some of the cases resulting in fines are quite ridiculous, you know players conceding with frame ball unmissable.
MT: Well you can now because that all got changed again just before this year’s World Championship. As long as the referee deems that it’s basically a gimmie then it’s acceptable to concede if that is the key ball.
RC: Well that’s more sensible. There was no publicity about it so I had no idea.
MT: It all came about because of a match when one player needed I think red colour red, and the referee thought it was acceptable because the balls were all easy, but because of that it got changed again so now it’s got to be if the game ball is a gimmie.
RC: What’s the hardest part of refereeing?
MT: Concentration levels. To me one of the key things about being a good ref is to keep your concentration and be one step ahead, knowing where to stand, what ball they’re going to go onto next. And over the lengthy matches especially it’s so difficult to maintain concentration levels, and the longer the match goes on the closer it tends to be so you’ve really got to stay with it, and it’s tough.
When they’re potting balls it’s not difficult because then you’re just spotting and counting, but as soon as you get a longer match or a long safety bout, that’s where you can get caught out if you’re suddenly asked to replace the balls and you don’t know where they were.
RC: What guidelines do referees have for the time players are allowed to take?
MT: We’ve got the rule where if we believe a player is taking an extensive amount of time over his shots we have a word, and I would only ever have a word if it was a considerable length of time, constantly. We appreciate the difficulty of the shots and not every shot can be played within 20 seconds, and if a player occasionally has to take a lot of time just because of the situation they are in then we would never consider having a word with them.
RC: What is your favourite match that you ever refereed?
MT: I’ve reffed so many cracking matches, but the one which always stands out for me is the 2007 World Championship semi-final between Mark Selby and Shaun Murphy.
RC: Good answer, that’s one of my favourite matches ever. The final session was just incredible. There was a frame at 15-14 where Murphy had a big lead and Selby almost got back on terms but missed a difficult blue at the end, and even though he lost the frame and went 16-14 down, I knew he was going to come back and win the match and you can’t say that about many players in that situation. Sorry, I get carried away whenever that match is mentioned!
MT: Do you know just even talking about it the hairs are standing up on the back of my neck! From my point of view, it was the first time in a snooker match that it felt as if there was the atmosphere from the pool table. And it was an amazing feeling to have that and especially at the Crucible. I’ve had other matches since then that have had a great atmosphere, but that is the one which stands out to me.
RC: When you’re involved in a match like this do you have to tell yourself not to get sucked into the drama?
MT: You can’t help but be aware of what’s going on, but you’ve always got to be impartial and you can’t let it be seen even if you know what you’re thinking or feeling. I mean there are times when you just stand back and think “Jesus Christ, what a shot!” and you’re still standing there complete poker faced!
RC: I know you appreciate shots because when I saw you in the Legends Tour you told John Parrott that one of his shots was “crap” and you were right, it was an awful shot!
MT: (laughs) Well I’ve never said anything like that before but he’d been giving the guy that won the raffle such stick that night, and then he played that shot and it just came out. It was one of those times where you think to yourself “Did I just say that?”
RC: A bit like the yelp you let out in a match with Ding Junhui?
MT: Well I know I was feeling tired that day because I’d travelled from home to be at that tournament and it was in the evening but I was with it, and I was looking down the line of the cue and it didn’t even look as if it was in danger of hitting the pink, so when it did hit the pink I thought “Oh” and then realised that I really did just say that out loud. And it was a yelp as only I can do, being a bloody woman!
RC: The other funny incident I remember from you was when you lifted the white off the table at the World Championship this year.
MT: Yes, well what a lot of people don’t realise is that the earpieces were on too loud and you could hear the commentary and it was very distracting, so I had to find an opportune moment to have a word with the crowd. So I was looking out for the opportunity and then the green was potted and I knew I had to walk around the table so I had time to have a word. So as I walked around the table I was talking to the crowd and obviously the concentration levels dropped for a moment because I didn’t manage to get the green ball and picked up the white as you know. And meanwhile Graeme Dott is sitting his seat going “Michaela! You’ve picked up the cue ball!” But I was very lucky to have the players I had because they were laughing about it and it didn’t impact on the game thankfully.
RC: Another referee did the same thing didn’t they?
MT: The next session! Can you believe that? It had never happened before at the Crucible and then in two successive sessions.
RC: I remember at the time there was talk on the internet about how disgraceful the refereeing was and all that sort of rubbish getting totally blown out of proportion, but I guess that’s the sort of thing you have to contend with being a professional referee?
MT: And that’s why a lot of us refs don’t bother going on to these sites because it’s only ever going to be negative. From our point of view the referee is only ever going to be the bad guy. We have to concentrate so hard and occasionally we make mistakes because we’re only human. I’m quite thin skinned about such things and I don’t like reading criticism so that’s why I tend to stay away. And you can be sure if you’ve done something wrong then somebody else will pull you up over it after the match and you have to explain yourself, so the last thing you need after that is to read other people going over it again.
RC: Sure. Speaking of commentary earpieces what is your opinion of them? Do you find them distracting?
MT: Actually I like them. Having been a fan, one of the things I missed when I was watching it live is that I didn’t always know what was going on like if the player needed snookers, so I think they’re a great thing to have, but I don’t like it when people turn them up too loud. We do have a master volume switch though so we can have it turned down. It’s not that you can hear every word, but when you can tell which commentator it is, for example you instantly think “That’s Dennis” then it’s too loud and we will get the master switch turned down. But I don’t have a problem with them; it helps to keep the interest up for the audience who otherwise may not be able to see if a certain ball pots or if the player is snookered from their seat position. And it certainly helps us when we’re marking to have someone tell us what’s going on!
RC: Do you have a favourite venue, snooker or pool?
MT: Undoubtedly the Crucible. But that could end up being superseded very shortly by the Tempodrom in Berlin, Germany.
MT: Oh my god, it is just amazing!
RC: And what is going to be held there?
MT: The German Masters. It’s like a bigger version of the Crucible, it’s a big round dome and holds 2000 people and it is amazing!
RC: This is sure to get everyone’s attention!
MT: And, if you didn’t already know… that event is being played with 5 tables, but without the booths. So it’ll be a ranking event where all the tables are actually visible to each other.
RC: (laughs) Oh boy that is a great idea! I love it!
MT: I am so excited about that because to me that will give you the buzz of pool because something’s going to be happening on one table and everybody’s going to be wondering what’s going on because the crowd is going ballistic.
RC: It will be an extra test for the players because they’ve got to remain focussed on their own game. That’s brilliant. That is brilliant!
You’ve refereed players who haven’t yet necessarily made it to the televised stages. Do you have any tips for the future? Any players who have caught your eye?
MT: Young Luca Brecel is definitely one to be watching out for, but a lot of people are starting to hear about him already. Michael White is another, and Jack Lizowski who got to the final in a PTC event recently.
RC: Beating Mark Selby in the semi-final.
MT: Yes that’s just unbelievable! So they’ve been the young players of distinction of recent years and now they’re starting to come up against the major players so it’s fascinating to see it all come together for them.
RC: How do you think Reanne Evans will fare on the male circuit?
MT: I have no idea because I have never actually seen her play! But what I think is fantastic is that she’s been given the opportunity and the backing to go out and give it a go full time, which is key I think for a woman.
RC: One last question then and this one comes from Bourne: Michaela, you seem to have achieved everything you could possibly have achieved in your profession already. What goals have you set for yourself in the future?
MT: I haven’t anything specific. I mean I could say I want to ref the final of the UK or this and that but I’m not like that. What interests me is that I continue to enjoy the job and do it to the best of my ability, and I believe that as I go on I will achieve things I didn’t set out to achieve to begin with, for instance the Legends. I mean who would’ve said I would ever ref snooker, who would’ve said I would get to ref the World Final and who would’ve said I would ever ref Cliff Thorburn against Alex Higgins at the Crucible in a rematch? I couldn’t have put that match down, and I couldn’t have put reffing Ray Reardon down in Plymouth. So I just want to continue to do the best that I can and hopefully other things will come along with that.
RC: I’m sure they will. Michaela, thank you very much and good luck in the coming season.
MT: Thank you and my pleasure.
And with that I let her go back to her family life and feed her children who by this time were getting increasingly impatient that mummy didn’t have dinner on the table. It’s a busy life juggling so many things but Michaela seems to have struck a good balance and hopefully we’ll have the pleasure of her on our screens, ticking personal boxes for a good time yet to come.