The Case Against Shot Clocks In Snooker

by Roland Cox

Graeme Dott has sparked a debate about shot clocks in championship snooker following his match against Peter Ebdon in the first round of this years’ World Championship. The match had to be finished in a 3rd session after just 14 of the possible 19 frames had been played in the first two sessions.

Of course Dotty is still paranoid that people think he’s a slow player, stemming from the gripping (if you’re a purist) 2006 final against Ebdon, still mentioning it at every opportunity. It still clearly rankles with him and to be quite honest it’s time for him to let it go. From his point of view of course he reached the summit and all that people seem to remember is how the final played out with a tired Ebdon scrapping over every ball for all his life was worth, and turning the match into a long protracted affair full of scrappy frames causing many to switch off. More fool them though because the last session was as dramatic and entertaining as snooker can get in one form of play, and it was a refreshing alternative to the barrage of breaks dished out by the other top players of the time who contested the preceding finals of that era.

Dotty of course is not a slow player and he’s more than extinguished that perception among the snooker fans who mistakenly held it against him, by at times playing too fast and entering into the territory of being rash and not taking due care and attention over his shots.

So is slow play a problem? And what can be done about it?

Well let’s get one thing clear. Forcing the players to play a shot in a fixed amount of time does not speed the game of snooker up and encourage attacking, faster and easier on the eye snooker. On the contrary it encourages bad shot choices and negative play and also removes the drama from a tense and gripping encounter.

Shot clocks have been introduced in other cue sports such as 9 ball pool and 3 cushion billiards. These sports are not snooker however, snooker is a different animal all together played on a larger surface area with more balls, smaller pockets and a wider range of shot choice options open to the players.

When the player at the table has a good chance in and around the pink and black with reds open, i.e. a good scoring chance, they invariably play at a quicker pace because the shots are more regulation. Even slow players are well within 20-25 seconds per shot in such scenarios. A 30 second shot clock as suggested by Dott would not impact on the scoring game, and those players who excel at potting or break building and prefer an open game would thus not be affected by a shot clock, especially when facing each other in a match. It’s no surprise then that these are the players in favour of a shot clock.

The trouble is, not all players are scoring machines and many are match play tacticians. Snooker is a tactical sport. The Main Tour contains a huge variety of playing styles and all contribute to the sport equally, all have their place and it’s what makes the game so intriguing for the fans, in particular when a quick player clashes with a slow player such as Ebdon v Dott which at times you couldn’t take your eyes off.

Of course the main determining factor when talking about speed of play is the layout of the table. When frames go scrappy as invariably happens when players run out of position and get into a safety exchange, the shot time increases. This is usually where the meat of the outcome of the match is decided. Forcing players to rush in such situations leads to bad shot choices and with time pressure often the easier more obvious shot will be taken on, such as a dead weight roll up or knocking a ball safe instead of taking on a more attacking option once proper consideration has been given to the situation. Adopting a 30 second shot clock would kill off this vital element of the sport and turn it into a farce, even with as suggested by Dott having 3 time outs per frame. These can be used up in 3 consecutive visits in a standard safety exchange quite easily and the natural outcome would be impacted by players rushing and making mistakes, or opting for the negative and easier shot choice.

The main point though is that it would kill the drama of the occasion which causes players to over think and over complicate and miss shots you would expect them to get 10 times of 10, which is a part of the game that keeps the fans on the edge of their seats in close big matches such as those played at the Crucible.

How would a shot clock work?

This is another strong argument against a shot clock. How would you implement it? For starters you have a human deciding when the shot starts. As we’ve all seen in various shot clock events already televised, the Shootout and Premier League, this is very inconsistently implemented. As it has been played out already, loud pips can be heard in the playing arena telling the player at the table to get a shift on. How can this possibly work with more than one table in play? I’ve heard it suggested the player at the table can wear a pager which vibrates giving them the 10 or 5 second warning. I’m sure every player would love having something vibrating to put them off when they’re down on the shot! Quite clearly this idea is absurd.

You could also have the referee giving the warning verbally as happens in pool. Again, the last thing you want when down on the shot and on the backswing is hearing a voice saying “5 seconds” especially on a key shot. When I see it in pool it makes me cringe.

I’ve heard suggestion of using the average shot time which is available on live scoring as a weapon for the referee to use. Although it sounds logical to some it is also flawed because it does not take into account the layout of the table and the situations the player in question has found themselves in coming to the table. You could have player A dominating, scoring and winning frames in one visit and putting player B in all sorts of trouble every time it’s their turn. Player B could be a naturally fast player but having played 90% less shots than player A could have an average shot time of 50 seconds because of the problems they have encountered. Imagine then being asked to hurry up when they’ve not had a chance to get going.

The other counter to this argument is that player B on an average of 40 seconds could win the next frame and have 67 easy points left on the table after frame ball has been potted, then speed up and clear the table with no pressure and get their average shot time significantly reduced leaving them to take as long as they want in the next frame. And this would become standard practice, believe me.

So to answer to the question is slow play “killing the game” and is a shot clock the answer?

Slow play is not killing the game. Snooker in its championship format is a true sport, a battle of wills, of ability, of shot making, of bottle and every player has their own natural pace. Introducing a shot clock would turn many away from the sport, myself included.

What can be done about slow play and was Peter Ebdon out of order?

That’s a different question entirely. As Dott said himself in years past the referees used to warn players for slow play, seeing Dean Reynolds in tears after being told to hurry up springs instantly to mind but this hasn’t happened for a very long time. Players in golf who take too long are told to hurry up, they are put “on the clock” and something akin to that should be used more at the referee’s discretion.

A player who the referee decides is deliberately wasting time by taking too long over obvious shots (to quote Dott on Ebdon “I think he’s been playing for 25 years and he knows the shot he’s going to play and I know the shot and the crowd know the shot, and he’ll still take maybe over a minute”) should be given a warning and told to get a move on. The referee should have to take into account the context of the match and the intrinsic difficulty of the table layout when deciding to have a word. The referee needs to distance themselves from any friendships they may have with the players and do their job in implementing the rule.

The main point from my own personal point of view is that shot clocks are not the answer to slow play and do not encourage the right sort of snooker to be played. They have their place in fun events such as the Shootout and I am a fan of the odd event in the calendar being like this, obviously without inclusion in the money list ranking system as this is not the championship format of the sport. Shot clock = entertainment, no shot clock = sport.

If two quick attacking players such as the next round for Dotty where he will face Shaun Murphy occurs, then it will bring in the fans who enjoy that sort of match. When two great match players face each other such as Neil Robertson and Mark Selby then let the fans of their style of extremely high quality match snooker get their fix as well. Selby in particular is the prime example of a player whose often lengthy shot consideration pays dividends with the outcome of some very intelligent shots. It’s what sets him apart and why he’s a favourite among snooker connoisseurs, yet under a shot clock this side to his game would be nullified.

The 2013 World Championships have already produced some great matches containing great drama, Dott v Ebdon absolutely included. Let’s see how often slow play is mentioned in the rest of the tournament because I don’t think it will be. I can see some potential clashes where we can expect a lot of scrappy frames but this is where the perception of playing slow needs to be in context.

Snooker is a very difficult sport made to look very easy by the best players in the world playing at the Crucible and winning a safety battle to create a chance is not easy. If you want less scrappy frames and to bring the average frame time down the only available option is to open up the pockets, not bring in a time limit.

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