Tom English: Is snooker going to pot?

WITH sponsorship on the wane, it's not easyto make money out of snooker. What thesport doesn't need now is a betting scandal

BY AND large, snooker punters are creatures of habit. In the main, they don't do ante-post, they don't strike their bets days in advance and wait for their match to come around. Most bookmakers will tell you that those who gamble on snooker do their business on televised games and they do it late, almost as the players enter the arena. That's usually the way of it. They wait and pounce. But sometimes things change.

The Friday before last, December 12, bookmakers across Britain and Ireland started taking bets on a match not due to be played for another three days, a first round clash of the Scots at the UK Championship in Telford between world No.2, Stephen Maguire, and the journeyman Jamie Burnett. Mostly via their websites, Victor Chandler, Paddy Power, Ladbrokes, Stan James, Boylesports and other major firms accepted very specific punts on the match; not on the outcome (Maguire was an unbackable favourite at odds of 1-8) but on the precise score. A lot of money was lumped on Maguire to win 9-3.

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In mid-afternoon, Paddy Power cut the odds from 6-1 to 4-1 and yet the money still came for 9-3. "Not a lot of bets," said Power, "but chunky ones, 500 quid and a grand a time. There were a lot of other matches they could have gambled on but there wasn't a penny for them, there were a lot of other scores they could have gambled on bar 9-3 but that was the only one they wanted to know. At about 5pm we suspended betting."

At around the same time all the other betting firms did the same. Some of them noted that brand new online accounts had been opened just to strike the 9-3 bet. Long before the first ball had been struck on Monday, the game of snooker was rife with talk of a fix. "Nobody here was surprised to see it finish 9-3," said Power, "and we weren't surprised to hear that there's an inquiry. I'm not saying it was fixed, absolutely not, but it is definitely suspicious and warrants an investigation. I would say that what happened here was unusual. We call it irregular betting patterns. None of this would have broken the bank. I mean, we stood to lose around 15,000-20,000 on 9-3. Not disastrous by any means. But it's the integrity of the sport that's in question. If punters feel that they're not getting a fair crack of the whip they'll walk away from snooker. We decided to refund any bets on any losing score because of the suspicion that hangs over the match but we're not paying out on 9-3 until the investigation is complete."

That's where we're at with Maguire and Burnett. The players protest their innocence in the strongest possible terms. Maguire says he's hurt and angry that anybody could have doubts about his professionalism; Burnett says he's prepared to sue if somebody accuses him of doing something he says he simply did not do. All the while, World Snooker, the sport's governing body, is getting ready to examine some of the shots played in the last two frames, some of the errors by Maguire that allowed Burnett to make it 8-3 and a bad miss on the final black by Burnett that presented Maguire with an easy chance to close out the game 9-3.

The other day Burnett spoke of the rumours of match-fixing in his sport: "People have been laughing and joking about things like that for years," he said, "but to my knowledge nobody has ever done anything. Snooker's too important, there is a career here.''

Two thing: firstly, snooker is becoming less and less of a career for tour players. The game is in crisis. The prize money in snooker nowadays is pitifully small and there are fewer tournaments and fewer sponsors. There are few riches to be had any more. Even elite performers have spoken over the last year or so about the game's inability to provide a good living. Secondly, to Burnett's comment that to his knowledge nobody has ever cheated, we must remind him of Quinten Hann.

In 2006, the Australian was banned for eight years after he was filmed accepting a 50,000 bribe from an undercover tabloid reporter to throw a match at the China Open. What makes Hann unusual, though, is that despite the many suspicions of match-fixing in snooker going back decades, he is the only one who has actually been done for the specific charge of match-fixing.

It's a savagely difficult thing to prove as the case of Peter Francisco testifies. Before the South African's first round match with Jimmy White in the 1995 World Snooker championship there was a volume of money slapped down on a 10-2 scoreline in White's favour, thousands of pounds gambled in firms in Britain and South Africa. Like the case last week, betting was suspended. Francisco lost 10-2 and the authorities launched a major investigation. White was cleared and Francisco banned for five years, not for match-fixing but for "not conducting himself in a manner consistent with his status as a professional sportsman."

World Snooker says they take a "stringent line" on players found guilty of this kind of deception but the fact is that without the help of a tabloid newspaper not one single player would have been nailed in the entire history of the game. There have been inquiries, for sure. No shortage of them. Every year throws up several. In August of this year betting was suspended and an investigation launched after several firms reported sizeable punts on a Liang Wenbo victory over Peter Ebdon in the Northern Ireland Trophy. The wagers all went for a 5-0 margin. Wenbo won 5-0 but all parties were found to have no case to answer.

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Many players going back 20 years and more have come under the microscope and all have been exonerated. But the murkiness still exists. Darren Morgan, the Welsh professional, claims that he was once approached by a fellow player about fixing a game, which he refused to do. "I went on to beat him and we never spoke to each other again," said Morgan.

In 2007, Paddy Power were taken for 40,000 after a betting coup on a match involving Michael Judge and Joe Perry. Huge bets were laid on the game ending 9-0 or 9-1 to Perry. It ended 9-1. A spokesman for the firm said at the time: "As we have seen unusual betting patterns in previous games involving one of these players, we have made the decision to no longer offer betting on matches involving this player for the foreseeable future."

There is little proof but no end of suspicion. And on the part of World Snooker, a huge amount of desperation. Paddy Power says that if he ever thought there was something badly amiss about snooker's integrity he would pull the plug on it as a betting sport. "That's why we need this investigation to be thorough. Hopefully nothing untoward went on here but if it did we need to know about it. Betting coups are fine, we've no problem with them. But if there's something sinister going on we have to protect our customers."

With snooker just about hanging on to what remains of its profile it doesn't need controversy like this, certainly doesn't need it being replayed seemingly on a loop from one season to the next. Snooker needs a break, But right now, more than anything, it needs the truth.


SHAUN Murphy secured a convincing victory over Stephen Maguire to book a place in the Maplin UK Championship final.

The Englishman, who had not won a tournament match this season until arriving in Telford, faces Hong Kong's Marco Fu in today's title match after a 9-4 triumph over Scotsman Maguire.

Maguire paid the price for failing to make the most of a series of frame-winning chances, and despite making two centuries during the evening session, including a 112 made up of the first 14 reds and 14 blacks, by that stage the Scot was already chasing Murphy.

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Murphy led 6-2 after the afternoon session but Maguire started the evening impressively and a 147 looked on the cards before he lost position on the 15th red and failed with an attempted double to the middle with the frame won.

But Murphy sent out a message of intent with a century of his own to restore the four-frame cushion.

Maguire opened up a 43-0 lead in the next but lost position and, after a safety battle,

Murphy made a clearance from green to black to go 8-3 in front.

Maguire hit back with his second century of the evening, 115, but at the mid-session interval he was still staring at a likely defeat.

The Scot then had two frame-winning opportunities in the 13th frame but let them slip as Murphy's more reliable potting saw him through.

Murphy, the 2005 world champion, is seeking the third ranking title of his career today.

Fu came from behind to beat Englishman Ali Carter in the first of the semi-finals on Friday, and will be looking for his second ranking event title, his first having come in the 2007 Grand Prix in Aberdeen.