Barry Hearn wants to dispel a myth.
“In the past, some snooker tables were known as having tight pockets, and others more generous,” he says. “But that doesn’t happen anymore.
“There has been an official template since 1990 that fits in the pocket, and is used to cut every pocket on every professional table. Anybody could use the template to check that.”
Hearn is responding to claims from snooker players and fans throughout his tenure as World Snooker chairman that pocket sizes have increased for entertainment purposes.
During the 2016 World Championships, Steve Davis said on the BBC that “the general consensus among pros is that the pockets are oversized by a fraction.”
The conversation came up again two years later, with Mark Allen tweeting that anyone claiming the conditions had been made easier was “clueless”.
But as recently as June 2020, Neil Robertson claimed that pockets at the Championship League were “set up like an exhibition table” and “the biggest I’ve ever played on.”
On our tables, the ball has to be right inside the angles to drop in. We have a strict policy that these templates are used for every event.
Nobody can be more sure that those statements are false than Pete Godwin, the owner of World Snooker Services, the company that supplies and installs tables for all professional events.
Godwin personally cuts all six pockets on every professional table that is ever used, using templates that Hearn describes as “very secretly guarded”.
“To keep things consistent, I do every single one,” says Godwin.
“We’ve got 44 tables that we use throughout the season. Nobody else cuts pockets on those tables.”
There are four templates that are used to cut the pockets – two for the corner pockets and two for the middle pockets.
The first template denotes the size of the pocket openings, which is how much of the cushion is cut away to form the gap for the ball to enter.
The second template controls the depth of the pocket – how far back the slate needs to be cut away for the ball to drop in.
“That second template is really important,” says Jason Ferguson, chairman of the WPBSA.
“On lots of club tables, the slate is cut away quite a bit, so the ball doesn’t necessarily have to go inside the jaws of the pockets before it drops. On our tables, the ball has to be right inside the angles to drop in.
“We have a strict policy that these templates are used for any World Snooker event. They are checked, double-checked and triple-checked. The tournament director who checks them is a former top-16 snooker player, by the way, and if he’s off-site, I check them as well.”
But, while everybody involved is insistent that the size of the pockets is consistent to the finest degree, that doesn’t mean that they can’t play differently from one day to the next.
Snooker tables are made out of natural materials, so are not immune to natural variation.
“The cloth is made of wool,” says Ferguson. “If you get moisture into it, the ball starts to move quite differently.
“It affects the speed of the table, the way that the ball flips across, the prominence of speed and spin, but also the pockets.
“When there is moisture in the pocket, you’ve only got to catch that knuckle by a fraction of a millimetre and it will throw the ball out.”
That explains why pockets seem tighter in Asia, where the humidity level can get much higher than the 35-40 per cent that is considered optimum.
“When we go to China, the pockets seem to go difficult after a day or two,” says two-time UK Champion Mark Selby.
“The table gets heavier and seems to play a little tired. It’s all about experience, because I expect it when I get out there now, it’s just the way it is” – which may explain why five of Selby’s last 10 ranking titles have been won in China.
It’s also true that the balls slide off new cloth much more than when the table gets older.
Godwin is asked to recover the tables with new cloth approximately every four days during major events like the UK Championship. The illusion that the pockets are playing bigger exists when that has just happened.
“As the table wears after a few days, the pockets play harder,” he says. “When that happens we’ll usually be asked to recover them.
“We do it too often, in my opinion. In the 1980s, we used to do qualifiers for 69 days each summer, and we’d recover it once. Now we’re doing them every four days.
“They always play easier with a new cover. Given this is happening so often, I can see why the pockets might seem bigger more regularly.”
Ferguson agrees that the sheen of a new cover makes a difference – “it’s beautiful, it’s like silk” – but is sure that how players view the pockets is as much down to their mental state as the mechanics.
“This is the strange thing about snooker,” he says.
“You’ll hear, for example, Ronnie O’Sullivan say that that the pockets are looking big, and another player say that they felt tricky.
“It’s just a snooker players’ way of expressing how they’re feeling about their form.”
Ultimately, any benefits from tampering with pocket sizes would be immediately cancelled out by the reputational damage it would cause to the game.
“It does get frustrating hearing complaints, because we do everything we can for consistency,” Ferguson says. “To make the game credible, keeping these things in check is crucial.
“When somebody makes a 147 or wins a tournament, it has to count. No player wants to think, ‘Oh, well, we were only playing on a club table’ when they achieve something special.”
In a game defined by precision, doing everything with exactness is just as crucial for administrators as it is for players.
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