Rankings Unravelled

As regular readers will have gathered by now, I do like to keep a track of the rankings, indeed I find the battles for the various different brackets fascinating. In reality however, are the rankings really that important? More to the  point are they even fair? Having spoken to fans and players alike during the past few months, here are some thoughts on the system…

The System

For those who are not so familiar with the long-established ranking system in professional snooker, the players are ranked according to their performances over the last two seasons, with the official rankings being updated annually following the World Championship.

Why so important?

The most obvious purpose of the rankings is that they determine at which round a player will enter a tournament. Players ranked below 64th spot will have to start right back at the first qualifying round while those inside the elusive top 16 automatically come in at the venue stage. The other important consequence of course is that for each ‘bracket’ up a player is in, it will guarantee a higher minimum financial income for that player. For example a top 32 player will head into the season knowing they will receive a higher minimum income than one ranked between 33-48.

Being ranked higher also means that in theory at least, a player will start their tournament with an easier match. For example those players who enter qualifying at the final round will be paired with a player ranked no higher than 33rd. Ken Doherty has been an obvious example of a player who has suffered this season as a result of being out of the top 32 as he has been drawn against the likes of Graeme Dott and Jamie Cope at Pontin’s this season. Had he been inside the top 32 then he would have avoided such players.

Conversely however, dropping down a bit can also help players such as Ken because their opening match should in theory see them come up against an easier opponent and if they win, they head into their next match with match practice and momentum, against an opponent coming in cold.

Still, I would say that the advantages of being ranked higher do outweigh this.


The most positive aspect to the current ranking system is that in a sense it does bring about stability for the upcoming season.

Players know when they will be entering events, have some sort of idea as to the minimum that they will earn during the campaign and know what their status is. Also with some qualification tournaments taking place before the venue stages of others, it also removes any doubt as far as at which stage players should be entering tournaments.

There are however aspects of the system that I do believe are questionable…

“The system protects the big names”

One criticism often levelled at the current ranking system is that it is engineered to protect the established players and make it difficult for players further down the rankings to progress.

Take Tony Drago for example, a player who this season has won 16 matches so far, qualifying for two venues and making at least the third qualifying round of every event.  At present he lies 54th in the provisional rankings while Michael Judge (two places above him in 52nd), has won just eight matches during the course of the past two seasons!

When you also consider that there are players such as 31st placed Dave Harold and 15th ranked Marco Fu who have won just one match this season, somehow this does not seem quite fair, even taking into account the difference in quality of the players Tony has beaten and those players performances last season.

Some will point to the likes of Ken Doherty and Matthew Stevens, top quality players who have suffered a drop down the rankings over the past few seasons. The difference here however is that these are players who experienced poor results over a number of seasons, not just one. The nature of the system means that if a player is to have a nightmare season in which they lose every match, this will not affect their current ranking, and not necessarily even see them fall the next season, but it will cost them a year after that. This means that if a top player is to have a poor season, they are in a sense given a second chance to compensate for those results, just as Neil Robertson did after a poor 2007/8 and John Higgins did last season.

Even then when looking at Doherty, between the 2007 China Open and the 2009 Shanghai Masters he won just five matches on the ranking event circuit and only dropped as low as 44th, while during the past two seasons Li Hang won 15 matches, but never rose higher than 71st place and found himself relegated from the tour!

Which brings me on to my next, albeit related point…

“The system makes it too hard for tour newcomers, especially young players to progress”

One thing that I have never agreed with is that newcomers to the main tour are forced to begin their campaigns with “starter points” equivalent to the lowest player on the previous season’s one-year list. Next year therefore, new players will carry over 5,040 points from the previous season, the same as Ben Woollaston has finished up with this season.

This means that not only will top 64 players be guaranteed a higher minimum amount of ranking points from the following season by virtue of entering the events at a later stage, but they will already have the advantage of a head-start from the previous season.

For me this seems to be inherently unfair and an unnecessary handicap, demonstrated by the fact that so few players are able to come in and move straight into the top 64 each season. For example this year the three players to have done so are Tony Drago, Bjorn Haneveer and Jimmy Robertson, all experienced players with previous main tour experience. It was a similar situation last year with Jin Long and Peter Lines making the step up.

Looking at the top 64, how many young (say under 25), improving players are there? Six or seven at first glance. While it may be argued that the standard of the young players coming through at the moment is not as high as in the past, I believe that the problem is that they are graduating to the main tour, understandably finding it difficult against some of the vastly more experienced players already on the tour and before they know it finding themselves relegated and facing a tough challenge to get back onto the tour.

For example take Xiao Guodong, a talented young player who in my opinion is far too good for the PIOS. During the last four events of the current season he found himself up against Ken Doherty, Peter Lines, Mark Davis and Tony Drago, arguably the four most in-form players ranked outside of the top 32 this year. Defeats to these players have meant that he now finds himself relegated from the tour and facing at least a year before he can reclaim his place and gain further experience against professional players. As an aside I would love him to be given one of the invitational places next season.

Overall therefore I do believe that there are talented young players in the game and that they are inhibited to some extent by the tour structure currently in place. Rather than award them starter points based on the previous season’s one-year list, would it not be fairer to simply double the points that they earn during their maiden tour season?

“The ranking system is not sufficiently up to date”

Another problem that I see with the current system is that it’s two-year nature, with only one revision per season, this means that results from a relatively long time ago are currently dictating a player’s ranking. For example this April, results from the 2007 Shanghai Masters are still playing a part in a player’s ranking, something that I find a little bizarre.

On the one hand I can understand that due to the lack of ranking events on the circuit, it does make sense to take into account results covering the past two seasons but to only update the official list once a year seems to be inadequate.

Compare this with the situation in tennis for example where the rankings are updated once per week which ensures that results based over the past 52 weeks are taken into account but not those further back. A similar system in snooker, even over two years would ensure that the rankings would be a truer indication of a player’s current standing in the game. To illustrate, should the fact that Dominic Dale won the Shanghai Masters over two and a half years ago really dictate what stage he should enter the 2010 World Championship? Under a system of rolling rankings this would not happen.

The difference in standard

One question that I sometimes wonder is whether or not there is a noticeable difference in standard between those players ranked inside the top 16, top 32, top 48 and so on. On the one hand the higher ranked players are there for a reason, but when you see the way that some of the qualifiers play sometimes, it is clear that they can on their day produce a high-scoring, top level standard. Just look at Liang Wenbo’s performance against Martin Gould last season for example!

For me the difference between the top 16, maybe even the 32, and those lower down comes at the televised events because those ranked higher are so used to playing on the big stage. Players such as Mark Davis however who have shown themselves to be so strong at Pontin’s this season, are not so comfortable in front of the TV cameras and often fail to produce their best form as a result. In terms of pure ability however, I don’t necessarily see the difference as being too great, excluding the very best players anyway.

The Real Rankings

As a result of some of my concerns raised earlier in this article, I would say that the rankings are not particularly a true reflection of the current pecking order. For example is John Higgins really the fourth best player? Is Stephen Maguire the second best? Probably not, and the provisional rankings I would suggest are a more accurate barometer of where players stand at the moment.

Even then though, is Ali Carter really a better player than Shaun Murphy and Ding Junhui? Is Mark Selby only the 11th best player on the tour?

I would be interested to hear your views as to what your top 10 would be right now. To get the ball rolling mine would be something like this:

1)John Higgins
2)Ronnie O’Sullivan
3)Ding Junhui
4)Neil Robertson
5)Mark Selby
6)Mark Williams
7)Shaun Murphy
8)Ali Carter
9)Stephen Maguire
10)Stephen Hendry

What would yours be?