Opinion: Match-fixing and gambling - snooker's very own 'foul and a miss'

The unpredictability of a contest merged with the break-building brilliance of outspoken players such as Ronnie O'Sullivan has made the sport of snooker one of the most compelling to watch.

Yet underneath the tactical expertise and accurate potting is a dark underbelly that continues to bring the game into disrepute.

A problem spanning three decades

Following the conclusion of a fascinating English Open, 2015 World champion Stuart Bingham was found guilty of betting on matches involving himself and others over a period spanning seven years. Whilst it is believed that Bingham "did not influence the outcome of any matches", this latest misdemeanour is the fourth to be uncovered in just over a year.

Joe Perry and Alfie Burden have both been issued suspended bans, whilst Leo Fernandez was found guilty of match-fixing and ultimately saw himself banned from the table for 15 months.

Yet match-fixing and gambling in snooker is not a new problem for the sport. The first concern of note dates back to 1986 when Silvino Francisco was arrested but released without charge. However, his nephew, Peter Francisco, was found guilty for "bringing the game into disrepute" and banned for five years after a suspicious amount of bets on a 10-2 win for Jimmy White against him in 1995.

Like Francisco, Stephen Lee was arrested on suspicion of match-fixing in five separate competitions between 2008 and 2009. He picked up the largest ban in snooker history, 12 years, but was not criminally prosecuted. This was also the case for Stephen Maguire and Jamie Burnett, good friends who met each other in the 2008 UK Championship, before the charges against them were dropped.

Bans but no criminal prosecutions with match-fixing "hard to prove"

Francisco, Lee, Maguire and Burnett are the only players to have ever been arrested for such misdemeanours, although several other players have been banned. Quinten Hann was banned in 2006 for eight years after "accepting payment to influence the outcome of a game".

In 2010, former World champion John Higgins was banned for six months after "giving the impression he would breach betting rules", before Joe Jogia and amateur John Sutton were sidelined for two and six years respectively.

Yet the list of players investigated for suspicious betting patterns is extensive. 2002 World champion Peter Ebdon heads a list of no less than nine players who were originally deemed to be involved in unusual gambling activity.

"Purely out of boredom and distraction"

With a total of 38 qualifying, invitational and ranking events on the 2017-18 snooker calendar spanning across 13 countries, players can spend a long time away from family and friends.

The fact that the latest four incidents have occurred between players over 40 years of age suggests that such periods on the road can take a toll on even the most experienced campaigners. Joe Perry claimed his 200 bets were "purely out of boredom or distraction".

With the game becoming increasingly popular in the Far East, the sport continues to spread across the globe, adding more mileage for the top snooker talents. Like any competitive sport, it needs to grow and bring in financial investment to be viable but is snooker beginning to put too much pressure on the wellbeing of the players?

Neil Robertson almost saw his career full away after developing a gaming addiction after spending so much time on the road and the practice table.

"Players are waiting for someone to lose and then ask for your hotel room"

Another issue is that of finance within the sport. Ronnie O'Sullivan, who has over £8.5 million to his name in career winnings, told the Guardian earlier in the year that it is difficult to make a living from the sport.

He explained, “I’m not going to support a system that doesn’t benefit the bottom-ranked players. There’s no trickle down. All the top players get everything and those at the bottom are in poverty, keeping them in debt".

He added, "in snooker, a lot of players can’t afford a pair of trainers for their kid, they can’t afford to buy the train ticket for a tournament. They can’t afford the hotel room. They are waiting for someone to lose and then ask for your hotel room. How is that right? How can that be right for a good snooker player who has devoted all his life?"

O'Sullivan, not one to shy away with a criticism of the decision-makers in the sport, concluded, "you see board members flying business class, drinking red wine, schmoozing, wearing nice suits, saying they are doing wonderful things for the game and it’s never been in a better place”.

Cartels cashing in

If the Rocket is correct in his thoughts, there is no doubt that some players will be looking for ways to earn extra cash. Unfortunately, there are people out there who are only too aware of that.

At least three players from Thailand have been targeted by violent cartels. Thanawat Tirapongpaiboon and Passakorn Suwannawat had a firebomb thrown at their house after news broke that they were being investigated.

However, one incident had secure and fatal consequences. James Wattana refused to lose a match after a death threat, only to learn that his father had been shot dead.

Where next?

Unfortunately, match-fixing and gambling in snooker continue to go under the radar in the world of sport. With snooker not being perceived at the same level as the likes of athletics and football, where such incidents hit headline news, the problem continues to burrow away.

Yet for snooker, possibly one of the most unpredictable sports on the planet, it is not going to grow in popularity until a resolution is found. Whether that be a review of player earnings, tournament schedules or harsher sentences remains to be seen. However, if your most well-known star, Ronnie O'Sullivan, continues to be disillusioned, there must be a fault in the system somewhere.