If Power Snooker is the answer, what was the question?

Snooker’s problems are well-documented: throughout the twentieth century it was essentially a tin-pot game, which failed to reap the rewards of television through political in-fighting and bad governance. It has been left lacking in money, reliant on BBC rights payments and, until recently, with dwindling numbers of tournaments. Barry Hearn’s stewardship has brought more money in, but other promoters have decided to attempt something more radical (article by Clive Everton with more background here).

The result has been Power Snooker, a one-day invitation tournament with some new rules, and even a new ball. It is still being played as I type. Having been watching all day, I’ve got to say the Twitter jury is very divided: is it a much-needed injection of good fun, or a gimmick-ridden bastardisation of the game? A swiftly-forgotten reinvention like Tenball, or a moderately successful snooker-based TV format like Big Break?

For something that was meant to be more overtly entertaining, with more pizzazz and more of a show, Power Snooker’s TV presentation on ITV4 (a channel worth keeping an eye on for the odd unexpected treat) has been strangely clunky rather than slick. The sound from around the table has been poor at times, and although the players were supposed to be wearing mics, there’s been little evidence of this apart from occasional complaints they were hampering their play. The walk-on process is slow, with players standing around, evidently unclear about when they’re on camera (Mark Selby’s unwitting yawn gave this away), then ambling from an apparently arbitrary part of the arena to the table – and speaking of the arena, it feels odd to have snooker played with the audience so far removed, rather than around three sides of the table. Worse still, the intros by Matt Smith (the generally underrated ITV sports presenter, not the actor) have been deeply staid compared to those of BBC compere Rob Whatsisnose – at one point, Smith clearly had to stop himself from going “let’s get the boys on the baize!” – a phrase for which I never thought I could feel nostalgic. Also rather odd are the idents at the ad breaks, with two at the end of each  – presumably one an actual ident, one a sponsor thing… but they use the same music and style, and end up looking like two have been played instead of one by mistake. More significantly, Peter Drury’s commentary is piss-poor, with very little comment on the game or technique. The games voiced by Clive Everton immediately felt far more like snooker. Final gripe: the lighting generally is low, and the dark cloth on the table makes it look a bit washed-out and lifeless.

All of which is small beer – if the event is run again, I’d expect all of that to get tightened up. The worst aspect of the event, by a mile, is the crass and thoughtless sexism. What was the need for the ‘Power Girls’? They hang around looking decorative and ‘escort’ the players from the random place in the arena where they start their walk-on to the table. And when the player in question was fifteen year old Luca Brecel the effect was somewhat ridiculous. But there’s no excuse for this – how did we end up with a brand new sporting event in 2010 where women are brought in specifically as eye-candy? It’s not as if there aren’t women involved: both referees during the day are women, and not exactly gratuitous totty – both are fully qualified and accredited snooker referees, and their presence is a sensible way of restoring the gender balance of the event. Even better would have been to have a parallel women’s event. The women’s snooker circuit in the UK is not strong (is it even active at the moment?), but pool players from the US could have been brought in to jump-start it if needed. Mercifully the Power Bimbos’ involvement was kept pretty minimal.

There’s a broader point about the presentation, however: from the advertising by Tetleys to the boorish jeering of the crowd, this is being presented very clearly as an event for men. But why? Snooker audiences are far from male-dominated in the way that, say, motor racing ones are. Why such a restricted target demographic? The other great innovation of the event seems to have been to fill the audience with booze over the course of the day, which has had the obviously desired effect of giving a very rowdy atmosphere. It doesn’t quite feel as though it’s going to kick off, though – players and referees alike seem to be enjoying it and having a good laugh during the game, which actually makes it quite good fun to watch.
So much for the presentation: what about the snooker?

The new format has some welcome innovations. The simple twist that it is the points accrued in a set amount of playing time, rather than frames, makes for a straightforward and understandable game – frankly, it’s surprising it’s not been tried before. The twenty-second time limit on shots ensures a good pace, and puts a very different type of pressure on the players to that normally seen in the game. Mistakes are more common, despite the large pockets and pool table cloth (no nap), which the players have adapted to with varying degrees of success.

The designation of the area behind the baulk like as the ‘Power Zone’ from which all pots score double points at first felt like a needless gimmick. However, it has encouraged more play at that end of the table. Similarly I have felt that the ‘Power Ball’ – which causes all pots to count double for two minutes after it is potted – was an unnecessary complication, In practice, it has proved tactically vital, as making the most of a ‘power play’ period is essential for a player to stand a good chance of winning. Also useful at forcing the pace is the rule that from the break-off at least two balls must strike a cushion – effectively, players have to smash the pack. The time limit overall – thirty minutes of play, irrespective of frames – can create great tension in a close game where one player is chasing down an achievable target.

There are down sides as well. Now that frames don’t matter, there is only one crunch point, namely when the thirty minutes are up. There is far less ebb and flow than in a match broken down into frames. As with any sport where a simple total of points determines the winner, any side taking a large early lead is likely to make the result evident very early on and dispel any tension – and so it was with most of these games, with some quite blatant running down towards the clock at times (though at times it was quite funny – Ali Carter’s decision to “take a walk round the table” was a highlight of the day). The upside was some humour once the result was beyond doubt, with trick shots including a karate-chop from Jimmy White.
One rule that does seem a bit of a waste of time is the bonus of 50 points for a century break, and 100, then 200 for century breaks in subsequent frames. This was hardly ever seen, but where it was it just entrenched the advantage of the player who’d made the century and made it hard for his opponent to get back. The rule could comfortably be ditched. Overall however, the various tweets to the effect that this was a cross between snooker and Numberwang have proved a bit pessimistic. Though the constant referee’s cries of “power zone!” are a bit of an annoyance and can surely be dispensed with – we can see where the cue ball is!

Overall, for what is effectively a TV pilot show, Power Snooker has shown that there’s enough of an idea here to make it worth bringing back, appropriately tweaked. It’s not a replacement for the mainstream game, but it’s a pretty fun supplement to it, that should also take the pressure off it to go too glam in its presentation and format changes. Given the close time constraints, it’s particularly nice that this format dispenses with late finishes on BBC2, which frankly I find increasingly annoying. Though part of me still thinks it comes second to Big Break. G’night JV!

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