During the 3rd year of the Goldfields Open Snooker Tournament in Bendigo a discussion was had between Jan Verhaas and a group of the Australian referees on some of the tricks of the trade that can be used by referees and also on the anomalies that sometimes crop up in snooker and how the rules governing those situations can be open to interpretation. Jan could not have been more friendly and forthcoming in his willingness to spend some of his downtime with us during the tournament and never was there a time during this exchange when there were any feelings that he was trying to cut short the discussion and escape.
This could not be said for all the professional referees that accompanied the players on tour that year, with one in particular dismissing the chance for any interaction with his Australian colleagues with the terse instruction to ‘not worry about things that will probably never happen’.
The events of this week at the end of the match between John Higgins and Yuan SiJun in the 2019 German Masters shows that these things can and do happen and although it is agreed that they are extremely rare, they still need to be dealt with if and when they do arise and to be forewarned is to be forearmed is a saying that has never been more appropriate.
The situation was that in a best of 9 frame match with the frame score standing at 4 frames each, Yuan leading 63 to 56 in the ninth and with just the black remaining, a pot of the black would win the frame and thereby the match in favour of Yuan. A miss would leave John with the chance to take the black and the 7 points needed to force a re-spot, which, if he could pot that black, would then decide the frame and the match in favour of John. The only other scenario that could affect the outcome was if there was a foul on the black by Yuan which would also tie up the scores and force that re-spot.
The course of events was that Yuan potted the black but had to use the rest to do so, as soon as the ball disappeared into the pocket John was up off his seat to congratulate his opponent. Yuan, in acknowledging this sporting gesture by John laid the rest on the table and took the hand offered by John. The referee had also taken off the glove from his right hand to congratulate the winner and commiserate with the loser. The cue ball, still in motion during these exchanges then struck the rest that had been left on the table by Yuan.
Much discussion world-wide has been had about this incident with many differing opinions voiced. There are however certain things that are indisputable.
First and foremost is the definition of a stroke which states that a stroke is not complete until all balls have come to rest, the striker has stood up to either leave the table or play another stroke, all equipment has been removed from any hazardous position and any relevant score has been called by the referee.
It is also indisputable that here the cue ball had not come to rest, that equipment had not been removed from a hazardous position nor had any relevant score been called by the referee.
It can and has been argued that in shaking hands John had conceded the victory to his opponent but the rules also state that a concession can only be made when the player is the striker and only then when penalty points are needed to win and the first of those criteria was in effect in this instance, i.e. John was not the striker.
It is reported that when these events and their possible consequences were pointed out to John he declined to take the matter further and stated that his opponent deserved the win and he would not have done anything different.
Jan Verhaas as the head of referees, stated in a T.V. interview that once the handshake had taken place the actions or non-actions by the referee were condoned but that the match referee, as well as all the other referees, were counselled and he assured the interviewer and through her the rest of the watching public, that a similar incident could not now take place in future.
In a separate interview with players Neil Robertson and Jimmy White, both agreed with the decisions taken by John Higgins and stated that their actions would have been the same in similar circumstances but that the fault, if any, could only be by the referee and not either of the players. The consensus of the discussion by interviewees and interviewer alike was that a line should be drawn underneath this incident and that we should ‘all move on’.
It is my opinion in looking at the replay of the event, that the referee became aware of what had happened after the handshake and that it was his decision, rightly or wrongly, to let things stand and it is hard to criticise that and to know what decision I would have made in his shoes. I hope that I would have had the intestinal fortitude to point out the ramifications to both players before stepping away from the table.
It must also be pointed out that if there had been an interjection by the referee and a foul called, which had then been accepted by John and if he were then to go on to pot the re-spotted black, the furore that would have erupted would have eclipsed any that has been evident otherwise.
I think that it must also be stated that if this stroke had been played such that it would not have decided the frame, then the rest would not have been laid upon the table as it was but handed to the referee or placed in its position by the striker, a handshake would not have been required thus distracting the referee and the striker, nor would the cue ball have been considered dead by all three and the match concluded as soon as the black disappeared, as was the case in this instance.
This is not to say that referees and players alike should not remain vigilant at the end of frames, which are not complete until all criteria listed have been complied with and if the cue ball had gone in off instead of striking the rest then the outcome would have been entirely different. A case in point was a match some years ago when Mark Allen thought he had won a frame by potting the black and even celebrating the fact, only to see the cue ball fall into the right hand baulk pocket thereby losing the frame instead.