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The Zutons - Pressure Point
Snooker is routinely described as not being a sport - with the argument going that it cannot be if it involves no physical exertion. Whilst I think that defining a sport isn't as clear-cut as that, it's definitely true that physical prowess plays little or no part. However, I think this reflects very well on snooker, as it means that if being taller, stronger or faster doesn't given you an advantage, then it must all be decided by mental ability. And of all the key skills a player needs to succeed at the highest level, it is the ability to thrive under pressure. In this article we are going to investigate which big-name players of the last decade are the best under pressure.
Needless to say, the highest pressure situations will be at the end stages of the biggest events. So the matches that our sample will consist of are the last 5 rounds (so the round-of-32 onwards) of the three tournaments with the highest ranking points, the World Championship, the UK Championship & the International Championship, as well as all matches played at the Masters. The editions of the tournaments are those played from 2004 to 2013, with the exception of the International Championship, which began in 2012. (NB: any match featuring Stephen Lee has been omitted from the results).
Therefore, we are going to look at the records of the 20 players who have competed in the most of these matches - these can be seen on the right-hand side.
Appearing in a high number of these matches is indicative of consistently making the final stages of the big events, so it is no surprise to see Ronnie O'Sullivan and John Higgins, who have won 7 World Championships, 4 Masters and 2 UK Championships between them in 10 years studied. It may be more of a surprise to see Shaun Murphy (1 World, 1 UK) as high as 2 on the list, and Stephen Maguire (1 UK) in 4th.
Anyway, the moment within these matches which carry the most pressure are of course deciding frames. So we have looked at all the matches in our sample which went to a deciding frame, and kept track of each player's record in deciding frames. The results are shown below:
Deciding Frame Success
Given that the number of deciding frames each player has been involved in is relatively low, with 14 being the highest, the percentages will not be a clear-cut measure of which player is best under pressure (for example, if Peter Ebdon had lost one extra match, he'd have slipped down to 75%), however, it does certainly give us a good idea.
Starting at the top end of the data, it's not a huge surprise to see the most successful players in deciding frames are players who are renowned gritty tactical players, with a large amount of experience behind them - the top 5 players are on average 9 years older than the rest of the list (43 compared to 34). The effect of wisdom is further demonstrated when the win rates of various age groups are considered, which is shown in Appendix 1.
Therefore, it is quite a surprise to see four established professionals at the bottom of the deciding frame rankings, particularly the terrible performance of Mark Williams, a former world champion, who regularly makes the final stages of tournaments.
The graph to the left is taken from the viewpoint of the player who won the deciding frame. Therefore, the overall trend is that the player coming from behind wins the deciding frame (57%).
By carefully selecting the selection of matches we take results from, we can see the levelling effect pressure has on players, regardless of ability. It is often the capability to come through in tough moments which sets the real champions apart from the rest, and is something which no amount of practice can overcome.
Cuetracker - match results for 2004-2013.
Wikipedia - dates of birth for players
All the players (not just the top 20) in our sample are split into age groups, and their overall deciding frame win percentage considered.