October 15, 2012

Stephen Lee: Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

Filed under: snookerbacker @ 8:10 am

Back in the Spotlight

Having been somewhat pre-occupied these past few days, this morning I have finally had a chance to see what all the fuss is about and watch the match between Stephen Lee and John Higgins from the Premier League the other night for myself, so it’s time for me to chuck my hat into the ring on this one.

For anyone unaware of what’s been going on, it’s summarised by Dave Hendon here and it is important to note that it is not only the match above that has led to Lee’s suspension but also the ongoing investigation by the Integrity Unit under the watchful eye of Nigel Mawer relating to a case recently dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service which was reported on this blog here.

Lee is no stranger to controversy, he has a string of County Court Judgements against him which I reported almost a year ago to the day here. Having been around the circuit now for the past two years it’s also clear to me that he is one of those players that is subject to ‘whispers’ more than most. Anyone who is involved in snooker behind the scenes will have heard things about him, which whether true or not, have a habit of making people form an opinion.

I would not expect everyone to know about these ‘whispers’, but it’s only fair that I put this into context as this may be part of the reason that the finger of suspicion rightly or wrongly is being pointed in his general direction.

But to me that is little more than tittle-tattle and on this occasion we have to deal with the matter in hand, namely the game against Higgins who won the match 4-2 on the final black and who it should be stressed has not been implicated in this at any point and remains on the tour whilst Lee is suspended.

The Betting Patterns

To give you some idea of the scale of betting on this match, the previous match of the evening between Mark Selby and Ding Junhui traded somewhere in the region of £50,000 on the betting exchange Betfair, which I have no doubt is where the suspicious betting patterns have been most noted as they are visible in the public domain for all to see. This figure is more or less in line with the average amount traded on this exchange on Premier League snooker.

The match in question between Lee and Higgins traded somewhere in the region of £250,000 pre-match to approximately £650,000 by the end of it, this being over twelve times the amount traded on the earlier match that finished the same score, with Ding winning 4-2. This is in the context of a big darts tournament being covered on the same evening by Sky on their other channel. There was also a further £200,000 matched on Betdaq, another online exchange bookmaker.

The pre-match betting summary below also shows that £223,605 was matched on Higgins to win the match of the £234,180 total matched sum.

I have also been told by one online bookmaker that cared to divulge information to me that they recorded ‘far heavier than usual’ losses on the match amounting to five figure sums, with Higgins being backed to win in advance. Higgins price also shortened markedly on Betfair before the start of the match from around Evens to around 1/2.

I’ve also received some details on how betting was going during the match which you can watch for yourself below:

Some examples of betting patterns:

At 43.10 there is thousands of pounds waiting on Betfair to back Higgins at 6/5 to win the match. Which basically means that people were wanting to back Higgins to large stakes at a shade over Evens when he had to win all three remaining frames, this arguably being closer to a 3/1 or greater chance at individual frame starting odds.

At 1.11.30 with Lee at the table and still in position there is still thousands waiting on Betfair to back Higgins at 1/2 to win the match.

At 1.24.42 with Lee seemingly on his way to a frame winning clearance, he is available at 4/6 on Betfair to win the frame. Meaning that someone or someone’s were prepared to ‘lay’ Lee at this price to win this frame and ultimately draw the match when it could be argued he might have been closer to a 1/10 shot.

The Match Itself

I will say now that I am not and never have been a fan of the Premier League, I hardly ever watch it and never bet on it. Having now seen it for myself I didn’t see anything that struck me as particularly strange in terms of shot choices until the end of the match. The way Stephen plays the final blue at pace is commented on by Mike Hallett (who to be fair doesn’t know what a cross-double is), but this in my view is personal preference, Lee has cue power in abundance and chose to go around the angles rather than play to hold the white, which arguably is the shot that most players might have favoured. He did hit it too hard but cannons pink into a pottable position.

The Betfair market shortly before the start of the match, the figures on the right hand side show the amount of money staked on Higgins. The graph shows the extent to which Higgins’ price shortened in the run-up to the match. You can also see that a huge percentage of total matched bets were on Higgins.

He then misses the pink with the rest by quite a distance, a shot which under normal circumstances you would expect him to get, I’m also not sure why he hit this at the pace he did, cannoning into the black, but of course this may simply be down to pressure.

Lee then lays a brilliant snooker, leaving him a clear favourite for the frame (at this point the guy who posted the You Tube clip carelessly starts messing around with his Sky remote). Higgins escapes and leaves the frame at Lee’s mercy, the shot he plays on the pink is largely inexplicable, he later elects to clip the black thinly rather than send it around the angles, a shot he misjudges and leaves the final ball on for John who duly pots it. Stephen can then be seen remonstrating with his arms seemingly talking to a largely disinterested Higgins about the table and one shot in particular, possibly the final pink.

The Fallout

Judd Trump took to the medium of Twitter almost immediately to call for Lee to be banned from the sport claiming that ‘something’ was ‘not right’, tweets which he almost immediately removed, though not quickly enough. Lee subsequently threatened to sue his fellow player for the outburst and his manager Adam Quigley called Trump ‘extremely unprofessional’ as he vowed to fight these claims against his man who a Gloucestershire website refers to as a ‘burly potter‘, saying that Stephen is sick of the allegations that are continually being thrown at him and will fight them all the way.

As ever, forums are awash with opinions and there are many that are convinced that this match was fixed and that Lee was involved, this of course is slanderous and tends to happen quite a lot when people lose their money. There are also those who believe that there is nothing amiss and refuse to believe that Lee would get involved in such things, we all want snooker to be 100% clean and I believe that it is going in the right direction to achieve this, there is a danger however that what we perceive a player to be like is not what they are really like, there is also the age old problem which to some degree exists in everyone, and that problem is greed.

These are all opinions, mine is that the amount of money staked on this fairly ordinary match is unusually high. There are two explanations for this. The first is that the result of the match was known to some individuals before a ball had been potted and that those individuals acted on this information in the betting markets, the other is that the initial price drop on Higgins triggered a domino effect in the gambling community to such a degree that these sums materialised both before and during the match, forcing the price on Higgins to win to shorten.

On this occasion, the WPBSA have chosen to react swiftly to the reports they have received from bookmakers, whilst this does not imply that they feel Lee is guilty, it does in reality make some question his integrity and the old saying that ‘mud sticks’ is one that springs to mind. His opponent on the night is well aware of the damage that can be done to a reputation by being involved in such stories, it remains to be seen whether Lee will be found to be involved and if so, if he will pay the ultimate price as surely only a life ban could be imposed if he is eventually found guilty.

I may have to turn the comments moderator on for this post so please choose your words carefully as if I get sued I’ll be taking you down with me. Cheers.

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