The Crucible spectacular is nearly upon us and once again it’s a chance for me to delve back into the archives and relate how many times the bookies have called it correctly, this year it can truly be argued that we are facing the most open event for years.
With most bookies now the two stand out favourites are Judd Trump and Mark Selby, with Ronnie O’Sullivan slightly behind them in the betting. Ronnie of course hasn’t justified his favourites price in any of the past three starts and perhaps this, coupled with his rather unspectacular form of late explains why the bookies at least have lost a bit of faith in him this time around.
Remember that Ronnie’s previous two consecutive world titles came when he wasn’t favourite with the bookies and history tells us that he doesn’t have a great record when going in as the main fancy. So for his fans, it might be a relief that their idol isn’t going in this time as the hunted and instead, one of the 30 hunters.
When you look back at the history books you find that the bookies have given remarkably few players the accolade of Championship favourite as the years have passed, indeed even the two at the head of the market this year have been there before at least once.
The 80’s were predictably dominated by The Nugget, who started favourite for this and every other championship every year from 1981 to 1989. That honour/pressure then reverted to Stephen Hendry, whose 90’s titles mostly justified favouritism, though interestingly he did win one when not the strongest fancy in the field.
It was then the turn of O’Sullivan to assume the mantle of the man the bookies both loved and feared, he started favourite for the title 9 times between the years 2000 and 2009, since when we’ve seen other names start as the bookies one to beat, until four years ago when Ronnie was back at the top of the odds list where he has remained ever since, until now.
So how have they got on? Well, after painstaking research I think I have managed to capture every favourite since 1981, the year a red-hot, red-haired favourite started his 80’s reign of baize dominance.
1981 – Steve Davis (Winner). Despite never having won the World Championship, Davis came into the sport’s main event as a hot favourite. He was to justify the bookies faith in him, beating Doug Mountjoy in the final after seeing off his main challenger that year, reigning champion Cliff Thorburn, in the semi-finals.
1982 – Steve Davis (1st Round Loser). This was the first year that the championship adopted its current format of 32 players in Round 1, it also interestingly started on Friday evening in a bid to boost ratings. This format change resulted in the biggest shock of the decade, Davis, an odds-on favourite and winning machine, suffering the newly found ‘Curse of the Crucible’ and losing the Friday session 8-1 before going out first round 10-1 to Bolton Stud Tony Knowles. Alex Higgins picked up the trophy and his daughter Lauren in one of the sports most memorable championships.
1983 and 1984 – Steve Davis (Winner/Winner). The bookies love affair with Davis continued as he put the Knowles defeat out of his mind to win the championship and almost everything else for the next two years. He had just one close match in ’83 against Dennis Taylor but other than that dominated the tournament, winning the final with a session to spare. 1984 wasn’t such a procession and saw the up and coming Jimmy ‘Whirlwind’ White nearly carry off a great final comeback, but Davis prevailed 18-16 in the first of Jimmy’s many final defeats.
1985 and 1986 – Steve Davis (Runner Up/Runner Up). Davis was still starting World Championships as very short priced (in ’85 he was odds-on) favourite but his backers suffered a temporary disruption to normal service in the period that Steve was basically winning almost everything else, re-writing the record books and making stacks for him and his manager Barry Hearn. Defeat on the final black at the hands of Dennis Taylor (who never really mentions it these days) and a year later to rank 150/1 outsider Joe Johnson meant he’d failed twice more to justify the bookies faith in him. But at least his loss to Dennis and his upside down glasses in front of a record sporting viewing TV audience in that famous final did inspire a great verse of Snooker Loopy. Every cloud….
1987, 1988, 1989 – Steve Davis (Winner/Winner/Winner). Despite what went before, the bookies and nearly everyone else on the planet knew we hadn’t seen the end of Davis. He remained short priced favourite and his magnificent treble meant he was the first player of the Crucible era to win three on the spin. Final wins over Johnson who remains the man who has come closest to breaking the first time champion Crucible Curse (2 frames ahead of Ken Doherty), Terry Griffiths and an absolute steamroller job on John Parrott cemented his place as the king of 80’s snooker. But the bookies were sensing this might be his swansong…..
1990 – Stephen Hendry (Winner). Young Scot Hendry started the 1990 Championship as UK and Masters Champion, having beaten Davis over the longer distance in the UK Final. The bookies had once again called it correctly and The Wonderbairn’s first title was secured, the final saw a win over his early 1990’s sparring partner, the luckless Jimmy White.
1991 – Stephen Hendry (Quarter-Finalist). The Curse of the Crucible? Not on your nelly, the bookies laughed off this idea by making winning-machine Hendry a firm favourite to retain his title. But dark forces were at work as Brummie Biker Steve James unexpectedly ran over Hendry in the Quarter Finals. Scouser John Parrott was to take his one and only title defeating that man Jimmy White in the final.
1992-1996 – Stephen Hendry (Winner, Winner, Winner, Winner, Winner). There’s not really much more to add to that is there? Starts hot favourite every year and wins five on the bounce, beating Jimmy a further 3 times (don’t mention 1994) as well as Nigel Bond and Peter Ebdon. This was truly a period of pure dominance, the like of which we will probably never see again.
1997 – Stephen Hendry (Runner-Up). Hendry’s quest for a six-timer may have been what the bookies thought would happen, but the ever-popular and jovial Ken Doherty had other ideas and defied the odds to prevail 18-12 to let Stephen know for the first time what it felt like to be the runner-up.
1998 – Stephen Hendry (1st Round Loser). Hendry became only the second bookies favourite ever to lose in Round 1. His match up against Jimmy White giving Jimmy the chance to shine one last time against his old foe, unfortunately for him in the first, not the last round. Sadly for his millions of fans he couldn’t sustain the form and it was John Higgins who won his first world title and became instantly many people’s idea of the next man in line to dominate snooker, beating the valiant reigning champion Doherty in the final.
1999 – John Higgins (Losing Semi-Finalist). Holder of the UK Championship and the Masters as well as defending champion, Higgins was surely the one to break the Crucible Curse? But it wasn’t to be as Hendry returned to reclaim the rights to the decade that belonged to him, for once not as the bookies main man, he defeated Mark Williams to claim his record-breaking seventh title. What an amazing achievement this truly was from the sport’s greatest ever champion.
2000 – Ronnie O’Sullivan (1st Round Loser). A new name at the top of the bookies list was now materialising. But the explosive talent of Ronnie O’Sullivan, a marginal favourite in an open betting heat which also saw Higgins, Williams and Hendry well backed was beaten first round. Who by you may ask? Snookerbacker Classic Champion 2013, David Gray, that’s who. It was Welshman Mark Williams who was to claim his first World Championship with a win over fellow Taffy Matthew Stevens.
2001 – Ronnie O’Sullivan (Winner) / John Higgins (Runner-Up) – Joint Favourites. The bookies couldn’t split them and in the end only four frames could in a year that went true to form. O’Sullivan taking his first World Championship after his two closest contemporaries Higgins and Williams. Williams himself falling foul of the old Crucible Curse, losing in the second round to Joe Swail.
2002 – Ronnie O’Sullivan (Losing Semi-Finalist). Those bookies never learn do they? The Crucible Curse is real and Ronnie proved that again in 2002. He lost in the semi-finals to Hendry, who reached an incredible ninth world final. He couldn’t make it a historic Hendry the Eighth though and lost to Peter Ebdon in a dramatic decider to avenge his final defeat of 1996. This was to be Stephen’s last final, even he couldn’t maintain this level consistently anymore.
2003 – 2007 – Ronnie O’Sullivan (1st Round Loser/Winner/Losing Quarter Finalist/ Losing Semi-Finalist/Losing Quarter Finalist). Through the years Ronnie has proved himself the most prolific, least successful favourite in Crucible history. No other player has failed to justify favouritism more times than him. Only once in this five year sequence did he justify the punter’s confidence, making him, at least until recently, someone who was proving very costly to back at The Crucible. Two new champions in this era emerged in the form of Shaun Murphy in 2005 and Graeme Dott in 2006.
2008 – John Higgins (Round 2 Loser). Higgins failed to justify the renewed faith the bookies put in him in 2008 and instead, Ronnie, now not quite the warm order he had been the previous 8 years was to claim his third crown, defeating Ali Carter in a fairly one-sided final, this continued a fairly bad run for favourites during the Noughties.
2009 – Ronnie O’Sullivan (Round 2 Loser). This was the last year until recently that Ronnie started clear favourite, he lost early on again, this time in an epic match against Mark Allen. This meant that of the nine times Ronnie had started Crucible favourite with the bookies, he had only won the title twice. Perhaps he preferred being the underdog? John Higgins claimed the title a third time to draw level with O’Sullivan in championship wins.
2010 – John Higgins (Round 2 Loser). This was the year which saw Neil Robertson storm to victory and the pre-tournament favourite and defending champion get himself into something of a pickle with the newspapers. Steve Davis time-travelled in a DeLorean into this year from the 80’s to claim Higgins’ scalp in Round 2, which still remains an amazing Crucible tale. Robertson beat Graeme Dott in a marathon final, played unfortunately under something of a cloud in dark days for the sport. But in brighter news, his 14/1 triumph paid for a large chunk of mine and Mrs SB’s wedding making him a firm favourite of ours, even if he wasn’t with the bookies.
2011 – John Higgins (Winner). It was an altogether different Higgins who entered the arena in 2011, having returned from his ban and after the loss of his father he had looked in superb form with a new found determination and purpose to his game. From the off he looked like justifying the bookie’s faith in him and he duly did in true Higgins style, breaking the pattern of losing favourites along the way and beating a new kid on the block, Judd Trump, in the final. He now led Ronnie 4-3 in title wins in their own personal battle.
2012 – Judd Trump (Round 2 Loser). Judd’s Crucible performance the previous year and the fanfare which surrounded him was enough to convince the bookies that he should start favourite marginally ahead of Mark Selby, Neil Robertson, John Higgins and Ronnie O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan however proved too good for the field and under the influence of Dr Steve Peters looked a different player to the unreliable and inconsistent one of the previous decade or so. Bear in mind however that he wasn’t favourite to win or widely fancied with many citing his inability to stay focused for the full duration of the tournament. After his triumph, clearly exhausted, he vowed to have a lot of time off, a promise he was to keep. He once again beat Ali Carter in a final which he described afterwards as being the best he had ever played.
2013 – Mark Selby / Neil Robertson / Judd Trump (Round 2 Loser/Round 1 Loser/Losing Semi-Finalist). O’Sullivan’s now legendary return to the baize after a season off saw him take his fifth title largely untroubled and never headed in any match, this also meant he overtook Higgins again in their own game of world championship leapfrog. He was available as long as 9/1 a few weeks before the tournament and many claimed he had ‘no chance’ of simply returning after a year off and winning again. But he did just that, beating Barry Hawkins in the final.
2014 – Ronnie O’Sullivan (Runner-up). As Ronnie attempted the treble the bookies by now had wised up to him and made him the shortest priced favourite for many years. He’d been playing more events and going into this in strong form, unlike the previous year when he hadn’t played at all in the run up. But it wasn’t to be and the final against Mark Selby was to prove one step too far for The Rocket as Selby became the first new champion since Robertson. Ronnie yet again was a losing favourite.
2015 – Ronnie O’Sullivan (Losing Quarter Finalist). Again being favourite at the bookies did Ronnie no favours, he was to come unstuck against the eventual champion Stuart Bingham in the Quarter Finals after a mentally fragile first week when most saw the signs that he wasn’t quite up to the job. Losing as the bookies favourite was now becoming a very annoying habit for him and his backers. Selby in the meantime was the latest victim of The Crucible Curse.
2016 – Ronnie O’Sullivan (Round 2 Loser). The bookies again made Ronnie favourite following a mercurial display in the Welsh Open and rumours of him hitting the practice table hard in the run up. But this time the man who he beat to win dare we think it, his last world title Barry Hawkins, was his conqueror in Round 2. It was the World Number 1 Mark Selby who ended up with the trophy in his hands for the second time, beating first time finalist Ding Junhui 18-14. It was another ‘Curse’ year, Stuart Bingham beaten by Ali Carter on Day 1 this time in a decider.
So, the figures as they stand are since 1981:
Winning Favourites (Including Joint Favourites): 14
Losing Favourites (Including Joint Favourites): 23
Most Successful Favourites: Steve Davis (6 wins out of 9 attempts) and Stephen Hendry (6 out of 9).
Least Successful Favourite: Ronnie O’Sullivan (2 wins out of 12 attempts).
Most Successful Non-Favourite: Ronnie O’Sullivan and John Higgins (both 3 times winner when not favourites)
Clear Favourites who have lost in Round 1: Ronnie O’Sullivan (twice), Stephen Hendry (once), Steve Davis (once).
Co/Joint Favorites who have lost in Round 1: Neil Robertson (once).
Victims of The Crucible Curse: John Spencer (1978), Ray Reardon (1979), Terry Griffiths (1980), Cliff Thorburn (1981), Steve Davis (1982), Alex Higgins (1983), Dennis Taylor (1986), Joe Johnson (1987), Stephen Hendry (1991), John Parrott (1992), Ken Doherty (1998), John Higgins (1999), Mark Williams (2001), Ronnie O’Sullivan (2002), Peter Ebdon (2003), Shaun Murphy (2006), Graeme Dott (2007), Neil Robertson (2011), Mark Selby (2015), Stuart Bingham (2016)…..(no curse this year)
Defeaters of The Crucible Curse: NOBODY. EVER.
The favourites this year Judd Trump and Mark Selby are yet to lift the title as head of the market, or indeed at all in Judd’s case. He’s started clear favourite once and co-favourite once, while Selby was a fellow co-favourite with him in 2013 but has not started favourite for either of his two title wins. We have to go back to 2011 since the last favourite won and indeed only three times this millenium has the bookies favourite prevailed. History seems to suggest that favourites struggle these days at The Crucible, something which I’m sure will delight fans of O’Sullivan and the rest of the chasing pack. To say Ronnie is a reluctant favourite is putting it mildly. Can Judd or Mark buck the recent trend?