It is half-past midnight in The Plough, a pub in the Lincolnshire village of Skellingthorpe, and at the end of his evening shift, Steven Hallworth is cleaning the toilets.
Hallworth is ranked 77th on a professional snooker tour worth £14m. This season he has earned just £11,000 from the eleven tournaments he has entered. Players do not receive prize money if they lose in the first round of an event. Hallworth has done so seven times.
His is a familiar story of a lower-ranked player trapped in a vicious circle. He does not earn enough from snooker to live so needs a second job. But because he has a second job, he has less time to devote himself to snooker.
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If he is at a tournament, he isn’t earning at the pub. And every time he starts out in an event the pressure of needing to win a match to earn any money hangs heavy.
Hallworth practises from 9am to 4pm and typically works behind the bar from 5pm to midnight, six days a week, leaving little time for anything else.
He isn’t looking for charity. “From a playing perspective and as a sportsperson, I don’t expect to earn a penny if I lose in the first round,” he says. “Losers shouldn’t be rewarded but as a professional, you’re in an elite group, so why should we be out of pocket at the end of the season? They could look at covering your expenses. Where is the incentive to be a professional player? It can be demoralising.”
Prize money distribution is a subject of much discussion among players, many of whom are unhappy with the present arrangements, however, there are arguments on both sides of this debate.
Players typically compare snooker only to sports where there is far more money available: golf and tennis rather than, for instance, billiards, the forerunner to snooker whose fortunes sunk as the new game flourished.
Those who deal in harsh truths point out that every player in every system has started at the bottom of the pile. The best reach the top. There will always be those who fall away.
Steve Dawson, who took over from Barry Hearn as chairman of World Snooker Tour last year, inherited the prize money structure and has no immediate plans to change it, despite criticism from players at all levels of the ranking list.

Barry Hearn has played a key role in snooker's global growth

Image credit: Getty Images

I interviewed him on my podcast last summer, where he told me: “One of the fundamental core values that Barry has instilled in us is that we don’t support mediocrity. We reward excellence, and with that comes no prize money unless you win a match.
“It’s no different in any other sport. If you don’t make the cut in golf, you don’t get any prize money. No player is owed a living just by qualifying to become a professional, they need to convert that into excellent play. They get protected with a two-year card but it’s a tough, tough world.”
The counterargument to this policy is that the players on the professional tour are not mediocre. Millions of people around the world play snooker so these 128 are, by definition, the elite.
They are already under pressure competing at a highly difficult activity that requires skill, discipline and deep resolve. This pressure is intensified by having to win a match to put food on the table.
WST has made several warm noises about the importance of understanding mental health problems in snooker, but the stress of not being able to pay the mortgage is a very real issue for many tour professionals.
The situation is not helped by the flat draw system in which every player comes into each event in round one, meaning the world No. 100 can draw a Judd Trump or Neil Robertson, a hard enough prospect without the additional financial worry.

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Hearn is a brilliantly innovative sports promoter who has reinvigorated a circuit that was in a perilous position before he took over the WST reins in 2010. There would be scores of players much less well-off without him.
His doctrine can be understood by his own background. A council estate boy, no one gave him anything, he went out and earned it through his own intelligence, drive and, above all, sheer hard work.
Having raised prize money by more than £10 million as chairman, Hearn rightly feels he has created more opportunity than there has ever been to earn a good living from snooker and can be forgiven for pointing out that top-level sport is survival of the fittest.
But the issue for many is not the size of the cake but the way it is sliced. It is not a good look for snooker that players defined as professionals are turning to other professions to make ends meet. So far this season only 51 have earned in excess of £30,000, although the World Championship, worth half a million to the winner, is still to come. The situation has undoubtedly been made worse by the loss of the lucrative Chinese events due to the pandemic.
Tournament winners deserve their big first prizes as a reward for their excellence. No one other than the terminally jealous thinks the top players should take a pay cut. They have earned every penny.

Fan Zhengyi

Image credit: Getty Images

But there is a strong argument for a rejigging of the prize money structure lower down. For instance, last-64 losers at the UK Championship this season received £6,500. This amounts to £208,000 which could have been more fairly spread over the first two rounds.
The case against this is that a player consistently unable to win matches should not be rewarded for just showing up, but there have been several examples of someone producing a high standard, even making centuries, in a televised first-round match and still losing.
Perhaps in round one, there could be a system directly linked to performance, such as £100 per frame won even if the match is lost. This would at least help with travel and hotel expenses, particularly for players without a sponsor.
The prize structure of some events is also prohibitive to making much of a profit. This week’s Gibraltar Open sees the money go up £1,000-a-round with the semis worth just £6,000 before the winner takes £50,000 and the runner-up £20,000. Hallworth estimates it will cost him £1,000 in expenses to play in the event.
Hearn and Dawson are right to say that your destiny as a player is in your own hands. Fan Zhengyi won just £9,750 last season but his capture of the recent European Masters title saw him pocket £80,000 in one week.
However, Fan is part of a group of Chinese players who have received funding to come to the UK and pursue their playing careers. Most young hopefuls do not have such assistance to keep them going through the hard times.
One of the best things about snooker is that it has always been a largely affordable sport. All you really need is a cue and somewhere to play. The danger is that potential champions of the future will be priced out if the prospect of turning professional is regarded as economically crippling.
In response to the points made in this article, World Snooker Tour said: “Our tour provides opportunity. We recognise that opportunities have been limited due to a reduction in some international events due to travel restrictions. We are working on solutions and constantly seeking ways to increase the total prize money.
“We of course keep all matters under review and we fully understand the pressures faced by some of the players further down the ranking list. We continue to have dialogue with the WPBSA and their players’ representative arm on issues which affect the players.”
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