All-time top 10: Who are snooker's greatest tacticians?
In the first of a new weekly series, we look at the 10 greatest players in each department of snooker finishing with the Greatest Of All Time. We start today by looking at the game's tactical masters and the noble art of safety.
1. John Higgins (Scotland)
John Higgins - Welsh Open 2020Getty Images
He is known as the Wizard of Wishaw, but perhaps he should be dubbed the Great Wall. Higgins, world champion in 1998, 2007, 2009 and 2011, was an avid follower of six-times world champion Steve Davis as a kid, and it is probably unsurprising to see him develop similar ferocious traits as a professional. It is not indulging in hyperbole to suggest the Scotsman has not only emulated Davis' achievements, but probably bettered them over a gilded 28-year career.
He is a formidable tactician, who can win tight frames in tactical scraps while also dominate them in one visit. Davis set the benchmark on how to be the supreme strategist, and Higgins, an eight-times world finalist, has enhanced it with 778 centuries made over four decades at the very top of his profession, second only to Ronnie O’Sullivan’s 1038 in the all-time list. If you are looking for the ultimate snooker strategist, look no further than Higgins. The Scotsman is arguably the most complete snooker player to play the game.
2. Steve Davis (England)
Steve DavisPA Sport
Davis was the dominant force in the 1980s carrying off world titles in 1981, 1983, 1984, 1987, 1988 and 1989. His level of dominance was founded on a percentage game that was unrivalled in his era, and probably extended his career beyond its natural lifespan. In his prime, Davis rarely played the wrong shot. When he could not win a frame in one visit, he would satisfy himself with a heavy lead before strangling the life out of the frame.
"My style of play was based on Ray Reardon,” said Davis. “He'd slowly strangle them to death like a boa constrictor. And I did that, I slowly squeezed the life out of them." It was a theme noted by five-times world champion Ronnie O'Sullivan, who lost the 1997 Masters final 10-8 to Davis having led 8-4 and seemingly on the cusp of victory. “I never really played Steve in his prime, but I did play him at the Masters in 1997,” said O’Sullivan.
"I remember he played six unbelievable frames against me when I didn't really see a ball after leading 8-4. I remember thinking: ‘I'm not sure, I would have liked to have played him in the 1980s if that is how he played the game’."
Even at the age of 52, Davis was still competitive reaching the World Championship quarter-finals in 2010 boosted by a 13-11 win over the defending champion John Higgins in the last 16.
3. Mark Selby (England)
Mark Selby | Snooker | ESP Player FeatureGetty Images
For a man nicknamed ‘The Jester from Leicester’, Selby plays a humourless mean cue ball. At the peak of his powers, Selby remains arguably the figure you least want to be dragged into a tactical exchange with. Not only does he endure in such turgid tête-à-têtes, he actually thrives. His most potent examples of a tactical exhibition was his brilliance in recovering a 10-5 deficit against Ronnie O'Sullivan to claim an 18-14 win in the 2014 world final and usurping John Higgins 18-15 from 10-4 behind in completing a third Crucible Theatre victory in 2017.
Graeme Dott, the 2006 world champion, once played a Masters semi-final against Selby on a Saturday night at the Alexandra Palace in London that felt almost as long as Ken Dodd’s variety show in running for four hours and 38 minutes. People ended up leaving amid the threat that the sun would soon be coming up, but winning every which way but loose finds Selby in his comfort zone as he completed a 6-5 success from 4-1 behind.
“It felt like I was living in a nightmare, I just couldn’t get in the balls. I was finding it hard to stay interested," said Dott.
"Mark is the best in the world in frames like that, I just find it hard to play against him. I don’t want to be involved in games where people are up and leaving. It’s the equivalent of a football team putting 11 men behind the ball. It’s just the way Mark plays."
Whether you find snooker for the purists agreeable is not the point, it is unapologetic winning matchplay snooker made from large dollops of concentration.
4. Ray Reardon (Wales)
Reardon lifted six world titles in 1970, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976 and 1978 buoyed by a supreme safety approach and a prodigious long game. As one of the game's finest exponents of playing the correct shot, he provided the blueprint for Steve Davis to dominate the 1980s with a heavier scoring version of the Welshman's game.
It says enough that former world champions Ronnie O'Sullivan and Shaun Murphy have thanked Reardon for helping them to enhance their tactical games with advice on how and when to play the correct tactical shot in the spirit of the game, armed with the ultimate aim of winning snooker.
Reardon remains the oldest man to lift the World Championship at the Crucible Theatre aged 45 in 1978, and coached O’Sullivan during his rise to a second world title in 2004. He remains a giant of the green baize, but the buttress of his success was an impregnable safety strategy.
5. Ronnie O'Sullivan (England)
Ronnie O' Sullivan | Snooker | ESP Player FeatureGetty Images
O'Sullivan has enjoyed a renaissance in his career that has carried him well into his 40s and briefly back to world number one in the world at the age of 43 in March 2019 because of his willingness to fraternise with the tactical game. He is renowned for flair, speed and attacking prowess, but his adeptness in a safety joust should not be undervalued. In his formative years, safety was viewed as unfashionable, but refusing the temptation of a makeable pot can be the telling blow in winning tight frames.
Prior to his 2004 success in making off with a second world title, he called on the advice of tactical doyen Ray Reardon, the six-times world champion, and discovered that patience is key. Edging lots of those frames ultimately delivers titles. O’Sullivan is aware that it is impossible to blow every opponent off the table especially as the years career on and an attacking safety shot can enable him to exhibit his destructive scoring game. O'Sullivan once capitulated against Peter Ebdon in the 2005 World Championship last eight having led 8-2 only to lose 13-11 after his opponent boasted an average shot time of 37 seconds.
“I accept that I'm not going to want to get drawn into a game with defensive side, I can play defensive snooker but when balls are on cushions and the flows been taken out of it, it's probably not going to do me good in the long run," said O'Sullivan. "So if I get to that stage, I had a plan to get things in the open.”
Like Higgins, O'Sullivan knows the value of the right safety shot at the right time, and has latterly made a career out of it.
6. Joe Davis (England)
It is easy to think that the modern televised era is the highest standard of snooker, but that does not mean the past should be glibly discarded. Joe Davis was a titan of the sport with heavier balls and heavier cloths as he won 15 world titles between 1927 until 1946.
Prior to the televised era, Davis lifted the World Championship based on a studied tactical approach, made the first recognised 147 in 1955 and has 689 career century breaks attributed to his name.
Prior to the arrival of Steve Davis in the 1980s, who studied his namesake's technique in his formative years in the Joe Davis DIY manual How I Play Snooker, he was regarded as the sport’s GOAT. Davis was a master tactician of his era, and is worthy of a place in the all-time top 10 for his role in the development of the game.
7. Mark Williams (Wales)
Mark WilliamsGetty Images
Williams is arguably the best single ball potter in snooker, but is another player who is not afraid to fraternise with the apparent darker arts of the sport as he seeks to eke out every ounce from his ongoing career. Williams lifted the world title in his twenties in 2000 and 2003, but the pinnacle of his career touched down when he reviewed his technique, and managed to outwit a tactical grand master in John Higgins 18-16 to claim the game's most coveted prize at the age of 43 in 2018.
Anybody who can outlast Higgins over such a distance is not only a potter of balls. Williams has an all-round game that has stood the test of time. He is happy to knock balls safe in his hour of need, and with his single ball potting prowess has benefited greatly from the shot to nothing. As part of the class of ’92 alongside Ronnie O’Sullivan and John Higgins, Williams is hardly a poor third in such lauded company.
8. Neil Robertson (Australia)
Neil Robertson was once known as a one-trick pony, a speed merchant, a fearsome potter with not much else to back it up, but he has progressed to become Australia’s finest cue artist. At the age of 17, he lost in the fourth round of qualifying for the 1999 World Championship, a tournament he would win in 2010. “There’s no way that anybody that seen me back then, would have thought I could become the player I am today,” said Robertson. “I wasn’t even the tenth of the player.”
The Melburnian is the greatest player to play professional snooker outside of the UK and one of the best all-around players in history having lifted the Masters in 2012 and the UK Championship in 2013 and 2015. There are few weaknesses in his game, and Robertson is as comfortable with a safety joust as attempting to pot his opponents off the table. Such is his talent, he will be disappointed if he does not end his career as a multiple world champion.
9. Cliff Thorburn (Canada)
Thorburn was nicknamed 'The Grinder' because his approach could grind opponents into the dust. The Canadian won the World Championship in 1980 after a rousing 18-16 win over Alex Higgins. He had a formidable tactical game that allowed him to compete with hardened professionals like Reardon, Davis, John Spencer and Terry Griffiths over the 1970s and 1980s.
While some found his methodical style difficult to digest, and his sluggish pace bordering on gamesmanship, he was a product of his time and he flourished with his ability to punish errors from opponents who would be knocked out of their stride. He was the first man to make a 147 at the Crucible, and also claimed three Masters at the Wembley Conference Centre in 1983, 1985 and 1986. He will be recalled as one of snooker’s toughest figures.
10. Alex Higgins (Northern Ireland)
Hurricane Higgins is fondly remembered for his natural flair and attacking instincts, but he was also a formidable safety player. Part of the challenge of snooker is knowing when to play the right shot at the right time. Higgins was never afraid to fraternise with the tactical game when the mood took him. You don't win two world titles in 1972 and 1982 without having a strategy.
His finest moment was arguably lifting the UK title in 1983 with a gripping 16-15 win over his bitter foe Steve Davis. In the same year, he had been largely outclassed 16-5 by Davis in the semi-finals of the World Championship. Yet Higgins somehow managed to rally from 7-0 behind, winning eight of the next nine frames to level at 8-8. He moved 14-12 clear, but trailed 15-14 before trousering the final two frames to the delight of his vociferous public.
Higgins' tactical nous was part of his armoury, and he would take as much pleasure in a telling safety as a telling pint. His drooling legion of fans appreciated Higgins in whatever mode he was in.
Do you agree with our top 10 tacticians of all time? Let us know your views
Next week part two: All-time top 10: Who are snooker's greatest long potters?