Risk and Return: Snookers

Snooker players have to be very good at maths. When building breaks, it helps them if they can determine how many points remain on the table when making a choice of next shot (and subsequent ones). When in deficit, maths is all important in terms of how many snookers a player needs.

What is perhaps less well appreciated is the strategy involved, and the attitude towards risk. Every decision has some risk attached to it, but also some potential return (with some probability). Each pot could be missed, each positional shot could turn out badly. The more difficult the pot, the less likely that the next position the player finds themselves in is a good one.

Ronnie O’Sullivan, one of the most successful, controversial and flamboyant players of our generation, is being criticised for a sensible decision when faced with risky options. Having built a large break (putting the frame beyond doubt) of solely reds and blacks, Ronnie had the choice between a tricky black and an easier pink. Taking the black would keep him on course for a maximum break of 147, a highly prized outcome. Taking the pink would remove the 147 as an option, but leave him on for a 146, still overwhelmingly likely to be the highest break of the tournament (thus gaining him a prize – financial reward).

Hence this decision was one about relative risks and returns. Wisely, O’Sullivan asked about the reward for a 147 relative to a 146. He found it to be £10,000, with £2,000 for the highest break. Either pink or black potted would almost certainly get the £2,000, so it was the £10,000 that was at stake. Take a riskier black, risk getting nothing with a higher probability than taking an easier pink which yielded a higher probability of £2,000.

The moral of the story is: if we want to reward risky behaviour (which the fans and viewers love), it has to be rewarded adequately to reflect the risks involved. Rather than criticising Ronnie, we should be applauding his decision not to be recklessly risky for small rewards, something we criticised the bankers for in 2008.