By Nick Harris
2 May 2010
An investigation by the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association into allegations that the world No1, John Higgins, agreed to accept money to lose frames is likely to start and end with the WPBSA and is unlikely to involve the Gambling Commission, let alone the police, sportingintelligence understands.
The Commission has a recent track record of dismissing cases even where there is hard evidence of unusual betting, so any notion it will examine a case where no bets were placed at all is fanciful. Higgins has been suspended during the WPBSA investigation while his manager Pat Mooney has resigned from the WPBSA board.
Higgins, 34, and Mooney, 47, were subjects of a News of the World sting today, with the paper splashing with the headline ‘Snooker Champ Higgins Bribes Scandal’.
The newspaper alleged Higgins had agreed to fix matches. The paper’s opening paragraph in its main story said: “Millionaire World Snooker champion John Higgins is captured here on camera shaking hands on a disgraceful deal to fix a string of high-profile matches after demanding a £300,000 kickback.”
As an intro, it was hard-hitting, sensational even, but aside from a photo of Higgins shaking hands with an undercover reporter, the coverage failed to substantiate any of the rest of the claim at all, specifically:
- While the sentence claims Higgins agreed a deal to fix matches, nowhere in the coverage does it suggest that any actual matches (match results) will be fixed by Higgins, only that he might lose one frame on four separate occasions. He is not asked to fix any match nor does he agree to.
- The sentence talks about a string of “high-profile” matches, but nowhere in five pages of coverage or on the video does anyone specify where or when these matches will take place, which begs the question ‘How can they be described as high-profile?’
- If the assumption is that the proposed “lost frames” would occur at future events arranged by the News of the World‘s undercover reporters, then there was never any chance of the matches in question actually happening, let alone being fixed; the reporters, as the paper admits, were posing as businessmen pretending they wanted to stage events, they weren’t actually going to stage them. Higgins and Mooney, as promoters in their own right, would have legitimate reasons to meet business people saying they want to stage events.
- If the assumption is that matches in the existing schedule of World Snooker Series would have been involved, nobody outside snooker fanatics would possibly call them high-profile.
- In any case, a News of the World reporter says at one point the targeted games will be in exhibitions, which are not tournaments, per se, and therefore not “matches” in any competitive sense.
- Nowhere in any of the coverage, or on the video, is Higgins described as, or shown to be, “demanding” anything at all, in any normal person’s understanding of the word “demanding”, let alone demanding “a £300,000 kickback.” In that sense, the intro could be described as “a lie”.
- The £300,000 figure is in itself curious: by paragraph five of the story, is had already been downgraded to 300,000 euros (£261,000). Furthermore, the origin of the amount of money being offered or asked for is unclear. A NotW reporter offers “at least ten to 15 grand” per frame at one point in an early discussion with Mooney when Higgins is not present, although because the context of that conversation is not fully explained, it is not fully clear what the money is for: an exhibition going a specific way? Or something else?
- Later on Mooney is quoted as saying “anywhere between probably 200,000 euros and 300,000 euros a year would be sweet money [for Higgins]”. But again, without full context, it is unclear whether this is for Higgins simply being involved in an event, or some specific malpractice. In any case, Higgins was not party to this discussion, and no such frames, let alone matches, actually took place.
- It is not explained at all, anywhere in the coverage, how four frames ( in matches, high-profile or otherwise, actual or imagined by undercover reporters pretending to be businessmen with no intention of actually staging the matches in question) at the original offer of £10,000-£15,000 each became £300,000, or euros.
In other words, the story’s opening paragraph alone raises several questions of accuracy, even truth. The story was written by the NotW’s Mazher Mahmood, veteran reporter behind stories such as the “Beckham kidnap” that never was.
The WPBSA will investigate the Higgins case, and Higgins and Mooney certainly have questions to answer; they were naive, stupid or both, but whether one or both are corrupt remains to be seen. The NotW‘s timing was excellent, as usual, the story coinciding with the first day of the World Championship final. Some coincidence.
The backdrop made a “fix” story involving Higgins all the more compelling: there are several “real” match-fix cases ongoing in snooker, with “real” defined by cases where actual money was placed on actual matches that took place in a manner suspicious enough to rouse the curiosity of bookmakers, the Commission and even the police. Snooker does clearly have issues with gambling in one way or another, but today’s story does little or nothing to throw light on that.
Higgins released a statement saying: “I have never been involved in any form of snooker match-fixing. In my 18 years playing professional snooker I have never deliberately missed a shot, never mind intentionally lost a frame or a match. In all honestly I became very worried at the way the conversation developed in Kiev. When it was suggested that I throw frames in return for large sums of money, I was really spooked. I just wanted to get out of the hotel and onto the plane home.
“I didn’t know if this was the Russian Mafia or who we were dealing with. At that stage I felt the best course of action was just to play along with these guys and get out … Those who know me are aware of my love for snooker and that I would never do anything to damage the integrity of the sport I love. My conscience is 100 per cent clear.”