In June a scandal erupted that threatened the future of snooker after ten elite players were banned for match fixing. It all starts in a small snooker hall in Sheffield, but ends on a journey through a several hundred billion dollar a year black market in south-east Asia. This is the story of the biggest British match-fixing scandal in over a decade
On Wednesday 7 June the PGA, America’s main professional golfing body, announced it was merging with the controversial Saudi Arabian-backed LIV Golf tour. It was a huge story – one that turned the whole sport on its head and prompted accusations of “sportswashing”.
But there was another sports story that day that barely reached any of the back pages – one that also tapped into geopolitics, ethics and integrity. It was, arguably, Britain’s biggest match-fixing scandal in a decade.
The sport? Snooker.
Why this story?
When ten players were banned for their role in fixing snooker matches, it didn’t garner much attention. Not even on the sports pages.
But it was quietly one of the biggest stories to hit UK sports in a long time, because what it revealed was how match fixers and cheats in sport are adapting to evolving techniques of investigation, and how the spotters are having to use more and more sophisticated means to find the fixes. It reveals a quietly massive lucrative gambling industry where hundreds of billions of dollars every year are bet on the black market, and the connections it has to the criminal underworld. So often these worlds can seem hidden and out of sight, but in June when the report came out, it gave a glimpse into how – and why – sportspeople can end up involved in this dark world.
Overnight, ten Chinese snooker players had been banned from the sport – ranging from two years to lifetime – following an investigation into match fixing. It didn’t come about through a sting operation coordinated by law enforcement bodies from around the world. Rather, it happened across small snooker halls in Sheffield.
Sheffield is the spiritual home of snooker. It has hosted the World Championships since 1977 and it’s where many professional players from around the world come to train – including the ten players who received the bans.
The ruling handed down from the independent commission in June says the Chinese players involved were “heavily reliant on each other socially and financially.” They were predominantly young, spoke little to no English and in some cases were struggling financially. One of them, 20 year-old Chang Bingyu, had less than £100 in his bank account when he was interviewed by investigators last year. But two men stood out as the ringmasters of the operation – 36 year-old Liang Wenbo and 32 year-old Li Hang.
As a player, Liang had been capable of achieving greatness. In 2015 he got through to the latter stages of the UK Championship, one of snooker’s most prestigious events. A year later he won the British Open – and exuberantly jumped for joy as he celebrated the victory. But then it all went wrong.
Liang slipped down the rankings. He had money issues, arising from what one source told us was excessive gambling. And in 2021, CCTV footage filmed him in Sheffield city centre dragging a woman to the floor and hitting her repeatedly. He was charged and received a 12-month community order.
In 2019, Liang had started betting on official snooker matches, something expressly banned under the game’s regulations. And slowly, he started to get involved in fixes. He and Li would approach the younger players to ask if they would be willing to affect the outcome of their matches for financial reward. Given the financial position of these players, some felt they couldn’t turn it down.
As an individual sport, snooker is relatively straightforward to match fix. Only one player needs their head turned. But a good fix is a hard thing, and it predominantly involves gambling.
A player will be offered money to deliberately impact the outcome of the game they are playing in. That can range from losing the match entirely, or to deliberately make a play at a certain time – so in snooker, the player must lose a particular frame (that’s a single game), or lose a match by a certain margin.
Meanwhile, the fixers manipulate the gambling markets by placing money on the outcome they know will happen. Because internet gambling enables instant access to odds and betting at the simple tap of the screen, fixers can be based anywhere in the world, well away from UK jurisdiction and gambling regulation. If all goes well for them, the bets come off.
Snooker, and sports generally, have processes in place to spot this. Sportradar, the world’s leading sports technology company, can track odds movements at over 600 bookmakers around the world.
“Since we started our monitoring and detection activity, we’re now approaching 9,000 suspicious matches detected across all sports,” says Tom Harding, senior vice president of intelligence investigations at Sportradar. Once an alert has been flagged through this software, Sportradar can look into suspicious activity in the betting markets – which is exactly what happened in the case of the snooker scandal. Overall, 13 matches were investigated.
The game that kickstarted this investigation took place between Aaron Hill and Zhao Jianbo in August 2022. Zhao was approached by Liang Wenbo around a week before the match was due to be played. Liang offered Zhao £4,000 to lose the contest and not win more than two frames in the whole match.
From this one game, Liang managed to generate £30,000. He took £5,000, his accomplice Li Hang took the same. £8,000 – double the originally agreed amount – went to Zhao. And his translator, who had become suspicious, got £3,000 in hush money. The remaining £9,000 went to an unnamed friend of Liang’s.
Liang operated with a carrot-and-stick approach. On the one hand he was offering thousands to players, but if they didn’t play ball, or if he feared they’d go to the authorities, he took a very different tack – as Chang Bingyu found out one night.
Liang arranged for an associate in the UK to go and pick up Chang in a car and drive him somewhere. The driver put Chang on the phone to Liang, who threatened him. And while Chang was still in the car, the driver took his phone off him and then deleted all his WeChat and all his messaging around the process.
Much of the betting activity involved in match fixing happens in black markets, and predominantly in this case in South-East Asia. The gambling black market is a huge business, with one expert estimating that illegal online gambling in China alone is worth about $145 billion per year. And the only way these fixes eventually get found out is when bets from the black market seep into the legitimate markets.
It was through that process that sporting integrity companies and snooker authorities eventually were able to piece together that something was afoot. Players were suspended, the snooker governing body acted swiftly, and the players were brought to justice in June.
In some ways this has been a success story for snooker. It’s a sign those at the top are determined to clamp down on cheating, and that China is serious about a sport which is growing so quickly.
But major questions linger. The lack of joined up thinking with law enforcement means the punishments will predominantly only ever be sporting. If harsher, criminal penalties were dangled, that would surely act as a greater deterrent for sportspeople tempted to get involved. The amount of money sloshing around in black market betting operations means the problem will likely only grow bigger.