There are only three jobs in which you’re contractually obliged to wear a bow tie: wine waiter, clown and professional snooker player. The last category’s finest are currently in Sheffield for their world championship, and as I once argued in a Speccie piece, they’re the most skillful sportsmen on the planet, bar none. So it breaks my heart that instead of noticing that skill, anyone tuning in to watch will think: ‘Oh, there’s someone dressed like Harold Macmillan circa 1958.’ Isn’t it time snooker ditched the bow tie?
One person who agrees is the 2005 world champion Shaun Murphy. ‘Our entire uniform is completely restrictive,’ he tells me. ‘It stops us reaching certain shots, you can overheat under the TV lights – in most other sports the clothes are geared up to enhance performance, but snooker’s the complete opposite.’
Murphy is chairman of the Players Commission, a body set up to represent professionals’ views. ‘The dress code is one of the most discussed topics, it crops up all the time. I’d welcome a change to polo shirts. Not jeans or trainers – we could have proper trousers and shoes. But I don’t know any players who want ties to stay.’
Murphy’s argument goes beyond comfort. ‘I think it’s damaging commercially. We are cutting our noses off. We could have branded shirts that the public could buy. Look at golf – they’re supplemented by the trade in clothes. We don’t have any of those sales. You can’t go into JJB Sports and buy a Shaun Murphy shirt. We could be letting Nike, Ralph Lauren, Reebok and Adidas in, but by choice we stick to suits and waistcoats.’
Everyone else I speak to at the tournament, however, prefers the status quo. The same two words keep coming up: ‘tradition’ and ‘smart’. Ex-player John Parrott admits he might be a ‘fuddy-duddy’ for thinking that way, and BBC presenter Hazel Irvine grants that even though she likes snooker’s ‘point of difference from other sports’, black tie is ‘the equivalent of me going to work in a ballgown every day, and I’d find that challenging’.
But Rob Walker, the MC who introduces the players before matches, makes no apology for seeing bow ties as part of snooker’s ‘gentlemanly’ image, at one with their policy of always admitting to foul shots. Terry Griffiths, a star from the game’s 1980s heyday, thinks current player Stephen Maguire looks ‘terrible’ in his open-necked shirt (for which he has to provide a doctor’s certificate). Willie Thorne agrees, as might be expected from someone whose own bow tie used to contain a diamond. Referee Jan Verhaas even dislikes Judd Trump’s tie because it’s not traditional enough – the second seed favours the ‘crossover’ version that sits completely below the collar. Only in snooker could ‘the wrong kind of bow tie’ be an issue.
Steve Davis argues that dressing up ‘gets you in the right frame of mind, gets you ready to go to work.’ Stephen Hendry concurs, citing the story of two money matches he played as a young man against veteran star John Spencer. ‘I won the first match, but when we played again a few days later at another club he suggested we play in casual clothes. It was a very clever move – I got absolutely thumped. It felt more like practice than a match.’ Fair enough. But surely players would soon get used to new ‘work clothes’, would see changing into (say) a smart polo shirt as their ‘clocking on’ moment? Similarly the fair play – which I value as highly as Rob Walker does – isn’t dependent on what you’re wearing.
I’d been hoping that World Snooker boss Barry Hearn would ditch the old dress code as part of his drive to commercialise the sport (it’s long been noted that the ‘H’ in his surname is silent). But it seems the fans got in the way. ‘I was at a tournament in Germany,’ says Jason Ferguson, chairman of the game’s governing body, ‘one of the ones where we’d relaxed the dress a bit. The fans were furious that the players weren’t in bow ties. They were having a real go at me.’ It’s a similar situation in China. ‘They love the black tie over there, they see it as a link back to the old image of the “British gentleman”.’
But these are the people who, by definition, are already interested in the sport. Mightn’t snooker be in danger of becoming the Jeremy Corbyn of sport, shoring up a traditionalist core at the expense of possible new converts? Whenever people find out I’m interested in the game they say it’s boring and outdated. It’d be easier to make the case for the defence if the players looked like members of the 21st century. Until then they’ll carry on looking like the person who might procure your next Pinot Grigio.