Analysis

When the Crucible Curse Strikes

Credit: Zac Goodwin-Pool/Getty ImagesCredit: Zac Goodwin-Pool/Getty Images
Credit: Zac Goodwin-Pool/Getty Images | Zac Goodwin-Pool/Getty Images
What is Snooker’s World Championship Hoodoo? A timeline and full list of all the Crucible Curse victims

For anyone new to the sport, snooker’s most famous jynx, the ‘Crucible Curse’, is more than 46 years undefeated.

No first-time winner of the World Snooker Championship at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield has returned the following year and successfully defended the title. In total, since 1978, 22 maiden Crucible champions have aimed to go back-to-back, and they’ve all failed.

Amongst that group of players are several of the sport’s undisputed all-time greats. Taking into consideration the spells of form that some of them were in when they headed back to Yorkshire, it is bizarre how the hex is still to be broken. Perhaps the rigors of snooker’s ultimate test are magnified when you’re in possession of the crown. 

Here at Totally Snookered, we take a comprehensive look at every occasion when the Crucible Curse struck! 

1978: John Spencer (First Round) 

John Spencer was the first Crucible champion in 1977; his third world overall. 

The title holder returned 12 months later but lost his opening match to qualifier Perrie Mans 13-8. South African Mans went on to reach the final. 

Spencer’s early exit was a shock. In a tournament preview for the Guardian newspaper, snooker journalist Clive Everton wrote: “Spencer, the champion, lost to Perrie Mans in 1974, but should not do so again.” 

1979: Ray Reardon (Quarter-Finals) 

The best player of the 1970s, Ray Reardon won his sixth world title – and his first at the Crucible - in 1978.

A 2/1 tournament favourite for a seventh victory, the Welshman defeated qualifier Graham Miles 13-8 in his opening match but went out to eventual runner-up Dennis Taylor 13-8 in the quarter-finals (the main draw featured 16 players at the time). 

1980: Terry Griffiths (Second Round – Griffiths' first match in the event) 

During his rookie professional season, Terry Griffiths became the first qualifier to triumph at the Crucible in 1979. The Welshman enjoyed his season as the world champion, living up to new expectations by winning the Masters and only losing out on the UK Championship title by a deciding frame in the final. 

However, Griffiths’ world title defence was troublesome from the off as he fell 7-0 and 10-3 down to a young Steve Davis in his opening match. Griffiths battled back to 10-10, but Davis got over the line 13-10 to dump out the champ.  

(In 1980, there was a 24-player main draw in Sheffield. Griffiths was seeded through to the last 16 although qualifier Davis had already defeated Patsy Fagan in round one) 

1981: Cliff Thorburn (Semi-Finals) 

The Crucible’s first non-UK champion Cliff Thorburn made a strong start to his title defence as he relinquished only eight frames in his opening two wins against Graham Miles and David Taylor, but his reign was ended by Steve Davis 16-10 in the last four. Davis went on to record the first of his six world championship glories.

Credit: Getty Images/Michael ReganCredit: Getty Images/Michael Regan
Credit: Getty Images/Michael Regan | Getty Images/Michael Regan

1982: Steve Davis (Round One) 

Steve Davis enjoyed a hugely successful campaign as a maiden world champion, winning six titles including both the UK and Masters, meaning he held all three Triple Crown accolades at the same time. Davis was dominant, and his pre-tournament odds of 2/5 on represented that. 

However, the Crucible Curse cooked – well, Tony Knowles did to be exact – as the Bolton-based qualifier shocked his opponent and the sporting world with a 10-1 opening round win; one of the most famous results in the history of the sport. 

The solitary frame Davis mustered is statistically the worst first-time title defence in world championship history. Between 1981 to 1989, though, it was one of only three defeats that Davis experienced at the Crucible. 

1983: Alex Higgins (Semi-Finals) 

Following joyous and emotional scenes 12 months earlier, Alex Higgins returned to Sheffield attempting to go back-to-back and complete a hat-trick of world wins. 

Higgins put up a solid title defence, defeating Dean Reynolds, Willie Thorne and Bill Werbeniuk to reach the final four, but his crown was removed by eventual winner Steve Davis (16-5). 

1986: Dennis Taylor (Round One) 

Dennis Taylor emerged on the correct side of professional snooker’s most revered match in 1985, but that likely felt like a lifetime ago just a year later as he struggled in the first match of his title defence. 

Just like the ‘85 final, Taylor fell 7-0 behind, although this time it was to qualifier Mike Hallett in round one. Taylor made the scoreline respectable before threatening another unlikely comeback as he closed to within two at 8-6, but Hallett eventually crossed the line, 10-8. It was Hallett’s first win at the Crucible, having lost in the opening round in the previous four consecutive years. 

1987: Joe Johnson (Runner-Up) 

Joe Johnson is the player who has gone closest to breaking the Crucible Curse after a gallant effort to retain his crown in 1987. 

Johnson was a 150/1 longshot champion in Sheffield a year before, and the Bradford-based star was within just four frames of a remarkable double as he reached the final again.

He survived deciding frame finishes in the opening round and to a young Stephen Hendry in the last eight, but it was Steve Davis who ended Johnson’s winning streak with an 18-14 win. Davis turning the tables having lost to Johnson in the ‘86 final.

Credit: Guang Niu/Getty ImagesCredit: Guang Niu/Getty Images
Credit: Guang Niu/Getty Images | Guang Niu/Getty Images

1991: Stephen Hendry (Quarter-Finals) 

World number one Stephen Hendry was surely a red-hot favourite to defend the world championship title in 1991. The Scottish star was on his way to taking snooker to new heights, as he won a record five ranking titles during the 1990/91 season – including the UK – as well as the invitational Masters. 

It was all going to plan for Hendry as he dispatched both Warren King and Alain Robidoux in the opening rounds with change to spare.  

In the quarter-finals, though, Hendry couldn’t break free from the charasmatic and resilient Steve James, who kept catching up with him throughout the tie. And pretty much when he had to strike, number nine seed James did, claiming the final four frames from 11-9 down to record a famous 13-11 victory.  

1992: John Parrott (Quarter-Finals) 

The only Crucible champion other than Stephen Hendry between 1990 to 1996, John Parrott returned to Sheffield at the end of a fine campaign that saw him win the UK Championship and make the final of the Masters. 

Parrott started his world title defence with a record result as he defeated the experienced Eddie Charlton 10-0 in round one – the venue’s first whitewash result. He comfortably prevailed against Tony Knowles 13-4 in the last 16 but lost in a 13-12 quarter-final thriller to qualifier Alan McManus. 

1998: Ken Doherty (Runner-Up) 

Ken Doherty was the player to stop Stephen Hendry’s five-year, 29-match world championship winning streak in the 1997 final.

It was a very tough task to triumph in consecutive years, but Doherty gave it a courageous go, as he became only the second first-time defending champion to make the final again.

The popular Irishman had turned around a 12-8 deficit to defeat Mark Williams 17-14 in the last four, but he was unable to overhaul John Higgins in the title match as the challenger won 18-12. 

1999: John Higgins (Semi-Finals) 

John Higgins secured the world title and world number one spot for the first time in his career after his heroics in spring 1998. 

If he felt any heavy expectations of his new status, he didn’t show it in the 1998/99 campaign as he bagged both the UK and Masters titles, meaning he completed a career Triple Crown and held all three trophies at once. 

The Crucible Curse doesn’t care about form, though. Despite navigating his opening three Sheffield assignments with a frame aggregate of 36-12, Higgins lost to Mark Williams 17-10 in the semi-finals from 8-7 up. 

Credit: Paul Gilham/Getty ImagesCredit: Paul Gilham/Getty Images
Credit: Paul Gilham/Getty Images | Paul Gilham/Getty Images

2001: Mark Williams (Round Two) 

Mark Williams completed his career Triple Crown when he became the first world champion of the new millennium in 2000. 

Williams’ title defence began with a 10-4 win against Billy Snaddon, and it looked like Williams could make plans for the quarter-finals as he led Joe Swail 10-6 going into the final session of their last 16 encounter. 

However, a determined Swail – known for his comebacks - rallied from 11-7 down, chalking up five of the final six frames in a 13-12 win. 

2002: Ronnie O'Sullivan (Semi-Finals) 

Ronnie O’Sullivan headed into his maiden world championship title defence as the bookmakers’ favourite to lift the trophy two years running. 

O’Sullivan had a solid season as a first-time world champion, collecting his third UK title. ‘The Rocket’ was comfortable in winning his opening two Sheffield matches but needed to graft to dismiss Stephen Lee 13-10 in the last eight. 

Before a whopper of a semi-final duel against Stephen Hendry, O’Sullivan unexpectedly added extra heat to the showdown by launching a broadside on the seven-time champion in relation to a ‘foul and a miss’ incident in their semi-final meeting at the Crucible in 1999. O’Sullivan said he ‘no respect’ for his opponent, and that he wanted to 'send him home to Scotland and his sad little life.’ 

If this was an attempt to unsettle Hendry, it didn't work, as the Scot registered five century breaks in a 17-13 win to smash O'Sullivan's dream of overcoming the Crucible Curse. At the time, it meant Hendry had triumphed in all three of their head-to-head meetings in Sheffield. 

O’Sullivan subsequently apologised to Hendry over his comments and has expressed regret at the verbal attack. 

2003: Peter Ebdon (Quarter-Finals) 

At the time of writing, Peter Ebdon won the last world championship final that went to a deciding frame when he denied Stephen Hendry a record-extending eighth Crucible crown in 2002. 

On his return to the venue, Ebdon negotiated his opening two rounds with the loss of only eight frames but bowed out to Paul Hunter 13-12 in the quarter-finals. 

2006: Shaun Murphy (Quarter-Finals) 

Shaun Murphy created history in 2005 when he became only the second qualifer to lift the trophy at the Crucible Theatre. He began that event 150/1 with bookmakers and as the world number 48. 

With attention on him like never before, Murphy acquitted himself well 12 months later with two comfortable victories to start with, but Peter Ebdon – who was now dishing out the Curse instead of suffering it himself – dethroned him 13-7 in the last eight. 

2007: Graeme Dott (Round One) 

Another unlikely winner of the world championship when he was looking for his maiden professional title, 2006 victor Graeme Dott endured a difficult time off the table during his reign as snooker king. 

Just a few weeks before the start of his defence, Dott won his second ranking title at the China Open to install high hopes that he could have another run on the Sheffield stage. However, he left at the first avenue, as Ian McCulloch defeated him 10-7 on the opening day.

Credit: Bryn Lennon/Getty ImagesCredit: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
Credit: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images | Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

2011: Neil Robertson (Round One) 

The first Australian to claim the Crucible accolade, Neil Robertson won the World Open near the start of the following season, but had a quiet second half to the term. 

In a blockbuster first round clash in Sheffield, Robertson met the new kid on the block Judd Trump, who was on a massive high after recording his maiden ranking event success at the China Open just a few weeks before. 

Trump was a qualifier, and this was only his second appearance on snooker’s biggest stage, but the match was a tough one to call, and it was Trump who dealt the Curse with an engrossing 10-8 win. Robertson went home whilst Trump went on to the final. 

2015: Mark Selby (Round Two) 

Mark Selby denied Ronnie O’Sullivan a third successive world title after a big recovery in the 2014 final. 

The winner of the China Open – his final ranking event appearance before his Crucible defence – Selby was priced at around 15/2 to do what nobody else had done before in 2015. 

Selby – having led 8-4 – ousted debutant Kurt Maflin 10-9 in round one, but he came unstuck in the last 16 when another debutant, Anthony McGill, stopped him, 13-9. 

2016: Stuart Bingham (Round One) 

Aged 38 and rated at odds of 50/1 before a ball was struck, Stuart Bingham realised his snooker dream in 2015 when he triumphed in Sheffield, becoming the oldest first-time Crucible champion in the process. 

Bingham had a frustrating season whilst wearing the crown but went back to Yorkshire with some form, having reached the World Grand Prix final in recent weeks. 

However, dealt with a tough opening round appointment against two-time runner-up Ali Carter, Bingham became the sixth maiden Crucible champion to lose their first match, as the qualifier went through in a deciding frame, 10-9. 

2020: Judd Trump (Quarter-Finals) 

Another example of how fierce the Crucible Curse is arrived in 2020 when 5/2 tournament favourite Judd Trump had to hand back the crown. 

World number one Trump won a record-breaking six ranking titles during the 2019/20 season, although due to the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, he may have lost some momentum as the end of the season and the world championship was delayed until the summer. 

Trump had to work hard against Tom Ford in the opening round, coming back from 5-2 down to win 10-8, and he recovered from the same scoreline in the last 16 as he got by Yan Bingtao 13-11. Kyren Wilson, though, was the one to end his defence ambition in the quarter-finals with a 13-9 win.

2024: Luca Brecel (Round One)

Having never won a match at the venue before, Luca Brecel memorably won it all at the Crucible in 2023, defeating three multiple-time world champions and conjuring up the biggest comeback ever seen there (numerically, anyway) on his way to the title in swashbuckling fashion.

The Belgian’s season with the world crown had been a largely disappointing one, although he had reached two big invitational event finals and won the World Mixed Doubles alongside Reanne Evans.

Against a former semi-finalist David Gilbert in round one on his return to the Crucible, despite being under-the-weather, Brecel was fluent and looked sharp amongst the balls in the opening session as he went 6-3 up.

On resumption in the evening, he extended his lead to four, but the tie became disjointed and there were signs that the champion was unravelling. From 9-6 ahead, Brecel squandered golden opportunities to get the match won and Gilbert continued to step in and punish, recording a famous 10-9 comeback victory on the opening day.

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