Wednesday, September 29, 2010

'The Let Has Evolved from a Courtesy in a Gentlemen's Game to a Strategic Weapon in the Modern Era -- It Outlived its Usefulness.'

The Squashist has been an early proponent of limiting lets in pro play. The idea was advanced by Joseph M. McManus, the commissioner and chief executive of the Pro Squash Tour, which tested the hypothesis, liked what it saw, and then decided to go whole hog and chucked all lets, period. Not one is allowed. A gutsy move, whose impetus was to put the fan experience first and foremost in order to make top squash exciting and easy to understand for all types of fans. Predictably, there was much fretting, hand-ringing, gnashing of teeth, gaseous bloviating, and unsubtle orneriness from the sidelines. Still, they played on. And you know what? It's a great idea! 

Here now an interview with Mr. McManus:

I notice that you are now referring to the brand of squash that you offer in your Pro Squash Tour as "Point Every Rally," highlighting the difference with "point a rally" (ie, PAR) matches, which don't always end with a point since a let might be called. What has been the overall feedback from fans?

Everything we do at the PST is geared to entertaining our fans. Removing the traditional let from the game is only one improvement we've made, but it certainly has gained the most attention. 

The immediate feedback to our "Point Every Rally" squash has been magnificent. Since fans have been subjected to endless lets throughout their squash experience, it was hard for them to envision this new, more exciting game. Fans that have attended our tournaments can't imagine going back to the old style of play. It is simply more entertaining. (Note that we have posted fan feedback online here.)

Your reference to PAR squash not always ending with a decision is gentle to the point of being misleading. At the 2007 World Open Championships, there were 1,917 points played throughout the tournament. 959 (50%) of them required a referee's decision. Of those 959 decisions, 706 times (74% of the time) the referee chose a let (ie, do-over). Source is here.

The let has evolved from a courtesy in a gentlemen's game to a strategic weapon in the modern era. It outlived its usefulness.

Have there been any traditionalist fans who have voiced the opinion that they would prefer the standard PAR format over your "Point Every Rally" format?

Traditionalists preferred silent films to “talkies” and the horse and buggy to automobiles.

What about the players.... Do any pro players explicitly prefer the "Point Every Rally" format?

Yes, please go to our homepage or visit YouTube to hear their feedback.

I spend a great deal of time listening to players. And I listen closely. Certain areas of the game we have been able to fix immediately. Others require a longer term view. But they know I am listening. My partner in this effort is David Palmer. I regularly call him for advice and feedback. We all know him as the world’s most dominant player of the decade. Off the court, I know him as a trusted friend and advisor. John White and I are also on the phone regularly. As a former World #1 himself, he knows the game as well as anybody. He was also an early voice amplifying “Point Every Rally.”

How are the pros educated on how to play using this new format, which tactically must be very different from PAR? Is there a video they can watch, is there on-court instruction?

We tell them two things. Don’t hit a shot you can’t clear, and if you can play the ball, play it. It really is not much more complicated than that. The world’s best squash players are magnificent athletes with elite fitness, balance, hand speed, and hand-eye coordination. They don’t need me to tell them very much.
The pros tell me that there are some subtle changes to how they play, but that our innovations have made the game more fun on court. We are building a video library to help train referees and players. Also, whenever a player asks us to review a call, we do so and report back to that player on whether or not the correct call was made.
A lot of the early naysayers have worried about possible injuries with the "Point Every Rally" format. Have injuries been a problem? Has any player been injured at all in a Pro Squash match, and if so, how?
Actually, I find our squash matches to be cleaner. Since PST requires pros to clear their shot, we see less contact than on the other tours. 
We did have one player catch a racket on his forehead. He came off court, got a band-aid and returned to play and won the match. I don’t think that rises to the level of calling it an injury, but it happened.
The World Squash Federation has made no move to adopt the no-let format, but they are clearly interested in its development. Has the WSF formally contacted you for feedback on your innovation?
Andrew Shelley (CEO of WSF) and I spoke briefly. He is a very talented man with the challenging job of balancing constituencies who are invested in the traditional game. I will leave the politics of world squash to him and his staff.
We are singularly focused on our fans and growing the game.
What about referees? On the one hand I would think this makes the ref's job a little easier, but on the other I can see how it would be harder. How are refs faring with the "Point Every Rally" format, and what is their attitude to it compared to the PAR format? Do they prefer "Point Every Rally" or PAR?
I don’t think in terms of making referees jobs easier or more difficult. Rather, I focus on preparing our referees to be ready to preside over these matches.
All referees became referees because they love the game. In my view, however, they have historically been treated poorly. They deserve better. When I asked Mike Riley to serve as our Director of Officials, he and I spent a great deal of time discussing the game, its past and its future. In my view, he is the best in the world at what he does, and as someone who has played the game at a high level, he was uniquely qualified to address the problems we were trying to fix.
Although Mike was the first to lead PST in this direction, Bob Hanscom has been lobbying for this idea for a lot longer than any of us. All that is to say that some top referees were also lobbying for this change.

Has there been any interpersonal friction between players during no-let games that can be blamed on the no-let system? Are players clearing better now that fishing for lets has been taken out of match play?
I should define these terms for the reader. “Fishing” is a term used to describe a player who doesn’t want to play the ball, usually because his opponent hit too good a shot. So, he creates unnecessary contact with his opponent to ‘fish’ for a let from the referee. “Blocking” occurs when a player doesn’t get out of the way of his opponent or clears slowly and causes his opponent to run around him. In our system, fishing results in an “appeal denied” call from the referee and blockers lose the point.
In fact, we are very tough on blockers. Under the traditional rules, a player only had to make every effort to get out of the way. This is not acceptable in our game. We actually require players to clear their shots; making every effort isn’t sufficient.
We saw fishing eliminated from match play immediately. Blocking, however, will be a constant battle. We will continue to remind players that they shouldn’t hit a shot they can’t clear. However, in game 5 when players are tired and their legs are heavy, they’ll block. Our referees need to hold the line here even more vigilantly. Blocking is not a part of our game.
One last question: Should "Point Every Rally" matchplay be considered for amateurs at the club level, or do you see this innovation working only at the pro level?
It’s advisable for pros and amateurs to play with different rules.  Amateur baseball players use metal bats, while the MLB uses wood bats. The 3-point line is different in college basketball than the NBA. NFL and Division 1 football teams play with a plethora of different rules. Your readers, I am sure, are coming up with their own examples to add to this list.
Pros can simply do things with their rackets, the ball, and their bodies that amateurs cannot do. As always, I encourage fans to send me their comments and suggestions here.
Mr. McManus, thank you very much. I think the best way to judge this new format is to check out one of the Pro Squash Tours' events. Their calendar is located here.


  1. Great interview. Thanks to both of you. I think amateurs will and should stay with lets. I have too many painful memories from racquetball days, and racquetball referee days.
    John Branston

  2. Thanks for posting the interview. I'm curious to see this in action when the PST comes to Philadelphia.

  3. Thanks for a very informative piece.
    It will be interesting to see how the law of unintended consequences kicks in with this new policy. My first question is: How will “turning” be handled? Will the striker have to go ahead with a dangerous shot? Or will an exception to the new rule be made for instances of turning?

    Given the new rule, one change I would like to see is a return to the 15-point scoring system. It was reduced to 11 precisely to "speed up the match". With no lets matches will be substantially shorter (remember that 50% statistic). As a fan, I would like to see a good 90 minutes of squash in a best of five match. How will the new rule affect the length of the game? Will it encourage more or less “shooting?”

    Another question occurs: Will we be complaining that "the match was decided by the referee's call and not the players on the court" under this new system? (Would some compromise rule have been preferable: say, allow the ref to call three, but no more than three, lets in a game, or match? Or, make an exception for game and match points?) Will we soon be considering a demand for instant replay? It certainly helps to have slow motion replay to determine a let or stroke. Perhaps players should be allowed two or three challenges/appeals during a match, or at least on a game or match ball.

    Under the old rules of squash, the striker must provide the retriever unobstructed and direct access to the ball and players must make every effort to get to and play the ball. I assume that Let-rule was created out of the awareness that the size of the court, nature of the game, and ability of the athletes contrived to create situations where “innocent interference” might occur. For reasons of safety and fairness, a let seemed a reasonable outcome. It is undeniable that players, including players at the highest level, have abused the let rule. However, it remains true that “innocent interference happens” among athletes with extraordinary shot making and retrieving ability, and so the “let” call had a purpose.

    Is it not true that the problem of abuse could have been solved by tough-minded referees calling strokes and no lets in the vast majority of situations, reserving lets for those instances of “innocent interference” where indeed a good faith effort had been made by each player to clear the ball and retrieve the ball respectively? The new rule only requires what was always possible under the old rule: consistent enforcement of stringent requirements to clear and “get to and play the ball.”

    Perhaps the occurrences of what I have called “innocent interference”—a “natural let” if you will—are less frequent at the pro level than I imagine; in that case, the new rule should work splendidly since it will require referees to do what they should always have done: penalize bad shot decisions and “fishing”. I have no doubt that professional players will be able to adjust to the new rule, and it will be the same rule for everybody. But I can imagine some controversial and unsatisfying outcomes heading our way. And, I don’t think I’ll be happy with 50% less squash. Let’s start thinking best of seven!

  4. Yes, John, I agree, the no-lets idea only makes sense for pros. It would get mighty ugly mighty quickly if club players played that game. And Pierre, I think the best way for squash fans to evaluate this is to go check out one of the matches. I plan on doing that. Daniel, you have a lot of great comments, and one struck a note with me because I have long felt that the 11-point system is too wimpy. We are seeing many pro matches resolved in under 30 minutes -- that's too fast! Your 15-point solution would help, as would your idea of playing best of 7 -- an idea I've been mulling over as well. We may be both ahead of our time, however (don't worry, it happens to me all the time!).

  5. Daniel's right. Matches may very well be shorter with "point every rally" and 11 point scoring, but they should also be more exciting. Instead of playing the same point three times only to have it end in a let call every time, PST pros must play through slight interferences thus making the original rally longer and more exciting. The hope here is certainly not to make shorter matches, but rather higher quality ones. Even with 11 point scoring, matches are still dragging on. Shaun Delierre and Shahir Razik played for 2 hours and 30 minutes with 11 pt. scoring ( This was the second longest match of all time, and probably brutal to watch. I can't imagine how bad the blocking must have been on that court. No let forces players to fight for every rally and 11 point scoring only further enhances that effect. Sure, many matches don't test the endurance of these athletes, but that also makes it more fan friendly. Fans (especially American fans) want action, and 11 point scoring forces players to play at full speed and strength the entire match. PST matches are a sprint not a marathon. Even players who rely on their fitness not their shot-making will admit battles of attrition are not as fun to watch. PST comes to NYC in a few days... something worth checking out. -GB

  6. GB makes a persuasive case. And the comments of the players themselves suggest they don't have a problem with the new rule. Shahier Razik said, "It's the way we are meant to play." Makes one wonder what happened in the 2.5 hour match with the same Raz against Shawn Delierre: did a hockey game break out? (I can get away with that since I was born in Montreal.) The description of that match emphasized that the players elected to "accurately move the ball around the court as opposed to going for the outright winner," perhaps because they knew each other's game so well.(It's also classic Mike Way strategy: don't go for it "if the shot's not on.") Many lets resulted. Maybe the blocking was outrageous, in which case: didn't a "no-let" occur to the referee during this marathon? Perhaps there was a lot of good "classic squash" where "innocent interference" happened. However that may be, it looks like we'll see more shooting with the new rule since positional play--"accurately moving the ball around the court"-- does seem to generate lets. Players will have to adjust, and it will be interesting to follow the nuances of all that.
    GB is surely right that the old attritional style is boring; it's over. Let's just hope that the adjustments the players make don't lead away from tactics like rebuilding the rally, and setting up a winning sequence of shots. I suppose I remain confident that a rules adjustment cannot spoil a great game.
    I hope to be able to see the NYC semi-final; in any case, GB: please send your thoughts on how the new rule works out there.


Sorry, but due to increasing spam, I've added the Word Verification step. My policy on comments is anything goes, as long as it is about squash and as long as it isn't unnecessarily nasty....