January 30, 2018

Berlin Bound – The German Masters

Filed under: snookerbacker @ 4:30 pm

There is no let up in the busy snooker calendar as Barnsley becomes Berlin for the rest of the week and 32 qualifiers head to the Tempodrom (or Templedrum if you are Phillip Studd) for the final stages of The German Masters, a nice tight 32 player event largely over the best of nine frames and covered live on Eurosport from one of snooker’s top venues.

Regulars will know that I’m a big supporter of this event, primarily because it’s held in a city and country that is fanatical about snooker. Germany hasn’t yet produced anyone that is really capable of mounting a real push to the top of the sport and to be truthful, when I went to this the audience was a rather older one than we are used to seeing perhaps at UK venues, but their enthusiasm is second to none and they deserve a big event.

It’s not quite expanded the way I thought it should this tournament. They play routinely to packed houses in a huge arena, but we’re still confined to a multi-table set-up with less than a week to complete it. It would be nice if, in the future, some thought is given to the format and perhaps it be given a little more prestige in terms of prize money. I fail to believe that there isn’t a sponsor somewhere out there that can see the potential of being linked with this event on a long-term basis, but there lies the problem we have in snooker outside China, it’s bookies or bust as things stand.

Anyway, the qualifiers for this were played just before the Christmas break and has produced a real mix of top 16 ranked players and those lower down the list looking to make a name for themselves this week. A strong Chinese contingent is also noticeable in the last 32.

Quarter 1

Three real form horses in this section in Masters Champion Mark Allen, the most recent addition to snooker’s 147 club and 2016 champion here Martin Gould and the veteran Mark Williams. At first glance you’d be plonking one of that threesome in the semi-finals. Up at the top of course is the holder, Anthony Hamilton, who gets the chance to defend his title in the arena in which he memorably broke his career winning duck last year. He’ll need to draw on all his previous here for inspiration in a section which few would expect him to emerge from. Whilst any of this eight could conceivably win this quarter, many will fancy Allen to continue riding the crest of his wave following the win in London, but I’m going to go with a bit of a form horse here and hope that Gould can rediscover this German spark in a venue we know he enjoys.

Predicted Quarter 1 Winner: Martin Gould.

Quarter 2

At any other time, the two names that leap from the page in this section would be Ding Junhui and Judd Trump. But following poor performances at The Masters from both of them, to differing degrees it has to be said, and then just last weekend Judd losing to Jak Jones in the China Open qualifiers, only the bravest would have them lining up in a quarter final duel in this. The common factor with them both seems to be a lack of confidence, though Ding does have a medical condition that he doesn’t seem yet to be over with. Given the doubts about those two it’s probably a good time to have a look at the bigger prices in this section, the obvious one being Joe Perry. But for me this conjures up both Jack Lisowski and Ben Woollaston, both of whom must be high on any list of players that might be the next first time ranking event winner. At the outright prices available it’s worth backing both of them, you are really getting value if Judd and Ding continue as they have been for the past few months.

Predicted Quarter 2 Winner: Jack Lisowski.

Quarter 3

Shaun Murphy’s name dominates this section of the draw and on current form it’s hard to argue with him making the final four. Both Alan McManus and Ryan Day lost in their qualifiers for China, McManus in particular isn’t having the best of seasons. Thepchaiya Un-Nooh can of course be anything from a world beater to a numpty from one day to the next. Dark Mavis seems to have disappeared slightly of late and there is nothing really to indicate that he’s knocking on the door of a semi-final place, similarly Dave Gilbert isn’t playing as well as we all know he can yet this season, though I think if Murphy doesn’t make it through here it will be because he’s found some form. So, unless one of the Chinese players springs a performance out of nowhere, I think I have to stick with Murphy here.

Predicted Quarter 3 Winner: Shaun Murphy.

Quarter 4 

When will our World Champion get going? Mark Selby hasn’t really been Mark Selby this season yet has he? However, but for that kick against Williams in London, who’s to say that he wouldn’t have kicked on himself from there and challenged at the end? But he didn’t, and so far that’s been the story of most of his season. Quite why he can’t seem to get going consistently is a bit of a mystery, he still looks sharp enough in the balls, his tactical game seems as strong as ever, perhaps it is just, as he thinks, that players have been raising their game all season against him to a higher level? He has a very tough opener against Xiao Guodong and then perhaps an even tougher Last 16 encounter with Liang Wenbo. Further up this section it would be nice to see the winner of Dotty and Hawkins take this quarter by the scruff of the neck. Hawkins hasn’t had the best of season’s so far and Dott continues to struggle to string wins together. It’s probably set up for Selby to storm it this week, but again, much like opposing Judd and Ding, it’s probably worth doing the same with him until he gets going, which inevitably he will at some point.

Predicted Quarter 4 Winner: Liang Wenbo.

Recommended Win Bet: Shaun Murphy at 11/1

Recommended Each Way Bets: Martin Gould 28/1, Jack Lisowski 50/1, Ben Woollaston 150/1.             

January 24, 2018

China Open Qualifiers

Filed under: snookerbacker @ 11:38 am

Big Time Charlie has done it again.

After the glitz and glamour of The Masters and the historic first major title win for Mark Allen it’s back down to earth, Barnsley to be precise, this weekend for the qualifying round of the China Open. That might sound like a bit of a crash land, but there are all sorts of reasons why what happens here and later on in Beijing, will have a big effect on the remainder of the snooker season and therefore I expect quite a bit of interest in this amongst Team Anorak.

Let’s get the headline news briefly out of the way. This event is now a very big deal, negotiations that were only completed as The Masters was coming to an end have resulted in a jump in total prize money from £525,000 last year to £1,000,000 this year. The winner’s prize has rocketed from £85,000 up to £225,000, which makes this second only to The World Championship in terms of prize money and therefore ranking points, on offer.

Other positive developments are the length of the matches. It’s Best of Eleven frames right up until the Best of 19 frame semi-finals and the Best of 21 frame final. So clearly the Chinese promoters don’t share the same view as Barry Hearn that people who watch snooker generally have the attention span of an absent-minded ant, instead increasingly preferring to put on events over the longer frame format, a mindset I hope Barry considers adopting more closer to home instead of continuing with the repetitive best of seven format events.

Another reason why the anoraks will be excited about this is its new found status as a very big deal in deciding the 16 players who will end up competing automatically in the seeded slots at the World Championship, here you can see the current rankings in the Race to the Crucible, all of which could be thrown right up in the air after the conclusion of this, just a couple of days before the qualifiers for the big one get underway.

The increase in the prize money on offer for this puts those final few seeding places bang in the mix, a good run in this from a lower ranked player could see them propelled into a Crucible place, a poor result at the weekend for a player ranked high but outside the top 10 could be disastrous for their chances of avoiding the three dreaded qualifying matches in Sheffield Institute of Sport. Included in this group is Masters Champion Allen, who for all the dosh he won in London, still needs to add to his tally in the events that count towards rankings to be safe. It would be extraordinary if the current Masters Champion ended up having to qualify for the World Championship, but an early exit at the weekend in this would make that more of a possibility.

It’s great news of course for those who perhaps previously may have thought they were a shoo-in for the qualifiers. They can now look towards a run to the quarter finals and beyond in this as greatly improving their chances of nabbing that automatic slot, whereas the likes of Allen, Anthony McGill, the returning Stuart Bingham, Neil Robertson, Luca Brecel, even Kyren Wilson and Ali Carter will be looking to avoid any drama by not losing this weekend and not being made to look over their shoulders in Beijing by kicking on. You’d imagine that those currently ranked from Mark Williams at Number 9 upwards are pretty secure for a Crucible place already barring utter carelessness and freakish future results. Mark Selby, who remains miles clear at the top of the rankings, is of course assured of the Number 1 seeded spot as holder and whatever happens he’ll be kicking off proceedings on Table 1 on April 21st.

Of course there are still plenty of other events that will count towards the money rankings but none anywhere near as lucrative or probably more importantly, as late as this in the calendar. You’d have to think that whoever contests the last four in this in Beijing would be pretty sure of their automatic Crucible place, possibly at the expense of someone who in previous years would have been safe as houses at that point in the season. It all adds to the intrigue…

Anyway, each of the first round matches are worth £5,000 to the winners and not even your bus fare home to the losers. The doubling of the prize money hasn’t really filtered down to the mid-ranked professionals, this is worth only £1000 more than last season, but the potential is then there come early April to play leapfrog up the ranking list with every passing win, with the winners of the next round being guaranteed £11,000 and then £18,000 for a third win, it could also of course secure a further tour card for those who may had all but given up hope, so a huge weekend for those lower down the rankings beckons too.

You’ll be able to watch the streamed tables on Eurosport Player and the usual betting sites.


January 21, 2018

The Masters Final – Allen v Wilson

Filed under: snookerbacker @ 9:39 am

The Masters Final 2018

Mark Allen v Kyren Wilson

A new name will be inscribed in Masters history today as two first time finalists compete to win arguably snooker’s second biggest honour and become The Master for 2018, unlikely finalists Mark Allen and Kyren Wilson meet over the best of nineteen frames in what could be a real corker of a conclusion to a fine week of action in London.

Kyren’s comeback yesterday, snatching the final four frames against Judd Trump was the stuff of dreams. He’s definitely saving his best for the latter part of the week having come through his first two matches in less than heavy scoring mode, against opponents who didn’t really bring their top games to the venue. This is in stark contrast to his opponent who is making a habit of one visit frame wins, knocking out Luca ‘Two Cues’ Brecel, Ronnie O’Sullivan and last night, John Higgins.

Allen understandably starts favourite given his negotiation of a tough path to this final and his greater experience of the big occasions, but looking at the head to heads, a very strong case can be made for Kyren. If you discard, which you should, the Championship League match ups and to a lesser extent those tedious best of seven comps, we find that once again, it is Kyren who has the upper hand when these two lock horns.

Wins in Shanghai on the way to his only title to date, in the semi-finals of the World Open a few months ago as well as a Crucible win in 2016 over the Northern Ireland man will no doubt be mentioned by him in his pre-match interviews. I’m not sure if it’s a deliberate tactic to remind his opponents of these matches or some kind of personal mental preparation for himself, but it’s definitely noticeable to me that Kyren likes people to know when he’s had the upper hand in the past and today presents him with another opportunity to do this, as he has also had with Judd and Mark Williams. He stops just short of putting their head to heads on the back of his waistcoat, but he does everything else he possibly can to remind his opponents and remind them again that he’s not there just to make up the numbers.

Allen on the other hand has been very laid back this week and is simply saying he’s been working very hard and is extremely happy with his game, which shows every time he comes to the table. He may not be the most orthodox player the world has ever seen but it’s pretty effective.

I’m not going to recommend a bet on this one as I think it’s going to be great to watch regardless of whether you taint it with a bet. They are both really decent blokes and I’ll be delighted for whoever wins. Gun to head I’d go with Allen to edge it, possibly 10-7, but you really can’t discount another Warrior-like performance from possibly the most unlikely would-be champion in recent memory.   

January 20, 2018

The Masters Semi-Finals

Filed under: snookerbacker @ 8:28 am

….and now, the end is near….

Judd Trump v Kyren Wilson (1pm – or more likely 1.25pm while the BBC piss about)

A re-run of Kyren’s finest hour to date first up. The only time these two have met over more than the tiresome best of seven format was when Kyren lifted his only professional title at the 2015 Shanghai Masters final, beating Judd in a decider over the best of nineteen. He followed that up a couple of months later with another victory over Judd in the Champion of Champions and their last meeting of any significance, over a year ago, saw Judd come out on top 4-2 in the Scottish Open. Whilst it’s always worth looking at the head to heads, particularly where there are patterns which may signal bogey players, for me this one is very much about who brings their best to the table today. Judd finally got going yesterday after a lacklustre start against Shaun Murphy despite Shaun’s attempts to put him off with his best impersonation of Mr Miyagi during the slapstick opening phase of the match. Judd upped the game when he had to, something that he can’t always do against other players and you get the impression that there is a certain type of player that he prefers to play, so I know what my game plan would be today if I was Kyren, tie him up, frustrate him and bring the pace down a notch or ten. Whether Kyren can or will want or get a chance to do this is another matter, he had it easy in the last round against Mark Williams who just didn’t show up at all and for me he has to get the lead early in this to have any chance at all. My guess is that Judd will come out all guns blazing and boss this from the start. He’s in the better form of the two in terms of scoring, has more experience of this place and looks destined for the final.

Prediction: Trump 6-3

Recommended Bet: Over 1 century in the match at 11/10 

Mark Allen v John Higgins (7pm – or more likely 7.12pm while the BBC can’t help but piss about a bit more)

Cometh the time. Cometh the potter. Or something like that. But it feels like these next couple of days are, as the President of the United States might say, bigly, in the life of Antrim’s Mark Allen. He’s battered Ronnie and followed it up with possibly his finest ever tweet and now he faces another formidable opponent in Higgins. The pattern of the tournament so far has been following a monumental performance with a bad one, hopefully this won’t curse Allen tonight and he’ll again bring his usual bull terrier-like game to the table. Higgins is the only player left in this who has won it before and knows what it takes, but he’s also arguably had the easiest path here out of the lot of them. They met in the first round here last year and Allen came through a tense decider and I get the feeling that tonight could be very similar. In fact they have met three times over the years at The Masters and Allen has won all three so he can come into this knowing that history is firmly on his side. I expect the crowd to be quite noisy tonight, possibly about 75/25 in favour of Allen and if it goes close I think we could see an absolute classic in an electric atmosphere that only really here and The Crucible is capable of generating. My advice is to get the beer in, forget going out to spend too much money somewhere where you can’t hear yourself think, get a takeaway or pre-prepare something you can run to the oven to grab in between frames and sit there from start to finish, getting gradually more pissed with every passing frame. Sounds like a plan? Yep. Also save yourself the stress of worrying who wins with just backing a neutral bet like the one below.

Prediction: Allen 6-5

Recommended Bet: Over 9.5 frames at 11/10 

January 17, 2018

The Masters Quarter Finals

Filed under: snookerbacker @ 4:59 pm

After an eventful first round at Alexandra Palace it’s now time to turn our attention to the Quarter Finals played over the best of eleven frames on Thursday and Friday. 

The betting so far has been almost Nostradamus-esque so let’s see if we can keep the good run going. I hope some of you followed the advice and made a few quid out of the first round.  

The matches are listed below in the order that they are being played and if you click on the match it will take you to the head to head record between the two protagonists.

Ronnie O’Sullivan v Mark Allen (Thursday 1pm)

The Superlative Police were out in force for Ronnie after his dazzling display against Marco Fu. John Parrott’s eyebrows were arched to their ultimate peak and even Stephen Hendry smiled at one point, that’s how good it was. Here he’s back at his favourite stomping ground to take on Mark Allen who lost to him over this distance recently at the Champion of Champions. Allen hasn’t beaten Ronnie since 2011 but it’s quite strange given their stature in the game that they haven’t played each other more often. It goes without saying that if Ronnie plays like he did against Marco, then nobody is going to stop him this week, but if he’s a little out of kilter I’d say Allen is the sort of player that could put up a decent fight. Allen himself took care of an under par Luca Brecel in the first round and looked pretty good but this is a whole different bag of onions. Despite the fact that Ronnie’s low on magnesium and seeing double, only a very brave punter would lay a penny against him here. He shows no signs of letting anyone get close to him so I’ll go for a repeat of their match in Coventry.

Prediction: O’Sullivan 6-2.

Recommended Bet: Under 8.5 frames in the match at 11/8 and Ronnie (-2.5 frames) at 5/6

Kyren Wilson v Mark Williams (Thursday 7pm)

Despite the excitement generated by Ronnie, the resurgent Mark Williams was the star of Round 1 for me. He was on the verge of a 6-3 defeat against Selby and showed incredible composure to get himself back in it and win a decider. The way he is around the table at the moment reminds me of him at his very best and when he is playing like that I’d argue he is as good to watch as Ronnie is. However, in their only two meaningful battles, MJW is yet to beat his opponent here Kyren, but it has to be said that they are not comparable to this match which is by far and away their biggest duel to date. Kyren played well against Barry Hawkins but didn’t impress as much as Williams did, especially towards the end of the match when it got a bit tense and a repeat of that if this goes close won’t be good for him. For me, Williams in this form is a must back until he shows signs of it beginning to fade, he’s working hard away from the event, putting in hours of practice befitting of a mustard keen junior player and his appetite for the game is almost now rivalling his appetite for a cheeky Nando’s. I’m 100% in the Williams camp on this one.

Prediction: Williams 6-3

Recommended Bet: Williams (-1.5 frames) at Evens     

Judd Trump v Shaun Murphy (Friday 1pm)

Attention all pockets. Many people’s idea of the match of the round here between two players whose previous head to head stats are heavily skewed by best of five Championship League meetings. However if we drill deeper into the stats and take out the minor meetings we find that it’s Judd who holds a commanding lead, with Shaun’s only really meaningful win against him coming over a decade ago in the 2007 World Championship when Judd was just learning the ropes. Since then it’s been largely Judd all the way and perhaps that tells us that the way Shaun approaches the game is right up Judd’s street. I have detected a change in Murphy over the last few months though and if confidence is any pointer to the winner here he’d be favourite, but that head to head record does just place that doubt in my mind and I’d imagine that’s why the bookies make Judd a fairly strong favourite. I’ll be honest, I started writing this thinking of tipping up Murphy, but often you have to go with patterns and that’s when I started having doubts. What I will say is that I think Murphy is a better player now than he was 6 months ago and I’m not sure I’d say the same thing about Judd, so with all that taken into account I’ll take Murphy to pinch it, but not by much.

Prediction: Murphy 6-5

Recommended Bet: Over 9.5 frames in the match at Evens.      

John Higgins v Ryan Day (Friday 7pm)

I always get lambasted on Twitter when I say I don’t really like watching Higgins, perhaps it’s that old British thing of not really supporting winners, but that doesn’t really tally with my admiration for other champions and how they play the game. Sometimes I suppose a player just doesn’t float your boat and that’s Higgins with me. As you’d expect he holds a commanding lead in the head to heads over Ryan Day, who continued his strong recent form with a win over Ding in Round 1. Higgins was at his tenacious best towards the end of the match against McGill and similarly I think Day is a little in awe of John and I can see this match going largely the same way. I expect Higgins to win but given Ryan’s form I can’t see him getting hammered, he has beaten Higgins over similar distances before so it’s not exactly unchartered territory for him and my guess is that he’ll just want to go out and continue to enjoy his rich run of form without worrying too much about the result. There’s been 7 centuries in their last 3 encounters and given the pockets here are playing quite generously, that’s where I’ll be putting my money.

Prediction: Higgins 6-4

Recommended Bet: Over 1 century in the match at 11/10  

January 10, 2018

The Masters Preview

Filed under: snookerbacker @ 9:30 am

Alexandra Palace once again plays host to The Masters from Sunday, the tournament where the top 16 players in the rankings (usually) battle it out for the £200,000 winners prize, with each match up to the two session final played over the best of 11 frames. Hashtag, Bliss.

This year there are two debutants, namely the first time top 16’ers, Scotland’s Anthony McGill and Belgium’s Luca Brecel as well as a returnee after a nine year absence in Ryan Day, who will be playing at this venue for the very first time. The remaining 13 all played here last year, are pretty old hands at this and are well used to the surroundings of London’s main showpiece snooker arena.

So who are the main casualties that are missing out to make way for the three newbies above?

Well, the obvious first one is Neil Robertson, who, although now back into the top 16 (he’s 13th) unfortunately left it one tournament too late to grab a place by winning the Scottish Open in December, after the final cut off date in the rankings for this. The unfortunate Robbo will be joining the Eurosport team and he’s never short of an opinion so that should be an entertaining addition to their coverage for those who prefer them to the BBC.

Secondly, Stuart Bingham, who again though ranked in the top 16 (he’s 11th) is still serving out his suspension for a breach of betting rules, he’ll be back in a few weeks time. This means that both Day (17th) and Liang Wenbo (18th) make the starting line up this time.

Another player who we’d normally expect to see lining up here but isn’t is Stephen Maguire (19th). His poor overall season last year saw him drop down the rankings though he is moving in the right direction again now. Another recent Ally Pally stalwart Joe Perry (21st), also misses out for the same reason, as does Mark King (20th) despite a spirited attempt to creep through the back door unnoticed at the death.

But as ever, despite it being not the top 16 players in the world this year, it’s a great line up and any of the first round matches could, these days especially, be a ranking event final. Highlights for me are the Selby/Williams clash on the opening Sunday afternoon where we hope they can dish up some winter drama to warm us all up. Mark Allen and Luca Brecel is another which I think will be a cracker and very attacking, while as we move into the week we see another crash/bang/wallop encounter between Judd Trump and Liang before Shaun Murphy and Ali Carter lock horns in what usually is a very entertaining match up, we’ll surely see a decider or two in amongst that lot you’d think.

But whoever your personal favourite is, this is one of the snooker weeks of the year and I almost got though the whole of this preamble without mentioning Ronnie O’Sullivan; winner here for the last two seasons and bidding for a further record breaking eighth Masters title, as he already holds the record with seven. It’s quite staggering that after his first title in 1994/95 it took him a decade to win another one in his own neck of the woods and yet he is still in line to add to this tally. His longevity at the top of the sport alone should quash any arguments about him not being the best player the snooker world has ever seen and he shows no sign of slowing down just yet.

Anyway, here is a look at each match individually in the order in which they are played, remember this is a one table situation throughout.

You can click on the match itself to take a look at each head to head stat, courtesy as ever of the excellent Cue Tracker website.

The way each match slots into the draw is captured in the image either above (mobile view) or to the right (desktop view).

Mark Selby v Mark Williams (Sunday January 14 at 1pm)

The curtain raiser features World Champion Selby taking on Williams in this round for the second year in succession following Selby’s deciding frame win when the pair met last year. Interestingly, for followers of patterns and history’s habit of repeating itself, it’s worth noting that in the six years since the event was moved to Ally Pally only two matches on the opening cosy, sold-out, Sunday winter afternoon live on the BBC have failed to go to a decider. The only exceptions were in 2016 when Mark Allen beat Shaun Murphy 6-4 and back in 2012 when Ronnie beat Ding by the same scoreline. So Bazza’s Big London Show does tend to usually start with a bang. Who can forget Liang Wenbo being one ball away from knocking out eventual champion O’Sullivan this time last year? The numpty. If you look at the head to head between these two and factor all the information above into your calculations, it’s fair to say that if ever a match had decider written all over it, it’s this one. Selby, by his standards has had a pretty poor season so far, he’s only won the most lucrative event in China but it’s his shock defeat to Scott Donaldson at the UK that is most clear in the memory. Williams on the other hand is enjoying something of an Indian summer in his career and looks a contender again at everything he plays in. His win over in Northern Ireland showed that he maintains a champions touch and I don’t think he’ll mind too much being thrust into the limelight again here. I think it will follow the pattern of recent history and go either 6-4 or 6-5 again. I’m going to side with the Welshman to end the World Number 1’s journey at the first stop in an opening afternoon thriller. Get the kettle on, get the posh tin of bikkies out and put your feet up.

On your Marks….

Prediction: Williams 6-5

Recommended Bet: Over 9.5 frames in the match at 5/4. 

Mark Allen v Luca Brecel (Sunday January 14 at 7pm)

One thing I think it’s safe to predict here is that we’re not going to be seeing a lot of safety between two of the most entertaining, attacking players on the tour. Luca is yet to trouble Mark in the three meetings they have had but it could be argued that Mark hasn’t yet faced the new, improved, grown up, inked-up hipster version of the Belgian Bullet and that makes this a mouth-watering tie. Luca has improved in leaps and bounds over the last two seasons, capturing his first title and establishing himself for the first time within the upper echelons of the sport. He’s a fabulous natural talent and has what a lot of the top players have, including Allen, the ability and the bottle to raise his game on the big stage, which he is now finding himself on more and more. For me this could be one of the matches of the tournament and I’d expect, with it being on Day 1, the opening day pockets to do their job and provide us with some big breaks. In terms of a result, I’ll marginally side with Allen who seems in decent form of late, but it would be no surprise if Luca won here and I’d go as far as to say not the biggest surprise if he ended up right at the sharp end come the end of the week. I’ve taken big pre-draw odds on that very thing happening, though said draw could have been a lot kinder to him with a possible clash with O’Sullivan awaiting the winner.

Prediction: Allen 6-4

Recommended Bet: Brecel to make at least one century at 13/8.    

Ding Junhui v Ryan Day (Monday January 15 at 1pm)

The immediate thing you notice about the head to head for these two is that when they meet in big events they usually end up playing a decider. It’s happened five out of the last six times they have played with the other one being won 6-4 by Day, so to say that Ding is a clear favourite in this match would be foolish. Indeed looking back you could argue that Ryan has the edge when they get to the big stage and despite the fact that this is his first match at the Ally Pally he’ll come into this full of confidence, having broken back into the top sixteen, albeit temporarily, for the first time in the best part of a decade at the UK with some of his career best snooker just before the Christmas break. Contrast this with Ding, looking bereft of confidence in the UK and before, following some trouble with his eyes, losing to players that you’d normally expect him to hammer and you have to say that if there is a favourite here purely on recent form, it has to be Day. Ding did manage to qualify for Berlin just before Xmas with a deciding frame win over Gerard Greene followed by a comfortable victory over Nigel Bond, so there are signs that his health troubles are behind him, but to back him here you are relying on the fact that he’s back to top form, which to me is too big an ask in such a short space of time. Win or lose, whichever way you look at it the value in terms of a bet here is Day, especially if you think he might get the job done without the need for a decider and fancy chancing the handicap markets.

Prediction: Day 6-4

Recommended Bet: Day to win at 13/8.   

Judd Trump v Liang Wenbo (Monday January 15 at 7pm)

Another potential corker of a match between two similar style of player who couldn’t really be more equal on the head to heads at 5 matches each, unless you want to be really pedantic as Liang has a 41-40 frame advantage. Judd hasn’t been firing on all cylinders consistently now for a while and there seems to be an element of ‘demons’ with him these past few seasons at times. For me he sometimes tends to overthink the situation rather than play the free-flowing snooker we associate him with, there are signs that the weight of expectation that is routinely placed on him and the tag that some lay at his doorstep of a serial underachiever are beginning to niggle. All too often recently he’s started matches and tournaments in blistering form only for a couple of things to go wrong and the whole mood turn. It’s never nice when the snooker demons start whispering to you in the middle of a match and I suspect that Judd probably needs to work on coping mechanisms for this as he does seem to go into a bit of a sulk sometimes, which doubtless also lifts his opponent’s confidence levels to add to the pressure he’s under. All that said however he’s still having a much better season than Liang, who is the extremely fortunate beneficiary of Bingham’s ban and Robbo’s overdue late rally after the cut-off deadline. The Chinese player can count himself very fortunate to be here at all really as the current 18th ranked player in the world and it does beg the question of why the draw couldn’t have waited until after the Scottish Open. I’ve no really strong feelings on this one but I’d guess that Judd will win with a strong start, silencing the inner voices for now at least, I don’t think there is any value backing him in the outright at the moment though as the bookies seem to routinely have him far too short compared to others in much better form.

Prediction: Trump 6-3

Recommended Bet: Over 1 century in the match at 11/10.   

Ronnie – ‘If I win it I ain’t picking no trophy up that ain’t mine to keep’ – isn’t that a double negative?

Ronnie O’Sullivan v Marco Fu (Tuesday January 16 at 1pm)

Enter The Rocket. Ronnie is bidding for a third straight Masters title in a format and a venue that seem to suit him to a T. He’s not far from home, he plays more or less every day and it’s a nice short week for him with him not starting until Tuesday. He also gets to hang out with all his Eurosport chums when he’s not at work so it’s win win for him every time he comes here to put on a show. I’m not alone in thinking that he even managed to win this last year with his B game, he should have gone out on Day 1 but didn’t and from then on grew as the week went on and who is to say the same won’t happen again this week? I remember when ‘old Ronnie’ used to go into Head Fry Mode against a robotic Marco, but since he’s come out the other side with prototype two he just doesn’t lose to him. It’s almost a decade since the Hong Kong man got the upper hand so there is very little reason to suspect anything other than a comfortable win for O’Sullivan here. Oh yes, by the way, he’s also said that if he wins the Masters this year he isn’t going to pick up the trophy unless he is assured it is his to keep. This is the latest gambit in an ongoing dispute between himself and the governing body regarding silver/glassware, or in Ronnie’s view, the lack of it coming his way after he’s earned it. The powers that be may be hoping that he’s not quite himself on the table this year to avoid any potential embarrassment next Sunday evening.

Prediction: O’Sullivan 6-2

Recommended Bet: O’Sullivan (-2.5 frames) at 9/10.

Barry Hawkins v Kyren Wilson (Tuesday January 16 at 7pm)

These two meet in a big event for the first time, having spent the last few years bouncing around in best of seven events all over the tour, with Hawkins gaining an impressive lead in the head to heads as a result. It’s fair to say that both of them come into this in need of a confidence boost. Kyren has reached two finals this season but hasn’t really troubled the business end of events since October and failed to qualify for the German Masters in Berlin just before the break. Barry managed to get two much needed wins under his belt in that after a hugely disappointing UK Championship, losing 6-0 to Akani and he’s not fared well against the really top players all season. I wonder whether the manner of his crushing defeat to John Higgins in the Sheffield semi-final might have got to him a bit more than it would normally and has been carried over mentally into the new season, these things can play on your mind if you let them. Of course it may be something unrelated to matters on the table that’s stopped Barry being the player we all know he is so far this season. I’d not have a lot of confidence in either of them with a bet and given they could both really do with a kick start to 2018 to turn their seasons around I’d imagine that this one could get a bit twitchy and perhaps a bit scrappy too, which usually means the winning line is harder to fall over, I’d say the winner will have a very tough time in their second round match regardless of all outcomes.

Prediction: Wilson 6-5

Recommended Bet: Over 9 frames in the match at 11/10.       

Shaun Murphy v Ali Carter (Wednesday January 17 at 1pm)

Two experienced sparring partners go head to head in their latest big stage battle with Murphy coming into this in far better form than his opponent. These two have had some cracking battles over the years and perhaps surprisingly for some, it’s Carter who holds the upper hand, having also won their previous meeting in November 6-2 over in China. Murphy’s Champion of Champions final win over O’Sullivan and his subsequent run to the final of the UK to play Ronnie again means he comes into this full of confidence, probably feeling with some justification that he’s currently The Rocket’s closest challenger. He also qualified with ease for Berlin just before Christmas. Carter’s results of late have been quite the opposite, beaten by lower ranked players for much of November and December and failing to make it to Berlin, he’s another in need of a run in something having only made one semi-final this season way back in August. On form, you’d have to plump for Murphy, but these two tend to slog it out and for me this is very much a punch for punch on the day call. As ever when they meet, this is very difficult to predict and you might be best having a look at the breaks markets instead, over this distance and given their prowess for dishing up I’d expect a couple of tons to fly in assuming it’s not a walkover one way or the other.

Prediction: Murphy 6-4

Recommended Bet: More than one century in the match at 13/8.       

John Higgins v Anthony McGill (Wednesday January 17 at 7pm)

I’ve no idea how this opinion would stand up to any scrutiny but isn’t it odd how we always seem to have the obligatory ‘all Scottish clash’ whenever there is a random draw? This time, the only two Scottish players in the top 16 meet each other first round. The head to heads tell us very little and as you’d expect Higgins holds the lead, with their last meeting being a whitewash in the first round of the Champion of Champions (again a random draw) which followed a comfortable victory for Jock the Elder in the final of the Indian Open. McGill has done enough to stay in the top 16 but hasn’t really done a lot more than that this season, barring that final appearance from a depleted field in India and you do feel that at some point he needs to step up the pace a bit to justify his lofty seeding following his Shootout win and subsequent elevation into the top 16 last season. I noticed that he said he hadn’t been practicing over Christmas following his defeat to Jimmy White in the German Masters qualifiers and chose as a result not to play in the Championship League early groups to sharpen up for this. Whether this approach works for him I don’t know but I suspect he’s going to have to be somewhere near his best to compete here against a player who he still seems a little in awe of.

Prediction: Higgins 6-2

Recommended Bet: Higgins (-1.5 frames) at 4/7.

I’ll not be putting up an acca as I think far too many of these matches are a coin toss, in terms of doubling up the recommended singles above I’d say my most confident four would be the Higgins one, the Williams/Selby one, the Hawkins/Wilson one and the Murphy/Carter one. So any combination of those in doubles and trebles is where I’ll be going. Or you could just back all the scorelines and see how it goes.

In the outright I can’t see any value out there really, Higgins at 9/1 perhaps but I’ve had ante-post bets on Brecel at 80/1 and Williams at 66/1, both significantly shorter now so not going to add to that.

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