Snookerbacker

August 4, 2020

World Championship Second Round Preview

Filed under: snookerbacker @ 5:12 pm

Just gone favourite

In possibly the strangest ever snooker tournament environment we head to the second round. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how enjoyable it’s been on TV and I much prefer the ‘no crowd’ to the deserted and rather sad look of the first day when they let a few punters in, before rightly being made to come to their senses and prove that Anthony Hamilton actually had a point.

The highlight of the first round was Ronnie’s clinical dismantling of Thepchaiya Un-Nooh in a record breaking 108 minutes, quite a bit shorter than the time it took Fergal O’Brien to win a decider against Dave Gilbert in the qualifiers a few years back at daft o’clock.

With Ronnie clearly enjoying the solitary nature of this year’s championship he’s now vying for favouritism with Judd. Given the level of his performance so far we have to ask, are the others mere bit players on the way to his inevitable 6th title?

Let’s take a look at how the draw is shaping up, click on the match for the head to head statistics.

Judd Trump v Yan Bingtao (Thursday 2.30pm/Friday 10am and 7pm)

The defending champion managed to dodge the opening salvo from the Snooker Gods with a solid, rather than dazzling performance against Tom Ford, who in reality didn’t punish him enough in the opening session when he had the chance to. By contrast, Yan Bingtao’s passage was a real ‘game of two sessions’; running away with a seemingly unassailable lead against Slessor only for him to be put through the ringer before falling over the line. The head to heads are pretty emphatic here and when they’ve met in the past Yan has got nowhere near Judd. I did think he might be the fly in the ointment this year where Judd’s defence is concerned after watching the first round I doubt, even if he gets close this time, he’s got the temperament to get over the line so I’ll take the champion to live to fight another day. 

Prediction: Judd 13-6

Martin Gould v Kyren Wilson (Saturday 10am and 7pm/Sunday 2.30pm)

The superior head to head pointed out on the initial preview proved to hold firm for Martin Gould’s chances against Maguire and here he faces the presumably rusty Kyren Wilson, the beneficiary of a rare Crucible bye in the first round following Hamilton’s now infamous withdrawal. I was really impressed with Gould in the qualifiers and also against Maguire, he looks back to being a top 16 player rather than the lowly depths he’s been struggling in for the past two seasons. His confidence is high, his game is sharp and I think he has the look of someone who is back in love with the game. Just on the strength of his recent performances and the fact Kyren might need the first session to settle, I’d back him again at around 2/1.   

Prediction: Gould 13-11

John Higgins v Kurt Maflin (Wednesday 2.30pm/Thursday 10am and 7pm)

Kurt Maflin’s match against Dave Gilbert was a cracking first round encounter. Kurt’s scoring prowess has never been in doubt and with four tons and a 97 he proved this part of his game is in great shape. Where I thought he might lose out was in the tactical department and on the whole he did in the first session but he then dictated the pace of the match towards the end and was a worthy winner. Higgins played a typically Higgins type of match to beat Matthew Stevens and picked up the scraps he was left by his opponent’s countless mistakes. The only way I think Kurt can win here is to go all out attack and take an early lead, I think if Higgins gets an early foothold into the match Kurt will find it hard to match him tactically and peg him back. Higgins has a habit of late of building on each performance here and Kurt can’t really play much better than he already has, so I’m sticking with Higgins.   

Prediction: Higgins 13-10

Anthony McGill v Jamie Clarke (Friday 2.30pm/Saturday 2.30pm/Sunday 7pm)

Those who have followed this blog for a few years will know how much I have bigged up Jamie Clarke in the past. He’s an incredibly talented player who up until now, has not realised his potential. How times have changed. His performance against Mark Allen was nothing short of tremendous and he outplayed a player who was at the top of his game. McGill meanwhile was taken to a decider by seeded player Jack Lisowski so this sees a match up of two qualifiers who seem to be at the top of their game at the moment, perhaps a Joe Johnson style fortnight may be on the horizon for one of them. They have met once as professionals, a meeting which Jamie won in a decider and I’d predict that this will probably go very close to the distance too. I’m not going to make a score prediction on this, but needless to say, I hope Jamie wins.   

Prediction: Over 22 frames in the match at 6/4.

Mark Williams v Stuart Bingham (Wednesday 7pm/Thurday 2.30pm/Friday 10am)

Williams survived an early onslaught by Alan McManus and produced some very decent stuff in the second session to pull away having been fortunate to escape the first session only a frame behind. Bingham didn’t play well at all in his first rounder apart from a burst of four frames to more or less seal the win at the start of the second session against Ashley Carty, who he then let back into it before himself falling over the winning line in an uncharacteristically nervy display. There’s no real clues in the bald head to bald head stats as they seem to just beat each other so I have to go on the evidence of the first round and I am quite surprised that Bingham is favourite with the bookies on the strength of that.       

Prediction: Williams 13-9 

Ding Junhui v Ronnie O’Sullivan (Friday 7pm/Saturday 2.30pm/Sunday 7pm)

We come to the latest instalment of this soap opera of big stage encounters with Ding squeezing through a decider against Mark King in contrast to the mercurial Rocket who breezed past Un-Nooh in next to no time. As I alluded to in the opening sentences above it’s clear that O’Sullivan loves this set up, he can come and go as he pleases and doesn’t have to put up with all the drunks and anoraks around Crucible Square and beyond constantly shouting his name and wanting a selfie. The basic premise of this is, if he plays at the level he did in the first round it’s going to take a special performance to beat him, he did make mistakes against Un-Nooh and a better player might have got a bit closer but I’m not sure anyone would have beaten him. Their last meeting saw Ding knock Ronnie out of the UK on the way to his only tournament win of the season so Ronnie I’m sure will want to put that right.      

Prediction: Ronnie 13-6

Mark Selby v Noppon Saengkham (Thursday 10am and 7pm/Friday 2.30pm)

Considering Noppon is relatively new to the tour he seems to have played Selby a lot over the space of a few short years. It’s fair to say that in terms of head to heads Selby has Noppon’s number, but is The Jester quite the player we normally see at The Crucible? He scrapped as only he can to win his first rounder whilst Noppon was very solid in his clinical beating of an out of sorts Shaun Murphy. the head to head is a worry for anyone who thought initially, as I did, that Noppon had a really strong chance in this match but thinking on it overnight I think he’s probably the type of player that Selby can easily dictate the pace of the match too. I do think Noppon has a strong temperament but I also think that he relies on higher seeded players having a bit of an off-day to progress, I’m not sure he’ll be up for a scrap, which he’ll have to be if he stands any chance here.   

Prediction: Selby 13-11

Barry Hawkins v Neil Robertson (Saturday 10am and 7pm/Sunday 2.30pm)

For the second season running Hawkins let us all down again on the century in every match bet so he’s not exactly popular amongst snooker punters as things stand, but Barrry remains extremely hard to hold a grudge against for long as he’s such a nice chap. They met over the best of 25 here back in 2015 in a memorable match won by Hawkins in a decider so if this is anything like that we’re in for a real treat here. Robbo is a strong favourite for this and played very well to hold Liang at bay in the first round with his customary heavy scoring, I do think this will be closer than the odds suggest though so anyone who agrees can have a good look at Hawkins to win and the handicap odds. But I’m going to stick with Neil, but not by much. 

Prediction: Robertson 13-12

Recommended Second Round Bet: Doubles and a Treble on Noppon (+2.5), Hawkins (+2.5) and Gould. Treble pays 13/1.

 

July 29, 2020

World Championship Preview – 45/1 Williams Can Strike Again

Filed under: snookerbacker @ 3:13 pm

He’s back, but so is The Curse

It’s finally here, after months of waiting and wondering if it would ever get off the ground the World Championship from the iconic Crucible Theatre is upon us and we’re even squeezing in a few hundred people to cough and watch it.

It starts on a Friday this season, which I for one prefer. In the future when things are back to something like normal I’d like this to continue as it seems a little dated to traditionally finish on the Monday in May which is only a bank holiday in the UK and means that some of our global audience have to take a day off work or miss some of the final. But that’s an argument for another time, for now let’s just enjoy this and be thankful that we’re getting to see it at all.

Now before moving on, there is something I need to get off my chest, I’m not one to believe that some bloke waved his magic wand and created the Earth and all who dwell upon it several thousand years ago. I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that thinks once we pop our clogs we get to sit on a fluffy cloud surrounded by angels. But if you ask me to deny the existence of The Snooker Gods, even an old sceptic like me cannot bring himself to say the words. Yes, ladies, gentlemen and non-binary gender fluids everywhere I am here to say that I believe in The Crucible Curse and this year for the first time since 2016:

The Curse is Back.

Looking back through history we find that first time Crucible champions do not win the title the following year, it’s just a snooker fact. All the greats of the modern game have tried and failed, 19 of them in total, stretching back to John Spencer in 1978 who went down in the Last 16 to Perrie Mans. It wasn’t Spencer’s first world title defence, but it was his first and last win at The Crucible that started this anomaly that has now become etched in snooker folklore.

So when exactly did ‘The Curse’ begin to be discussed? Well, I believe this to have originated in 1982 when the mostly unbeatable Steve Davis was dumped out first round by The Bolton Stud, Tony Knowles. Davis was a cast-iron certainty to lift the title but turned up playing like a man with no eyes. The Snooker Gods had weaved their spell and there was nothing the hapless Nugget could do about it. Five others have failed to get over the first hurdle as defending champion, including Stuart Bingham, the latest recipient of the Snooker Gods torture treatment.

After Stephen Hendry won his first title in 1990, the world was convinced The Wonder Bairn could break the Snooker Gods hold and smash the curse, but Brummie Biker Steve James had other ideas and sent him packing in the Quarter Finals.

Even The Rocket couldn’t defy the Gods, after his first title he tried his best but this time it was Hendry himself, now on the payroll of the Gods who had caused him such misery a decade earlier, who made sure that Ronnie wouldn’t do what he couldn’t in a bad tempered semi-final.

Perhaps surprisingly the two who have come closest to the impossible are Joe Johnson and Ken Doherty who won 14 and 12 frames respectively in the final the year after they lifted the trophy. So it would appear that this is the absolute limit the Gods will stretch to before hitting the brakes. Rumour has it they took more pleasure in these two than any of the others, dangling the curse in front of the champion’s eyes only to snatch it back with a grin.

Judd Trump this year becomes the 20th man to try and defy gravity. It’s been a funny old year and no mistaking, Judd is more mature in years than most of the other first time Crucible winners, but why should we even begin to believe that he can do what 19 others before him couldn’t?

There may be restricted seating this year at The Crucible, but the Snooker Gods don’t need a ticket.

Now let’s take a look at the matches one by one, after a string of surprises in the qualifying and five debutants in the field, are we going to see an unlikely winner this year or will it play out to form now the real big guns are involved?

Click on the match for the head to head statistics, courtesy of Cue Tracker, if there is no link, they are playing each other for the first time.

TOP HALF – TABLE 1

Judd Trump (1) v Tom Ford (Friday 10am & 7pm)

Opening proceedings on Friday morning on Table 1 as is customary, is the defending champion and what a season Judd has had as World Champion and snooker’s number one. Title after title and ton after ton, he needs just two more here to emulate Neil Robertson’s century of centuries in a single season and surely if he were to progress here that will be as good as in the bag. Standing in his way is the experienced Tom Ford, making his fourth Crucible appearance, the previous three all ending at this stage. They actually played each other in this round in 2014 and Judd edged it 10-8 so Ford clearly doesn’t have that big a problem with the venue despite never winning here. But have the Snooker Gods been in touch with him? Will Judd follow the fate of the last first time defender Bingham and lose first round? I’m not too sure he will, he’s won their last three encounters and I think Ford is probably one of the players he’ll feel comfortable going out against.   

Prediction: Judd 10-6.

Yan Bingtao (16) v Elliot Slessor (Sunday 10am, Monday 2.30pm)

Slessor was highly impressive in qualifying and was clearly delighted to be through to The Crucible for the first time, even promising to marry his girlfriend as a result (I assume he asked her first). Traditionally debutants can struggle the first time they come here and the general concensus amongst the seasoned pro’s is that if you are going to hand pick a first opponent you want one who hasn’t been there before. But despite being the seeded player, Yan’s experience of the Crucible only amounts to one match, a tight one against Shaun Murphy which he narrowly lost so I’m sure he’ll be itching to get his first win at the venue too. There is nothing to go on in terms of head to heads and I’m sure the qualifier will have his backers given he’ll be match sharp from this week, but I’m going to side with Yan as I think he might be the cursed fly in the ointment in Round 2 for Judd. 

Prediction: Yan 10-8

Stephen Maguire (9) v Martin Gould (Tuesday 2.30pm, Wednesday 7pm)

Now and again snooker throws up some strange anomalies in the head to head statistics and here we have a case in point. Maguire has never beaten Gould outside of the practice style setting of the Championship League. Five meetings, including one way back in 2003 in the qualifiers for this and Gould has won them all, most recently in this season’s European Masters. Gould has had a dreadful couple of seasons but qualified in style beating Graeme Dott with a bit in hand playing much like his old self. He hinted afterwards that he’d had a few off the table issues and said he’d fallen out with snooker but that the lockdown had helped him refocus, helped by his discovery that you can actually buy spectacles to play snooker in rather than peeping over the top of his little round ones. Despite Mags coming here full of confidence since his big money win in Milton Keynes I think Gould might just pip this one given his momentum coming into it.

Prediction: Gould 10-8

Kyren Wilson (8) v Anthony Hamilton (Friday 2.30pm, Saturday 7pm)

It’s always nice to welcome back a face that’s been missing the top event for too long and that happens here with Hamilton, the man with the undisputed best nickname in the business. The Sheriff of Pottingham has been drawn against some people’s idea of a genuine outside contender for the title in Kyren Wilson. Hamilton I’m sure is one who benefited from the changed format of the qualifiers, he freely admits he finds a series of longer matches a struggle so that’s always a concern for his supporters in this event in particular. That said, he’s qualified relatively stress-free and scored pretty well so I’m sure will give Wilson a decent game. Kyren’s had an average season by his standards but he’s made a couple of finals, had a warm up in Milton Keynes so I think may just have The Sheriff’s measure here. Incidentally, check out that match they played in China in 2016 in the head to heads, 6 successive centuries!    

Prediction: Wilson 10-7

Anthony Hamilton has now withdrawn because of concerns about the safety of the venue and his underlying health condition. Kyren Wilson receives a bye to the second round.  

John Higgins v Matthew Stevens (Saturday 2.30pm, Sunday 2.30pm)

As you’d expect these two have had some right old tussles over the years including three meetings here, with Higgins leading those 2-1. Surprisingly though they haven’t faced each other in a main event for 6 years. Stevens came through the qualifiers despite claiming he only had 9 hours practice in the months of lockdown just before the match and admitted himself he was surprised at just how well he played. He’s honest enough to say that he is coming here with low expectations but that may be the way he motivates himself these days. I’m sure he won’t be phased drawing Higgins as he tends to perform best against the better players and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he sprang a shock here and had a run like he did a few years back to the one table situation (I hope so as I discovered a small each way bet I placed for this on him that I’d forgotten about at 650/1 as well as ones on Hamilton and McManus at the same price). Anyway, I suppose the sensible money will be on the runner-up from the last three years but I think this could be the tie of the first round.   

Prediction: Higgins 10-9

Dave Gilbert (12) v Kurt Maflin (Saturday 10am, Sunday 7pm)

Gilbert was just a few pots and a bad contact away from the final last year in a dramatic final frame decider against Higgins, who he could possibly meet in round 2 again this year. He’s drawn Kurt Maflin who absolutely trounced an out of sorts Matt Selt to qualify after a nervy decider saw him overcome the dangerous Joe O’Connor prior to that. The two have never met over anything more than a best of seven and Gilbert has won all four of their meetings to date. Kurt’s making his second appearance here after taking defending champion Selby to a decider in 2015 in what was a memorable match, can he go one better here? I don’t think so, I think Gilbert will win the tactical battles here and probably that will give him the edge in both sessions.  

Prediction: Gilbert 10-5

Jack Lisowski (13) v Anthony McGill (Monday 10am & 7pm)

Played 18, lost 2 is the impressive frame record to date of Anthony McGill who appeared to back to his best at the qualifiers having ditched the skinhead and beard pirate look and gone back to the much more suitable fresh faced carrot top. He really was impressive this week and we know he loves this venue as he’s proved it in the past and I’m sure he was one of the names high on the list of ones no seed wanted to play first. We’ve not seen a great deal of Jack Lisowski this season but he’s done enough to maintain his top 16 place by virtue of a strong season beforehand, he lost as a seed last year in the first round to Ali Carter and has drawn another strong player here. I think he’ll need to find some of his early season form to stay with the Scot here.    

Prediction: McGill 10-6

Mark Allen (4) v Jamie Clarke (Tuesday 10am & 7pm)

What an achievement for Jamie Clarke making it here, he’s struggled since turning professional but those in the know can see what a talent he has and he finally let that shine through last week to set up a tie with Mark Allen. All I hope is that he really enjoys an experience he has been yearning for since he first picked up a cue. It’s a very tough draw obviously, Allen has been one of the most consistent performers over the last couple of seasons and if he gets an early hold on the match this could be quite a straightforward win for him. My heart, of course says Jamie can do it, but in my head it has to be Allen. Go on Clarkey! 

Prediction: Allen 10-4

BOTTOM HALF – TABLE 2

Mark Williams (3) v Alan McManus (Friday 7pm, Saturday 7pm)

Who says snooker is a young man’s game? This fresh faced pair were first lining up to outdo each other 27 years ago at The Hexagon in Reading and now here they are, Williams still seeded third in the world back at the biggest stage, what an amazing achievement. The roller coaster of Williams career can best be summed up in their last meeting, which was in this tournament but in the qualifying venue in 2014 where Angles won 10-8 against a seemingly finished MJW. Fast forward to four years later and Williams would be World Champion again and who is to say he’s finished with this great title yet? He’s been practising hard for weeks now after briefly flirting with the idea of semi-retirement which is now out of the window as he discovers that without snooker, he gets bored quite easily. I actually think he’s a contender again in this and I think he’ll start with a comfortable win here, I made him my headline pick when he won it last so I’m going for an unlikely double.  

Prediction: Williams 10-5

Stuart Bingham (14) v Ashley Carty (Friday 10am, Saturday 10am)

I’m going to sound a bit like Dennis Taylor here when I claim that I cannot actually recall ever watching Ashley Carty play, he seems to have been just one of those players that somehow has flown under my radar, but wins over Ross Muir, Jimmy Robertson and Rob Milkins clearly show that he is a player with a lot in the tank. He faces Masters champion Bingham who I think will probably be pleased to have drawn someone so inexperienced of this venue. They’ve never played each other so it’s a learning curve for both of them but given Ballrun’s vast experience here, you’d really not expect anything other than a comfortable win for him.  

Prediction: Bingham 10-3 

Ding Junhui (11) v Mark King (Friday 2.30pm, Saturday 2.30pm)

Fans of rhyming match ups will be delighted at this one. Ding finally managed to get to the UK where he had to self-isolate for 2 weeks and has now been back putting in the hours at his new self-named academy in his adopted home of Sheffield. He’s had a very strange season, couldn’t hit a bulls arse with a shovel for 80% of it and then somehow goes and wins the UK Championship. I think he comes into this less fancied than any previous year in the last decade and I think that and the reduced crowd are in his favour. As for Kingy, after a bizarre encounter in the qualifiers with Ian Burns he’ll be delighted to be back here for the first time in seven years, another old face returns. His record against Ding isn’t good and I don’t think there is any reason to suggest he’ll turn that around at all here. 

Prediction: Ding 10-6

Ronnie O’Sullivan (6) v Thepchaiya Un-Nooh (Sunday 2.30pm, Monday 10am)

The stand out match for speed junkies this one between the two fastest cuemen in the world according to the average shot stats. It’s weird really because I don’t ever really think of Ronnie as being purposely fast, he just seems to dance and glide around the table whereas Un-Nooh sometimes looks like he’s running. Anyway, Thepchaiya will relish this in my opinion, arguably he could have changed the course of history last year and beat Judd in the first round and but for one shot he missed to go 8-4 up he may have completed the job. The burning question as ever is which Ronnie will show up? The dedicated version who has been picking off titles for the last few seasons or the sickly, sulky one who lost last year to Cahill. It’s impossible to tell but if he’s not at somewhere near his best here, he may well be sent packing again before he’s even unpacked. Front row spectators beware of flying balls, crash helmets may be required.   

Prediction: Un-Nooh 10-7 *ducks for cover

Mark Selby (7) v Jordan Brown (Monday 7pm, Tuesday 2.30pm)

Another player who hasn’t been himself and comes into this, like Ding, as unfancied to win it as I can remember is Selby. Again however, like Ding, flying under the media radar may help him settle and rediscover the form that he appears to have lost just recently. His biggest assets have always been his tactical play, willingness to scrap and consistency but we’ve only seen flashes of the old Jester for the past year or so, despite him still picking up the odd trophy here and there. Jordan Brown came through three matches in qualifying including an impressive win over Ryan Day, pulling clear when it looked to be going close. He’s someone I know is highly rated by his pal Mark Allen but someone, like Carty, who I have seen little or nothing of on the baize, I think I’ve passed the BBC commentary audition now.    

Prediction: Selby 10-6 

Shaun Murphy (10) v Noppon Saengkham (Monday 2.30pm, Tuesday 10am)

It’s been a sad time for Shaun Murphy over the past few weeks off the baize so it would be understandable if snooker were not his top priority at the moment, but often it can work as a welcome distraction for issues off the table so very much like the wounded animal, Murphy might well channel all his energy into his snooker for a fortnight, stranger things have happened. Noppon comes here for the second time having only taken 4 frames off Neil Robertson on his debut. He coasted to victory over Eden Sharav to get here but I notice in both his wins his scoring wasn’t exactly spectacular and he’ll have to up his game considerably to get anywhere near Murphy here assuming Shaun is up for the fight.     

Prediction: Murphy 10-3

Barry Hawkins (15) v Alexander Ursenbacher (Tuesday 7pm, Wednesday 2.30pm)

I was so impressed last week watching Alex, his manner around the table was so measured and assured and I’m delighted he qualified, he seems like a really nice lad too and speaks perfect English. Here he faces one of the more consistent performers in recent years at The Crucible Hawkins, the bad news is that they’ve played each other twice and Barry has whitewashed Alex on both occasions, the slightly better news is that they were both 7 years ago and Alex is now a very different player than then. By his own high standards Hawkins has had a poor season, losing early in all the big events and that’s why he finds himself clinging on to his top 16 place. If Ursenbacher can keep his cool and stay with Hawkins in the first session I think this might go close, it all depends how the Swiss man takes to the venue, all I can say is that I’m pleased there is at least one member of the Backer family in attendance this year.  

Prediction: Hawkins 10-8

Neil Robertson (2) v Liang Wenbo (Sunday 10am & 7pm)

I’m not going to labour the point but Liang Wenbo, as talented as he is, needs to start playing snooker honestly and owning up to fouls that the referee doesn’t see. He did it again in the decider against Fergal and I for one am sick of it. Right, that’s that dealt with. The last time these two met on the really big stage was when Robbo beat Liang 10-5 to claim the UK title and they have had a few tussles through the years so this is no stroll in the park for Neil. When I chatted with him earlier this week, Robbo gave a hint as to how he was going to approach his first round match and touched on his awareness of his own poor recent record here and why he thinks that is. If his ‘safety first’ approach is what he takes here it’s likely to frustrate his emotional opponent and that could be the key to this match as however good Liang can be, he does make a lot of mistakes, I think Robbo or Murphy will make the one table from this section. 

Prediction: Robertson 10-5

Recommended Bets on the first round: Martin Gould and Anthony McGill double pays over 7/1. Accumulator on all five of the following with +4.5 frames on the handicap – Slessor, Gould, Stevens, Hamilton, Un-Nooh pays over 19/2.

Recommended Outright: Mark Williams each way at 45/1. Mark Allen each way at 16/1. Anthony McGill each way at 125/1.

Previously advised (January): Dave Gilbert at 45/1 now 28/1. Thepchaiya Un-Nooh at 190/1 now 66/1. Stephen Maguire at 100/1 now 25/1. 

I’ll find others over the coming 48 hours and will put any I think may be of interest up on Twitter.

 

July 28, 2020

World Championship: The Fate of the Favourites – A Potted History (NEWLY EDITED)

Filed under: snookerbacker @ 12:00 pm

This year’s favourite

With the World Championship just around the corner, it’s once again time to revamp an old archive post and take a look at how well the favourites at the bookies at the big event have fared down the years. 

When you look back at the history books you find that the bookies have given remarkably few players the accolade of World Championship favourite as the years have passed, Ronnie O’Sullivan has now held that accolade a record 13 times in his career, but this year it’s the turn of defending champion Judd Trump to head the bookies lists and defy The Crucible Curse. 

Anyway, to the history and nostalgia bit.

The 80’s were predictably dominated by Steve Davis, who started favourite for this and every other championship every year from 1981 to 1989. That honour/pressure then reverted to Stephen Hendry, whose 90’s titles mostly justified favouritism, though interestingly he did win one when not the strongest fancy in the field, just as Ronnie has done many times since.

It was then the turn of O’Sullivan to assume the mantle of the man the bookies both loved and feared, he started favourite for the title 9 times between the years 2000 and 2009, since when we’ve seen other names start as the bookies one to beat, until six years ago when Ronnie was back at the top of the odds list where he remained until 2017, when Selby headed up the market, before Ronnie returned to favouritism again last year.

So how have they got on? Well, after painstaking research I think I have managed to capture every favourite since 1981, the year a red-hot, red-haired favourite started his 80’s reign of baize dominance.

1981 – Steve Davis (Winner). Despite never having won the World Championship, Davis came into the sport’s main event as a hot favourite. He was to justify the bookies faith in him, beating Doug Mountjoy in the final after seeing off his main challenger that year, reigning champion Cliff Thorburn, in the semi-finals.

1982 – Steve Davis (1st Round Loser). This was the first year that the championship adopted its current format of 32 players in Round 1, it also interestingly started on Friday evening in a bid to boost ratings. This format change resulted in the biggest shock of the decade, Davis, an odds-on favourite and winning machine, suffering the newly found ‘Curse of the Crucible’ and losing the Friday session 8-1 before going out first round 10-1 to Bolton Stud Tony Knowles. Alex Higgins picked up the trophy and his daughter Lauren in one of the sports most memorable championships.

1983 and 1984 – Steve Davis (Winner/Winner). The bookies love affair with Davis continued as he put the Knowles defeat out of his mind to win the championship and almost everything else for the next two years. He had just one close match in ’83 against Dennis Taylor but other than that dominated the tournament, winning the final with a session to spare. 1984 wasn’t such a procession and saw the up and coming Jimmy ‘Whirlwind’ White nearly carry off a great final comeback, but Davis prevailed 18-16 in the first of Jimmy’s many final defeats.    

1985 and 1986 – Steve Davis (Runner Up/Runner Up). Davis was still starting World Championships as very short priced (in ’85 he was odds-on) favourite but his backers suffered a temporary disruption to normal service in the period that Steve was basically winning almost everything else, re-writing the record books and making stacks for him and his manager Barry Hearn. Defeat on the final black at the hands of Dennis Taylor (who never really mentions it these days) and a year later to rank 150/1 outsider Joe Johnson meant he’d failed twice more to justify the bookies faith in him. But at least his loss to Dennis and his upside down glasses in front of a record sporting viewing TV audience in that famous final did inspire a great verse of Snooker Loopy. Every cloud….

1987, 1988, 1989 – Steve Davis (Winner/Winner/Winner). Despite what went before, the bookies and nearly everyone else on the planet knew we hadn’t seen the end of Davis. He remained short priced favourite and his magnificent treble meant he was the first player of the Crucible era to win three on the spin. Final wins over Johnson who remains the man who has come closest to breaking the first time champion Crucible Curse (2 frames ahead of Ken Doherty), Terry Griffiths and an absolute steamroller job on John Parrott cemented his place as the king of 80’s snooker. But the bookies were sensing this might be his swansong…..

1990 – Stephen Hendry (Winner). Young Scot Hendry started the 1990 Championship as UK and Masters Champion, having beaten Davis over the longer distance in the UK Final. The bookies had once again called it correctly and The Wonderbairn’s first title was secured, the final saw a win over his early 1990’s sparring partner, the luckless Jimmy White.

Hendry was usually pretty reliable, with the odd blip.

Hendry was usually pretty reliable, with the odd blip.

1991 – Stephen Hendry (Quarter-Finalist). The Curse of the Crucible? Not on your nelly, the bookies laughed off this idea by making winning-machine Hendry a firm favourite to retain his title. But dark forces were at work as Brummie Biker Steve James unexpectedly ran over Hendry in the Quarter Finals. Scouser John Parrott was to take his one and only title defeating that man Jimmy White in the final.

1992-1996 – Stephen Hendry (Winner, Winner, Winner, Winner, Winner). There’s not really much more to add to that is there? Starts hot favourite every year and wins five on the bounce, beating Jimmy a further 3 times (don’t mention 1994) as well as Nigel Bond and Peter Ebdon. This was truly a period of pure dominance, the like of which we will probably never see again.

1997 – Stephen Hendry (Runner-Up). Hendry’s quest for a six-timer may have been what the bookies thought would happen, but the ever-popular and jovial Ken Doherty had other ideas and defied the odds to prevail 18-12 to let Stephen know for the first time what it felt like to be the runner-up.

1998 – Stephen Hendry (1st Round Loser). Hendry became only the second bookies favourite ever to lose in Round 1. His match up against Jimmy White giving Jimmy the chance to shine one last time against his old foe, unfortunately for him in the first, not the last round. Sadly for his millions of fans he couldn’t sustain the form and it was John Higgins who won his first world title and became instantly many people’s idea of the next man in line to dominate snooker, beating the valiant reigning champion Doherty in the final.

1999 – John Higgins (Losing Semi-Finalist). Holder of the UK Championship and the Masters as well as defending champion, Higgins was surely the one to break the Crucible Curse? But it wasn’t to be as Hendry returned to reclaim the rights to the decade that belonged to him, for once not as the bookies main man, he defeated Mark Williams to claim his record-breaking seventh title. What an amazing achievement this truly was from the sport’s greatest ever champion.

2000 – Ronnie O’Sullivan (1st Round Loser). A new name at the top of the bookies list was now materialising. But the explosive talent of Ronnie O’Sullivan, a marginal favourite in an open betting heat which also saw Higgins, Williams and Hendry well backed was beaten first round. Who by you may ask? Snookerbacker Classic Champion 2013, David Gray, that’s who. It was Welshman Mark Williams who was to claim his first World Championship with a win over fellow Taffy Matthew Stevens.

2001 – Ronnie O’Sullivan (Winner) / John Higgins (Runner-Up) – Joint Favourites. The bookies couldn’t split them and in the end only four frames could in a year that went true to form. O’Sullivan taking his first World Championship after his two closest contemporaries Higgins and Williams. Williams himself falling foul of the old Crucible Curse, losing in the second round to Joe Swail.

2002 – Ronnie O’Sullivan (Losing Semi-Finalist). Those bookies never learn do they? The Crucible Curse is real and Ronnie proved that again in 2002. He lost in the semi-finals to Hendry, who reached an incredible ninth world final. He couldn’t make it a historic Hendry the Eighth though and lost to Peter Ebdon in a dramatic decider to avenge his final defeat of 1996. This was to be Stephen’s last final, even he couldn’t maintain this level consistently anymore.

2003 – 2007 – Ronnie O’Sullivan (1st Round Loser/Winner/Losing Quarter Finalist/ Losing Semi-Finalist/Losing Quarter Finalist). Through the years Ronnie has proved himself the most prolific, least successful favourite in Crucible history. No other player has failed to justify favouritism more times than him. Only once in this five year sequence did he justify the punter’s confidence, making him, at least until recently, someone who was proving very costly to back at The Crucible. Two new champions in this era emerged in the form of Shaun Murphy in 2005 and Graeme Dott in 2006. 

2008 – John Higgins (Round 2 Loser). Higgins failed to justify the renewed faith the bookies put in him in 2008 and instead, Ronnie, now not quite the warm order he had been the previous 8 years was to claim his third crown, defeating Ali Carter in a fairly one-sided final, this continued a bad run for favourites during the Noughties.

2009 – Ronnie O’Sullivan (Round 2 Loser). This was the last year until his resurgence more recently that Ronnie started clear favourite, he lost early on again, this time in an epic match against Mark Allen. This meant that of the nine times Ronnie had started Crucible favourite with the bookies, he had only won the title twice. Perhaps he preferred being the underdog? John Higgins claimed the title a third time to draw level with O’Sullivan in championship wins.

Rocked Higgins in 2010.

Rocked Higgins in 2010.

2010 – John Higgins (Round 2 Loser). This was the year which saw Neil Robertson storm to victory and the pre-tournament favourite and defending champion get himself into something of a pickle with the newspapers. Steve Davis time-travelled in a DeLorean into this year from the 80’s to claim Higgins’ scalp in Round 2, which still remains an amazing Crucible tale. Robertson beat Graeme Dott in a marathon final, played unfortunately under something of a cloud in dark days for the sport. But in brighter news, his 14/1 triumph paid for a large chunk of mine and Mrs SB’s wedding making him a firm favourite of ours, even if he wasn’t with the bookies.

2011 – John Higgins (Winner). It was an altogether different Higgins who entered the arena in 2011, having returned from his ban and after the loss of his father he had looked in superb form with a new found determination and purpose to his game. From the off he looked like justifying the bookie’s faith in him and he duly did in true Higgins style, breaking the pattern of losing favourites along the way and beating a new kid on the block, Judd Trump, in the final. He now led Ronnie 4-3 in title wins in their own personal battle.

2012 – Judd Trump (Round 2 Loser). Judd’s Crucible performance the previous year and the fanfare which surrounded him was enough to convince the bookies that he should start favourite marginally ahead of Mark Selby, Neil Robertson, John Higgins and Ronnie O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan however proved too good for the field and under the influence of Dr Steve Peters looked a different player to the unreliable and inconsistent one of the previous decade or so. Bear in mind however that he wasn’t favourite to win or widely fancied with many citing his inability to stay focused for the full duration of the tournament. After his triumph, clearly exhausted, he vowed to have a lot of time off, a promise he was to keep. He once again beat Ali Carter in a final which he described afterwards as being the best he had ever played.

2013 – Mark Selby / Neil Robertson / Judd Trump (Round 2 Loser/Round 1 Loser/Losing Semi-Finalist). O’Sullivan’s now legendary return to the baize after a season off saw him take his fifth title largely untroubled and never headed in any match, this also meant he overtook Higgins again in their own game of world championship leapfrog. He was available as long as 9/1 a few weeks before the tournament and many claimed he had ‘no chance’ of simply returning after a year off and winning again. But he did just that, beating Barry Hawkins in the final.

2014 – Ronnie O’Sullivan (Runner-up). As Ronnie attempted the treble the bookies by now had wised up to him and made him the shortest priced favourite for many years. He’d been playing more events and going into this in strong form, unlike the previous year when he hadn’t played at all in the run up. But it wasn’t to be and the final against Mark Selby was to prove one step too far for The Rocket as Selby became the first new champion since Robertson. Ronnie yet again was a losing favourite.

2015 – Ronnie O’Sullivan (Losing Quarter Finalist). Again being favourite at the bookies did Ronnie no favours, he was to come unstuck against the eventual champion Stuart Bingham in the Quarter Finals after a mentally fragile first week when most saw the signs that he wasn’t quite up to the job. Losing as the bookies favourite was now becoming a very annoying habit for him and his backers. Selby in the meantime was the latest victim of The Crucible Curse. 

It’s been quite a while…

2016 – Ronnie O’Sullivan (Round 2 Loser). The bookies again made Ronnie favourite following a mercurial display in the Welsh Open and rumours of him hitting the practice table hard in the run up. But this time the man who he beat to win dare we think it, his last world title Barry Hawkins, was his conqueror in Round 2. It was the World Number 1 Mark Selby who ended up with the trophy in his hands for the second time, beating first time finalist Ding Junhui 18-14. It was another ‘Curse’ year, Stuart Bingham beaten by Ali Carter on Day 1 this time in a decider.

2017 – Mark Selby (Winner). Selby came here as the standalone favourite on the back of a mediocre season by his own standards but having won the China Open a few weeks earlier. Judd Trump was touching joint favourite with a couple of firms keeping faith or wanting bets just like in 2013. The match of the tournament was Selby’s semi-final win over Ding Junhui, who was beginning to look like it might be his time after a memorable win in the Quarter Final over Ronnie O’Sullivan. But Selby’s granite proved too much for him and in the end also for a tired looking John Higgins who again featured in the final after a few years away from the one table set up. Selby coming back after a first day slump 18-15, landing the 7/2 favourites tag for the first time since his opponent did it in 2011.

2018 – Ronnie O’Sullivan (Round 2 Loser). Once again, O’Sullivan returned to the mantle of favourite and once again, he failed to justify it. A fine season leading into the big one had his fans hopes up but once he got to Sheffield he once again came up short, losing a bad tempered match to Ali Carter, who gained some revenge for the two final defeats Ronnie had inflicted on him. The winner however was another ‘Phoenix from the Flames’ in the shape of Mark Williams, who miraculously completed one of the sports great comebacks and beat his fellow veteran John Higgins in a pulsating final. The less said about the press conference afterwards, the better.

2019 – Ronnie O’Sullivan (Round 1 Loser). Again the mantle of bookies favourite proved the undoing of O’Sullivan, paired against amateur James Cahill in Round 1 most expected a flying start for the bang in form Rocket, but it wasn’t to be. He claimed later to be feeling unwell but in reality he would have had to produce some consistently spectacular stuff to see off the eventual winner and first time champion Judd Trump, who stormed to victory with some stunning snooker.    

So, the figures as they stand are since 1981:

Winning Favourites (Including Joint Favourites): 15

Losing Favourites (Including Joint Favourites): 25

Most Successful Favourites: Steve Davis (6 wins out of 9 attempts) and Stephen Hendry (6 out of 9). 

Least Successful Favourite: Ronnie O’Sullivan (2 wins out of 14 attempts).

Most Successful Non-Favourite: Ronnie O’Sullivan, Mark Williams and John Higgins (all 3 times winner when not favourites)

Clear Favourites who have lost in Round 1: Ronnie O’Sullivan (three times), Stephen Hendry (once), Steve Davis (once).

Co/Joint Favorites who have lost in Round 1: Neil Robertson (once).

Victims of The Crucible Curse: John Spencer (1978), Ray Reardon (1979), Terry Griffiths (1980), Cliff Thorburn (1981), Steve Davis (1982), Alex Higgins (1983), Dennis Taylor (1986), Joe Johnson (1987), Stephen Hendry (1991), John Parrott (1992), Ken Doherty (1998), John Higgins (1999), Mark Williams (2001), Ronnie O’Sullivan (2002), Peter Ebdon (2003), Shaun Murphy (2006), Graeme Dott (2007), Neil Robertson (2011), Mark Selby (2015), Stuart Bingham (2016)…..

Defeaters of The Crucible Curse: NOBODY. EVER. 

July 15, 2020

World Championship Qualifiers Preview

Filed under: snookerbacker @ 8:00 pm

All eyes on the prize

Odd isn’t the word really is it? Writing a World Championship Qualifiers Preview in the middle of July isn’t something I thought I’d be doing, this crazy year just keeps on getting weirder and it’s to the Institute for Sport in Sheffield we head for the belated qualifiers for the main event at The Crucible which begins this year on Friday 31st July, finishing on a Sunday 17 days later.

Originally of course all these matches would have been the best-of-19 frames. But to comply with those pesky safety regulations the first three rounds will now be played as the best of 11 frames with only the final round being played as best of 19.

The format is also different from the previous few years, though this has nothing to do with the new restrictions, in that a tiered seeding system is now in operation, meaning that the higher ranked players now only need to win one best of 11 and the final best of 19 to make it to The Crucible, rather than the usual three best of 19’s for all.

17 professional players have chosen not to participate at the event due to COVID-19 concerns. These players are mostly from mainland China: Zhou Yuelong (aka Ghou Yolonge), Xiao Guodong, Zhao Xintong, Li Hang, Yuan Sijun, Marco Fu, Mei Xiwen, Zhang Anda, James Wattana, Zhang Jiankang, Chang Bingyu, Andy Lee, Chen Zifan, Xu Si, Bai Langning, Lei Peifan and Steve Mifsud. 

Former World Champion Peter Ebdon was inside the top 64 when he announced his retirement in April so he also vacates a place and can now devote all his time to spiritual healing and posting memes about masks and new world orders and all that other 100% sane stuff.

Also, two invited players from the Women’s World Tour, Ng On-yee and Nutcharut Wongharuthai declined their place due to safety concerns.

All this means we have more amateur players than ever before competing as wildcards, with all of them hoping to emulate the feat of James Cahill last year who qualified as an amateur and beat some bloke called O’Sullivan in the first round who pretended he had a cold afterwards.

There are some who feel that because so many professional players are not competing this somehow cheapens the event. What I’d say to that is do they really think any of those listed above would have got anywhere near winning it? If the answer to that question is no then it answers the question. For what it’s worth, that would be my answer.

Below I have split the draw into the mini-championship or bubble if you prefer topical parlance, which they are all playing within consisting of 8 players, only one of whom will be gracing the Crucible in a couple of weeks time, to either one ref and their scorer or a few masked audience members, which would kind of put paid to the BBC booking Ebdon for commentary.

So let’s have a look at each section and try and deduce who that might be shall we?

I’ll give my chosen qualifier and list the best current price on that happening (via Oddschecker), have a bet if you like, shop around for prices, I’ll probably list a few bets daily on Twitter on the matches. There may be a couple of bookies that might put up some specials based on my predictions below as I have friends in low places, so keep an eye out this week. 

Section 1   

 

 

 

 

 

 

Most if not all those with any knowledge of snooker are seeing this section as nothing other than a win for Joe Perry, the top seeded player in this whole fascinating mini-event. There is plenty of talent in the group, but in terms of pedigree and experience when it comes to the final qualifying match, which Perry will surely be involved in, he is head and shoulders above the rest. Most will see the main danger to Perry as Tian Pengfei and it is true to say he has beaten Perry in the past but this takes away from the likes of Mitchell Mann and Sunny Akani, who I’d say, on their day are dangerous, as is the ferocious potter that is Syd Wilson. Who can forget Sunny dumping Joe out of the 2017 World Championship Qualifiers in a decider, the photo of The Gent with his head in his hands while Akani played his very own brand of weird rest action snooker spoke volumes. I think Joe will have a decent best of 11 sharpener against either Mann or Jamie Clarke and his recent form suggests he won’t let the past affect him in any way, he’s one of my more confident picks to make it to The Crucible.  

PREDICTED QUALIFIER: Joe Perry (Best Price 4/6)

Section 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

To me, this is section that it might be worth having a few pound on the outsiders, given that Ryan Day will be odds on to make it and he will likely face a stiff challenge in the form of Craig Steadman first up, if he’s rusty, he isn’t a certainty for that one. Up at the top I think any of these four could be contesting the final against either Steadman or Day. Rory McLeod will have been competing in the Challenge Tour Play off to try and secure his return to the professional ranks and on his day, as he has proved time and again, he can defy all odds. Hossein Vafaei is a very talented player and given the stress he’s had over the years to just compete given his country of origin, nobody would begrudge him a place at The Crucible, but for me he may just have a bit of an issue with his bottle when it comes to the crunch. That’s why I’m going a bit leftfield here and plumping for a solid player who has qualified for The Crucible before in a very open group.

PREDICTED QUALIFIER: Craig Steadman (Best Price 14/1)

Section 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another chance to see a match up between the Lines’ senior and junior, however unlikely that would appear given the very strong front two seeded players in this section. As much as I look at this section I can’t really see anything other than a Carrington v Ford Crucible shootout. The only fly in the ointment may be Gerard Greene, who might just get trollied with Ford the night before they play and knock him off his stride. If you like backing outsiders to small stakes Greene is probably one for your list. But it all comes down to who is sharpest out of Ford and Carrington with only one match to go on in terms of head to heads. I rate Ford above Carrington, as the rankings suggest, but both have the bottle to qualify, this will be a real ‘on the day’ match and I can’t really call it with any confidence, I think to get there Carrington may have had the bigger test so we’ll see, he’s the value of the two at the odds in what essentially is a coin toss.    

PREDICTED QUALIFIER: Stuart Carrington (Best Price 3/1)

Section 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everyone’s joint favourite snooker player/chef during lockdown is Michael Holt and I’m sure, unlike a few of the others, his fanbase has swelled over this very strange period. Whether by luck or design, Holt knows how to use social media to his advantage and could teach some other players a lot in this regard, I’m sure a lot of us will be cheering him on here. But make no mistake, this section is going to take a lot of winning, I’d not actually discount any of the top 4 seeded players, though I do think the 4 lower seeded players may find this group a bit out of their depth when it really heats up. One match on a personal level I am looking forward to is Scouser Sean Maddocks against Fraser Patrick, some of you will know that myself and a couple of others sponsored Sean for a season and it’s great to see him competing here ahead of his debut year in the professional ranks. One thing I will say about this section is that you should not discount Ken Doherty, assuming he wins his first match he has a great record against Mark King and would stand a strong chance against any in the bottom half in a best of 19, particularly if the player he meets, such as Ian Burns, were trying to make The Crucible for the first time.    

PREDICTED QUALIFIER: Ken Doherty (Best Price 13/2) 

Section 5

 

 

 

 

 

 

Graeme Dott has had a mini resurgence over the past couple of seasons without actually winning anything of note. But if there is one thing the Pocket Dynamo knows how to do it’s qualify for the World Championship. I’m going to keep this section brief as I really can’t see where the threat to Dott’s game and experience comes from here. Martin Gould is not the player he was and to me his heart seems not to be in the game of late, Chris Wakelin will probably be gutted that he’s in Dott’s section as he’s more than capable of holding his own in any of the other sections and is obviously Dott’s main threat, but unless David Grace pulls up a few trees, I can’t see any other qualifier here than wee Graeme, he’ll probably be the quickest too as he doesn’t hang around in these qualifiers.  

PREDICTED QUALIFIER: Graeme Dott (Best Price 4/7)

Section 6

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two established ranking event winners head up this group in Matthew Stevens and Ricky Walden. I think Matthew is one of those players that we all inherently root for, we know he should have won this thing instead of some of the less talented players that have and we possibly see some flaws in him that we do on ourselves, like Jimmy, which make us naturally support him – or maybe that’s just me. Ricky Walden is another who a lot of snooker fans support if only because nobody has ever come up with a decent nickname for him (my weak suggestion of ‘The Cat’ given his round the table prowling manner was rejected). For me, if those two bring their top games it could make for a very entertaining Judgement Day showdown, but I have an alternative scenario in my mind. Mark Joyce is a player who I think will be looking at this group and thinking ‘it could have been worse’ and he is the kind of player that can frustrate both Walden and Stevens on his way to The Crucible. Assuming he’s been keeping his eye in, he’ll not be phased by anyone in this group and I’d advise a bet at the price.     

PREDICTED QUALIFIER: Mark Joyce (Best Price 13/2)

Section 7

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is another toughie. Top seed Dark Mavis seems to have gone missing from snooker for the past year and a half so you’d immediately look at the graphic above with a glance to the left and think Crucible regular Anthony McGill is more or less already there. But look again. Lurking as 77th seed for this mini event is a certain James Cahill. Remember him? He may not have been doing what he did at The Crucible last season on a day to day basis but he’s a threat to everyone in this group. He won’t lose his first match, I don’t think he’ll lose his second and then he’ll face Mavis match sharp, he’s done it once and I for one think he has it in him to do it again, 12’s would look very big were he to be facing McGill in a best of 19.    

PREDICTED QUALIFIER: James Cahill (Best Price 12/1)

Section 8

 

 

 

 

 

 

The absence of Chinese players is obviously being more strongly felt when 8 groups into the event you find one with two of them in being something of a novelty, plus Thailand’s speed king Thepchaiya Un-Nooh. I’d argue that you can more or less discount the four on the left of the above graphic and concentrate on what might happen at the business end between the main four. There is very little to go on as regards the head to heads but Un-Nooh on his day is miles ahead of those in his section these days so a best of 19 awaits against Lu Ning or Liam Highfield, opponents who he’d be devastated to lose to given his last best of 19 match could have easily changed the course of the last World Championship. No brainer this section, Un-Nooh all the way. 

PREDICTED QUALIFIER: Thepchaiya Un-Nooh (Best Price 4/5)

Section 9

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thing that surprised me about this group is that Andrew Higginson has dropped so low down the rankings to merit winning three matches instead of two to make it to The Crucible. Unlike Daniel Wells who has been consistent enough in the last few seasons to maintain a decent ranking, Daniel is also a very nice bloke who loves dogs which always puts players up my personal ranking list. But come on, even with the presence of my 190/1 Q-School tip winner Riley Parsons in this section, we’re all just looking at the odds we got on Gary Wilson at the start of the year aren’t we? Oh, just me then. 150/1 on last year’s semi-finalist to have another good run looks good to me, this is his warm up. You don’t want this guy first round Judd.   

PREDICTED QUALIFIER: Gary Wilson (Best Price 8/15)

Section 10

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think we can safely assume there will be a qualifier from England or Wales from this section. I’d not discount the reinvigorated Andrew Pagett from springing a surprise in this group at big odds on experience alone, possibly another for those who like to back outsiders. But realistically I think it is between the big three of O’Donnell, Woollaston and Slessor. Ben is the obvious choice given his recent strong showing in Milton Keynes and he is a player who I always think plays better on TV than he does in qualifiers, similarly to Martin these days which proves they are both becoming big match players at the right point in their careers. If they meet in the match up I think it could go to the wire and I honestly can’t pick a winner. I really can’t, but I have to for the purposes of consistency. Oh by the way, Dunny, you are excused, I have your sicknote.

PREDICTED QUALIFIER: Ben Woollaston (Best Price 11/8)

Section 11

 

 

 

 

 

 

It doesn’t get any easier does it? You have to say there is a strong chance of more overseas involvement at The Crucible from this section as the two top seeds here will take a bit of beating or a resurgent Michael White performance. White has slipped down the rankings at a staggering rate given his undoubted talent and promise and hasn’t been featuring at the business end of events now for some time. Nigel Bond grabbed the headlines at the UK with a win over Judd but I’m not expecting lightning to strike twice here, first rounders Sharav and Brown could conceivably cause an upset here but I’m going to stick with Lyu as I think he’s currently in the better form of the main contenders, despite Noppon Saengkham’s undoubted break building prowess. 

PREDICTED QUALIFIER: Lyu Haotian (Best Price 2/1)

Section 12

 

 

 

 

 

 

A very interesting group here and no doubt the early interest will be on the match between Andy Hicks and Reanne Evans. It’s a good chance for Reanne to make the second round again given that Hicks obviously has his best days way behind him but I’d not expect the winner of that to be able to cope with Sam Craigie, (that said the 200/1 that has now gone on Hicks to qualify was ridiculous and duly taken). In the other half the underrated by some Harvey Chandler and consistent Scott Donaldson for me look set to contest who makes it to the final round while above I’d plump for a Craigie/Hamilton tussle, probably quite literally. There is always a question mark over The Sheriff of Pottingham with his ongoing back/neck issues and if Sam is on his game and in the mood, this is a great chance for him to make the final round as I think he has a similar game to Hamilton but these days a little better. After that, I’d take him to make his talent count and get to The Crucible on sheer determination.

PREDICTED QUALIFIER: Sam Craigie (Best Price 2/1) 

Section 13

 

 

 

 

 

 

They’ve handed Jimmy White a Russian player first up here who I’m told is pretty handy, though, without wishing to sound like a BBC commentator, I’ve not seen him myself. Either way it’s once again a brave or blindly loyal fan who can see Jimmy gracing The Crucible again in his long career, though I’m sure as ever he ‘fancies it’ and is ‘flying in practice’ this week. Both Ashley Carty and Michael Georgiou are capable of springing a minor surprise but again I think this one will go to the top seeded player Jimmy Robertson, he has a strong record against both Rob Milkins and Georgiou and I think over the longer match he’ll prevail against either. For loyal Whirlwind fans, just put ‘Jimmy to qualify’ on your betting slip and be happy with your money back.

PREDICTED QUALIFIER: Jimmy Robertson (Best Price 6/5)

Section 14

 

 

 

 

 

Last season’s ‘Rookie of the Year’ Joe O’Connor hasn’t quite lived up to the accolade since this honour was bestowed upon him, losing a lot more matches this season than he’s won, but perhaps this might be his chance to turn it around and finish things on a high, he may be worth a quid or two on your outsiders list. In fact this is probably one of the most open groups out there, particularly if Kurt Maflin doesn’t bring the game we all know he has, which all too often he doesn’t. He’s one of the best and quickest break makers in the game and for me should be ranked higher than he is but one thing I will say is that he doesn’t lose often to players ranked below him. The obvious danger is Marmite Matt Selt who leads Kurt 2-1 on the head to heads. All in all I think Selt may have the easier ride to the best of 19 finale, although I’d love my pal Allan Taylor to prove me wrong there, but if Maflin has a battle with O’Connor and comes through it perhaps the momentum will be with him.     

PREDICTED QUALIFIER: Kurt Maflin (Best Price 27/20)

Section 15

 

 

 

 

 

A couple of real big hitters have been drawn together here, who on any other year might be seeded to The Crucible automatically. Belgian Bullet Brecel is fresh from a lockdown win in Milton Keynes so is obviously bang in form while Liang Wenbo remains a problem for anyone if he brings anything like his practice game with him. Alfie Burden has been honing his culinary skills over lockdown and like Holt, will have gained an army of fans over this period, but the lack of practice on the baize has to be a concern. Fergal O’Brien is just the type to turn up to a group that is supposedly dominated by two players and beat them both in 2am finishes and don’t be a bit surprised if he does just that. But the form book gives the pointers here and you have to side with recent winner Luca.  

PREDICTED QUALIFIER: Luca Brecel (Best Price Evens)

Section 16

 

 

 

 

 

 

The final group sees the second highest seeded player and Crucible regular Ali Carter take to the baize, with familiar Crucible opponent of recent years Alan McManus also drawn in this section. Merseyside’s Robbie Williams may well have a part to play here, famously unbeaten at the previous qualifiers venue of Ponds Forge, my little gem of information here is that Robbie is one of those players who has no excuse for not being sharp as he has a table at home. But you have to favour Carter to make the final round in what would be a third World Championship meeting with McManus in five years, albeit with the previous two being at the main event, if he were to make it too. It stands at one apiece on their World Championship meetings, so it’s kind of a decider, as are their overall head to heads which stand at 4-4. The reason I’d favour Ali is that Angles seems to be so into the television side of things at the moment perhaps his focus will not be 100%, which he’ll need it to be to spoil The Captain’s flight to Crucible Square.

PREDICTED QUALIFIER: Ali Carter (Best Price 4/7)

UPDATE: Ladbrokes have given me 33/1 on Perry, Dott, Un-Nooh, Gary Wilson, Haotian and Jimmy Robertson to all qualify. You can have a piece of that too if you like.

FURTHER UPDATE: Ladbrokes are offering 5/4 on me getting at least 7 of the above right, which I am confident I will. The more ambitious of you can get 7/1 if you think at least 9 of the above will be correct.

Ladbrokes are also offering 5/2 on Dott, Gary Wilson and Carter to all qualify, which I think is a great bet. 

 

February 24, 2020

The Players Championship

Filed under: snookerbacker @ 7:00 am

Full of old people and Tories

Tonight sees the start of the Coral Players Championship from the new venue of the Waterfront in cultural metropolis of Southport in Merseyside and it’s the top 16 from the one year list competing for a total prize pot of £385,000, all covered by the excellent team at ITV4.

The Hitman Michael Holt stole the last place in this from Ronnie O’Sullivan by winning the Shootout and this means Ronnie won’t be in competitive action again until he steps out at The Crucible in April, assuming that he doesn’t make the trip to Gibraltar in a couple of weeks time and decides that he is going to play in Sheffield.

As well as being worth watching as it’s on ITV, this event also sees a return to the Best of 11 format so it’s a little bit like The Masters in that respect, albeit starting out with the two tables. Following this there will just be the Gibraltar Open and the 8 player Tour Championship to go before all eyes turn to Sheffield for the showpiece of the year, the current seedings for which can be found here.

Here’s the draw for this week. The bets listed below are just for interest at half decent prices but I actually think this one will probably go to form and Judd and Robbo will probably meet in the final, which itself is available at 5/1.      

(1) Judd Trump v Michael Holt (16) – Tuesday February 25 at 7pm

(8) John Higgins v Graeme Dott (9) – Tuesday February 25 at 1pm

(5) Ding Junhui v Stephen Maguire (12) – Monday February 24 at 7pm

(4) Mark Selby v Mark Williams (13) – Monday February 24 at 7pm

(3) Neil Robertson v Joe Perry (14) – Tuesday February 25 at 1pm

(6) Yan Bingtao v Kyren Wilson (11) – Tuesday February 25 at 7pm

(7) Mark Allen v Thepchaiya Un-Nooh (10) – Wednesday February 26 at 1pm

(2) Shaun Murphy v David Gilbert (15) – Wednesday February 26 at 1pm

RECOMMENDED BETS: Stephen Maguire each way at 66/1, Dave Gilbert each way at 28/1. 35/1 on there being at least one century in every match.

   

February 20, 2020

Race to The Crucible

Filed under: snookerbacker @ 11:00 pm

It won’t be long

Hello all, long time no see. As you will have probably gathered, blogging is now something of a come and go kind of pastime to me these days and I’m not planning on reviving the glory days any time soon. But I’m hanging on to this shrinking corner of the information superhighway for now for when the whim takes me to put virtual pen to virtual paper.

One thing that is guaranteed to whet my appetite however is the World Championship and with the cancellation of the China Open I’m hoping that the draw for the qualifiers will be made a bit earlier this year to really give us a chance to have a good old study. The qualifiers remains one of the best events of the whole season and this year with the return to the tiered system it promises to be a bit different and in my view also a bit fairer on those ranked just outside the top 16 who have worked hard to be where they are all season. 

I’ve already had a few bets which I will list at the foot of this post, one of them is a bet I requested from Ladbrokes which reflects my current thinking on what might happen in April and May, in that I believe The Curse will rear it’s ugly head again and that we might see another year where perhaps the two finalists aren’t plucked from the top of the betting market.

As ever the crucial element of all bets is the draw which is why I’d never commit to backing the winner until we know the 32 players and where they line up in the draw, so as usual, I’ll be updating the field below after each of the 4 remaining tournaments ahead of the qualifiers to show how they would line up where it to start tomorrow.

I’ll firm up those whose position in the draw is certain in red. You can find the provisional rankings ahead of the big one

, with the Coral Tour Championship being the last tournament the players will have to jostle for their place in the top 16 ahead of the qualifiers starting on the 8th April.

First Round as things stand

Judd Trump (1) v Qualifier

Joe Perry (16) v Qualifier

Shaun Murphy (9) v Qualifier

Kyren Wilson (8) v Qualifier

Ronnie O’Sullivan (5) v Qualifier

Jack Lisowski (12) v Qualifier

Stuart Bingham (13) v Qualifier

John Higgins (4) v Qualifier

Mark Williams (3) v Qualifier

Stephen Maguire (14) v Qualifier

Dave Gilbert (11) v Qualifier

Mark Allen (6) v Qualifier

Mark Selby (7) v Qualifier

Ding Junhui (10) v Qualifier

Barry Hawkins (15) v Qualifier

Neil Robertson (2) v Qualifier

Bets placed so far: All Each Way – Dave Gilbert at 45/1, Graeme Dott at 190/1, Gary Wilson at 130/1, Thepchaiya Un-Nooh at 190/1, Stephen Maguire at 100/1. Special Bet: Trump, Selby, O’Sullivan or Robertson not to make the final at 19/4. 

January 19, 2020

The Masters Final

Filed under: snookerbacker @ 10:36 am

We meet again

They have been turf war rivals since they were juniors in Essex and today on the second biggest stage of all the two forty-somethings clash for the right to be crowned Masters Champion on the first year of a new decade.

Ali Carter and Stuart Bingham may not have been the names most were expecting to be lining up today (although ahem, I did advise Stuart as a decent each way bet in the original preview) but it’s still a scintillating prospect of a final for all sorts of reasons.

Ali of course shouldn’t even really be playing and has taken full advantage of the generous Christmas present afforded to him by Ronnie O’Sullivan’s decision not to play, I wonder how The Rocket is feeling now about that knee-jerk reaction given that the overall feel of the week has been very much the type of showpiece tournament he professes to love and in which he usually thrives? I’d hazard a guess that he won’t be missing next year.

Stuart has his eye on leg two of the triple crown having won the world but never the UK and the similarity of this run to his world championship win is not lost on snooker fans. At The Crucible too his previous record before going all the way was pretty woeful and he’s turned his previous Masters disasters on their head this week having been beaten first round eight times in nine appearances.

I’m not going to predict a result, I just hope it’s a decent spectacle to finish off what has been an entertaining week. If not the best standard of snooker overall, with only 15 centuries up to now, we have seen it has certainly served up several moments of drama.

Just a note that both players are yet to make a century in the tournament and I think if the winner were to keep that statistic it would be a major first in the modern game and something of a 21st century Perrie Mans tale, who famously won The Masters back in 1979 with a highest break of just 48. Quite amazing JV.

So let the Essex turf war commence, will be Ali’s Pally or Ballrun’s second crown? You can take a look at the dead level head to head record here. 

January 18, 2020

The Masters Semi Finals

Filed under: snookerbacker @ 7:44 am

Do you remember the first time?

It may not be the line up that anyone was expecting but we still have a great weekend of snooker ahead of us at Ally Pally in what has been one of the strangest Masters tournaments of recent years.

The new set-up has been almost unanimously praised by the players and fans and it really feels now that this is a huge occasion again. I have always thought that this was the one to win after the World Championship and I think this week and the changes that have been made have cemented that reputation, so much so that I’m already looking forward to next year and possibly a trip to ‘that London’ to bag me a sofa.

Coupled with this overall feel in terms of tournament ranking lists is the downgrading of the UK Championship format which I hope will be the next thing to be looked at. Let’s get back to the last week being two session matches from the Last 32 onwards rather than this car boot sale feel with multiple tables, it would bring back the prestige to the event, much like the tweaks to this have done. Personally I don’t even think the UK is third in the rankings anymore, such is the extent to which the new format has ruined it.

I particularly like the new graphics that are being used this week and the montages made for each individual player based mostly on their nickname, but god knows what they are going to do if Ricky ‘I haven’t got a nickname’ Walden ever qualifies again. He’ll probably just have a big RW behind him as nicknames are forwarded and rejected by a panicked Rob Walker and the BBC nickname department. Fingers crossed that Ricky continues to operate outside of the upper echelons of the sport.

The sofas are innovative and I think definitely suit the arena, luckily the tournament is scheduled to coincide with a DFS sale, Bazza as ever doesn’t miss a trick. I’m less keen however on the bar at the top and a few people have commented that it’s not really sound proofed and can get a bit shouty as the free bar flows. I’m not a fan of all this corporate hospitality stuff and in my experience it is usually full of freeloading arseholes, usually rich (financially, definitely not intellectually), who are rude to the serving staff, but if that’s the way things are going then so be it. Give me the hushed tones of The Crucible any day of the week. Quiet please. 

Anyway, we’ve all got a semi on today so who is your winner from here?       

Shaun Murphy v Ali Carter (1pm Saturday)

Controversy overshadowed Ali Carter’s quarter final win over John Higgins, a win he somehow achieved by only making one break over 50 in the match. It’s clear that a lot of people on social media just don’t like Ali these days and decided that because of this, he cheated. This is quite a childish and simplistic way to approach things in my opinion and my guess is that if it had been a player they liked they’d have formed a different opinion, I prefer to judge the situation rather than the person in it. I’m of the belief that Ali obviously believed he’d made contact with the yellow ball and therefore immediately corrected the referee, who really should have taken one of two options at that point, either stand her ground or ask for a second opinion from the second referee (who arguably could have intervened to offer support), but it’s such an intense atmosphere out there especially for a referee relatively new to this type of occasion and who prior to this I have to say has been faultless. People are people and we all make errors of judgement, even I did that once. Whatever the outcome, I don’t think this affected the result either way and Carter is here because he won 6 frames and Higgins won 3. Murphy has been very workmanlike so far, nothing fancy but doing enough and clearly reaping the rewards of the hard hours on the practice table over the festive season while everyone else was getting trousered. Ali holds a slight advantage in the head to heads and I know that Murphy is a player he likes playing as almost inevitably you are going to get chances throughout the match. But if he doesn’t up his scoring in this, which I suspect he will, there is only one result. Murphy has that swagger about him this week and looks fully zoned in so I think he’ll just have a bit too much for Ali in the scoring department in this one, he’d still be my pick for the title at this stage.

Prediction: Murphy 6-4   

Dave Gilbert v Stuart Bingham (7pm Saturday)

Well, there is a head to head record to sit up and take notice of. These two have played each other ten times and Bingham has won every single time yet it is his opponent who starts this match as marginal favourite. It’s not even as if you can explain this away by saying that lots of these matches came at a time when Dave Gilbert wasn’t as good as he is now, Bingham clearly has his measure and that alone should really be enough to cast the form book aside and absolutely lump on the Essex man. There is no doubt that Dave is enjoying his debut at Ally Pally and his clinical scoring is seeing him establish unassailable leads against players who have traditionally been a notch ahead of him in the rankings, he’ll have to do the same again tonight you feel against a player who is slowly finding his touch and is now further in this than he has ever been before. I tipped up Stuart to reach the final in the original preview by virtue of what I considered to be a generous draw and I’m going to stick with him solely because of that head to head. If he could set up a final against Murphy it could be the biggest grudge match Ally Pally has ever seen.

Prediction: Bingham 6-3

January 16, 2020

The Masters Quarter Finals

Filed under: snookerbacker @ 7:10 am

After a first round full of surprises it’s time to move on to the last eight, the matches are covered below and if you click on the match it will take you to a magical place full of statistics for your inner anorak.

Shaun Murphy v Joe Perry (Thursday 1pm)

Plenty were expecting this to be a showdown between the Current World and UK Champions but Shaun and Joe had other ideas. Murphy looked as sharp as a tack in dispensing with Judd, he said afterwards that he’d only had Christmas Day off the table in the break and missed lots of family functions to practice, so there is a lesson to us all, it is clearly worth falling out with all your nearest and dearest over Christmas to get results. Joe was cool as the proverbial cucumber in his clinical dismantling of Ding, who apart from a 135 break in the second frame looked back to the Ding we knew and didn’t love before the UK, in other words, distinctly average. If you take out a couple of best of three framers these two have played which Joe won you will deduce that The Gent has only beaten Murphy once in 7 meetings and a head to head like that may play a part in the final outcome. For me Murphy may just have the edge here but I expect a high quality encounter between two players who have been there and bought the waistcoat. Murphy has a great chance to reach the final now the draw has opened up and it won’t have escaped him, I’d make him favourite for The Masters now.

Prediction: Murphy 6-3       

Ali Carter v John Higgins (Thursday 7pm)

These two went through a phase a couple of seasons back where they seemed to be meeting every other week and when you look at the head to heads they have locked horns many times over the years, more so than some players who have been in the highest ranks over the same period. Quite amazing JV. It has to be said that on the big stage Higgins has a decent advantage over Ali. Both you could argue are possibly past their best these days but the competitive spirit never dies and you won’t find many players with more of that than this pair. Higgins beat some bloke doing a poor impersonation of Barry Hawkins in the first round and looked OK, if a little shaky on the long ones. Ali used a Mark Selby fist-pump to inspire him to turn the tables on The Jester in the first round and is looking to make the semi-finals for the very first time in his career. I think this is a tough call, particularly if Carter gets an early lead. I suspect that whoever is ahead after five frames may kick on and win, but who?

Prediction: Higgins 6-4   

Dave Gilbert v Stephen Maguire (Friday 1pm)

Come on then, how well did Dave Gilbert play on his Masters debut? Perhaps because his wife Abbie was nearby on the sofa, presumably with a nice glass of something he might have just felt like he was practising at home, whatever it was he took to the Ally Pally like a racist to Brexit and if he reproduces that performance for the rest of the week he should really win this, what a sporting moment that would be. Maguire produced the mother of all comebacks against Robbo and left the stunned Aussie shell-shocked. Clearly Maguire has been knuckling down lately in practice and is reaping the rewards in the big events following his UK final appearance. As ever with this tournament it’s how they turn up and play on the day, if they both play their best we are in for an absolute classic and if that is the case get on the overs on the centuries. I’m plumping for Dave to win a classic because I kinda love the guy.

Prediction: Gilbert 6-5   

Kyren Wilson v Stuart Bingham (Friday 7pm)

Two of the more assured performances without the bells and whistles saw Kyren survive an early Jack Lisowski onslaught to win six on the spin and Stuart dominate after the mid-session interval to send Mark Williams packing. What strikes me most about this match up is what I’d say is an unlikely head to head record and whenever I see that I have to take it into account. Ballrun has only beaten Kyren once, albeit convincingly in their six meetings and given the vast gulf in experience between the pair I find that quite surprising. There is no doubt that Kyren raises his game to another level in the big events and the way he coolly dealt with Jack when he could easily have lost his head early on was testament to that. Stuart has a woeful record at The Masters, similar to the one he had at The Crucible before he lifted the trophy, could that be an omen? I did tip up Stuart in the main preview though I admit I wasn’t aware then that Kyren has something of a hold on him, but given Ballrun has hammered him once on the big stage, I’m sticking with the big man.

Prediction: Bingham 6-4 

January 9, 2020

The Masters Preview

Filed under: snookerbacker @ 5:30 pm

The World Champion and defending Master is back.

Sunday afternoon sees the start of the snooker showpiece of the winter as we all settle down to watch The Masters from Alexandra Palace in London, which isn’t really a palace but let’s not dwell on such things when we have sixteen of the best players on the planet competing for the top prize.

Much will be made of the absence of Ronnie O’Sullivan and my guess is that knowing him, he’ll find a way to grab a headline or two over the course of the week just to make sure we haven’t forgotten that he’s letting them all win by not coming. It’s a shame that he isn’t playing and I have to say when he said earlier on in the season that he’d not play in the UK, this or the World Championship I thought this was the one he was least likely to swerve, but he’s full of surprises is our Rocket.

Anyway, as we all know, he’s not the best anymore and Judd Trump is back to the scene of his triumph last year ahead of his World Championship procession to defend his title. As ever, it’s not necessarily the holder who plays in the opening match anymore and Judd fans will have to wait until Tuesday to see their hero, with newly crowned UK Champion Ding Junhui facing Joe Perry in this year’s BBC Sunday afternoon delicacy.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at what the first four days have to offer up. Click on the match to take you to the head to head record as well as other anoraky facts and stats at Cue Tracker.

Top Half

Judd Trump v Shaun Murphy (Tuesday January 14 at 1pm)

An unlikely UK Championship exit at the hands of Nigel Bond put paid to Judd’s attempt to hold the UK, Masters and World Championship trophies in his cabinet at home the other side of Christmas. But his run from the start of the season to that defeat was very strong and you could argue that he was overdue a careless one. After his disastrous season last year, Murphy came firing out of the blocks to claim the China Championship at the start of the season just after a narrow defeat to Ronnie in Shanghai’s final, so his work over the closed season with Chris Henry has clearly reaped the rewards. Judd dished out a drubbing in their last meeting in the final of the International Championship and holds a narrow advantage in the head to heads. It will be interesting to see how he reacts to his defeat in York, whether it signals the start of a quiet period leading up to his defence in Sheffield or whether it will simply motivate him to recapture his best, it’s a real test for him this and I can see this being a tight one.

Recommended Bet: Over 9.5 Frames at 11/8 with Hills.     

Ding Junhui v Joe Perry (Sunday January 12 at 1pm)

The curtain raiser at Ally Pally on that cosy Sunday afternoon with Hazel and the gang is traditionally a match I tend to win money on. I don’t even usually look at the players in any great depth, don’t even glance at the head to heads, I don’t ask what the form book says, I don’t question whether one of them can bully the other in the scoring or tactical department, I merely back over 9.5 frames and have a punt on a decider. It’s amazing how many times this materialises. So, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  

Recommended Bets: Over 9.5 frames at 5/4. Match to go to a decider at 7/2.  

Mark Selby v Ali Carter (Sunday January 12 at 7pm)

Of all the people that Ali Carter would not have expected a Christmas present from it’s Ronnie, but that is precisely what he was given when O’Sullivan announced he wasn’t playing here so the World Number 17 takes his place in the tournament to face the three times Masters champion, who for one reason or another, hasn’t really done much in this since his last final in 2014, never progressing beyond the Quarter Finals since then. Selby has an extremely good record over Ali, the last time they met was at The Crucible back in 2014, in a match I watched from beginning to end from the press seats, it was a masterclass from Selby in keeping your opponent at arms length on his way to the title. Ali has only won 2 matches in The Masters in his whole career and sometimes I suppose a venue, or a feel of an event can do that, with that in mind, you’d have to fancy the in-form Jester to prevail here and perhaps recapture his best form on the BBC.

Recommended Bet: Selby -1.5 frames at 8/13 generally  

John Higgins v Barry Hawkins (Tuesday January 14 at 7pm)

A combined total of 50 years in the professional game between these two and surprisingly in all that time they have only met 10 times. Quite amazing JV. As you’d expect, Higgins has the upper hand but they have had two close battles in their most recent encounters with Barry most recently winning a decider in Shanghai. For a player of Higgins pedigree you could argue that his Masters haul of two titles is something of an underachievement and he’s made no secret of the fact that this isn’t a favourite venue of his. Barry has done OK here without setting the place alight and does tend to be a bit in and out just lately, with Higgins having had the best season of the two so far. I’m sensing that Higgins is beginning to just lose a little bit of the magic, particularly in his long game, but he obviously remains as tough as teeth to beat. This is another that I can see coming right down to the wire, possibly even the last few colours to decide who progresses, it just has that feel about it to me.

Recommended Bets: Over 9.5 frames at 11/10. Match to go to a decider at 10/3.     

Bottom Half

Neil Robertson v Stephen Maguire (Monday January 13 at 1pm)

The first thing that struck me when I looked at the head to head stats between these was the lead Maguire has; ‘have I missed something here?’ I mused, but it turns out that this is mostly attributable to the early days in Robbo’s professional career when Mags was arguably at his career best. Since Robbo became World Champion he’s established a lead in the head to heads between the pair, though Maguire has beaten him at The Masters before and quite convincingly too. The UK Championship to me represented the best chance Mags has had to win a major for a decade and I think part of him will see his defeat to Ding as a chance missed given the way he was playing to get to that stage. His main issue down the years much like Robertson has been consistency and I’m sure both of them would rather have been playing someone else. Robbo is very generously donating stacks of his own money for the centuries made in this event to the Australian bushfire victims and for any of the annual Masters Mugs like me who have a go on a ton in every match, I’d be very surprised if this was the match to let us down.

Recommended Bet: Maguire to make at least 1 century in the match at 11/8 with Marathon Bet.   

Mark Allen v Dave Gilbert (Monday January 13 at 7pm)

It’s great to see Dave Gilbert making his Masters debut after 17 years toiling away on the circuit, his run to the semis and so nearly the final in Sheffield capped off a tremendous season and he’s carrying through some of that form into this one and is now firmly established in the top 16. Mark Allen is always a threat at The Masters and the rowdy nature of the (unknowledgable) Ally Pally rabble seems to be right up the sharp-shooting Pistol’s alley. They’ve not met that often down the years but Allen as you’d expect is ahead on the stats, although their last meeting at the beginning of the season saw Gilbert winning 5-3, a sign that he can now mix it with the best of them. I just feel that a combination of a new venue and the fact that Allen likes it here will see the Northern Irishman over the line with a couple of frames to spare this time.

Recommended Bet: Mark Allen (-1.5 frames) at 20/21 (widely available)     

Kyren Wilson v Jack Lisowski (Wednesday January 15 at 1pm)

The two least experienced players in the line up face each other first up with Lisowski currently enjoying a superior head to head over his more successful opponent. Kyren has been a little subdued by his standards so far this season and hasn’t really troubled the business end of anything so far, other than a World Open semi-final appearance early in the season. He’s also lost quite a few matches to players outside the top 16, more perhaps than any other player here this season, so clearly that’s a concern for his fans. Lisowski, like Kyren, is another who has established himself in the top 16 in a relatively short period of time after a few years of that dreaded tag of being ‘the next big thing’. I think this could get a bit twitchy and I can’t see either of them running away with it, I also think that if one first round match won’t have a century in it and sends a few of us into therapy again, it is most likely to be this one.

Recommended Bet: Over 9.5 Frames at 6/5 with Hills.

Mark Williams v Stuart Bingham (Wednesday January 15 at 7pm)

The first round concludes with a battle between perhaps the two least likely world champions of the last decade. 52 years between them as professionals and a pretty close head to head to match, heads that incidentally have significantly less hair on them than when they started out. It’s actually quite surprising that they haven’t met more than they have considering they’ve both been in the upper(ish) echelons of the sport for the best part of 20 years, but sometimes that’s one of those strange quirks that snooker throws up. Talking of throwing up, MJW has taken to posting videos of him totally off his trolley over the festive period and if his preparation talk is to be believed he’s not really all that bothered at all about snooker anymore. Yeah Right. That said, I think Bingham is due a run in something and if he can get over this one I think he’ll make the semis and from there anything is possible.

Recommended Bet: Bingham to win at 10/11 (widely available)

Further recommended Bets: Outrights – Mark Selby at 7/1 and Stuart Bingham each way at 25/1

Recommended Treble – Over 9.5 frames in Ding/Perry, Higgins/Hawkins and Wilson/Lisowski pays almost 9/1 at Hills

Annual Masters Mugs Bet (recommended on Twitter last week) – 33/1 on a century in every match at Ladbrokes/Coral (now backed in to 22/1)    

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