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April 20, 2022​

Betfred World Snooker Championship Round 2 Preview

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— snookerbacker @ 11:32 am

A venue like no other (photo courtesy of Steven Hallworth)
As quick as a flash we now head into the second round at The Crucible, the first round has produced some excellent performances, most notably for me from the maestro Mark Williams and the two youngsters Zhao Xintong and Jackson Page.
Having been to Sheffield for the opening day there was a palpable air of excitement and relief to be back to normality amongst the snooker community. I think that’s definitely feeding into the atmosphere inside the arena. Unfortunately this has not put a stop to the constant and frankly tedious debate every year about moving it somewhere else.
It only ever seems to be the players that have underperformed there that raise this issue. Even the previously tongue-in-cheek criticism aimed at the venue by Mark Williams has been corrected by the man himself who having watched his second round opponent Page from the balcony seats proclaimed it the best venue for snooker on the circuit with a ‘great view form (sic) anywhere #youfogetuntilyouwatchfto@insode (sic)
So we can now look forward to the Last 16 which includes as you’d expect several matches that ‘could be finals’ in any other event, so let’s see who is battling it out from here on in.
As ever, click on the match to take you to the Head to Head record courtesy of the excellent Cue Tracker.
Mark Selby v Yan Bingtao (Friday 2.30pm, Saturday 10am and 7pm)

There are plenty who are already writing off Selby’s chances this year and have been quick to point out his errors in his opening match. But that is kind of what Selby does here, he never really looks like steamrollering anyone, particularly in the early rounds, he just gets the job done and to me his workmanlike performance against Jones saw off a very dangerous player playing his C game, not many other players here can do that. Yan had an early scare against Chris Wakelin and was impressive in the way he accelerated away when the pressure was on, he’s also beaten Selby on their past three meetings so clearly this is one that the Chinese player will fancy his chances in. Yan is aiming to make the Quarter Finals for the first time in his career while Selby looks to make the one-table situation for the third year on the spin. Even though I flagged up Selby as the winner in the preview, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Yan managed to send him packing here, but if Selby can come through this test, he’s still bang in contention for a fifth title.
Prediction: Yan 13-9
Jackson Page v Mark Williams (Thursday 1pm, Friday 10am and 7pm)
A superb first round performance by both Welshmen earns them the right to clash over the best of 25 here. The man Williams refers to as his ‘fourth son’ blew Barry Hawkins away in Round One in one of the most impressive Crucible debuts for many years. The established wisdom of keeping your distance from your opponent and playing your cards close to your chest has been thrown to the wolves with these two. They remain joined at the hip in and around the venue, the only cards being kept close being the ones they gamble their evening meals together on. Williams himself was awesome in the first round and if he keeps up that form he will take some stopping. As one shrewd pundit said the other day, the close proximity and relationship between the two won’t phase Williams one bit when it comes to going into battle, all the risk is on Jackson in that department. But my guess is that part of Williams’ legendary laid back temperament will have rubbed off on him and I expect this to be a no-holds barred affair. Just by virtue of MJW’s vastly superior experience and tactical acumen he’ll probably win, but it will have precious little to do with the unconventional preparation that both of them have undertaken.
Prediction: Williams 13-10
Kyren Wilson v Stuart Bingham (Sunday 10am and 7pm, Monday 1pm)
Contrasting first round matches for these two against Chinese opponents saw Bingham come through unscathed and unchallenged against Lyu while Kyren had a battle royale with Ding. They met at this stage in 2017 when Kyren raced off into a 5-0 lead before being pegged back to 8-7, before eventually winning 13-10. I think Kyren is a better player now than he was back then, in particular in the break-building department which is the area that in my opinion has elevated him into the upper echelons of the game. Bingham is another who hits tons for fun so the bet in this match is most definitely the overs on the centuries market. In terms of a result, given what I have just written there is nothing to suggest history won’t repeat itself and Kyren won’t prevail again, though they have had two very close matches since at the Masters, each winning one. Could be a cracker this one.
Prediction: Wilson 13-12


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Neil Robertson v Jack Lisowski (Saturday 7pm, Sunday 2.30pm, Monday 7pm)

These two met at this stage last year with Robbo running out a fairly comfortable 13-9 winner having only been behind by the odd frame early in the match before pulling clear. Indeed the head to head here is pretty telling with the Aussie leading 6-0. What is interesting is that all their previous 4 meetings have been multi-session matches with Neil coming out on top each time. In terms of form, Robbo looked pretty good in patches in his first round having survived an early scare but he was never really going to lose that match and the real tests lie ahead. He came off babbling something about having the Crucible as the centre court, like the tennis, with another venue somewhere else in Sheffield holding some other matches for the plebs, I’m not sure that idea will take off no matter how many times he says it. Jack went through several pairs of underpants to finally put Matthew Stevens out of his misery and his new mentor Peter Ebdon could be seen marching past purposefully behind him with what looked like Del Boy’s filofax in his hand, presumably with notes on the match to discuss at length with his pupil, visible to the more eagle-eyed viewer was one page in big red letters proclaiming ‘GROW A PAIR FFS’. Anyway, head to heads don’t lie and I really can’t see Jack overturning these stats here. Neil seems to be enjoying the early stages and that’s not good news for the rest of the field.

Prediction: Robertson 13-8

Zhao Xintong v Stephen Maguire (Thursday 7pm, Friday 2.30pm, Saturday 10am)

At the risk of going all JP on you, I’d not seen Zhao play live until last Saturday and I join the legions of admirers in saying that he seems to have everything needed to be a world champion. His calming demeanour around the table distracts from the ruthlessness and speed with which he despatches opponents, he barely ever plays the wrong shot and seems to let nothing phase him. The fact that Ronnie has helped him in one specific area that he’s not prepared to tell anyone about makes me think that he has corrected the one part of his game that might have been troubling him. As for Maguire, he no doubt benefitted from a poor performance by Shaun Murphy in Round 1 but he did all he had to do to win and break a pattern of first round defeats here, when you look at his Crucible record he’s lost in the first round in 7 of the last 9 years which for a player of his standard is very poor indeed. This match is all about if Zhao can kick on further and I think he can, this kid is the real deal and a major contender for the title even at this early stage in his winning career. I think you’ll struggle to find any regular snooker watchers who don’t expect him to win here, so it will be interesting to see how he handles being favourite against an established pro with a quite intimidating presence on the biggest stage of them all.

Prediction: Zhao 13-8

Mark Allen v Ronnie O’Sullivan (Friday 10am and 7pm, Saturday 2.30pm)

The last time these two met it was a bad tempered affair in the Champion of Champions. As ever when tempers come into it Ronnie was losing and argued with Allen for over a minute about his positioning when he was down on his shot, Mark coming through the match 6-3 in the end. Going back 13 years we saw a fresh-faced Allen overcome Ronnie at this stage 13-11 in a memorable match. It seemed inevitable then that Allen would be a world champion sooner rather than later, but as it turned out that would be the only year he made the one-table situation to this day, despite a winning career away from The Crucible. You can only hope for Allen’s sake that this match invokes the spirit and fight he had back then to make history repeat itself. Who would have thought all that time ago that 13 years later O’Sullivan would still be Number 1 in the world? Ronnie himself seems in fine fettle and has a camera crew following him around the venue, presumably wanting to witness at first hand the year snooker’s biggest draw equalled Hendry’s tally of world titles in Oasis-style documentary format. Whilst I do think Allen will be inspired here and enjoy coming out as the underdog I think Ronnie is just playing a bit too well at the moment to go home just yet.

Prediction: O’Sullivan 13-9


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Anthony McGill v Judd Trump (Saturday 2.30pm, Sunday 2.30pm, Monday 7pm)

Two fairly mediocre performances in Round 1 saw these two progress as the modern day Crucible giant killer McGill attempts to add Judd to his list of victims down the years. They have never met over anything longer than the best of seven so the 6-1 head to head in Judd’s favour is probably best taken with a pinch of salt. Of the two, McGill had the biggest test in Round 1 and came through in the end by virtue of a fluke on his way to clear to win, but he’d kept Liam Highfield at arms length throughout the match and scrapped to the win. Judd on the other hand looked OK by his standards but was helped by a poor performance by Hossein. I’d expect them both to play better in this match but it’s not one that on paper I can get too excited about, no result in this would surprise me but I think there is probably value in backing McGill who will be able to exploit any mistakes Judd makes lot better than his last opponent did. So let the Crucible Giant Slayer, the Smiling Assassin, the Glaswegian Gladiator or whatever you want to call him, get to work again.

Prediction: McGill 13-11

Noppon Saengkham v John Higgins (Sunday 10am and 7pm, Monday 1pm)

Definitely another match to have a good look at the centuries markets, both devastating scorers when in the balls, these two could have a real break-fest here I reckon. They’ve met 6 times over the years, never more than a best of nine but it’s 3 apiece. Interestingly, their most recent meetings since 2019 sees Noppon ahead 3-1 so Higgins will know that his opponent presents a danger to him. I did find it odd that the BBC and to some extent Eurosport classed Noppon’s win over Luca a surprise, for all the reasons I gave in the original preview, I thought the Thai was a cracking bet. Higgins in the meantime held off a spirited effort from Thepchaiya kncoking in three tons and a 98, so he’s clearly feeling up for it here once more and remains a lot of people’s fancy for the title. I think Noppon has a chance here and I was all for flagging him up again, but I had a niggle just in the way he failed to close out the match against Luca sooner, that’s probably too critical on my part but if he gets in that situation against Higgins he will have to be far more ruthless, so on balance I think Higgins will probably prevail, look out for those breaks though.

Prediction: Higgins 13-8


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April 26, 2022​

Betfred World Snooker Championship Quarter Finals

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— snookerbacker @ 6:38 am
We’ve now reached the last eight stage of the World Championship and it’s time to see who will be taking their place on the one table situation.

The last 16 saw the pre-championship favourite Neil Robertson fall despite an emphatic 147 and we are left with five former champions and three possible first time winners.
As ever, click on the match to take you to the head to head record courtesy of Cue Tracker.
Yan Bingtao v Mark Williams
(Tue 10am/7pm, Wed 2.30pm)
In terms of meaningful matches, if Yan is to make the one table set up for the first time, he will have to do what he has not done before, namely, beat Mark Williams. Their most recent encounter came in January when MJW brought Yan’s Masters defence to an early end at Ally Pally and prior to that, their three previous meetings have all seen the Welshman come out on top. Both have been impressive so far, Williams has been outstanding and hasn’t been troubled at all in either of the all Welsh clashes he’s had, but you would have to think that Yan will put up a much stronger fight now we are really approaching the business end of the championship. Yan himself was hugely impressive in seeing off Selby, plenty of players would have caved in under the pressure but Yan used experience and nouse beyond his years to come through, even injecting a bit of humour both during and after the match at his press conference. When he was asked if he had always looked up to Selby as an inspiration from an early age, he replied with a stone-faced one word answer of ‘No’. In terms of the match, I’d be very surprised if either of them came through this easily, but of the two I have to side with Williams, when he is playing like this he is extremely hard to beat and over this long distance I just see his greater all round game making the difference. I think the first session is key in this one and Yan must not lose it to stand a chance.
Prediction: Williams 13-9
Stuart Bingham v Judd Trump
(Tue 2.30, Wed 10am/7pm)
Although the head to heads between these two show Judd holding a 7-4 advantage, if you actually look at the more meaningful matches between them there is precious little in it and you might argue that it’s Stuart who holds a slight advantage on the bigger stages. The year Stuart won here these two had an epic semi-final which went all the way with barely anything to choose between them over the four sessions so this one really does have thriller written all over it. Bingham was very impressive in closing out the match against Kyren and is happy going under the radar in a field packed with big names, Judd stuttered a little against McGill and rode his luck a bit towards the end, but overall he’s playing his way into the tournament despite not yet being anywhere near his best. I think if they both play as they have been so far, Bingham will win, but The Crucible does strange things to players and sometimes it’s those who start the weakest that finish the strongest. I think out of all the quarter finals this one is the most difficult to call.
Prediction: Bingham 13-12
Jack Lisowski v John Higgins
(Tue 2.30pm, Wed 2.30pm/7pm)
Four years ago in the Last 16 these two met with Higgins racing off to a 10-0 lead before Jack finally won his first and only frame of the match, so one thing we can probably say for certain here is that it couldn’t possibly be any worse for Lisowski this time around. Following his dramatic win over Robbo, Jack appeared completely shell-shocked and couldn’t remember any details of the final frame, this suggests to me that whatever Peter Ebdon is whispering in his ear is definitely helping him focus on the job and forget how nervous he must be, he’s not really been the best under pressure in the past but perhaps working with the horse healer extraordinaire has helped him turn that particular corner. Regardless, he’ll have to keep it up here if he’s to progress with Higgins looking as sharp as ever both in terms of his game and his new found fitness regime. We’ve been here before with Higgins, carefully going about his business and gradually getting better round by round, but Jack has the momentum now, the big question is, has his race been run or can he progress onto claiming another big scalp?
Prediction: Higgins 13-10
Stephen Maguire v Ronnie O’Sullivan
(Tue 10am/7pm, Wed 10am)
As ever, we continue to run out of superlatives to describe snooker’s main box office draw. His dismantling of Mark Allen was quite something, it’s not every day that a scrapper like Allen can be played with like that and it shows that this year Ronnie most definitely means business. He continues to be followed all over the place by the Eurosport documentary crew, which some might say will inspire him to take that next step up in the record books and join Hendry on seven titles, it’s definitely the kind of thing that may be written in the stars by the snooker gods. Maguire has played well so far without pulling up any trees and his opponent in the last rounds’ sub-standard and nervy performance early on in the match definitely helped his cause. Dennis will proclaim that it’s quite amazing that these two haven’t faced each other since the first round here 4 years ago and furthermore that Maguire hasn’t beaten Ronnie in a decade; indeed the head to head does make pretty grim reading for the Scot. That said, Ronnie rarely hammers him but you really can’t make a strong case for Maguire here no matter how hard you try, he’s much in the same bracket as Allen and look what Ronnie did to him. Wouldn’t it be something if the Class of ’92 trio all graced the one table stage even at this point in their glittering careers?
Prediction: O’Sullivan 13-6


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April 28, 2022​

Betfred World Snooker Championship Semi-Finals

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— snookerbacker @ 8:29 am

A situation of one-tableness
They always claim on the telly that we’re only half way through the championship when we get to this stage. They wax lyrical while raising knowledgeable eyebrows that you’ve had to win 36 frames to get here and now you have to win another 35 to win it and blah blah blah blah blah, what a load of old nonsense that is.
The four that are left, all with £100k already in their back pocket, will all be imagining what it would be like to win this again. With 14 titles between them it’s not going to be a new name on the trophy, but who will it be that adds to their tally? Will the multiples keep multiplying or will one of them join the illustrious club of those who have won this more than once?
The Class of ’92 are all here and they between them must fend off the only one left who isn’t a multiple champion in Judd. So whatever happens, this is a championship that will be talked about for a long time, there are sharpened pencils at the ready for a big story whoever wins it and you can of course make a case for any of them.
So let’s have a look at both semi-finals, click on the match for the head to head, though to be fair, that’s not really going to tell us a lot with the four that are left.
Mark Williams v Judd Trump
Thurs1pm, Fri 10am and 7pm, Sat 2.30pm
Surprisingly few meetings over anything like a meaningful distance means these two come into this playing only their second match over more than one session. Judd has had the best of their recent tussles with that one meeting over the best of 17 going all the way with Judd winning 9-8 in the Tour Championship four years ago. Williams has had one bad session in the whole event, he claimed afterwards that he struggles to play more than one session per day given his advancing years, so if anyone thinks he is telling the truth, you might as well write off his chances now, although at least you could argue that if he starts well, he can possibly afford a bit of a blip on Friday evening in this one. Judd on the other hand has not been anything like his best so far and the manner in which Bingham completely collapsed in the Quarter Final must go down as one of the biggest meltdowns in Crucible history. Judd in the end didn’t even have to up it a gear to beat him. The plus for Judd’s army of fans is that his attitude is good, he’s claiming to take a leaf out of Mark Selby’s book and learning how to win at all costs, even if this means winning ugly, which is precisely what you could argue he has been doing this far. He’s bound to come good at some point though surely and despite me wanting Williams to give it one last push and claim a fourth title, I just think Judd looks the fresher of the two at this stage and the more likely to start improving now we’re down to the one table, it’s a bit of a walk now to the table grandad.
Prediction: Trump 17-12
John Higgins v Ronnie O’Sullivan
Thurs 7pm, Fri 2.30pm, Sat 10am and 7pm
The two gladiators of the modern game meet for the 72nd time depending on which matches you count as proper ones. Of the 782 competitive frames they have played against each other since the 1994 Dubai Classic it stands at Ronnie 393-389 Higgins, which sounds like one of the world final scores from back in Joe Davis’ days, playing all over the place for six months only to be separated at the end by 4 frames, that’s what I call proper snooker. In terms of their performances here, it’s clear that Ronnie has been the sharper and has been totally untroubled in any of his matches, much like most of the times he’s ended up as champion. John came through a grueller against Lisowski and had to call upon all his vast experience to make it through, proving again that he is without doubt snooker’s greatest modern day match-player and winner. It’s the sixth time they have met at The Crucible with Higgins leading 3-2 and it will doubtless be mentioned that John has had the edge in their most recent meetings and that this might play a factor here, but I don’t think it will personally. They are both far too experienced to let any of that enter their heads and all they will be thinking about is what happens over the course of the next three days, rather than what might have happened in the past. On the evidence of the past week and a bit and the form they are both in, the battle fatigue that can start to kick in and all things taken into account, I think Ronnie is in much the better shape to kick on and win a seventh title.
Prediction: O’Sullivan 17-11


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May 1, 2022​

Bet Fred World Championship Final

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— snookerbacker @ 10:08 am
History in the making. That’s an odd phrase isn’t it? I mean by definition everything is history in the making because it hasn’t happened yet. Whether it’s me putting the bins out (usually on a Wednesday around 5pm for reference) or Ronnie O’Sullivan aiming to equal the tally of seven world titles with Stephen Hendry, it simply hasn’t occurred at this point in time, although you could argue that me putting the bins out at 5pm on a Wednesday is a bit more predictable and rather less likely to be talked about in years to come.

Anyway, we’ll stick with it, Ronnie aims over the next two days to add an historic seventh title to the history books. He will of course, claim that records mean nothing to him, that it’s for mere mortals like us to worry about rather than himself, but I’m sure there is part of him that would love to finish his glittering career with at least as many as Hendry, if not more.
Standing in his way is Judd Trump after a fantastic semi-final against Mark Williams. In a pulsating Saturday afternoon at The Crucible, Judd having thrown away a commanding first two session lead had to win the final two frames to come through in a decider. He’s clearly enjoying the experience and to me seems to be employing a different mindset in this championship, namely, winning rather than playing to the crowd, and it seems to be working out pretty well.
Ronnie on the other hand has barely broken sweat this year and comes into the final after breezing through against an uncharacteristically angry, cue-banging version of John Higgins in the semi-finals. The fact that Ronnie has been unchallenged since going 3-0 down in the first round to Dave Gilbert has that air of predictability about the outcome of the final to me.
Their head to heads are quite similar to Ronnie and Higgins, though of course with less meetings. In 26 matches they stand at 13 each and of the 310 frames played Ronnie leads by just 4. Judd has had the better of their recent meetings but Ronnie broke a losing sequence in February with a 6-3 victory in the Players Championship. It’s the second time they have met at The Crucible with Ronnie taking the semi-final back in 2013, 17-11. So in terms of what the match ups tell us, it’s simply that you’re not going to find any clues as to what will happen here from reading them.
You just have to look at how they are playing coming into this and to me it’s clear that despite Judd improving match by match and it has to be said having The Snooker Gods sat next to him, it’s O’Sullivan who is in the better form. The camera crew from Eurosport continue to follow him around monitoring his every move for the forthcoming documentary epic and perhaps the tale will conclude in Ronnie rewriting the history books for them.
Hopefully it will be a decent match, if I was going to plump for a scoreline, I’d say Ronnie will win 18-15, leading for most of the match before Judd mounts a mini-comeback towards the end, though it’s probably a lot more likely I’ll be putting the bins out on Wednesday at 5pm.