Thursday will mark the return of the Snooker Shoot Out to our screens, with the 2018 edition back at the Colosseum in Watford and live on ITV4.
The Shoot Out, for right or wrong reasons, is one of the most talked about tournaments on the calendar, mostly because of its controversial format and its recently attributed status of a ranking event.
Last year was the first to see the event open up to all the professionals on the Main Tour, with the £32,000 on offer for the champion counting towards the world rankings list.
It proved to be the difference between 2017 champion Anthony McGill reaching the World Championship automatically and facing the dreaded three-round qualification nightmare ordeal in an effort to reach the Crucible.
The majority of people – players and fans alike – have never been too bothered either way with the Snooker Shoot Out’s inclusion on the schedule as it has always offered something a little different to enjoy mid-season when the pressure cooker is intensifying ahead of the inevitable jostle for spots in Sheffield.
However, the tournament’s upgrade was a kick in the teeth to the sport’s long history and immediately cheapened the feat of being able to proudly stand among the elite group of ranking event champions.
Why? Because to triumph in the Shoot Out, a competitor is required to win a mere seven frames throughout the short four-day event and, perhaps even more damning, it doesn’t even adhere to the common rulebook.
Frames last just ten minutes with shot clocks of 15 and 10 seconds respectively initiated for the first and second five-minute spells.
In addition, fouls will be called if a player’s shot doesn’t connect with a cushion or pot a ball, while fouls also result in the more free-flowing ball-in-hand.
While the staunchest of traditionalists moan at its very existence and take every opportunity they can to lambast its place on the calendar, the opposite is indeed true for the new breed of fan that the event helps to attract.
Whether the former care to admit it or not, the Snooker Shoot Out is popular and it will remain a fixture as long as it pulls in the audiences both inside the arena and on the television networks.
A couple of years ago, there would have been no angst from here towards the staging of the event and, in general, that sentiment is the same – but it remains a crying shame that it has been rewarded with ranking event privilege.
Should a newcomer emerge with a maiden ranking title on Sunday, the history books will have him on a par with the likes of Matthew Stevens, who captured his sole ranking event at the prestigious UK Championship, and fellow Welshman Ryan Day, who after years of hard graft finally found silverware at the Riga Masters last summer.
This is paramountly and unequivocally wrong, but there’s nothing that can be done about it as Barry Hearn, who must be generously applauded for what he has done with the sport in the last decade overall, and co. are unlikely to ever budge on the matter.
Anyway, most of the 131 professionals on the circuit have taken up their opportunity of competing and who can blame them as a few good frames and a large slice of luck stands in their way of a wad of cash and a heap of ranking points.
Some, like stars Mark Selby, Ronnie O’Sullivan, John Higgins, Judd Trump, and Ding Junhui have decided against taking part, instead understandably accepting the chance to rest ahead of the busy climax to the campaign where more lucrative opportunities for them await.
But for others, like Stephen Maguire and Liang Wenbo, it seems perplexing that they have chosen to opt out of proceedings when so much is at stake.
The pair is hovering just outside the top 16 in the provisional Race to the Crucible standings and, whether their decision to miss the weekend is due to tactical or political reasons, it certainly seems to be a wasteful choice.
Especially for Liang, who stands outside the top 32 in the one-year rankings list, meaning that it’s now impossible for the Chinese number two to qualify for the upcoming World Grand Prix in Preston.
McGill, though, is back to defend his crown and has been drawn with Mark Davis in the first round, while two-time runner-up Xiao Guodong faces David Grace.
Man of the moment Mark Williams, winner of three tournaments already this term including the German Masters last week in Berlin, meets Li Hang and Masters champion Mark Allen plays Tom Ford.
Among the other eye-catching first round ties in the random FA Cup-style draw are 2012 winner Barry Hawkins’ bout with Shaun Murphy – with the top seeds incredibly drawn to face each other in the last 128 – 2013 champion Martin Gould’s encounter with Ken Doherty, and Anthony Hamilton’s battle with crowd favourite Jimmy White.
Of course, it’s all just a big lottery, a game of roulette that could throw up one winner or another in any given game depending on just the roll of the ball.
Who’ll hit the jackpot in this year’s Snooker Shoot Out is anyone’s guess.