So I’m back from the Championship League at Crondon Park in Essex and am delighted to be able to report that this new event appears to be a worthwhile addition to the snooker calendar.

There were a few fears that the players wouldn’t take it seriously but, from early on, it was clear that they were.

Indeed, when Mark Williams played Matthew Stevens they fought every bit as hard as they did when they contested the 2000 world final.

When Mark missed out on the play-offs yesterday he was absolutely gutted.

This goes to prove that a round robin format will work if there is financial reward - £100 per frame in this instance – on offer.

This is a perfect event for the players. With such big gaps between tournaments, what they want is quality match practice. Even better, they are getting paid for it.

Joe Perry ended up with £7,700 and is still going in the event. Ryan Day pocketed £6,100 in just two days.

This begs the question: why on earth would any player turn down the chance to play in this – as Graeme Dott, Neil Robertson and Stephen Maguire did?

What else would they be doing other than practising in the club?

I suspect they didn’t quite appreciate the opportunity provided by the Championship League. If they speak to any of the players who did compete then I’d imagine they’d regret not accepting the invite.

Credit must go to Barry Hearn and his Matchroom team for making this innovation work. They are open, honest and good natured people who will also hold their hands up if things need changing.

This resulted in the semis and final being reduced to best of fives because the general pace of slow was slower than imagined. Next time, the matches will start at 1pm rather than 2pm. The cloths seemed a little on the slow side but this can be sorted out before the event resumes.

The matches were streamed on the web by Perform, an enthusiastic, hard working bunch who did an excellent job in producing live, high quality snooker on the internet all day, free for whoever wanted to watch it.

Shaun Murphy and Mark Selby are among the players coming into the next group.

They’ve certainly made the right decision in deciding to play.



Matchroom's new Championship League event will be screened live on in the internet on at least three betting websites.

Bet365, Betfair and William Hill have all signed up to show the new competition, which starts next Monday.

Other betting partners are expected to be announced shortly.

The Championship League, played at Crondon Park, Essex features seven groups, each containing seven players.

The winner of group one goes into a final winner's group while the bottom two players are relegated. The remaining four players go into group two where they are joined by three new players.

The process is repeated until the seven players are found for the winner's group. The eventual winner of this earns a place in the lucrative Premier League next season.

The first group features former world champions Ken Doherty and Mark Williams, as well as Joe Perry, Ali Carter, Ryan Day, Matthew Stevens and Barry Hawkins.

Nigel Bond, Anthony Hamilton and Joe Swail will join group two while Shaun Murphy and Mark Selby are among the top players to figure in the later groups. Players will receive £100 per frame.

The commentators will include Clive Everton, Phil Yates and myself.

Log on to the individual betting websites for how to watch the action live.



Our editor, Clive Everton, has won the Midland Amateur Billiards Championship for the 15th time - 46 years after his first victory in the tournament.

Clive, for many years a professional but now reinstated in the amateur ranks, beat Norman Routledge 250-98 in the final.



It's never too early to start talking about the Crucible. Even if it is, I'm going to.

The 888.com World Championship gets underway in precisely two months time. I got to thinking about who might win it after someone remarked to me that it is ‘the most open World Championship’ ever.

I actually disagree with this and think it will come down to a straight fight between six players – five in their 20s and one in his 30s.

The 20-somethings are Stephen Maguire, Neil Robertson, Ding Junhui, Mark Selby and Shaun Murphy. The 30-something is Ronnie O’Sullivan.

Let’s deal with the latter first. It would be foolish to write off Ronnie’s chances after what happened at the Welsh Open. He suffered similar disappointment when he lost the 2004 Wembley Masters 10-9 to Paul Hunter from 7-2 up and bounced back to land a second world title at Sheffield.

If O’Sullivan comes good in April/May he will, as ever, take some stopping. We don’t know yet who he will play in the first round (the draw is on March 11) but after that it seems quite favourable until the semi-finals.

Maguire made the early running this season, winning the Northern Ireland Trophy and reaching the UK Championship final. Has he peaked too early? I’d say after his semi-final disappointment against John Higgins at the Crucible last year that he’ll get himself up for this year’s event like never before.

He will probably have to beat Robertson in the second round, which will be no easy task despite the Aussie’s lack of form this season.

I expect Robertson to start playing well soon and remember this: none of the last three winners (Murphy, Dott and Higgins) had any sort of season heading into the World Championships they eventually won.

Selby is, of course, on a roll and his tough, never-say-die style will take some beating. For someone being labelled by some as a plodding grinder, he can actually knock in the breaks as well (three in a row against Ebdon last year and four in the Masters final). I expect Selby to go close at the Crucible.

Murphy is Mr. Consistency but, like all top players, would prefer trophies. I’d be amazed if he didn’t feature in the quarter-finals at least.

And what of Ding? Right now, for various reasons, he’s my tip to win it. Yes, his form has dipped in and out of late but if he can bring it all together – as he has before – he’s as good as anyone.

The Chinese potter made his Crucible debut last year and was unlucky to draw O’Sullivan. This season he’s seeded straight through and can stay at home – or at least at home-from-home – at his Sheffield base, away from the circus that is the World Championship.

And I know this: in terms of the interest it would create, there could be no better winner for snooker.



Ronnie O'Sullivan did himself few favours with his post final comments after losing 9-8 from 8-5 up to Mark Selby in last night's Welsh Open.

"I don't know if Mark's talented," he said. "He plays a very negative game. He doesn't take a ball on unless he's going to leave it safe."

In O'Sullivan's defence, he said this literally minutes after he was defeated, when the frustration at having thrown away a big lead still burned deep.

However, any suggestion that Selby somehow won the title by default is ridiculous.

O'Sullivan was in first on 24 in the decider but failed to make a fairly simple cannon into the reds off the black.

At the end, he lashed out at a very risky double, from which he lost the match.

Selby applied pressure, which is what you have to do. He is more methodical in pace than O'Sullivan. This is how he plays. Why would he suddenly speed up?

His comeback was a tribute to his tenacity, his self belief and, yes, his talent.

He's a worthy winner.



Ronnie O'Sullivan raised his game to its highest level to repel the challenge of Shaun Murphy in the Welsh Open semi-finals at Newport last night.

It was thrilling, at times awesome stuff and typical of what he's capable of.

However, it does not make him a certainty for the title.

There has been a lot of nonsense written about Ronnie down the years. Much of it has been spiteful towards him and motivated, I suspect, by envy.

But then there's the much stated myth: 'if Ronnie plays his best he can't lose.'

This simply isn't true. He played his best in the 2006 Masters final and lost to John Higgins. In Newport just last year he was on form but outplayed by Neil Robertson. There are many other examples from over the years.

The other pointless statement often trotted out about him is 'if O'Sullivan had (for example) Ebdon's temperament he'd never lose.'

So what? If Ebdon had Ronnie's talent then Peter would never lose.

Sport isn't about ifs and buts, it's about what happens on the field of play.

Therefore, Ronnie is right to be regarded as the most talented player of all time but he isn't the greatest.

The only test of greatness in sport is this: what you've won.

Stephen Hendry won seven world titles in the 1990s. O'Sullivan played in five of these championships and failed to reach the final once.

He has won at the Crucible twice. Most would agree it should have been more (and of course still could be) but you don't get your name on the trophy because of opinions, only by actually winning the thing.

Mark Selby is an interesting player in that he seems to genuinely enjoy every aspect of being a professional.

He reminds me - and I don't say this lightly - of Paul Hunter. Selby's always looking to entertain and is generous with his time off the table.

He's also, as we saw yesterday against Hendry, in excellent form and full of confidence after his Masters victory.

He's beaten O'Sullivan before, in the 2002 China Open. No doubt some would argue that this doesn't count as if Ronnie had played his best he would have won.

But sport doesn't work like this and, however the Rocket plays today, he knows he's got his work cut out.



Mark Selby and Shaun Murphy have played the best snooker of the Welsh Open but this does not neccessarily mean that they will contest the final.

This is because their repsective semi-final opponents are a couple of up-and-comers by the names of Stephen Hendry and Ronnie O'Sullivan.

Hendry has cued really well from 4-3 down to Ryan Day in the last 16. His long potting is good, he's not taking on low percentage pots and, crucially, his concentration is strong.

The seven times world champion is through to a record 80th ranking event semi-final (Steve Davis is next on 58). This is his first since the Maplin UK Championship in December 2006 and he will be determined to make it count.

It also comes 16 years to the day since he won the inaugural Welsh Open in 1992.

O'Sullivan has coasted so far. He's not played his best snooker but hasn't had to as Judd Trump, Steve Davis and, in particular, Ali Carter each failed to take their chances against him.

Selby has been superb. He is doing what Davis said was crucial: playing like it means nothing when it means everything.

In a similar vein, Malta Cup champion Murphy looks cool, calm and collected every time he comes to the table.

Form points towards the two 20-somethings contesting the final but such are the reputations of their semi-final opposition that anything could happen.

What is certain is this: after the somewhat dispiriting start to the week we're set for a grandstand finish to the Welsh Open.


I was saddened to hear of the death of the referee John Bushby, whose passing was marked by Ian McCulloch wearing a black armband in his match with Shaun Murphy at this week's Welsh Open.

John was a real character. He was also an extra in Bridge on the River Kwai, although he told me he had never managed to spot himself on screen despite several viewings.

Snooker, mercifully, is not like football or, increasingly, cricket, where the officials are abused, sworn at and generally treated like dirt.

There are very, very few incidents of trouble between snooker players and officials. The men and women in the middle command great respect and rightly so.

It's a job that requires long hours of concentration and, at times, a lot of bottle in applying such unpopular things as the miss rule.

Michaela Tabb, I thought, was particularly good in silencing a rowdy Wembley Arena crowd at the end of the Saga Insurance Masters final last month by reminding them that Mark Selby was on track to equal the highest break, which he eventually did.

The refs of the 1980s were almost as well known as the players. Len Ganley even starred in commercials.

Len's son, Mike, now does an excellent job as WPBSA tournament director.

There are now some younger referees cropping up at main tour venues and a clutch of officials from outside the UK.

Where would the game be without them?



What a great win for Mark Williams last night, 5-4 from 4-2 down against Marco Fu.

I said on commentary for Eurosport that the decider was one of the most important frames of his career. I didn't feel like an overstatement then and it doesn't feel like one now.

Had he lost it, he would have been no better than 35th in the provisional rankings and bang under pressure at the China Open. Now he's won it the Welsh left-hander is up to 29th with a chance to go higher.

What impressed me last night was Williams's attitude. Neither player was at the top of his game but Fu would admit that he had a great run of the ball. Everything seemed to go against Williams but he didn't once let his head drop or allow frustration to overcome him.

In the end, this is why he won.

Anyone who knows Mark will attest to how laid back he is but, on the table, he's always been a fighter.

Look at the two world titles he won - both by 18-16 margins.

Look at his Masters victory over Stephen Hendry ten years ago when he came from 9-6 down to win 10-9 on a re-spotted black.

Look at his capture of the Welsh title in 1999 when he edged Hendry 9-8.

Dropping out of the top 32 would be a huge blow to him. Indeed, he spoke darkly of retirement should it happen after losing at the Masters.

I don't think he would walk away even if he were consigned to life in the qualifiers.

Equally, I think Williams is now most likely to remain in the top 32 and, who knows, he may even scrape into the top 16 with a good finish to the season.

This is where a player of his class belongs.



We here at Snooker Scene send our best wishes to Jack Lisowski, an outstanding junior player from Gloucester who has been diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma.

Jack, 16, underwent chemotherapy yesterday. It was his third such treatement in a cycle of 12 and the doctors are pleased with his progress.

I'm sure he's itching to get back to playing snooker soon. I'm equally sure that everyone in the snooker world hopes it's sooner rather than later.


I would never criticise the great game of snooker or run down tournaments but the fact remains that the Welsh Open has thus far been poorly attended and poorly organised.

This is the last thing we need at a time when the sport's integrity is being openly questioned, even if you believe, as I do, that claims of match fixing are mainly nonsense.

The acid test is what sort of crowd Ronnie O'Sullivan draws for his match with Judd Trump today. If he can't bring the punters in, nobody will.

Some will say the pre-tournament marketing has been poor but I'd argue the low crowds are more likely to be because of the scene outside the Newport Centre, where the main road is closed for major rebuilding work.

Walking over from the bus station, you can't even see the Newport Centre. It's hardly accessible and may have put a lot of people off.

World Snooker wouldn't put proper money into the Malta Cup - played in five-star luxury at the Portomaso Hilton - to make it a ranking event and yet have taken one here.

Inside the Newport Centre, it's a shambles. Countless people, including members of the public, traipse through the press room. The background noise at some press conferences is so loud it's sometimes hard to hear what the players are saying.

The day before the event when it was being set up a WPBSA laptop was stolen from the venue. On Monday, I found one of the security staff rifling through my papers on my desk.

The press room phones don't work. Neither does the ISDN line booked by BBC Wales. Neither does the software used to email score sheets to the outside world.

Which bright spark thought the schedule was going to work? How are two best of nines going to be done and dusted by 7pm with a 1pm start?

Last night, Stephen Maguire and Stuart Bingham didn't get on until nearly 9.30pm and were still going at midnight.

For whose benefit is this? The players? The spectators? The media?

Why don't we just play the first match in the morning? If it's good enough for the World Championship then it's good enough for the Welsh Open.

This is supposed to be a professional tournament but virtually everything about it - with the exception of what's actually happening on the table - is amateur.



"Such formats are very popular on the WSA Main Tour. The Royal Watches Grand Prix last month also had the same format. It was a great success with the players and fans as it keeps the interest alive throughout the whole week."

So said Neal Stevens, World Snooker's Commercial Manager, at the launch of the Malta Cup, played using a round robin format.

I wonder if Mr. Stevens still believes this following the revelation in this morning's Guardian newspaper that the tournament is under investigation by the Gambling Commission after irregular betting patterns were reported.

Criminal prosecutions may follow if any hard evidence is discovered.

I doubt whether there was any malpractice. The problem is simple and applies throughout round robin snooker: players aren't motivated when there's no chance of getting through to the next stage.

Peter Ebdon, a World Snooker board member, was even smashing the pack against Mark Williams.

Bookmakers who offer betting on such matches are asking for trouble. Anyone who bets on a 'dead' match needs their head looking at.

What it all does, though, is create the idea in the public mind that the game is somehow corrupt.

It isn't but there is only one way to prevent this notion from festering: ditch the round robins.

Contrary to what Mr. Stevens asserts, most players don't like it. There's little evidence that spectators or TV viewers enjoy it either.

The Malta Cup should have been a ranking tournament once plans for one in the Middle East fell through.

It would be a shame if this established event fell by the wayside because of the fallout from last week.

(Guardian story here: http://sport.guardian.co.uk/snooker/story/0,,2255835,00.html)



According to today's Sun newspaper, Willie Thorne is to appear on the new series of I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here.

Willie, who last year tripped the light fantastic on Strictly Come Dancing, can expect to spend up to three weeks in the jungle eating grubs, wrestling with all manner of animals and sleeping in a tent.

He was due to go on the show a couple of years ago but the producers went with Jimmy Osmond instead, preferring a long haired lover from Liverpool to a bald headed snooker player from Leicester.



Ding Junhui has looked a million dollars so far in this year’s Malta Cup.

He kicked off with three successive centuries against Peter Ebdon and made another at the start of his match with Graeme Dott, even though he was eventually held to 3-3.

Ding again impressed today in beating Dominic Dale 4-2 and I’d be amazed if he didn’t get at least a draw – all he needs – to qualify for the semi-finals on Friday.

The Chinese prodigy suffered a dip in form last year after losing the Wembley Masters final to Ronnie O’Sullivan but this was always going to be a mere blip in form.

He’s far too good a player for it not to be.

Let’s not forget that Ding’s still only 20 and has already won three ranking titles.

He has, quite naturally, found it difficult to adjust to life far from home in Sheffield, where he lives and practises, and also has to cope with the huge weight of expectation from his army of fans back in China.

How he handles this in the next year or two is up for debate but what isn’t in dispute is his remarkable talent.

Watch how quickly he gets the reds open. Study his face and you can almost see his mind ticking over as he weighs up how to get a break going.

Here’s what Daniel Wells, recipient of the Paul Hunter scholarship who has been practising with Ding, told me for an interview in February’s Snooker Scene:

“I lose pretty much all of the time to Ding but I still learn a lot from picking out the balls.

“He’s very good at knowing when to go into the pack and figuring out which ball he’ll be on. He’s an expert at it. There’s only a few in the world who are that good.

“So I don’t mind picking the balls out for him because it’s an education and my standard has improved.”

Ding has a good chance to win the Malta Cup but I personally think the place to watch out for him this season is at the Crucible.

The first Asian world champion? The youngest ever winner?

Quite possibly.



I'm enjoying the Malta Cup so far. Not everyone likes the round robin format but this isn't a ranking event and the quality of snooker has been high on the opening two days.

Just one question though: why is there no high break prize?

Surely World Snooker - who repeatedly tell us how flush with cash they are now - could have bunged a couple of grand into the pot for this?

There's £10,000 up for grabs for a 147 but this is the first tournament I can ever remember not having a highest TV break prize (feel free to correct me if I've got this wrong.)

By the way, you can watch all the matches from the televised table live on the Eurosport website, even when Eurosport is not broadcasting live.

Click here for full coverage:



There have been various initiatives over the years to make snooker 'more appealing to young people.'

These are usually ill-thought through cosmetic exercises, such as when players removed their bowties a few years ago, which left most of them looking like they couldn't be bothered to get dressed properly.

These initiatives are pointless. Young people will either take to the sport or not. Gimmicks don't make the slightest difference. Also, if the powers-that-be really wanted youngsters to get into snooker they wouldn't play major finals so late at night.

Apart from that, it's also insulting to the significant number of older people who loyally follow the sport.

It stands to reason that the viewing audience on an afternoon will be mainly made up of retired people and the elderly.

I wonder, though, how many are as old as Catherine Cortis, who will be in the front row at the Malta Cup in Portomaso this week.

Catherine is 91 and profiled in today's Times of Malta. She avidly watches the game on Eurosport and has her favourites - Ronnie O'Sullivan and Stephen Hendry in particular.

Let's hope she enjoys her week at the tournament. The same goes for all those watching, whatever their age.

Here's the Times of Malta article:



Former world champions Mark Williams and Ken Doherty have been confirmed for Matchroom's new Championship League, which will run over 16 days, starting at the end of February.

Williams and Doherty appear in the first of eight groups that will eventually produce a player for the Premier League, which is staged around Britain from September to December.

The other players in the first group will be Matthew Stevens, Ali Carter, Ryan Day, Barry Hawkins and Joe Perry.

The winner will go through to the final group. The bottom two will be eliminated. The other four players will go into group two to try again, where they will be joined by Joe Swail, Anthony Hamilton and one further player to be confirmed.

Shaun Murphy and Mark Selby will feature in later groups.

The League will be broadcast exclusively on the internet on betting websites.

For more details, visit the Matchroom site:



Malta is a popular stopping off point for the snooker circuit. The Mediterranean setting makes a pleasant change from the UK events and everyone is well looked after by the promoters, Richard Balani and Joe Zammit.

This year’s Malta Cup is not a ranking tournament because World Snooker would not fund it sufficiently.

However, any snooker is better than none and the field in Portomaso is fiercely competitive with only two members of the top 16, Ronnie O’Sullivan and Steve Davis, missing.

It could be an emotional week – when isn’t it? – for Tony Drago, who seems certain to be relegated from the professional circuit at the end of the season.

Drago, Malta’s no.1 sportsman, is out of all of the campaign’s other events so his home tournament looks like being his swansong.

He’s landed in the toughest possible group – alongside Shaun Murphy, Stephen Hendry, Stephen Maguire and Mark Selby.

Tony is still great to watch when he’s playing well. He won a frame in the 888.com World Championship qualifiers last month in less than four minutes.

Unfortunately for him, though, he has become much more inconsistent as he’s got older. The difference between his best and worst form is probably wider than any player on the circuit.

However, at his best he was one of the most naturally gifted players ever to pick up a cue – up there with O’Sullivan and Jimmy White.

They call him the ‘Star of Malta.’ That star has waned in recent years but I’m sure his home supporters will be out in force to cheer him one last time.