The Masters is indisputably one of snooker’s great events.
Its prestige comes from the fact that it isn’t a ranking event but is open only to the elite of the game.
First held in 1975, in its early years it was for only 12 players before becoming a tournament just for the top 16.
In 1990, Alex Higgins was given a wildcard after dropping out of this elite bracket. A qualifying event was then established to provide lower ranked players with a chance to take part.
In the tournament’s heyday, when it was held at Wembley Conference Centre and sponsored by Benson and Hedges, most players regarded it as second only to the World Championship.
It was a big money ‘major’ and was played in a bearpit atmosphere thanks to the cavernous arena and notoriously vociferous Wembley crowd.
Many great names have won the title, with Stephen Hendry doing so in each of his first five visits to Wembley.
Steve Davis memorably won it for the third time at the age of 39 in 1997.
In more recent years, Paul Hunter won three 10-9 thrillers in four years while last season Ronnie O’Sullivan captured his fourth title.
The Masters lost B&H by government decree seven years ago and had to move to Wembley Arena in 2007.
But it remains a highlight of the calendar and, with £150,000 to the winner, will be eagerly contested.
There is a new sponsor – PokerStars.com – and a buzz around the sport after Barry Hearn’s elevation to WPBSA chairman.
The opening day kicks off with Ding Junhui, the newly crowned UK champion, up against Mark Selby, who won the title on his Wembley debut two years ago and was runner-up last year, losing 10-8 to O’Sullivan.
This one is hard to call. Ding is in form, Selby showed signs at Telford that he was returning to form.
Two players out of form are Marco Fu and Peter Ebdon, who meet in Sunday’s second match.
Fu played well last week at the Championship League but suffers from inconsistency to such an extent that he can be either brilliant or average, with little middle ground.
Ebdon has played at Wembley on 16 previous occasions but has reached just two semi-finals, a surprisingly disappointing return for a former world and UK champion.
Although he appears to be on the decline, Ebdon tends to come good once every season. Who is to say it won’t be this week?
The evening will be a showbiz affair as Jimmy White takes on Mark King watched by some of his jungle buddies from I’m a Celeb – including winner Gino D’Acampo.
King defeated White 6-5 on the pink at the corresponding stage of the 1999 Masters and starts favourite, but White has often punched above his weight in Wembley, where the London crowd will roar in every pot.
The treacherous winter weather is likely to have a negative affect on attendances, although if people are off school and work next week the TV ratings may receive a boost.
There’s been loads in the newspapers in the run in to the tournament, proving the media is interested in snooker if they feel there is something to write.
A year ago, O’Sullivan memorably lamented the state of the game, claiming it was ‘dying.’
This year, there is a sense of excitement around the Masters, not least from O’Sullivan himself, and it will hopefully herald the first step on the long road back to the sporting big time.
The players themselves have to realise that this is their responsibility as much as anyone else’s. Not just to play well – they always want to do that – but to try and project their personalities also.
A small part of this will be intro music but much more needs to be done to prove that the sport does have characters and can hold its own against competing sporting attractions...although with the UK weather as it is, snooker may, for once, have the stage to itself for the next eight days.
What a chance to prove the patient is still alive and kicking.