The new Caesarscasino.com Shootout begins a week today.
I shall look at the merits – or otherwise – of this new event next week but regardless of the format, the tournament heralds a return to Blackpool, which for many professionals will bring back memories good and bad.
For a number of years Blackpool represented a dream factory for players and often ended in nightmares.
The Norbreck Castle Hotel became established as the venue for qualifiers shortly after the game was thrown open. Its huge main hall could accommodate up to 20 tables and, wherever you looked, cueists were potting balls, missing balls, winning, losing and, in some cases, imploding.
If it was Tuesday you were trying to qualify for the Dubai Classic. Thursday was the UK Championship. It barely mattered what the tournament was: as long as you were still there you had a chance to qualify for something.
The class of 1992 included three players who would become among the finest ever to have played the game.
Ronnie O’Sullivan breezed through his first 38 matches, eventually losing to Sean Storey, and won 74 out of 76 matches in total.
John Higgins and Mark Williams didn’t quite enjoy this success but did well enough to claw their way through to the odd final stage and provide enough evidence that they could also do great things in the game.
The snooker was non-stop and intensive. In 1992, the qualifiers for that season’s World Championship were played in September – closer to the previous Crucible event than the one they were trying to qualify for.
Blackpool in the winter, with the wind off the sea buffeting the front of the Norbreck, could be a forbidding place.
There was one occasion where the car of a referee ended up being blown onto that of another official.
It was at the nearby Marriner’s pub, a focal point for those celebrating victory, consoling themselves in defeat or merely marking time, where Alex Higgins emerged 6-3 down after the first session to Tony Knowles in the final qualifying round of the 1994 World Championship.
Higgins, who rarely favoured a soft drink, fell returning to the venue and cut his arm. Blood seeped on the table as he gamely battled back to win 10-9, a vignette symbolic of his chaotic life and steadfast will to win.
It was also at the Norbreck where the Hurricane told a referee to move because “you’re standing in my line of thought.”
When he made his highest ever break in the World Championship against Tai Pichit of Thailand, he unaccountably began to cry as he set about clearing the colours.
One day he turned up with a gun, carrying it as if it were merely a cue extension.
This bizarre behaviour may have been typical Alex Higgins but it was not out of place in Blackpool, where even the sanest of snooker players went a little bit mad over the many weeks of snooker.
Stories abound. There was the player reputed to have got ten snookers to win a frame.
One player won a match, went to their room because they were feeling ill and passed away.
The officials entertained themselves by emptying furniture out of one another’s rooms and, in one case, shaving an eyebrow off a member of the WPBSA team.
I heard one referee asked a player mid-match for a piece of chocolate because his energy levels were running low.
Some players, who turned professional purely because they had the money to do so, were so bad that they drew crowds of people who wanted a good laugh.
It was a tough system but fair: the survival of the fittest. Some found they weren’t as good as they thought, others fell by the wayside because they were too fond of the social aspect
Blackpool still hosted the qualifiers until eight or so years ago when the tropical environs of Prestatyn were favoured.
I dare say those players old enough to remember the Norbreck days will be thinking of these formative years when they return to Blackpool next week.