I remember interviewing Mark Davis a few years ago. At the time he was rather stuck in the snooker mud, going neither forwards nor backwards. Endless anonymous qualifying matches were yielding little real success. He lost a lot of matches in deciders.

At the time Davis was reasonably upbeat. He said he felt he was playing well and needed one good performance to give him the crucial boost of confidence he required to kick on.

It came in the unlikeliest of events, the Six Reds World Championship in Killarney in December 2009.

Not a ranking event but a TV title, with Mark Williams his victim in the final.

The tournament may have been dismissed as meaningless by dyed in the wool traditionalists but it certainly wasn’t to Mark Davis. It gave him that spark of confidence he had been looking for. He rose up the rankings, first into the top 32 and then the top 16.

He started last season having been a professional for 21 years but never a semi-finalist in a ranking event. Then he reached the semi-finals of the first two ranking tournaments. In between, he won the six reds world title again, in Bangkok, Thailand. He went on to reach the semi-finals of the UK Championship.

Davis defends the six reds title next week as part of a stellar field which includes Neil Robertson, Mark Selby, Judd Trump, Shaun Murphy, Stephen Maguire, John Higgins, Ricky Walden, Barry Hawkins and Williams.

Six reds, for the uninitiated, is as it sounds: snooker with fewer reds. It never caught on in the way some predicted for the very simple reason that there’s nothing wrong with traditional 15 red snooker.

However, it is quite popular in Asia and one event a year is a novel departure from the norm.

It’s quicker because the reds split immediately. Some frames are over swiftly, although if players are struggling to pot a ball it doesn’t matter how many reds are on the table.

The whole history of cue sports is littered with experimentation with accepted rules. Snooker would not have existed without this, although thankfully when snooker was found to have worked, the experimentation stopped.

Most innovations come and they go – Power Snooker anyone? – but one international six reds event a year provides a slice of something different and could give the eventual winner an early season kick-start with some really big tournaments just around the corner.

I’m sure Mark Davis would agree with that.

The event is live all next week on Eurosport, the coverage starting on Monday.



Ronnie O’Sullivan once again proved himself to be too good for the rest by sweeping to victory in the Paul Hunter Classic in Furth, Germany.

Focused, determined and playing at times superbly, O’Sullivan got over an early scare on the last day – edging Anthony McGill 4-3 – to beat Stuart Bingham 4-0, Mark Selby 4-2 and Gerard Greene 4-0 and lift the title.

He was given a prolonged standing ovation by the passionate German crowd, much deserved following an eye-catching display of snooker.

The world champion says he is committed to playing in at least ten tournaments this season. While this isn’t as many as the other top stars will play, it is about as many as O’Sullivan had the option to play in five years ago.

The pick and choose era is perfect for Ronnie. He can now play when he wants to. And when he is in the mood to play, he invariably plays well (as we saw at the Crucible last season).

He turns 38 in December but there is no perceptible decline in his game, or at least nothing serious enough to suggest he can’t go on winning titles for a number of years yet if he is still motivated to do so.

As for the tournament, the cream once again rose to the top despite a Saturday of shocks as big names – Neil Robertson, Ding Junhui, John Higgins, Shaun Murphy, Stephen Maguire – tumbled.

Ali Carter fought from 3-0 down to level with Greene in the semi-finals but it was Greene who prevailed in the decider.

Despite losing to O’Sullivan, to reach the final was a huge confidence boost for Greene, who came into the event 57th in the world rankings.

Robertson, a champion on the table and sometimes a scatterbrain away from it, arrived late for his first round match and was docked a frame. He lost 4-0.

This is a tournament played in memory of a much missed popular star of snooker and is made special not only by the players but also the crowds, who once again flocked in huge numbers to watch the action.

Germany seems to get snooker. And this weekend they were given a reminder of what an entertaining game it can be, particularly in the hands of a maestro.



This is the day Ahmed Saif has been dreaming of. Today he gets to play the world champion, Ronnie O’Sullivan, live on television before, one assumes, a sizeable crowd at the Paul Hunter Classic in Furth.

Saif is the first player from Qatar to turn professional. He did so on merit by qualifying through the Q School earlier this year.

Among those who has coached him is Mike Russell, the 11 times world professional billiards champion.

There’s talk of a ranking event in Qatar, if not this season than maybe next and Saif’s progress will be monitored closely by the snooker fraternity back home.

O’Sullivan, of course, is a heavy favourite to beat him but the result is less important than the symbolic fact of Saif being there at all.

The world is having to play catch up with the UK, which has around a century’s start on many other countries. The best way to increase participation is for young people in various corners of the globe to see their compatriots on TV and be inspired to give it a go themselves.

O’Sullivan has reportedly developed an aversion to flying and was yesterday tweeting from a train in Germany where he claimed to have ‘mooned’ a platform of passengers.

This brings a whole new meaning to the American pool term ‘bottom English.’

He lost in the last 32 of the recent Bluebell Wood Open but regardless of form, has traditionally been inspired by large crowds. He likes to put on a show and – at the risk of hexing the Rocket – I’d be surprised if he wasn’t still involved on Sunday.

The tournament is notable for being the first (as far as I know) to feature a married couple in Kurt and Anita Maflin, although Anita lost in the amateur qualifiers yesterday.

Eurosport will show six matches live today, starting from 8.30am BST.

The first four are:
Mark Allen v Mark Davis
Dechawat Poomjaeng v Patrick Einsle
Ronnie O’Sullivan v Ahmed Saif
Mark Selby v Tian Pengfei

The later televised matches will be decided after the earlier rounds are completed.



The fourth European Tour event of the season is traditionally the best.

The Paul Hunter Classic, staged in Furth in Germany, attracts big, passionate crowds, as befitting a tournament bearing Paul’s name.

He was an early supporter of the German Open pro-am, which grew into the PTC, now carrying a top prize of €25,000.

Hunter was best known for his three Masters titles. This in itself was a great achievement but the manner in which he won each final was, taken as a whole, incredible.

If you never experienced the Wembley Conference Centre first hand it may be hard to imagine just what the atmosphere was like. If the Crucible has an intimate, oppressive feel to it then the Conference Centre was the opposite: it was big, boisterous, rowdy and intimidating.

To merely stand up and play to any sort of standard in such an environment could be hard. To play great snooker in the Wembley bearpit was a test that few passed, but Paul passed it three times.

It was to Hunter’s advantage, though, that he was a natural crowd favourite. A young, good looking lad who played an eye-catching game, audiences warmed to him. He seemed unaffected by success, remembering where he had come from.

In his first Masters final in 2001, he faced Fergal O’Brien, a tough match player of the old school. It as a clash of styles and one which O’Brien had the better of when he carried a 6-2 lead into the final session.

Between sessions, of course, Paul and his girlfriend Lyndsey ‘put plan B into operation.’ He certainly seemed relaxed on the restart and played quite brilliantly, making four centuries in the final session to win 10-9.

When I went to bed many hours later Fergal was sat on Paul’s lap as a sing-song rang round the bar of the Wembley Plaza. It would have been the same had the result gone the other way.

Maybe this was one of Paul’s strengths. He wanted to win, but if he didn’t it wasn’t the end of the world. He didn’t brood on results and performances like some players do.

He made a successful defence of the title in 2002, again having to recover after Mark Williams, at his peak during this period, forged into a 5-0 lead.

Hunter reduced this to 5-3 at halftime before winning the first two frames of the evening. He took the lead for the first time at 8-7 and eventually prevailed in another decider.

When asked what had happened between sessions this time, Hunter responded: ‘plan C.’

He turned up at the 2003 Masters, bizarrely, wearing a bandana and was beaten in the first round but in 2004 completed the Wembley hat-trick with arguably the best of all comebacks, recovering from 7-2 down to beat Ronnie O’Sullivan 10-9.

O’Sullivan is a great player but also a great frontrunner. However, his most notable defeat from several in front in a final had come at Wembley in 1997 when Steve Davis beat him 10-8 from 8-4 down.

As seven years earlier, this was a rare time in which the crowd were not overwhelmingly for O’Sullivan. Hunter got plenty of support. But the key factor was O’Sullivan’s inability to score with his usual force in the final session. His highest break in the evening’s 11 frames was just 41.

By contrast, Hunter fired in three centuries. “To do this against someone like Ronnie is unbelievable,” he said afterwards. It was, and then again it wasn’t because he had done it twice before.

Snooker at this time was not in the best of health – to put it mildly – off the table. I think Paul Hunter played an important role in keeping it alive on the table.

It is of course a crying shame that he was unable to enjoy its resurgence. A year after his third Masters triumph he was diagnosed with cancer. 18 months later he died.

This week the game gets to honour him. It should do so by matching the spirit he demonstrated so often, and in particular at the Masters: try your best, enjoy yourself and, above all, put on a show.



Ricky Walden won the third European tour event of the season, the Bluebell Wood Open, at Doncaster Dome last night.

After a frenetic few days snooker, the latter stages were, as ever, contested by the top players. Walden edged Marco Fu, this season’s Australian Open champion, 4-3 in the final.

Walden held a healthy lead over Barry Hawkins in the semi-finals of the World Championship last season but had a bad last day and was beaten.

Rather than sulk about it he tried to see the positives. “It was frustrating to lose in the semis but I played well and came so close to the final. I’m using a new cue this season and it’s working so far,” he said.

Walden is one of those players who keeps his head down and plays. He has good days and bad days but manages not to dwell on either.

He’s £20,000 better off this morning. This event, non-televised, may have been a little below the radar but he beat not only Fu but also Ali Carter, Ryan Day, Mark Allen and Shaun Murphy to win it.

A number of players voiced their displeasure with conditions at the Dome, in particular the heat and people walking past tables while play was going on.

“Venue was terrible - worst conditions I have ever played in my pro career,” said Ronnie O’Sullivan, who for all the controversy in his career has never been one to complain about playing conditions.

Alan McManus made the following point: “The Dome a very good venue IMO. Although, for me it’s simply the wrong time of year for any tournament in England. Tables play very strange.”

Some would say ‘it’s the same for everyone so get on with it.’ I don’t agree with that. Top level sport deserves top level conditions.

If they didn’t cut the grass at Wimbledon it would be the same for everyone but not what world class tennis players deserve.

However, the fact remains that the business end was contested by leading players who were able to adapt better to the conditions.

The next tournament is the Paul Hunter Classic in Furth, the fourth European Tour event, which starts later in the week.



It was the 2000 UK Championship in Bournemouth. I was in the pressroom hammering away at some vital story or other when a voice in my ear, a colleague from TSN (later 110sport), broke the news:

“Keep it to yourself but we’re launching a rival tour.”

And so began the bloodiest period in snooker’s seemingly endless off table civil war, pitting player against player, friend against friend, and threatening to rip the game apart before ending in a damaging and costly high court battle.

It was terrific fun!

I remember being at the Scottish Masters the previous year where I was invited alongside other journalists into a room to watch a presentation for a new website. It was being set up by CueMasters (the name of TSN before TSN became 110sport – all clear?), the management group who back then looked after Stephen Hendry, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Mark Williams, Ken Doherty and many others.

CueMasters was run by Ian Doyle, a garrulous workaholic, always friendly to the media, who had steered Hendry’s career since Hendry had been a boy. The new venture was to receive huge investment - £10m – from Warburg Pincus, a city finance house. This was a big deal.

Back then, the Internet had not permeated daily life in the way it does today. There was no broadband. There were no social networks or even Youtube. The net was viewed by some with suspicion and as an irrelevance by others.

Step forward the snooker world. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, at first nothing. A website was set up and very good it was too. I know, I wrote a lot of it.

There was a good team led by Stewart Weir, a Scottish journalist who had undertaken snooker’s version of national service by being WPBSA press officer, a role I also, briefly, held.

We had a lot of fun and no real competition. World Snooker didn’t even have a website. We produced fun features and snooker news, video interviews, live scoring and much more besides.

But, of course, this being snooker there had to be a row and it was over Internet streaming rights. TSN wanted live content to draw users. They did a deal with BBC Scotland to show the Scottish Masters and we decamped to a makeshift studio where myself and Ruth McAvinia did our impressions of Davids Vine and Icke (I’ll leave you to decide which was which).

It was kind of a snooker version of Wayne’s World – not the polished production values of the BBC but fun and fluid. The players were relaxed with us. At one point someone pressed the wrong button and Phil Yates, a studio guest, appeared on screen eating his dinner. Nobody cared. We were enjoying ourselves.

Enter the WPBSA. TSN offered them £3.3m to sponsor tournaments, stream the events and were willing to give the governing body 45% of the profits. A great deal, then, for the WPBSA bearing in mind tobacco sponsorship was on the way out and there were no competing bids for Internet rights.

Of course, they turned it down.

TSN – headed by businessman George Smith and solicitor Gerry Sinclair – were mystified. The WPBSA spread the word in the players’ room that it was all a plot by Doyle to ‘take over the game,’ painting Ian as a sort of Bond villain, James rather than Nigel. (As an aside, the WPBSA chairman at the time, Peter Middleton, was in fact a former MI6 agent).

The WPBSA spent so much time saying Doyle wanted to take over the game that it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t know exactly who had the idea to launch a rival tour but with the two sides unable to work together that’s what happened. It was either a bold or stupid move, depending on who you supported.

I was wary. I liked the TSN lot, and not just because they were paying me. They had new ideas, were progressive and wanted to shake things up. However, it wasn’t immediately apparent that they actually knew what they were doing.

TSN first offered the WPBSA £8.8m to take over the circuit. When the WPBSA declined, they decided to go it alone.

TSN held some trump cards: they had Hendry and other top players. Crucially, though, they did not have broadcast partners in place. It was clear from very early on in the battle for control of the sport that the whole thing would revolve around the BBC.

If it were fought today Eurosport would probably be more important but this was before their blanket coverage of the tour.

The rival tour was announced just before the 2000 China Open in Shenzhen. When I arrived in the pressroom for that event, I was told that, because of my TSN connection, I would be allowed in as long as I promised not to do any work.

I explained that I had essentially been doing this for years so it wouldn’t be a problem.

Precise details of the TSN tour have receded into memory. I seem to recall the World Championship would be in Birmingham. There were something like ten ranking events planned.

But when I visited the TSN head office in Scotland it soon became apparent that actual plans were rather sketchy. Venues hadn’t been booked. Staff hadn’t been hired. Systems hadn’t been put in place.

Needless to say I ignored all of this and at the start of 2001 wrote an ‘explosive’ castigation of the WPBSA’s old fashioned attitudes and processes for the TSN website and almost immediately received a call from its chief executive, who wasn’t happy. He complained that the media were all pro TSN and anti WPBSA. I told him the WPBSA had long given the impression they were anti media so what did he expect?

Propaganda flew out of the two camps on a regular basis. There was more spinning than a Shane Warne masterclass. The rival tour dominated all talk backstage at tournaments. Arguments flared. People fell out. People stormed out. Everyone had an opinion.

Players were now lining up for one side or the other. The WPBSA decided the best way to keep the top players happy was to pay them huge amounts of money. They dressed these up as ‘promotional contracts.’ Fortunes – and it was of course money belonging to the whole membership – was spent essentially to keep certain players on side.

Inevitably, O’Sullivan couldn’t make his mind up. I remember one absurd day when both sides put out a press release saying he was supporting them.

O’Sullivan – a Doyle client remember – eventually went with the WPBSA, a definite blow to TSN.

But the real blow was the BBC’s public support for the status quo. They had similarly stuck by BDO darts when a number of top players joined the PDC and indeed still show the rather sorry BDO Lakeside World Championship to this day.

In other words, they were prepared to still screen 17 days from the Crucible even with a depleted field.

The WPBSA seemed to have won but by issuing new tournament rules many felt were too restrictive they assured themselves a date at the high court where TSN challenged the various diktats, which included rules on logos, whether the WPBSA should control the ranking list, non-sanctioned events and so on.

It was a long, mainly tedious process and when it ended both sides naturally claimed victory.

The judge ruled for the WPBSA on most counts but found that they had abused their dominant position and adopted an unlawful restraint of trade. Each side was left with a seven figure legal bill.

Amazingly, snooker on the table carried on as ever before while all this was going on. It was something of a golden era: the age of O’Sullivan, Williams and John Higgins. Paul Hunter won his first Masters. Most of the public simply ignored the civil war and enjoyed the tournaments.

But the whole affair did damage the game. It put the business world off snooker, saw money wasted and created an at times poisonous atmosphere on the circuit.

Ironically, 110sport did end up getting Internet rights – albeit only for qualifiers – when Ian Doyle’s son, Lee, joined the WPBSA board and the cost involved effectively brought the company to its knees.

As for snooker, it was bruised and battered by the whole affair but has recovered. Most of the enmity has been forgotten now. We’ve all moved on. Barry Hearn’s arrival at the World Snooker helm has stimulated snooker in a major way. The calendar is full.

Compared to how it was before it feels like, well, a kind of rival tour...



It’s a festival of snooker in Doncaster this week, not a sentence that necessarily screams ‘thank God for summer’ but the Dome seems a good venue, if a little hot for some player’s tastes.

20 or so years ago it hosted the World Matchplay, won in 1991 by Gary Wilkinson who these days helps runs tournaments for World Snooker.

I used to like the Matchplay, promoted by one Barry Hearn, which replaced the World Doubles as part of ITV’s portfolio.

There was none of this ‘fairness’ nonsense back then: it was all about elitism and rewarding achievement. The tournament comprised the top 12 in the provisional rankings. Matches were best of 17 and the final, like the World Championship, best of 35.

Some saw it as Hearn’s attempt to set up a rival World Championship, or even fool people into thinking it was the World Championship, but of course nobody thought that and just enjoyed it for what it was: the top players engaged in a prestigious invitation event.

Fast forward to 2013 and the preliminary round of the Indian Open gets underway this morning, featuring star names aplenty.

This event will be best of seven frames all the way until the final, which is best of nine frames.

I’ll repeat that: the final is best of nine.

Why? Well, the event is only five days long and because of the new ‘fair’ system there are 63 matches to cram in.

It would surely have been better to take 32 players to India and have a proper final of at least best of 17.

Still, it’s a new event which might not have happened at all so slightly churlish to complain about the format. I just hope Pankaj Advani and Aditya Mehta, India’s two promising professionals, qualify.

Following the Indian qualifiers it’s the Bluebell Wood Open, the latest European Tour event, which starts on Tuesday.



I was in Bangkok for the 1999 Thailand Masters when James Wattana was issued with a death threat. Wattana was told if he didn’t lose his match, he would be shot.

The amiable Thai legend quipped afterwards, “thank God they didn’t say I had to win.”

I’d like to claim I was all over the story but the fact is myself and the two other British journalists present had gone out for a drink between sessions and missed the whole thing, including Wattana’s press conference.

Thailand, great country though it is, has not been short of shady characters getting involved in snooker, particularly from the gambling community. Wattana’s own father was shot dead the day James made his 147 at the 1992 British Open.

This week, betting was suspended on matches featuring Thai players Thanawat Tirapongpaiboon and Passakorn Suwannawat at the Shanghai Masters qualifiers in Doncaster. Both players subsequently lost.

World Snooker were informed of the unusual betting patterns the previous evening and switched one of the matches to be live streamed, with the game recorded for later scrutiny.

Media outlets who ignore snooker for most of the year gleefully reported the latest match fixing allegations levelled against the sport.

An investigation is underway. Experience suggests it may not be straightforward getting information from Asia. A similar investigation into a match involving a Thai player last season was dropped.

Unlike Stephen Lee, the players in question have not been suspended, which will strike many as inconsistent.

Time will tell what evidence is provided but it seems to me the onus should be on the Thailand snooker fraternity to ensure such practices, if proven, are stamped out.

If World Snooker tells them that no new tour places will be offered to Thai players in the future if any further matches are played in suspicious circumstances then that might be a start.

Snooker is involved in a dance with the devil when it comes to gambling: it relies on the industry for a large slice of its sponsorship yet the huge number of betting markets available represents a temptation for some and opportunity for others to cheat.

Most of the fixing over the years has been in low level matches – qualifiers or small tournaments – where in many cases one wonders why odds are being offered at all.

In cases where players have cheated it is usually because they have been put up to it by ‘associates’ who flit around the sport like flies around the proverbial, unregulated and unlicensed, usually bleeding the players dry financially.

It’s a shabby, distasteful side to the game, by no means unique to snooker but one which doesn’t seem to have gone away despite increased threats of punishment.

The saddest thing is that it casts a veil of suspicion over the majority of players who compete fairly and properly and who are, in their propriety, a credit to the sport.



Any snooker player who wants to call themselves a professional should be forced to watch the edition of Sky’s Sporting Heroes broadcast last week which featured Stephen Hendry, a great model of professionalism throughout his long and distinguished career.

The hour long programme only skimmed the surface of Hendry’s remarkable achievements but it was good to relive them and to hear his views on what it takes to reach the top.

Most snooker players I’ve encountered are like most people: they enjoy life, they enjoy a good time, they usually allow enjoying a good time to prevent them making the key sacrifices which will enhance their careers.

As Hendry pointed out, the day after winning a tournament he would be back in the club practising because he wanted to win the next one.

He never played with pound signs in his eyes. He said the only time he ever played for money was when there was a 147 on.

Hendry was motivated by the pursuit of excellence: the glory which came from winning.

He grew up as a Jimmy White fan but the player he wanted to be and emulate and then overtake was Steve Davis.

Hendry’s game was different but his manner was similar: just as Davis was aloof and removed from the other players, so Hendry would keep to himself, thus acquiring an untouchable aura alongside all the trophies he was bringing back to Scotland.

Few players have been as driven. Talent counts for little without a strong work ethic. Nitwits and nobodies who attempt to do down his achievements will come up with all manner of phoney reasons for them. There is only one reason: Hendry dominated because he set his mind to dominate. He made all the sacrifices necessary. He wasn’t seduced by the distractions which come when you start to achieve success and earn big money.

Nights out on the drink, wanting to watch his favourite TV show, even family time all came second to the relentless pursuit of titles and records. Ian Doyle, his long time manager, deserves credit for this, helping keep his feet on the ground and instilling discipline.

Sporting careers – even in a non physical sport such as snooker – tend to be short. Hendry’s lasted 27 years, whereas a teacher would work for something like 40 years before retirement.

But at 44 he can now spend time with his wife and sons contented while so many other players are looking back at what might have been and in other walks of life people are still slogging through work.

Hendry was scathing about the ‘moaners’ who don’t like travelling. He said that was a part of being a snooker player he really enjoyed, getting to see places unimaginable had he not been part of a professional sport.

He also criticised players who win a tournament and then take weeks off because in his opinion their game declines in that time and they struggle to get back to their original level.

Who is going to argue with him? Hendry, like Davis before him, was the perfect pro, not just on the table but in off table appearances and interviews.

The only black mark – against them both – was that they were such bad losers that they were often monosyllabic in defeat, rendering press conferences worthless. Then again, Hendry did once say that “if you’re a good loser, you’re a loser full stop.”

I don't agree with that but it's revealing about his psyche. He was at a loss to explain where this mindset came from. Snooker was something he stumbled into by accident but maybe his intensity was due to being a shy boy who finally found something he was good at, which would therefore give him confidence in himself.

Hendry had done everything by the time he was 21: world champion, UK champion, Masters champion and world no.1.

He carried on winning the big titles until he was 30 when he captured a seventh world title, a modern day record.

My theory is that he then mentally relaxed. After winning the seventh he said “if I never won another title it wouldn’t matter.”

It wasn’t exactly true but even saying it betrayed the fact that all his ambitions had been realised. I covered every tournament on site at that time and saw the change in Hendry. Forget the matches, I’m talking about backstage. Whereas once he wouldn’t utter a word before a match, suddenly he’d be laughing and joking with people minutes before going out to play. The intensity was starting to go and so too were the titles.

His performances became, to him personally, embarrassing towards the end and he decided to retire in 2012.

He is now a popular BBC commentator but players can learn plenty from him off the table as well.

You only get one chance to make your mark so why not work as hard as you can? Why not grasp every opportunity that comes your way?

Stephen Hendry did. He did it all and he did it all his way.