My visit to Gloucester this weekend has given me the chance to get up close and personal with the stars of the baize.
From the game's top names to the budding young amateurs, I've seen them. A conversation here, a bit of banter there and dropping in and out of the match tables, there's been plenty to digest.
I've been keeping some notes along the way from activity on and off the table.
Here are some of my candid thoughts from an action-packed couple of days at the South West Snooker Academy.
Next in Lines
You often hear the phrase 'like father, like son' but in the Lines household it really is the case. Peter first turned professional in 1991 and is still fighting it out on the circuit today. Now his teenage son, Oliver, is bidding to follow in his footsteps, and looks to be well on his way. A 4-3 victory against Joe Perry this weekend will already be a career highlight for him. Oliver was given numerous chances to clinch the match in the decider by an off-colour Perry, but he got the job done. He showed great composure around the table and a level of maturity which bodes well for the future. The delight on his face as he was reunited with his friends after the match was a picture moment.
A burst of form from Marco Fu is never a total surprise. Inconsistency has probably prevented the Hong Kong potter from lengthier stays at the top of the game but, at his best, he's always capable of beating anyone. He showed that on Friday again. Within one day at the SWSA he won two matches on the main arena table including 4-2 against this season's two-time UKPTC finalist Stephen Maguire and a whitewash of two-time world champion Mark Williams. Not a bad day's work.
He came, he saw, he had a bash around the main table and quickly retreated home. I don't buy all this rustiness talk. In my opinion, Ronnie O'Sullivan showed a distinct lack of interest during his 4-3 defeat against Simon Bedford. Instead of playing the kind of controlled game that saw him win a fourth world title in his last outing in May, he decided to take on every pot going and came unstuck, despite leading 2-0. The PTCs clearly aren't top of Ronnie's priorities and it really showed here. His performance wasn't in any way a result of under-estimating Bedford or being out of the swing of things, his heart just wasn't it. As an aside, I still believe Ronnie will have plenty of gears to go through in the next event, should he want to.
All hail Swail
Joe Swail. He's still got it. Reaching the final of the Furth PTC despite next to no practice in the run-up to the event proved he's still a class act and I got the chance to see that first-hand this weekend. He eventually lost to Judd Trump here but his break-building during a 4-1 win against Passakorn Suwannawat earlier in the day was an absolute pleasure to watch. He was timing the ball like a dream. I can't see any way that he won't back on the professional circuit next season.
On track with Zak
I knew nothing about amateur Zak Surety before this weekend, and still I know very little. What I have learned though is that the boy can play. He barely missed a ball from 2-0 down to beat Jack Lisowski. I'm all for giving credit where credit is due. This is why I was a little surprised and frustrated to see comments on forums questioning whether Jack's defeat could be a bi-product of living and hanging around with Judd. I think these claims are laughable. Jack is progressing just fine and enjoyed his first ranking final this season. It's true that he is at a different stage of his career to best pal Judd but I can't think of many better practice partners for him. Jack could do very little to stop comeback kid Zak here, a player who was unknown to me. A quick google of Zak though and I've found out a couple more things about him. He's from Essex and reached the Snookerbacker Classic semi-final last season. Based on his performance this weekend, that's not the last I'll be hearing about him either.
Wake up call for Chen Zhe
I've heard many great things about Chen Zhe over the past couple of years. This weekend I got to see him live for the first time and couldn't help but be impressed. He recorded wins against Andrew Higginson, Ian Burns and Surety en route to finals day and looked to me like a player who could go far. His compact cue action reminded me of Ding Junhui. He also displayed a good mix of power and control. In his maiden professional season where he has struggled for results so far, it looks like he could be about to get going. I'd gladly pay to watch him again.
A starstruck fan told Shaun Murphy he was mesmerising to watch as he walked up the stairs to the players' lounge seconds after his first win of the weekend. You cannot deny that Murphy is a classy customer on the baize. His cue action is impeccable. When he's on song he makes a ridiculously difficult game look effortless. He also made the effort to come to chat with all the bloggers around the media desk. It went down well. People remember these kinds of gestures.
Alan's in the zone
Alan McManus has always had a reputation as a dedicated professional and this was on evidence again this weekend. Never have I seen a player so resolutely in the zone as McManus. He embarked on a serious practice routine and then went away into a quiet corner before one of his matches. He had the look of a man here to do a job and did exactly that as he came out on top of deciders with Matt Selt and Peter Ebdon.
Burd flying high
There are no characters in the game anymore. How many times have we heard that before? But we all know it's a load of nonsense. When you come to Gloucester you see that clearly. Alfie Burden is one of most colourful characters I've met in the snooker world. This weekend he was laughing and joking, speaking to fans and interacting with the crowds during his matches. And who would blame him the way he's playing? After reaching the semi-final of the last PTC here, this time he enjoyed a 4-1 victory against John Higgins before defeat to Stephen Lee, who I've nicknamed 'The Hoover' for his scoring exploits. It was good to meet Alfie face-to-face after interviewing him for the blog two weeks ago over the phone. A good interview always make you look out for a player, even if they are Arsenal fans.
Who would have thought Dechawat Poomjaeng has a bit of a temper? He usually looks so calm and collected around the table. But he really lost the plot in a 4-1 defeat to Swail. As his hopes of a win came crashing to an end in frame five he threw his cue down on the neighbouring table, continued to stomp his feet and eventually conceded the match while Joe was still completing a clearance with the frame already sewn up.
A rapturous applause
It's important to behave in an appropriate manner at the snooker. Myself and Roland from Snooker Island completely forgot this when watching Martin Gould win a decider against Craig Steadman. As he potted a tricky and pivotal plant, we both burst into rapturous applause and Roland shouted 'get in'. A natural reaction to a class shot, I suppose. The fans around us couldn't believe what was going on with four matches in play at the time. Oops!
Tales from the Irish
As I watched the friendliest of handshakes at the end of Mark Allen's match with Ken Doherty, I began to think I'd been led up the garden path by fellow snooker blogger Dave from Snooker HQ. He was telling me all day that this was going to be a grudge match. Allegedly this 'feud' dates back to a meeting at the Crucible where Allen beat Doherty comfortably. The 1997 world champion had hoped to dish out the beating himself after claiming Allen showed lack of respect for fellow Irish players during his time as an amateur. True or not, it spiced up the match for everyone here. This win was also to inspire Doherty. He followed it up with the defeat of Ding and a place in finals day.
What a twit
A weekend at the snooker wouldn't be complete without some dirty laundry being washed in public. We weren't short of Twitter leads to cling to here. Assumably under the influence of a few too many ales Andrew Pagett decided to take a shot at Fergal O'Brien at 1am in the morning when they were due to meet just eight hours later. He tweeted: "I'm steaming!! Rather be down the caravan with @markwilltomorrow than play the slowest player in snooker!! #FOBrian. Talk about egg on his face. He was beaten 4-0 with breaks of more than 60 in every frame. He tweeted after the match: "Gotta be fair fergal played well, 60,70,70,100.... If I took that long over a shot I'm sure I'd pot like that as well #f**kmehesslow." Lucky he's not a professional or he'd be receiving a fine through the post from World Snooker pretty soon. With Fergal going on to qualify for finals day I bet he wishes he'd kept a little quieter.