Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Chengdu show

Isn't it great to be immersed back into the drama of a major event?

An excellent prize fund and the increase of first round matches to a best-of-11-frame format has added a sense of importance to the International Championship that has been lacking slightly at the other tournaments so far this season.

Picture by Monique Limbos
In return for China's positive backing of this event, we've enjoyed some intriguing, and compelling, snooker.

Yesterday, I blogged about Cao Yupeng's fantastic win against John Higgins.

Today, it was Aditya Mehta's turn to be thrust into the bright lights of a major venue. The Indian number one took his debut at a major event confidently in his stride with a 6-4 win against Stuart Bingham.

Like Higgins, Bingham had his problems. He blamed the roll on the table for coming in at the interval 4-0 down. But take nothing away from Aditya. He's been arguably the most improved player on the tour this season and plays with a maturity way beyond his years.

Never rash and always measured, but still attacking. This isn't an easy balance to strike

For every player who enjoys great success on a week like this, there are those who suffer massive disappointment.

Martin Gould's spell in the top 16 came to an end today and with it his place at The Masters in January faded away. He lost 6-5 to Marco Fu and appears to be desperately lacking the confidence that saw him break into the elite over a year ago.

The Pinner Potter remains a class act and I'd back him to bounce back but right now he needs to rediscover his best.

Mark Williams also struggled, spluttering round the table suffering from illness. That helped Mark Davis to a 6-4 win.

The two stand-out performances today came from Stephen Maguire and Mark Allen.

The Scot raced into an unassailable 4-0 lead against Jamie Burnett with a demonstration of ruthless snooker, and eventually ran out a 6-3 winner.

Mark Allen hit five on the spin to see off Robert Milkins 6-2. He's oozing confidence right now and must feel untouchable the way he's playing.

Who else to watch for?

Judd Trump, Ding Junhui and Shaun Murphy looked comfortable enough in round one. World number one Mark Selby will feel adequately equipped to go all the way after seeing off tough-as-boots qualifier Ali Carter.

But keep your eye on Neil Robertson. He wasn't at his best to see of Ryan Day and is yet to sparkle in China, but he has a habit of playing his way into tournaments and is a strong favourite in his quarter. 

Bring on round two....

Last 16 draw:

Judd Trump v Aditya Mehta
Lu Haotian v Dominic Dale
Stephen Maguire v Peter Ebdon
Neil Robertson v Matthew Stevens
Mark Davis v Marco Fu
Shaun Murphy v Ding Junhui
Mark Allen v Cao Yupeng
Mark Selby v Ricky Walden

Monday, 29 October 2012

The rising star of Cao

Cao Yupeng is quickly getting used to the limelight - and growing in confidence with every success.

A little over six months ago the then 21-year-old Chinese player had just around £8,000 of career earnings in his pocket.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Since then, he's qualified for the Crucible where he beat Mark Allen, progressed to the Australian Open and defeated Ali Carter and now reached the International Open to storm past four-time world champion John Higgins.

This win in Chengdu wasn't how you'd have expected either. He battled back from 2-0 down to win six of the last seven frames to win 6-3.

Cao is rapidly accumulating a list of big scalps, but this is by far his biggest.

Higgins was a way away from his best form that saw him win the last major ranking event in Shanghai. But we all know how the Scot can win ugly. Cao wasn't fazed by his reputation. He took full advantage of Higgins' stuttering performance and stood up to the challenge to record a landmark win.

It takes more than just talent to rise through the ranks of the professional circuit. It takes guts and bravery. Cao has both in abundance.

He plays a great attacking game with a delicate touch and proved again why he's sure to be a star of the future.

I'll never get tired of watching or blogging about this fine young player. It's hard to believe he isn't set to become the second Chinese star name in line behind Ding. Cao has all the steely attributies that have held back Liang Wenbo and looks to be surging ahead of Xiao Guodong and making more of his potential with big performances in big matches.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Getting bigger in China

It's time to get our teeth into a brand new major ranking event.

The first International Championship begins tomorrow in Chengdu and it's somewhat of a landmark tournament in China.

This will be the biggest ranking event ever to be held in Asia with a lucrative £125,000 top prize up for grabs out of the total £600,000 money pot.

The event also sees a break away from the traditional format of matches for Chinese tournaments.

The last 32, last 16 and quarter-final matches will be played in a best-of-11-frame format instead of just nine.

The semi-finals will be contested as best-of-17-frame matches over two sessions, before the best-of-19-frame final.

China has long been heralded the future of the sport, but this tournament feels as though it is the start of an even newer chapter for the game going global.

Could this be the moment we look back at as when the sport's truly biggest tournaments aren't only played in the UK?

This event offers the money to in time compete with the biggest titles in the world and could yet evolve to become the World Championship-style event of Asia.

This big tournament and fantastic deal for the game is every credit to Barry Hearn, who continues to find prize money for the players.

It's definitely exciting times and the action on the table is assured to be just as good.

Ronnie O'Sullivan's withdrawal this week is definitely a blow and disappointing news for locals in Chengdu, who would have him at the top of their list of players to watch.

But nothing surprises me with The Rocket. The show must, and will, go on just as it has all season.

While I'm an absolutely huge Ronnie fan, I'm not put off by his exclusion. The event offers so much more entertainment than that of just one man.

Ding Junhui is an obvious fans' favourite here in front of his home Chinese crowd. He often struggles with the pressures of playing in front his biggest fans. He hasn't won an event in China since his breakthrough triumph at the 2005 China Open.

The size of this tournament would make it the perfect time to get back to winning silverware.

Mark Allen is the man of the moment. He won the most recent European PTC in Antwerp last week and looks to be playing good, entertaining snooker. He nearly didn't make the trip though after picking up the wrong passport as he left his home in Antrim. He arrived at the airport gates in Amsterdam to find he'd brought his old passport with no Visa inside. A dramatic u-turn adds to his story and he's being widely tipped to go all the way.

World number one Mark Selby is in excellent form as well. He's looking like landing a big one but must play Ali Carter in the tie of round one before thinking any further.

John Higgins is back in business. He won the last major event in Shanghai with a fantastic comeback against Judd Trump, who is likely to have a sting in his tail and loves the big occasion.

Neil Robertson is another who has struggled to produce his best in China but has to come good as some point, you'd think.

These names are without mentioning the likes of Mark Williams, Shaun Murphy and Stephen Maguire. The contenders are endless.

Sit back enjoy the show.

Full draw:

Ronnie O'Sullivan v Michael White or Lu Haotian
Graeme Dott v Dominic Dale
Matthew Stevens v Ken Doherty or Zhao Xintong
Neil Robertson v Ryan Day
Shaun Murphy v Andrew Higginson
Ding Junhui v Zhou Yuelong (Pankaj Advani withdrawn)
Martin Gould v Marco Fu
Mark Williams v Mark Davis
Judd Trump v Fergal O'Brien or Chen Feilong
Stuart Bingham v Aditya Mehta or Zhu Yinghui
Mark Allen v Robert Milkins
John Higgins v Cao Yupeng or Wang Yuchen
Stephen Maguire v Jamie Burnett or Niu Zhuang
Peter Ebdon v bye (Stephen Lee suspended)
Ricky Walden v Barry Pinches or Lu Ning
Mark Selby v Ali Carter

All in a night's work

This is a belated congratulations to Stuart Bingham for a sensational performance in Thursday night's Premier League event in Guildford.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Ballrun was forced to play two matches in one night here following Stephen Lee's suspension from the tour and the cancellation of last week's Penzance meet.

But Stuart employed his typical 'get on with it' attitude. He rolled his sleeves up to beat Neil Robertson and Mark Selby both 6-0, qualify for the semi-finals and pocket a whopping £16,000 for a night's work.

It was a cracking performance where he earned £1,000 per frame won and an additional £4,000 for his four century breaks.

This is why the Premier League continues to be a popular event with the sport's leading players.

With the chance to earn to good money and put on a show for fans in an area of the country that is otherwise starved of live snooker action, the Premier League is appealing to the big names and easily maintains its prestige.

There are still many snooker fans who choose to turn their nose up at the event and its format - probably because of the shot clock - but it's the kind of tournament that really gets the juices flowing.

Stuart earned the kind of money that will genuinely help him to pay for his wedding next May and he did it in front of a packed crowd and in just a few working hours.

If you compare this to having to come through a field 128 players at a PTC - with some of the matches being played in the cubicles - for a top prize of £10,000, it's easy to see why the Premier League is motivating.

Saying this, Stuart's attitude to every event is first class.

His delighted reaction to qualifying for this, his first, Premier League campaign was a sure sign of his climb up to the elite of the sport and testament to his enthusiasm and love for the game.

First class, Stuart.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Motivated Mark wins in Antwerp

Never have I written so much about Mark Allen in a single week.

Following his exclusive interview on the blog earlier this week, the 26-year-old Antrim man has won the Antwerp Open just days later.

Picture by Monique Limbos
His impressive 4-1 victory against world number one Mark Selby in the final confirms a lot of what we already know about Allen and also backs up some the claims he made when talking to me.

The Northern Ireland potter loves playing in front of a big crowd and always wants to put on a show. He sure did that in Belgium. Three consecutive centuries saw him race into a 3-0 lead and all but sealed his win against Selby; and a second ranking trophy.

Allen was honest enough in his interview with me to admit he finds motivation difficult to come by in the PTCs, perhaps explaining why until this weekend he was yet to win one.

But an enthusiastic home Belgian crowd helped him to find that extra gear he often reserves for the very biggest tournaments.

Allen played some super snooker this weekend and this is the reason everyone enjoys watching him play.

This great performance shows he still enjoys competing and has a determination to find motivation in every tournament he plays. If he does go on to find greater consistency, it will be a sign of his growing maturity and will put him in a fantastic position to win the amount of titles his talent clearly deserves.

Mark has fantastic confidence in his ability and, on this showing, it's easy to see why.

He may have underachieved in his career so far but, having reached three finals in the past year and winning two trophies in eight months, he's firmly positioned himself alongside the game's other leading lights.

He deserves a great applause for the way he plays the game and I'm sure he will go on to win many more titles.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Mark Allen on... Looking to the future

It's not unusual to hear Mark Allen described as a nearly man on the baize.

His CV is thorough. He's played in a UK Championship final and reached the last four of both the World Championship and The Masters.

Picture by Monique Limbos
But with only one ranking title to his name, it's fair to say he hasn't quite hit the heights his vast talents are truly capable of.

Aged 26, he still has time on his side. But to wrap up his exclusive interview with OnCue, he offers a brutal assessment of his underachievement and goes in search of the things he needs to do to become a winner...

I've never been one to try to paint a rosey picture. I'm a realist.

I can't say anything more than I've done OK in my career so far.

I can be my own worst enemy for not putting as much effort in as some of my rivals and I fear I could end up looking back on my career and thinking I could have done a lot better.

The problem is that I've got a life away from snooker and I want to do well in that as well as on the table. I have to find a way to achieve both.

I'm looking to go one better in one of the majors in the next few years and I've had a lot of conversations with Terry Griffiths about how I make the step to the next level.

We agree that practice doesn't have the same importance as it used to because there are so many tournaments.

When there were just six or seven events per season it was hard to stay sharp, but now we're so busy and it's the other way round where you need to rest up at the right times. My time between tournaments used to be about making sure I did enough practice but now it's become about seeing friends and family while you get the chance, and just putting a bit of practice in to stay in form.

The amount of tournaments mean you should be sharp no matter what you're doing between matches.

I won my first ranking title at the World Open last season but that's not the be all and end all for me because I think I should have won one long before this. It felt more like a relief than a sense of pride.

I'm aware that this is just one tournament. I won't be proud of winning on. I want more but I understand that you have to get one before you can get two, three and even more.

The World Open will always be a fond memory of mine but the fines I received after the tournament for my comments at the start of the competition don't say the same. A lot of bad memories come from the World Open but the win helped to overshadow that.

I think to challenge for the majors my safety needs to get a little bit better. Everyone can make breaks and pot balls at this level. It's about creating more opportunities through good safety that will help you to compete with the very best players in the world.

I've got better but still need to improve.

I'm pretty good at not losing too many first round matches but I'd like to be more consistent at getting further into tournaments. I hope when you judge me at the end of this year, I have managed to do that and can celebrate another trophy.

Thank you for reading my columns on OnCue. Enjoy the rest of the season!

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Mark Allen on... his mind and motivation

What inspires Mark Allen? This is the million dollar question.

That was at the heart of part three of his exclusive interview with OnCue.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Find out what makes The Pistol tick and the struggles he faces when it comes to playing the game...

I've always enjoyed the big occasion and the big crowds.

Nothing beats walking out in front of a packed house and playing one of the top players in the world live on TV.

That's what you dream about as a young boy growing up wanting to be a snooker player. You don't ever think about playing in a cubicle with only a handful of people watching.

It's no big secret that I struggle for motivation in the smaller tournaments. Some players can block it out and take it for what it is, but when it comes to the big matches on the big stages, that's when I really switch on. I seem to be able to find an extra gear.

I've got a good record against the top players in the big events. That's what I live for and that's when I really want to put on a show. That's something that will never change about me.

I seem to struggle when it doesn't feel like there's much on the line.

My first professional tournament was the Northern Ireland Trophy in 2005. I got into the event as a wildcard and managed to beat Steve Davis and John Higgins before losing to Stephen Hendry. I still believe that put me in good stead for playing on the big stage.

I've enjoyed lots of memorable wins. I beat Ken Doherty in my first year at the World Championship and have beaten Ronnie O'Sullivan at the Crucible and The Masters since. Those definitely stand out.

I know it's not just about these results though. You can't just beat the big players. You''ve got to beat everyone else as well.

It's been well-documented that I don't enjoy the PTCs. If I had my way, I wouldn't enter any of them. Unfortunately I can only afford to miss the odd few. Over the course of the season the ranking points on offer add up and I need to play in them.

If I'm honest, I just don't see much benefit to the top players. I don't want to be too critical but I think they help the journeymen professionals and the chasing pack, rather than the top 16.

I have to find a way to create a positive attitude at the PTCs, so I go there thinking I'm in a win-win situation. If I win a match I know I'm in the next round but, if I lose, I'm pleased I can go home. That's not a great way to approach a professional tournament but, up until the quarter-finals or semi-finals, I can't find motivation.

I also struggle with being away from home. It's not so bad coming over to the UK but, if it's further afield, I don't really enjoy it.

I've got a great partner, friends and family so I want to be in Northern Ireland as much as I can. I don't want to come across as moaner, but that's how I feel. I'll continue to go to the tournaments because I still enjoy competing at the top level.

I hope I can learn as I get older to adapt to play well when I'm not up against a big player or on the TV because there's a lot of matches to win. I know I need to work on it. 

A while ago I announced that I was battling against depression and I think that's still in the background and waiting to come up again. I'm lucky that my private life is very good at the moment which helps me on the table. I think as long as that continues, I won't have any further problems.

You have to look after your mind, especially in the game of snooker. I know the early symptoms of depression now and always keep a look out for those signs. I've have a good mindset for a long time, so I hope that continues.

All aboard for Antwerp

This weekend sees the return to Antwerp, Belgium; the scene last year of one of the best snooker finals I've ever seen.

Judd Trump's 4-3 victory against Ronnie O'Sullivan was box office at its best, and sets an almost unbeatable marker for this year's tournament.

With The Rocket seemingly down and out at 3-1 and having spent most of the match watching effortless snooker from Judd, he produced back-to-back centuries to a force a final-frame decider.

Trump clinched the match and the title with the aid of a fluke but it couldn't deny this match's place in the snooker scrapbook.

There wasn't much safety but when there was, it was excellent. This match was all about great pots and one-visit snooker.

Both players were clinical and brutal in the balls and despite the match going the full distance, it was still wrapped up in just over an hour. That was testament to the players clinical scoring.

It was played like an exhibition match and was great reward for an excellent Belgian crowd.

Both players belong on the big stage and with the atmosphere pumping, they relished it. They were fearless, rarely refusing an opportunity to score and taking the chance to put on a real show.

This match was a great advert for a sport that often attracts criticism. It proved short formats can produce memorable snooker too.

On this note, it will be great to return to visit our European neighbours because it evokes such superb memories.

Like many other fans from the continent, the Belgians appear to have such a huge hunger for hosting top level snooker.

The fans create a great atmosphere and a full house for the final is a certainty again. This is something all the top players enjoy - and what is sadly lacking from the PTC events hosted in the UK.

Let the Belgian Open begin.

First, take some time to relive last year's masterful final....

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Mark Allen on... his relationship with the media

You can always count on Mark Allen to speak his mind.

The Antrim man has become a journalist's dream, but some tough punishments have prompted a rethink.

Desperate not to become a robot in his press conferences but keen to avoid more hefty fines, Allen explains his relationship with the media in the second of a four-part exclusive interview with OnCue...

Picture by Monique Limbos
Last year was a tough one for me in the media, but I've only got myself to blame.

I like to have an opinion but have come to appreciate now that there are better ways to say things than I have done in the past. I still feel a little bit aggrieved by the way I have been treated and dealt with by the media and the governing body, but there's little I can do to change that now.

Unfortunately it looks like I am the player who has been made an example out of. It feels as if anything I say is going to get pounced upon quickly and severely, but it's just something I'm going to have to deal with.

I think I've been very harshly treated but I know I'm the one who has made the comments that have attracted press attention. I'm going to find to a better way to word things in the future, but I won't stop speaking my mind. I think it's important to have an opinion, but it feels like the sport is borderlining on a dictatorship.

I think there are a lot of players who would have something to say if they didn't think they'd get in trouble for it.

I don't regret any of the things I've said. I only regret the way that I've said them. I know I need to improve how I word my comments.

I went on the media training course as part of my punishment, but I didn't really find it useful. I understand that I'm going to have to do a little bit more training though so I don't do so many things wrong in press conferences.

My relationship with the media isn't bad. In fact, I think the media like to interview me because I give good answers. I definitely don't want to change that. Maybe I should take a bit more time to cool off after matches rather than jumping straight into the heat of a press conference. Once I get going, I can get on a bit of a roll. 

Staying out of trouble is going to come down to me being a bit more sensible about what I say. I'll never be a robot. There are so many players who don't want to give any sort of opinion for fear of the consequences. I think everyone should be allowed an opinion.

Until players are brave enough to express themselves there's never going to be any changes in the game.

The criticism doesn't bother me too much but the money I've had to pay out in fines is going to motivate me to be more careful. I got fined £17,000 last season in total. That's a year's wage for some people. I need to move on and not let it happen again in the future.

I'm here to earn a living for myself and my family. I can't keep throwing money away like that.

A few people have suggested I said the things I did because I enjoy the role of the villain, but that's simply nonsense.

I seemed to get good results after some of my controversial comments but it certainly wasn't intentional. Maybe it just focused the mind. There's no way I'd go out to try to start trouble. It's definitely coincidental.

I don't enjoy being a villain but I don't want to be a puppet either. It's just hard to find that balance. I'm not bothered now if people want to get on my back for things I've said in the past. It's all history. I've paid the price and am treating this season as a fresh start.

The people who really matter know the truth and know what I'm like. They will always stick by me.

My plan now is to stay out of trouble, but I'm going to remain on Twitter. I enjoy interacting with my fans. I think a lot of sportsmen and women don't spend enough time answering their fans. If it wasn't for snooker fans we wouldn't be here and we wouldn't be earning money playing the game.

It only takes a minute to reply on Twitter or send a message on Facebook to a fan. I genuinely think it makes them happy. Social media became my outlet for public criticism last year but it's going to be different now. I'll just be using these websites to talk to fans because I think it goes a long way.

Some people seem to think I'm disliked but I get many more positive messages than negative. There's always going to be a few idiots who try to get their name in the spotlight and get me to react, but I've matured and know to ignore the abuse.

Taylor triumphs at Hexagon

Allan Taylor's charge towards the professional circuit is showing no signs of subsiding and it's easy to see why when you watch him up close.

The 27-year-old Liverpudlian - nicknamed The Assassin - showed a comfort and fluidity beyond his amateur status en route to capturing a now prestigious Hexagon Invitational title.

Losing just three frames in 18 at Saffron Snooker Club, Essex, he began the day many people's favourite to lift the trophy and didn't disappoint.

Wins against Phil O'Kane, Mike Eaton, Toby Pugh, Brian Salmon and Ricky Norris in the final helped him become the fourth winner of the event and collect the £640 top prize.

"I was really looking forward to the event and it's great to be a first-time player and a first-time winner," said Allan.

"I played in the Snookerbacker Classics in Gloucester over the weekend so it put me in good stead and I felt good all day here"

Now Taylor's task is to follow in the footsteps of the last year's winner, Martin O'Donnell, who went on to clinch a tour card by the close of the campaign.

And he's well placed to make the step up to play against big boys. He is currently the third ranked amateur on the PTC Order of Merit and must stay within the top eight after the final five events and the Grand Finals to earn automatic qualification.

"I'm just trying to win as many matches and stay as high on the list as possible; nothing is ever guaranteed," he added.

"I'm not taking anything for granted until they shake my hand at the end of the season and tell me I've qualified for the tour."

A pragmatic approach isn't all Taylor has got going for him. He's also got the advantage of sharing his home club with top 16 player Stuart Bingham.

"You learn a lot from a player like Stuart," said Taylor.

"He's a good player to aspire to and I'm learning every day. He's a proper professional. He just loves snooker and it's the perfect vibe to feed off.

"I've been playing full-time for the past two years and have really seen my game develop."

Taylor has plenty of admirers among the game's amateur enthusiasts. On this showing, his inability to be flustered is an attribute that could see him go far.

Taylor wasn't the only player who shined at the Hexagon. Runner-up Norris, who also progressed to the semi-final a year ago, showed plenty of fighting qualities all day, especially in his 3-2 quarter-final win against Ryan Causton.

Causton proved himself a capable scorer throughout the event and ended up taking home the top break prize with an effort of 136 in his second round win against Barry Garwood.

Liam Monk spent a lot of the day on the tables at the back of the club and looked to be going strong with back-to-back whitewash wins in rounds one and two. This was before losing 3-1 to Zachary Richardson in the quarter-finals, who scored three breaks over 60 in an impressive performance. He couldn't show the same form in his semi-final clash with Norris.

Former professional Salmon was also another success story of the day. He navigated his way to the semi-finals with the loss of just a single frame, before being stopped in his tracks by the eventual champion.

Mentions also for former winner Toby Pugh who reached the last eight, event organiser and former winner Adam Ingram who lost in the first round despite a break of 101 and Dean Mulcahy who wowed the crowd with some wonderful single-ball pots to reach the quarter-finals.

The special thanks of the day is definitely reserved to the event's sponsor Kevin Starr. He is responsible for hosting what is becoming as sought-after amateur title. Kevin is a genuine lover of the game and has worked hard to create a little gem of a tournament.

The Hexagon Invitational comes highly recommended next year for snooker fans within striking distance of the club. The tournament boasted both a high quality snooker and a calm, relaxed atmosphere.

A big congratulations to everyone involved.

Click here to see the tournament's full drawsheet.

And here are a selection of photographs from the day....

Allan Taylor and Ricky Norris

Allan Taylor and Martin O'Donnell

Allan Taylor and Kevin Starr

Ryan Causton

Allan Taylor

Brian Salmon

Zachary Richardson

Dean Mulcahy

Liam Monk

Ricky Norris

Hammad Miah

Shane Williams

Jason Watkiss

Monday, 15 October 2012

Mark Allen on... playing the game

Mark Allen is one of snooker's brightest characters.

He is a wonderfully talented, exciting and attacking player who loves to put on a show. But that's only half the story.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Northern Ireland's top potter isn't afraid of sharing his opinions, however controversial, and it often lands him in trouble.

He spoke exclusively to OnCue to put the record straight on a few things and tell us more about the man behind the media portrayal.

In the first of a four-part interview, Allen talks us through his rise to stardom, why he plays the game the way he does and where he feels his game is now...

It seems a long time ago since I broke onto the professional circuit in 2005 but it was such an exciting time.

I had lots of confidence when I first broke through, which was fuelled by my good amateur record. I won a number of major tournaments including the Northern Ireland and European Championship in 2004, as well as the World Amateur Championship and World under-19 titles in 2005. I arrived onto the circuit off the back of a lot of good results.

At first, a lot of the players I was facing in the early rounds of the qualifiers were people I'd played before, so I knew I had nothing to be scared of. I just needed to trust my ability.

I always knew I was ready for the step up. I felt as if I'd served my apprenticeship. I'd already missed out on turning professional a few times. I finished 17th on the Challenge Tour when it was the top 16 who qualified, then I finished 27th when it was the top 25 and I also lost in a couple of finals where the winner earned a place on the circuit.

This was pretty difficult but, once I did get there, it felt like I really deserved my place. Because of this, I was determined to make the most of it and not be like a fish out of water.

I was a bit nervous in my first event but I knuckled down and tried to enjoy it. I got a lot of good wins in my first year and just went from there. Within three years I had broken into the top 16 and was the talk of the tour.

I'm pleased with that record and the biggest piece of advice I could give a new professional looking to have a quick impact on the tour is to enjoy it. I've struggled on the table over the last couple of years. I haven't always been happy playing like I was when I first turned professional. I'm starting to get that hunger back now and it's the best way to play.

The key is not to put too much pressure on yourself. Snooker is a very hard game and there are a lot of good players around, so you have to give it your best to stand any chance.

The rankings are changing again but I think, if you're good enough, you'll get up there.

My initial rise was rapid but I'm not sure I've really pushed on as much as I would have liked.

Maybe a lack of practice and a lack of motivation has cost me a little. I hold my hands up that I'm not the hardest worker in the world. I accept that I'm going to struggle for a bit of consistency here and there but I know that if I play well I'm more than capable of winning tournaments.

I've always gone for my shots growing up. I'm trying to play for my livelihood but I want to enjoy the game and try to remember that people are paying money to watch, so I have to put on a show.

It's not all about winning in my eyes. If I can put a smile on someone's face and make someone go home happy then I will try because that's part of my job as a professional snooker player. We're in the entertainment business here.

I've tried changing my game against slower players by slowing down myself but it only wrecks my own head. Now, I play my own game regardless of who I'm against or what is at stake.

I'll always be an attacking player but I think my game has matured. My shot selection has improved a lot. I've learnt to be attacking at the right times and I understand that playing a good safety isn't necessarily being negative. It's just a way of trying to create a better chance for yourself.

I've been struggling a bit so far this season but I'm cueing a bit better of late. I've been putting some work in with my coach Terry Griffiths and it seems to be paying off, but obviously it doesn't happen overnight. I feel like I'm getting better and I should be more than ready for the International Championship.

I start every campaign slowly. I'm the first to admit that I didn't really practice much over the summer. I like to take a good break after the World Championship. I usually come back a bit rusty. I've probably practiced as much or if not even more than I ever have this season but it hasn't made much difference, as it shows in my results and performances. I've been lucky enough to win my first round matches in most tournaments though.

People always ask me what it's like to work with Terry. I focus a lot on the mental side of the game with him. He rang me a few weeks ago to say we needed to get together and that was probably the first time in seven years that he's ever done that. It was a bit of a shock for me but was probably what I needed. I'd fallen into a few bad habits over the summer while I wasn't playing and I'm working hard to iron them out at the moment.

I've got a good relationship with Terry. I first met him when I was 14-years-old and he's been great ever since. He's a good person to have in your corner because he knows what to say and he knows when to say it.

He's always there and always knows what's going on but he gives me plenty of freedom as well. He would never impose but says what needs to be said. I'd be lost without Terry. He was a massive factor with me moving to the On Q Promotions. Terry moved across and I did the same because I felt our relationship was very important for my future.

I'm really happy in life at the moment. I'm engaged and due to be married to my fiance Kyla around May next year. I'm hoping to use it as a positive on the table.

Here's to hoping for a strong end to the season.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Lee suspended

There's never a dull day in snooker.

Today, Stephen Lee was suspended from the professional circuit pending an investigation into alleged match fixing.

Picture by Monique Limbos
As another negative story does the rounds in the national press, the reputation of the sport is dragged through the mud once more.

It is too early to condemn Lee to guilt but, either way, the headlines will do little to cure the public's tarnished perception of the game.

If Lee - ranked in the top eight in the world - is found guilty the consequences could be catastrophic. I'd question whether our beloved sport is infested by a poison which cannot be eliminated.

The great strides being made in the sport under the stewardship of Barry Hearn would be undermined again with more corruption exposed.

It will be interesting to see this story unfold. While I am all for finding and punishing players who get caught up in scams, what the outsiders looking in have and will soon read means a lot of the damage has already been done.

Although gutting, this all too familiar story doesn't come as a surprise in a sport which seems to jump from one controversy to another.

Lee has always been one of my favourite players and remains innocent until proven guilty.

For now, click here to read the full statement.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

How to remember Hunter

Every snooker fan remembers where they were when the desperately sad news broke that Paul Hunter had died.

Six years ago today, the game's 27-year-old boy wonder lost his battle against cancer and is still sorely missed.

As well as his super talent on the green baize, Paul was one of the real characters of the game. He always played with a smile on his face and had the good looks and charm to attract fans to the sport.

He was quite simply an entertainer.

It's iconic of his career, although cut short, that his most triumphant moments were laced with excitement.

His three Masters titles were all won from behind and on a final-frame decider. This was fitting for a player who provided us with buckets of entertainment down the years.

Paul reached as high as number four in the world rankings and got as far as the semi-finals of the World Championship. Many people believe he would have gone on to become world number one champion by now.

It's difficult to know for sure but there are facts we cannot dispute. Paul was a much admired and loved player who could always be counted on to put on a magnificent show.

He was a crowd-puller and a gentleman with it.

The six years since his death have gone so quickly but he is still as missed as ever and will continue to be for many years to come.

If you are to remember Hunter in any way, this video is a fine place to start...

Feel free to leave your tributes to Paul below this blog post.

Monday, 8 October 2012

A Polished performance

The true champions of our sport know how to win at all costs.

Neil Robertson is fast-becoming one of snooker's real winners.

At his best, the Aussie is a formidable force. He has been one of the best long-potters in the game since he first burst onto the professional circuit. It's now an insult to regard him as just that. These days, he has the break-building skill, tactical nous and big-match mentality to lay claim to being one of the best all-rounders.

He is quite the package combining the attributes of the modern-day player with some of the traditional ingredients of champions in past eras. And this is why many propose he could be - or become - one of the game's greatest foreign imports.

It is easy to understand on this basis why Robertson is held with such high esteem, but his capture of the Polish Open highlighted another of his developing strengths: his ability to win ugly.

As he raced into a 3-0 lead against Jamie Burnett in this European PTC final in Gdynia it looked as if he would win with ease. But plagued by kicks and tormented by his own frustration, he struggled to see out the match. In the closing stages it looked all the more like we might be witnessing the most unlikeliest of comebacks.

Robertson managed to find something in a scrappy decider to squirm past the winning post, and that's all that mattered.

He had his back to the wall but saw out the job. This ability to mix it up and win when it's not going so well will be a valuable tool in the years ahead as he strives towards more titles.

The likes of John Higgins and Stephen Hendry have always found a way to win even when it's not been easy and the ambitious Aussie will need to do exactly the same if he is to reach the level of these greats.

This may not always earn universal praise, but it remains essential.

Although not entirely polished, this Polish performance showed that Robertson is well on the way to acquiring all the skills he needs to achieve greatness. Victory here also showcases his fine consistency as he's now won a ranking event in each of the last seven seasons.

Well played Neil. You have many more titles to come.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The Hexagon Invitational

In an era when all the talk is about the growth of the game in Europe and China, talent coming through on home soil is a little overlooked.

But the quality of UK competitors in Q School and the massive success so far of The Snookerbacker Classic proves the amateur game is thriving here.

Kevin Starr at Saffron Walden snooker club
Watching a whole host of our amateurs dig out results at the PTC tournaments shows the quality of players coming through.

To take a closer look at the potential stars of tomorrow, I'll be attending The Hexagon Invitational, being hosted at Saffron Walden snooker club on 14 October where some of the finest amateurs in the south of England will be battling it out for a £640 top prize and a coveted piece of silverware.

OnCue met tournament creator and sponsor Kevin Starr to find out more about the event...

Tell me about the history of the tournament...

This is the fourth year the tournament has been running. There's never been any geographical boundaries. When we started the tournament we wanted it to be for the best amateur players in the area, and the standard of the players in this year's field shows we've achieved that.

As the tournament has grown it has gathered its own momentum and interest has multiplied.

I've always been a big fan of the game and wanted a tournament at my home club to the best standard it could be.

I never had an idea how this tournament would develop but it's only because of the great feedback from the players that it's still going today. 

How does this fit into the rest of the amateur game?

It's a stand alone tournament. When it came to attracting players to our tournament I didn't know what else there was out there and I was very surprised to find out there isn't a great deal of purely amateur tournaments for them play in and win money.

It's nice to think now that people might be looking at this tournament and really wanting to come to win it.   

Who won the tournaments in previous years?

Last year it was Martin O'Donnell and he's obviously gone on to turn professional. The quality was superb last year but I was over the moon for Martin. I keep in touch with him now and he's a really nice lad. I wouldn't say for one minute that winning The Hexagon played a big part in helping him to become professional but he told me himself that it was a factor because every win he had last season gave him the confidence and money to do well. His victory is a great guide to quality of the tournament winners.

In the two years before, it was won by Toby Pugh and Adam Ingram 

How does the field look this year?

I'm told by Adam Ingram - who rounded up the players - that the quality is going to be the best yet this year. Apparently in the past few years you could say the winner was going to come from one of eight players, but this time there's a much bigger list of contenders.

From a selfish point of view I like to sit back, watch the matches and see the game played that well.

Do you still get excited about the event?

I do and probably more so year on year because the quality improves each time. We used to have 48 entrants each year but this time's it's just 32 and we're starting off with a random draw to create a bit of drama. The final will played over best of seven frames and the rest of the matches are best of five frames. The club is ready to go. I can't wait.

Full line-up of 32:

Adam Ingram
Russell Huxter
Mike Spackman
Neil Waterman
Darren Edmonston
Mike Eaton
Shane Williams
Dan Bilson
Richard Twomey
Frank McGovern
Kristian Kelly
Dean Mulcahy
Ryan Causton
Toby Pugh
Ricky Norris
Hammad Miah
Thomas Goldstein
Brian Cox
Brian Salmon
Syd Wilson
Kristian Willetts
Nik Charalambous
Mickey Cushion
Steve Wright
Darren Rush
Phil O'Kane
Steve Martin
Allan Taylor
Barry Garwood
Liam Monk
Zachary Richardson

Breakdown of prize money:

Winner: £640
Runner-up: £320
Semi-finalists: £160
Quarter-finalists: £80
Highest break: £20