The latest stop on the snooker schedule is Preston for the World Grand Prix, starting tomorrow. As usual, Paul Krishnamurty divides his four-man staking plan across each section of the draw..
"Kyren Wilson yet again looks excellent each-way value. Despite reaching three finals this term, the Masters runner-up is still under-rated. He thoroughly deserved that big payday at Alexandra Palace."
Back Kyren Wilson 1 unit e/w @ 33/1
Tomorrow's World Grand Prix kicks off five straight weeks of top-class snooker and a busy run through to the World Championship. Indeed some of those outside the top-16 - who will need to play the qualifiying round for Sheffield - will enjoy just one week off between now and May.
That scramble for ranking points is particularly pertinent here, with the 32-man field excluded to top earners over the past year, producing what must surely be the unprecedented scenario of a champion being ineligible to defend his title. Barry Hawkins may be ranked eighth in the overall rankings but is only 40th on the one-year list and is entitled to look over his shoulder. One can slide very fast and there is £375,000 in prize money up for grabs in Preston.
That focus on one year form means an ultra-competitive tournament. There are no easy matches from the outset and, with the first two rounds played over best-of-seven, conditions are made for a spate of early upsets.
This top quarter exemplifies the point. It includes the tournament favourite and player of the season - well clear on the one-year list. However Ronnie O'Sullivan has a very tricky path, including a potential quarter-final against either John Higgins or the man who ended his Masters bid - Mark Allen. Before that, he may face Yan Bingtao - who won their latest meeting 6-1.
As always, it is easy to envisage O'Sullivan waltzing through this tournament. Prior to that loss to an outstanding Allen performance, the Rocket had been near-dominant before Christmas and totally obliterated his first round opponent in London. Odds of [4.4] are perfectly reasonable but I'm prepared to swerve them. This just doesn't look like an event to take short odds.
Plus as I've written previously, Bingtao is worth persevering with at tasty odds until he wins. He is the best 17 year-old ever and may well soon be emulating the likes of Ronnie and Higgins. He did very little wrong when losing the Northern Ireland Open final in a deciding frame before Christmas and a breakthrough looks imminent.
In contrast, this is a 'value' section. Odds around [19.0] about the clear favourite, Shaun Murphy, are very attractive given his form. 'The Magician' has been excellent all year and didn't do a lot wrong when losing in the German Masters semis earlier this month. He remains a very tempting proposition but there are plenty of alternatives.
For me, Shaun is most vulnerable in the early rounds when sometimes lacking focus. Ricky Walden, cueing well again and hungry after injury, is a dangerous starter. Ryan Day, who only lost in a decider to Murphy in Germany, is scheduled next. In the other eighth, Luca Brecel is a huge price at [40.0], given fourth place on the one-year list, but has been having major cue troubles over the last month.
Preference therefore is for 'On Fire' Maguire. The Scot is right in the thick of the battle for a top-16 place, sitting 13th in the one year-list and 18th on the main one. His last two majors were very lucrative, reaching the UK semis and World Championship quarters. Whilst he always falls slightly short at that level, this event is precisely the sort that is always in Maguire's range and he'll fear nobody in this section.
Keeping stakes low in the top-half offers a chance for a sizeable bet on a heavyweight, of whom there are three in this brutal section. After a moderate season, Mark Selby is fancied to step up in a big event soon while Judd Trump is hot favourite to reach the quarters at least. Neither, though, make as much appeal as resurgent Neil Robertson.
It's been a while since I last backed the Aussie, who has been struggling on and off the table, but the hunger and form has returned in recent months, notably when winning the Scottish Open before Christmas. At his best, Robertson is every inch an elite player and, still not assured of a Crucible spot, he is very much one to follow over the coming weeks.
Nobody better illustrates how quickly the ranking, and qualification, hierachy is constantly changing than Mark Williams. From seeming plausible that we may never see him on the major stages again, he's back up to seventh in the world and second on the one year list behind O'Sullivan. With two recent wins in the bag, he's the one to beat in this section.
The draw has done him no favours though, with a fellow former world champion awaiting in the first round. Returning from his ban at the Shootout, Stuart Bingham looked in good touch and has obvious motivation to make up for lost time. Whoever wins their match will be a frontline contender but there will be no easy matches from this route.
Given a much less daunting first round opponent, Kyren Wilson yet again looks excellent each-way value. Despite reaching three finals this term, the Masters runner-up is still under-rated. He thoroughly deserved that big payday at Alexandra Palace, thrashing Williams along the way. I see no good reason why Wilson should be more than twice the odds of potential second round opponent - the perennially unreliable Ding Junhui.