The World Championship marathon begins on Monday with live coverage throughout on Betfair. Paul Krishnamurty previews the qualifiers...
"Jak Jones is one of the most improved players this season, reaching five top-32s thanks to efficient, gritty performances against players of similar rank."
To the snooker community, our Christmas used to last 17 days. Now, thanks to the game's expansion and comprehensive coverage, it effectively lasts a whole month.
Qualifying marathon starts tomorrow
128 players set out at Sheffield's Institute of Sport aiming to qualify for the main event at the Crucible Theatre, which starts on the 17th. 16 places are up for grabs, so the players are split into groups of eight. The first three rounds are played over best-of-11 frames, before a best-of-19 final.
We kick off with a match-up that rightly warrants more attention than anything we'll see in qualifying and much of the Crucible action. They may both be no-hopers for the title but is there really a snooker fan out there who won't be tuning into Jimmy White and Stephen Hendry on Monday night?
Whichever way you see that match, there's probably a better chance of getting a betting edge than any, given the uncertainty about Hendry's standard. He hit a ton on his comeback against Matt Selt and could hardly be criticised for losing to a very strong performance.
White expected to demonstrate clear edge
I'm still sceptical that he can just rock up after 11 years and win matches at this level though. White reached the last-16 of the Gibraltar Open and won the last two World Seniors. Apparently he's been besting his old rival in practice. Were this any other player with the same form numbers, he'd be much shorter than 4/6.
35 years after their first meeting and 11 since their last, Jimmy has a rare edge. Take 11/10 he wins 6-4 or better via the -1.5 Handicap.
Trust Yuelong and Gould at odds-on
Whoever wins, their path to the Crucible will still be extremely narrow, requiring three matches including arguably the strongest player outside the top-16. Zhou Yuelong needs to win two matches and is expected to do so with plenty to spare.
The hardest opponent he could face is Elliot Slessor, against whom the Chinese prodigy would be a strong favourite over best-of-19. Odds of 8/15 about Zhou are obviously prohibitive but fair acca material. Try a double with Martin Gould at 5/6 for Group 11.
Again Gould will be a very short order to reach the final and favourite for that. Worst ways he'll face Ben Woollaston, who has only made the Crucible once and has long struck me as better over short matches.
Improving Jones rates top value
One favourite that must be opposed is last year's quarter-finalist Kurt Maflin, in Group 3. The Norwegian's game is under a cloud at the moment and the other seed Robert Milkins is very much preferred if they meet.
To get there, he'll likely need to get past Jak Jones and that is far from straightforward. Jones is one of the most improved players this season, reaching five top-32s thanks to efficient, gritty performances against players of similar rank. 6/1 very much appeals.
Take on Wilson with solid Grace
I'm not at all keen to pile into 2019 semi-finalist Gary Wilson in Group 12 either. He's always been a streaky, inconsistent type and hasn't impressed at all lately. The value alternative could be David Grace - a solid match-player who has been faring well in early rounds against similar standard types, and reached the Northern Ireland semis.
There's generally a former champion or star veteran that comes through qualifying and this year's man could be Ken Doherty. He still produces a competitive standard on occasion and is 16/1 to win a weak section. Favourite Scott Donaldson is very beatable and, Matt Selt aside, the biggest rivals are fellow veterans Dominic Dale and Nigel Bond.
Andy Hicks hasn't qualified for 14 years but is no forlorn hope at 50/1 from Group 5, given he starts with a very likely win over Reanne Evans. A semi-finalist on debut in 1995, he's still competitive in the early rounds. Granted, Graeme Dott sets a very high standard here but speculating at these odds makes sense.
Promising Hill looks under-rated
Finally, 100/1 about Aaron Hill in Group 14 is too big to ignore. The 19 year-old has shown much promise in his debut season, beating Ronnie O'Sullivan en route to the last-32 of the European Masters. Hill wouldn't be a complete no-hoper against either of the seeds here, Zhao Xintong and Hossein Vafaei.
Follow Paul on Twitter @paulmotty
2020/21: +9.4 units
2019/20: +6 units
2018/19: +154.5 units
2017/18: +106 units
Back Jimmy White to win the 1.5 Frame Handicap (vs Hendry) 4u @ 2.111/10
6u double Zhou Yuelong to win Group 1 (8/15) &
Martin Gould to win Group 11 (5/6) @ 2.89/5
Back Ken Doherty to win Group 2 0.5u @ 17.016/1
Back Jak Jones to win Group 3 2u @ 7.06/1
Back Andy Hicks to win Group 5 0.25u @ 51.050/1
Back David Grace Group 12 1u @ 7.513/2
Back Aaron Hill @ 100/1 to win Group 14 0.25u @ 101.0100/1