MATTHEW STEVENS believes the only way to approach the 888casino Shootout is to embrace the event’s unique, boisterous atmosphere.
The Shootout, which runs from Friday to Sunday at the Tower Circus, Blackpool, features ten minute matches. The first five minutes have a 15 second shot-clock and the last five minutes one of just ten seconds.
And the deadly hush reserved for snooker’s major occasions is replaced by a loud, often rowdy audience, which has divided opinion within the sport.
Several top players have opted to give the whole thing a miss but Welshman Stevens is a fan, telling Inside Snooker: “You can’t take it too seriously because anything can happen. I tend to go there with some mates, have a few beers and just see what happens – make a weekend of it.
“It’s tough. You can break off and it’s all over, but it’s a bit different. The crowd get involved and it’s good telly. It’s good to watch.
“There’s no time to think about what you’re doing. It doesn’t suit some people but I’m lucky that I can play quickly.
“The noise is part of the tournament. It’s a good atmosphere all round. It’s not an event where you’d want quiet. The crowd like to get involved, which makes it an enjoyable event to go to for spectators.”
Stevens starts out against Adam Duffy in the 64-man event, which is notable this year for the non-entries of Ronnie O’Sullivan, Neil Robertson, Judd Trump and Ding Junhui.
They were all at the Masters but Stevens, who won the game’s most prestigious invitation title in 2000, missed out on the Ally Pally extravaganza this year after dropping out of the top 16 following a disappointing first half of the season.
“I didn’t go out of my way to watch it but my boys love snooker so I didn’t have much choice,” said the world no.19.
“If you don’t get enough points you aren’t in the tournament. I was disappointed to miss out on the Masters but there weren’t any ranking points involved. It’s not like we have six or seven tournaments and that’s it.
“People were saying to me, the Welsh Open is next, but I had to tell them there were four tournaments before that, so it doesn’t hurt as much as it used to.”
Stevens is 36, two years younger than Masters champion O’Sullivan, a long time friend and rival from their junior days. And the Welshman is full of admiration for the Rocket’s continued excellence.
“Ronnie is something else,” Stevens said. “He keeps himself fit and is still dedicated. You don’t play like that without practising. He’s by far the best player in the world, if he’s mentally right.”
After Blackpool it’s Berlin and the German Masters, one of the most popular tournaments for players due to the large crowds and warm reception from local fans.
Stevens and his friend, the late Paul Hunter, were among those who played in the many pro-ams which foreshadowed the ranking event and is looking forward to another trip to Germany, which he prefers to the busier European Tour events.
“I enjoy the set up in Germany. You get good crowds and snooker is becoming really big in Europe,” he said.
“I’m not a big fan of the PTCs but I don’t have to enter them. It’s up to me: I enter them because of ranking points. Snooker is a lot better off now than it was. We have the opportunities now to play.”
With the second half of the season underway, Stevens has been honing his skills at the Championship League, finishing fifth in group 3 this week, enough to earn him another go in group 4.
He is in no doubt as to his goal for the coming months: to avoid the turmoil of having to qualify for the biggest event of them all, and that means regaining his top 16 place.
Stevens said: “I didn’t play much over Christmas and New Year. The Championship League was an ideal way to get back into the swing of things. My main aim now is to get back into the top 16 before the qualifiers for the World Championship, so that I know I’m at the Crucible. I don’t want to be going to the qualifiers.”
Photographs by Monique Limbos.