THE UK CHAMPIONSHIP is one of those markers for British snooker fans that winter is coming, Christmas is around the corner and the season is moving into full gear.
First staged in 1977, the tournament has a proud history and a roll of honour full of greats of snooker, with fewer shock winners than the World Championship.
For Steve Davis, it was the start of it all in 1980 and he still holds the record for most titles with six to Stephen Hendry and Ronnie O’Sullivan’s five. The Hendry/Davis final of 1990 still stands as one of the game’s greatest matches.
O’Sullivan’s maiden capture of the title in 1993 was proof of his extraordinary ability not just at snooker but to handle big match pressure. He was still a few days from turning 18 when he beat Hendry in the final.
So to 2015 where 128 players will assemble at the Barbican in York for the next fortnight playing for a first prize of £150,000. It’s a crowded field but a superb venue in a lovely city, although players shunted into the Sports Hall as opposed to the main arena may feel less enamoured of the place.
For the second time in his career, O’Sullivan will not be defending his title (as he didn’t in 1998) but if the game’s foremost box office attraction is absent, the rest of the cast know they have the chance to playing a leading role.
Neil Robertson goes into the event as the form man having just won the Champion of Champions but can expect the game’s other leading lights to provide a stern challenge.
Mark Selby has not quite come to life yet this season but the 2012 UK champion remains a formidable opponent. The same applies to Judd Trump, the 2011 winner and runner-up last year, still looking to get going again after his surprise defeat to Michael Wild in the International Championship.
John Higgins has won two ranking titles this season and three this year during a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for a player who a year ago seemed in danger of losing his top 16 place.
Higgins won his first UK title in 1998, his second in 2000 and third in 2010. If he plays like he did at the International Championship then a fourth is a distinct possibility.
Stuart Bingham will be hoping to play with more freedom as, shackled by expectation as world champion, he has lost several close matches this season.
The likes of Ding Junhui, Shaun Murphy and Mark Allen are also among the favourites for the first prize come December 6.
The UK Championship will be the first BBC televised tournament since the World Championship last May. There’s been talk of late that the corporation will drop snooker after the current contract ends in 2017 but no firm evidence this will actually happen, although the red button service is being phased out.
However, if the game’s top stars, for whom most general viewers will tune in, lose in the pre-televised round then the BBC can be forgiven for losing patience with the sport regardless of budgetary concerns.
For Eurosport viewers in the UK, O’Sullivan and Jimmy White will provide studio analysis while Neal Foulds conducts onsite interviews.
Before all that there’s three days of last 128 action, some of which is streamed on Livesport Snooker.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.