STEPHEN Maguire admits that Michael White’s challenge for the final automatic World Championship place has caught him by surprise.

The pressure is on this season with a revamped qualifying structure meaning all those outside the top 16 must play three best-of-19 matches to get to the Crucible.

Those most affected are those just outside the top 16 who would previously have had only one such contest to come through.

But the dispensation for Ali Carter, that sees him correctly kept at 13th seed for Sheffield after time off battling cancer, means 15th is now the real cut-off.

As it stands today Maguire does hold around a £30,000 lead over White, who won £50,000 for his Mumbai triumph, and Rob Milkins with two big-money events in Bangkok and Beijing to come.

But unlike White the 34-year-old Scot does have significant money to come off before the cut-off after the China Open, having reached the semi-finals of that event two years ago. Things could be a lot closer in three weeks' time.

Maguire beat Xiao Guodong 4-1 in Llandudno at the new World Grand Prix on Monday to reach the last 16, a good chance to find some form and fill the coffers even if the prize money doesn’t count to the Crucible race.

But the World Championship situation was clearly on his mind afterwards, not least because his decision to skip India could yet spectacularly backfire.

Maguire is a five-time ranking event winner and a two-time Crucible semi-finalist, and would be a nightmare first-round draw for a seed if he did fail to make it automatically but came through qualifying.

He said: “"It was only when Michael got to the final in India that my dad told me he's in the hunt for the top 16 - until then I hadn't realised he was that close.

“There's buttons between us now and it's going to come down to me, Michael and Robert Milkins for the last place.

“If I don't make the Crucible then it's my own fault because I didn't enter India. I took the chance - and I knew it could end up with me having to play three qualifying matches.

“It won't make any difference to the way I approach Thailand and China because I try my hardest in every tournament anyway.

“I'm still in a strong position because I'm still ahead, so the other boys have to catch me.

“Honestly, if I have to play three qualifiers and I get through, I'll be match sharp when I get to the venue.

“Obviously I would rather not. But if it comes down to it, hopefully I'll win my three matches and if I do that I'll be playing well going to the Crucible."


Photograph by Monique Limbos