Thanks to the postponement of an earlier event the IPA finish off their 2023 tour this coming weekend, with the British Open from the Gosforth Grand Hotel in Newcastle from the 12th to the 14th January, one of their most popular venues and on the same site as Newcastle racecourse.
Once again it falls to me to preview the event, and once again I suspect I will get it horribly wrong, though we did find a winner or two at the last one, thank goodness.
Now I suspect many of you play pool, either with your mates down the pub or club, or even in a local league (like I do), and this is the same game – reds or yellows and a black to finish, simple stuff at first glance but taken to another level by the best amateurs and the professionals, trust me.
I have entered these events in the past thinking I may get somewhere, but I have been put firmly in my place in the very early rounds without ever meeting a household name, the overall quality is a step above the likes of me I’m afraid, but it was still good fun trying my luck against the top players who have that something I am sadly missing (ability at a guess). The beauty of the IPA, unlike some other tournaments, is that the word Open does what it says on the tin – pay your entry fee and give it a go if you want to, and plenty do, believe me.
With 21 tables in constant use and over 200 early entries, the winner will need a heady mix of ability, stamina and the run of the balls to boot – make no mistake, closely matched contests can take a toll mentally, and it isn’t just about the ability to hit a ball in the right direction as some would have you believe.
So, with numerous trophies (and money) up for grabs, I had better get down to business – and try to find the winners (betting should be available nearer to the event at various bookmakers).
36 professionals go to war for the prize here and it will, as always, be fascinating to see who comes out on top. The interesting thing at the highest level is zero opportunity to settle in to your rhythm, or get away with a few mistakes against a player who is not at your level – all of these players are out of the top drawer, and all will pounce and take full advantage of any weaknesses. That makes second guessing close to impossible (rolling out my excuses bright and early), but if you ask the players who they think is the man in form at the moment, the vast majority will say the same – “Mr Magic” Mark Boyle. A former snooker player and one of the nicest people you will ever meet, he can beat you 8-0 and you still can’t dislike him, however hard you try. Meticulous and measured as you have to be at this exalted level, he faces the winner of Liam Roberts and David Addinall in the last 32 having avoided a prelim, and if he can get rolling bright and early he will take all the beating. If you want a dark horse at a bigger price, you could do a lot worse than Simon Ward, runner-up in the last World Championships, yet invariably forgotten by the bookmakers, though if you don’t want a bet I don’t blame you – just sit back and enjoy.
It is a rarity for an amateur to win the Open though it can happen – meaning that once again, common sense suggests we stick with the top players and hope that the draw falls their way. There will undoubtedly be shocks on the way, with some of the less well-known players stepping up a gear and taking their chances to beat the best, but I would hazard a guess right now that at least three of the four semi-finalists will come from the professional ranks – who, is another matter. I have lost count of the amount of times my Pro tip wins this and vice versa, but those are the cards we are dealt, and decisions have to be made. Mark Boyle and fellow Scots Liam Dunster should go deep here if they aren’t exhausted by long and hard fought matches in the professional event (the great unknown in advance), but I have made a few quid in the past by backing Marc Farnsworth, and one more visit to the well may see me rewarded again. His break can be an issue (dry breaks are invariably punished with a lost frame at this level), but his ability to dissect and dismantle whatever is left on the table given a visit is second to none. How he makes it look so simple is beyond my little brain, and trust me I have watched hundreds of frames looking for tips – one minute a clearance looks impossible, the next they are racking up the next game! Like anyone, he will need the run of the balls and a decent draw, but if he gets the chances we all know he can and will take them.
Looking for a needle in a box of needles in a haystack in a field of haystacks is akin to working out the amateurs with new names signing up event after event, looking to make their marks with the hope of going Pro in the future. Lee Shepherd is on fire and storming the rankings, and if he can keep at that level he won’t be far away once more, a remark that also applies to Kian Monaghan and Stephen Ellis, two and three on the official chart. Kristian Phillips catches the eye as another to take seriously, but I will take a stab in the dark and go for Geo Edgar each way – assuming you can find a bookmakers taking each way bets with sensible terms. Only a youngster (by my standards) he is a bright talent with the world at his feet if he continues to progress, though he will need to take a step forward to win in such a competitive tournament.
No surprise that there are less Ladies at the Elite level, and I risk accusations of favouritism here as (once again) the vote goes to my friend Deb Burchell, who landed our bets at the last event. As far as I know (?) I get on well with all the entries but Deb has the experience and the form in the book to suggest she is the likeliest winner, though the Ladies game is getting stronger week on week, and she will have to watch out for some serious challenges. All those in action have the ability to win this if they get the rub of the green, but looking at the draw I will nominate Rhiannon Graham to meet Deb in the final, and possibly give her a scare.
A bigger field will see a more competitive event than the Elite section, and just like the main Open, there will be upsets along the way. Deb Burchell is the favourite once again but she has a pretty tough draw against the winner of Holly Heath and Kayleigh Allen for starters, which is no “gimmee”. There are names I haven’t seen before in the draw who could provide a few shocks along the way, but it is fair to say that Yvonne Ewing has the ability to go deep here and looks a spot of value. One of Scotland’s top lady players, she will do for me on this occasion (sorry Deb), though I do suspect there could be a surprise in the offing.
Alice Paylor has caught many peoples attention in recent years with her game improving all the time, and she doesn’t head the Ladies Amateur rankings without good reason. She won’t have things all her own way here that’s for sure, with the likes of Yvonne Ewing (see Ladies Open) in opposition, but if she can get pat Holly Heath in her opening match (one of only two prelims), she will move on to play Hayley Weston in the first round proper with some table time under her belt, which may be a crucial advantage. Beckie Watkins and Meera Arya are others to keep on your side, but of all the tournaments here, this is the one that looks the hardest to solve.
And so, we reach the end of my preview – there may (or may not) be some winners in there, but the one guarantee is that the pool will be fast, furious and of the very highest quality. With the World Championships just around the corner (you can enter via the website here (www.ipapool.com) plenty will be trying to make a point here, and you can watch via the IPA YouTube channel or on billiard.tv around the world – or turn up to watch in person – all 100% free of charge.