Hector Nunns' williamhill.com UK Championship preview
Any preview of this year's hugely-anticipated williamhill.com UK Championship at York's Barbican Centre has to begin with the defending champion, and newly crowned world No1 Judd Trump.
Trump has been filmed go-karting in Essex for the BBC in the run-up to one of the sport's ‘Majors', and the 23-year-old looks to be in pole position to make it back-to-back UK titles.
Victory last December, achieved after a thrilling final that saw Trump run out a 10-8 winner against Northern Ireland's Mark Allen, concluded an astonishing breakthrough calendar year that saw Trump win the China Open and then surf the wave all the way to the World Championship final at the Crucible, losing 18-15 to John Higgins.
And this season the left-hander, who rejoices not only in a name befitting a comic-book superhero but also a series of playing monikers from ‘The Juddernaut' to ‘The Ace in the Pack', has kept his foot right on the gas.
Defeat to Higgins in September's Shanghai Masters, a painful capitulation from 7-2 up to lose 10-9, would have crushed lesser players, but Trump has roared back winning the inaugural International Championship in Chengdu with a 10-8 win over Neil Robertson, reaching two Players Tour Championship finals against Higgins winning one, and then losing last weekend's final of the Premier League with its 25-second shot-clock to Stuart Bingham.
Even had reigning world champion Ronnie O'Sullivan been present, with the Rocket taking a season's sabbatical, there is every chance Trump's recent form, which saw him knock Mark Selby off top spot in the rankings by reaching the final in China, would have in any case seen him installed as a hot favourite this week.
Trump has slightly tweaked his all-out attacking approach to become an even more formidable force and arguably the three biggest threats to a repeat triumph - Scot Higgins, Allen and Australian Robertson - lie in the other half of the draw.
Of these the likeliest challenger appears to be Robertson, who saw Trump make a small dent in an otherwise near-perfect record in finals four weeks ago in Sichuan Province. Robertson has the game, the confidence, the temperament and the ability to mix up the pace to trouble both the world No1 and anyone else in his path.
Higgins, now 37, is proven over course and distance at the UK, and with some recent form to speak of cannot be discounted - but Allen, one of those set to be tussling with Trump for years to come, will take him on without fear if they do meet at the quarter-final stage.
The qualifiers, as if anxious to ensure the party would still go with a huge swing without O'Sullivan, threw up guaranteed interest.
Golden oldie Steve Davis, well into a staggering 35
th campaign as a professional, outlasted Stephen Hendry on the tour though not before the Scot had pinched many of his records in the game. However the 55-year-old Davis's mark of six williamhill.com UK titles still proudly stands, and the world No48 admitted after a 6-2 victory over Jamie Burnett to make the line-up that he wanted Hendry to be forced to commentate on his last-32 clash with a rejuvenated Ali Carter on Sunday afternoon.
In his previous qualifying round Davis had come back from 4-0 down to scrape through 6-5 against India's Pankaj Advani, a match that was watched by one Luca Brecel together with his mother and father at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield. No shortage of symbolism there, a baton being passed from a legend to a talent 38 years his junior in the audience.
The 17-year-old Belgian prodigy and world No74, who became the youngest man to play at the Crucible in April, used the inspiration from that to complete a run of four straight qualifying wins in four days, finally sealing a first-round tie on Monday against Ricky Walden with a 6-1 thrashing of former world champion Peter Ebdon.
Brecel, tipped by many as a future world champion, claimed that reaching York was a bigger achievement for him than getting to the world championships as this time he would be arriving as a far better player and expecting to win, rather than simply to enjoy the occasion.
Another diamond in the qualifying rough was Jack Lisowski, who accounted for China's Chen Zhe and the experienced Joe Perry to seal a tie against new Premier League champion Stuart Bingham. The 21-year-old's story is already considerable, having been diagnosed at 16 with the Hodgkin's lymphoma form of cancer. While now technically in the clear after chemotherapy, Lisowski still receives regular three-monthly check-ups.
Lisowski, who close friend Trump insists will be the next big thing from England, received another back-handed compliment from his pal and former landlord after the holder of the UK title decided to ask the world No43 to leave their shared flat in Essex after losing to him.
The move was called a "career decision benefiting both players" by their management but acknowledged the potential for the younger man to emerge as a serious rival as well as a mate. Lisowski currently plays even more quickly than fellow lefty Trump, and when he refines his game in the same way, expect to see a future ranking tournament winner.
As regards seeds who can expect a rough ride from lesser-ranked opponents in the first round, I would highlight Walden against Brecel; Bingham against Lisowski; Graeme Dott against Martin Gould; Mark Davis against Cao Yupeng, and Barry Hawkins against a reborn Liang Wenbo.
Avoiding the fence, I'll go for quarter-finals featuring Trump v Maguire, Brecel v Shaun Murphy, Higgins v Allen and Robertson v Ding Junhui - resulting in a latest instalment in the burgeoning Trump-Robertson rivalry in the final, with Trump coming out on top.
Top tip to win it: Judd Trump
Outsider: Luca Brecel
First-round shock (bit of value): Liang Wenbo to beat the seeded Barry Hawkins
Preview of williamhill.com UK Championship
By Hector Nunns, snooker correspondent for The Times
UK Championship sponsor williamhill.com will donate £250 to Bluebell Wood Children's Hospice for every century break made during the nine-day tournament.
The snooker bonanza begins at the York Barbican tomorrow and runs until December 9. Every time a player hits the 100 mark, World Snooker's official charity Bluebell Wood, based in Sheffield, will receive a cash boost.
World Snooker Chairman Barry Hearn said: "This is a wonderful gesture from William Hill and hopefully it will add a huge amount to the money we are raising for Bluebell Wood this year. I want to see all the players going for big breaks and piling in the centuries."
William Hill Chief Marketing Officer Kristof Fahy said "Bluebell Wood does some unbelievable work and we're delighted to be able to help them out. Like Barry, We'll be cheering on every ton-plus break in the tournament."
For more information on Bluebell Wood see www.bluebellwood.org