The 2011 Pink Ribbon Tournament from the South West Snooker Academy in Gloucester took place between the 1st and 5th of June, and culminated in Walsall’s Mark Joyce lifting the slick Pink Ribbon Trophy.
The event format was best of 7 frame matches from start to finish, and all of the entry funds went to the Pink Ribbon charity in aid of breast cancer research. In order to maximise this amount, all non-professionals were given the opportunity to enter up to 4 times, which at £25 a pop meant those who used the full quota of entries donated £100, of which I was one.
Because of the multiple entries and the number of entrants, qualifying started at 7pm on the Wednesday, earlier than originally scheduled. Thereafter matches started at 9am and were scheduled every 2 hours throughout the day until the last session at 9pm, played across 13 tables. So there was a lot of snooker going on!
I arrived at the venue around 3pm on the Wednesday and was greeted and given a guided tour by the legend that is Janie Watkins. I have to say I was completely blown away by the academy – it is nothing short of snooker paradise!
Through the main entrance you have the considerable foyer adorned with snooker pictures and complete with pool table, a separate shop and a good sized media and admin room. There is a door through to a purpose built snooker room housing four match tables, and a separate door leading to the main arena which seats a few hundred and contains a purpose built commentary booth, and also contains windows high up from the player’s lounge looking down on the main table.
Upstairs you obviously have the player’s lounge with canteen and bar, four more match tables with similar layout to downstairs and four practice tables just off the player’s lounge, which were in use during the Pink Ribbon Tournament to get through the schedule.
When I say purpose built, that is an understatement! The two rooms containing tables 1-4 and 5-8 have separate entrances for each table with seating pods for people who want to watch, and there are doors at the back of each table leading to a back corridor to the washrooms for the players so as not to disturb the other tables in play. The tables are also perfectly spaced out so each feels like its own mini arena within the same room.
Now the reason I entered is because firstly I wanted a crack on the Star tables having studied them on television, and secondly to get amongst the action and be a part of it from a playing point of view for the experience. Whether that was wise or not is another matter! I had no preconceptions being at best decent club player standard, but the opportunity was there and who knew what would happen?
I managed to get a practice slot for an hour which gave little time to suss out the tables but enough to learn a thing or two. The first thing I did was set up a few shots just off the cushion below the black spot and see what it took to pot them. On the club tables I’m used to, these are 9 out of 10 when you’re behind them, but on the Star tables the tolerance is dead in or a millimetre either side of ideal if you take some pace off, or else they won’t go in. I knew you had to miss the cushion on the way to the pocket, but if the ball is more than about 3mm off the cushion when it becomes the near jaw, it won’t go in. In other words, frightening!
I played around with some line ups, and then Monique came to join me and started to spot the balls for me. Suddenly I felt pressure! Not only that, I was the only one practicing and then some more people came into the room and well, I couldn’t pot a thing and was looking very silly indeed. I knew they were thinking “What’s someone like that doing here?” or that’s how I felt. So by the time my practice ended and I had a couple of hours to think about my first match any confidence I had when I first arrived had long gone!
When I played my first match I was on table 2 and Steve Kent from Maximum Snooker was on table 1. I know his high break is 24 and mine is 97 and yet he won his first frame and I had an opponent who knocked in a 50 break with his very first chance! It was only speaking to him after the match I found out he was over the moon at getting a 50 on these tables and he didn’t come close for the next 3 frames, but to be fair he was a better player than me anyway, grew up in a snooker club and had a high break of 136.
Even though I was trying, I found myself rattling a lot of easy balls which I thought were in when I hit them, and the final straw was missing the last red which was right over the hole with all colours on the spots and I needed up to blue. Not a major problem for me usually, but stretching on the red I took a liberty because it seemed unmissable, yet somehow I contrived to stick it on the jaw and obviously that mean it didn’t go in. I shook hands soon after.
My next match was at 9am against former ranking event semi-finalist (thanks for reminding me Wild!) from nearby Cheltenham; Nick Pearce. He is on a second wind and in the process of launching a comeback. That night I kept waking up at regular intervals and there was only one reason for it – I was petrified of the tables! The pace of cloth wasn’t a problem for me, I like fast tables but the tight pockets combined with any sort of sidespin on the ball throwing in a way I’ve never experienced before meant I was destined for embarrassment.
As it turned out, I really enjoyed my match against Nick. We had some good safety exchanges and he scored heavily when in the balls which saved me the embarrassment of missing too many easy ones to let him in. He did give me a couple of chances but I couldn’t make more than 9 or 16 from them before either missing or running out of position. He was playing very well yet at 3-0 he took his foot off the gas and I managed to get into a frame to the point where I was 2 ahead with just blue, pink and black left. The only thing I remember about that frame is trying to play a safety and develop the pink which was close to the black cushion, because I knew if I got a chance on the blue to play for position on the pink where it was, even if I landed right behind it, I’d probably miss it. So I played the blue onto pink to bring it into play and leave the blue safe and bring the white back to baulk, but I managed to plant the pink into the corner on the same line I wouldn’t have fancied potting it from! Dear me, the things that can happen on a 12ft x 6ft snooker table (copyright, John Virgo). Nick potted a great pink in the end to win 4-0.
My third chance came straight after my second, so I was starting to feel warmed up. Up to this point I had lost my first two matches 4-0 so was yet to win a frame but I was feeling ok. I won the first frame so had finally got that monkey off my back, and in the second frame I was well positioned on the colours, only needing one. But then my mind started to race about going 2-0 up, and somehow I managed to talk myself out of winning it. Then from 1-1 I played and my opponent played some of the worst snooker ever. This was serious draw holding up standard, both of us were missing everything we went for and all the balls were running safe and in the end I was so scared of the table I was turning down everything that wasn’t into an open pocket. I don’t think I’ve ever played so negatively in my life! I went 3-1 down and I wanted to go home.
Luckily I managed to pull myself together by the start of the next frame. I gave myself a talking to because I could see my opponent was playing badly enough that I really should be beating him, and I ran out the next frame fairly quickly with a couple of good long pots and taking a few high valued colours when I got the chance. In the 6th frame he knocked in a 48 break which at the time left me 48 behind with 51 left. Yet I managed to turn it around and win it, aided by an untimely (for him) in-off at a vital moment. The best bit was the last black which, remembering back to my stretching red the night before, I treated with respect and used my mini-butt and focussed 110%. It was a tricky one and there was pressure on it but I hit it clean as a whistle to level at 3-3.
At that point stupidly I started to think I’d got him. He was obviously rattled and was slashing at everything at the start of the next frame, and his face was redder and he looked wound up so I tried to keep the pressure on, picking off the odd couple of reds and colours but my mind started to race as I built up a lead and I started to think I’d already won the match. I’m afraid to say it distracted me to the point that with all colours in the open and me ahead on points, I took my foot off the gas and left him a chance from a nothing shot and he cleared to pink. I was kicking myself!
I knew next up in my last chance of the 4 entries I faced Alex0paul from the forum. I went to grab a bite to eat only to find out he had been waiting for more than half an hour as I had taken so long in my last match, and that the organisers were cursing me for holding up the draw! I was completely exhausted and wanted a break, but I had to go straight back out there for the “Snooker Island grudge match” as Janie called it. There were no grudges though, it was all media hype!
I knew that one of two things could happen, either he would be fresh as a daisy and kick my arse into the middle of next week, or I would be more used to the tables and he would struggle and I could take advantage. Thankfully it turned out to be the latter as he struggled to settle, and then started to get frustrated and the more frustrated he got, the more he took on shots he shouldn’t have taken on and the more confident I got and the more I kept it tight to frustrate him even more. In the end I won 4-1 after missing a do or die black in the only frame I lost. I felt sorry for him because I certainly didn’t help his preparation for his next match, but I did what I had to do to win.
The next morning I wasn’t feeling that fresh having enjoyed a few Speckled Hens with Mark Jones the previous evening, but I couldn’t wait to get out there and play on the tables again. It was a transformation from 24 hours previous. The hoodoo had been broken and I was determined to enjoy myself. I was expecting to play Robbie Williams who I heard had won a fairly high profile junior event, but then found out he had lost to Eden Sharav, yet another young player of considerable talent.
As with the Nick Pearce match, I felt in spells I gave a good account of myself but the quality of opponent was too much for my level and I lost 4-0 in under an hour. I went for my shots and proved to myself that I can still pot the long ones, even on Star tables! And also I do have a safety game which gets good players thinking, so I wasn’t too despondent. All in all then, a good experience and one I feel privileged in being able to be a part of. So what about the rest of the experience?
I followed the recent Q School event for places onto main tour and there were a lot of names I’d never heard of, and a lot of those names were in the Pink Ribbon so I had chance to see for myself what I’ve been missing out on. What with playing and mingling I wasn’t always watching so I didn’t get to see and recognise all of the youngsters I was hoping to check out, but I picked out a few who caught my eye for one reason or another, and there will be interviews to follow from 3 of them. A mention should go to Mitchell Mann who looked very cool and in control in finishing off a tricky opponent, and indeed Sam Harvey who dumped out one my picks Ben Harrison with some very good solid match play snooker.
The best thing for me about being at the Pink Ribbon was witnessing first hand these raw talents bubbling just under the main tour. There are so many with potential to make a name for themselves and they all seem to be enjoying the game and enjoying facing off against each other. It was a pleasure to witness them before they’ve been bashed around on the main tour by more experienced opponents and had to modify their games in order to survive. It was also great to see them given the chance to play some of the big names and gain some valuable experience.
The Arrival of the Big Names
The biggest name of all, World Champion John Higgins, arrived on the pink bus at 5pm on the Friday amid much fanfare. But there were other names milling around long before that. Everywhere you looked there were top players such as Martin Gould, Joe Perry, Gerard Greene, Robert Milkins, Barry Hawkins, Jimmy White, Stephen Maguire, Jack Lisowski, Michael Holt as well as others I recognised like Michael White, Reanne Evans, Jimmy Robertson, Mark Joyce, Daniel Wells, and many others. And that’s when the tournament changed direction and became something different. Up until then it had been juniors and hackers like me but now there were people who knew how to play properly on these tables and make it look easy while they were doing it.
I didn’t make a point of watching a lot of the professionals because I do enough of that anyway outside of the Pink Ribbon. I did watch Reanne Evans for a few frames having never seen her play before and the over riding impression is one of grace and elegance around the table. I will definitely try and catch some of her games in the future if I get the opportunity because she is very easy on the eye when she plays snooker and is good to watch.
The other player I made a point of watching was new OnQ signing Michael White and boy can this boy pot balls! He is going to rise rapidly up the rankings I feel now he has joined the stable and can get some serious hours in on the tables. There were some hints of frustration here and there suggesting he does have buttons that can be pushed, but it’s up to the other players to suss out how push them. If he learns to keep it inside and not show any emotion though, he will be much feared by the top players.
Of the big name players you did get the feeling they were treating this as a time to catch up with each other away from the pressures of a ranking event, and thus didn’t seem to take it too seriously, but it was good to see both John Higgins and Martin Gould (in fairness, the only top players I sat and watched for any length of time) fighting on for snookers when they didn’t have to against players they weren’t going to lose to. I call it schooling!
The last big name to arrive albeit in a non-playing capacity was Dominic Dale, fresh from his move back home after several years living in Vienna. It was a pleasant surprise for those of us in the media room who had no idea he was coming down, and he certainly kept everyone entertained with his tales of Russian billiards and chilli sauce among other things. Dominic is moving closer to the academy so he can practice on the Star tables and take part in the fuller schedule of PTCs with less travelling in between. It’s a smart move on his part and it speaks volumes for the SWSA which is acting like a magnet for players. They all want to be based here!
The feeling I got from being at the Pink Ribbon is that it is a festival of snooker for snooker lovers and players alike, and in that regard it is entirely unique. This event could seriously grow into something much bigger, but how big should it be allowed to get? The facilities are second to none but if the paying public turned up in their hundreds and there were twice as many players and they all stuck around for a couple of days after they were knocked out, then there would be nowhere for everyone to go. On that basis a public bar area would be needed, but given the frequency and pulling power of other events taking place at SWSA (e.g. qualifiers and PTC), it seems too far fetched to even consider at this stage. If there was room for a marquee then that would suffice, it is at the right time of year in June but nowhere springs to mind as to where to put one.
The multiple entries went down well with some and not others. Not surprisingly I was happy in having 4 chances because by the 4th I was coming to terms with the tables and had I only had one chance, it would’ve felt like a wasted trip playing wise because I never had the opportunity to settle and get used to the playing conditions. And I know another man who was happy to have 4 chances as well because he got to play and lose to two top players in a row and used the experience to make the most of his last chance winning two matches in a row against relatively easier but still tough opposition immediately afterwards. But more of him later!
The organisers however were struggling with the multiple entries. If someone with more chances kept winning, they wouldn’t be able to play to the schedule if matches were going on at the same time and this was hard to stay on top of. The stress levels were evident and although I’m told there was an electronic system in place for staying abreast of the results and schedule, the old trusty pen and paper was reverted to once the going started to get tough.
I myself was called to play on Thursday evening even though I wasn’t due until 11am on Friday, and I had changed my clothes and was drinking a pint of Speckled Hen in the player’s lounge when Janie came in and shouted out my name! It was only later that I realised the error was caused by my 4-3 loss in game 3 being recorded as a win. So I SHOULD have been playing that match had my head been right earlier!
There was also a story about a match taking place which hadn’t been given the go ahead because one of the players found another and said “I’m playing you next” and off they went for a best of 7 only to find out afterwards that it shouldn’t have been played. And eventually there were two players each with 2 chances left and facing off in two different sections of the draw. Thankfully common sense prevailed and the players in question forwent the nightmare of playing twice and agreed to flip a coin for who went through which section.
But the organisers deserve much praise for getting through a tough schedule and no days ended much past 10pm so they were obviously doing a good job. There were calls from some on Snooker Island for an updated draw, but I don’t think those organising the schedule were even aware of outside interest on the internet, and it was only when we got to the last 16 that I could post a list of matches for the last day. Certainly I wasn’t about to volunteer to do an up to the minute results service for the internet and I doubt anyone else was either – 13 matches every 2 hours? No chance!
So understandably, next year there will be no 4 entries, although I am hoping for at least 2 and that I can still play in it without having to enter a regional qualifier. The reason I say this is because the other room for improvement is the selection criteria. There was at least one player who I’m pretty sure would’ve given Paul Mount nightmares had he seen him play for fear of doing damage to the tables. He will remain nameless but he is one who slipped through the net and if there are more like him next year it could be the end of this way of selecting players.
Overall though this is a unique event and one which I hope will flourish in years to come. The cause is a good one and is supported wholeheartedly by the Mount family who lost a member to breast cancer a few years ago and in whose memory the event and indeed the academy itself was built.
It is a festival of snooker and the amount of talent on display is breath taking, and for me it felt like a resounding success, although until the final figures are known it remains to be seen how much money was raised for charity and if the academy came out with a gain or a loss from holding the event.
I managed to conduct a few interviews when I was there and I will kick start these with a new section of interviews for players to look out for. I won’t call it stars of the future because you don’t know what will happen, but these three are certainly capable of doing well with the right guidance.
First off we have Ben Harrison, Syd Wilson and Ross Muir. This will be followed by top female junior Hannah Jones, her dad and EASB board member Mark Jones and finally the big interview and thankfully not done over Facebook this time, Martin Gould.
So stay tuned to Snooker Island! And I didn’t mention the Shotmaker once!