17 days - 31 matches. The Dafabet Snooker World Championship 2014 has arrived and is well-worth watching. The sponsor may change, but the event stays solidly fabulous.
The top 16 players in the world are pitched against 16 qualifiers, in a marathon event lasting 17 days in total. Round 1 is the best of 19 frames, and by the final it's the best of 35. These are long matches which really test players' skill, stamina and endurance.
The whole event is held in the Crucible theatre, Sheffield. The Crucible theatre is unlike any other sporting venue. This theatre in the round holds just 980 people, which makes any match session an intense and intimate experience. There is no bad seat in the house. The front rows offer unparalleled closeness to the players and an excellent clear view. Higher seats mean you can see the whole table and watch the strategies unfold. For all matches until the semi-finals, the auditorium is divided into two by a screen down the middle, bringing the audience even closer to the action. Seats near the screen let you see both matches, which can be as exciting as distracting.
Sneak round to the stage door to get an autograph - snooker players are often around and willing to sign your programme. Sheffield's also a lovely place to spend a weekend.
The 1st World Championship at the Crucible was in 1977 and it's become an iconic venue for the sport. Refurbishment had to be completed between championships - it just wouldn't be the same elsewhere. The Crucible has seen 10 maximum 147 breaks, with Ronnie O'Sullivan setting a record of 5 minutes 20 seconds for the fastest ever 147. Steve Davis has had 30 appearances, Stephen Hendry 27 and Jimmy White 25. Jimmy 'Whirlwind' White made it to the final six times, but never managed to win. Steve Davis has the most titles (6), closely followed by Stephen Hendry (7), while John Higgins has had 20 consecutive Crucible appearances.
This year's prize money is £1,214,000, with the winner taking away a record-breaking £300,000. This will soon affect the world rankings, as after this World Championship snooker is moving to a ranking system based on two-year prize money rather than ranking tournament points. Nobody knows quite how this will affect things, so this World Championship is being seen as a pivotal point, an end of an era in its own way.
This year's championships has already seen some upsets. In sessions, Jan Verhaas has knocked water all over the floor, Mark Allen and Michael Holt 'high-fived' over escaping a snooker one had set the other, while Mark Selby mistakenly thought a free ball had been called and deliberately hit a pink instead of a red, much to referee Leo Scullion's bemusement (he did still win the match). Seeds John Higgins (former champion) and Ding Junhui are already out. This is no easy tournament to survive. Classically, the winner plays the first match on the opening day, and often fails to make it through that first round. Ronnie O'Sullivan powered through, and may be a strong contender for another title.
Buying tickets is easy on the Crucible website. The popular matches (such as the final) sell out on the first day (in July), but other tickets, particularly midweek, can be bought at the box office for as little as £15. If you're watching remotely, the BBC will cover almost all of it, although you may find yourself getting annoyed as you flick from terrestrial to red button to online services.
When people ask me what I'm doing for the first May bank holiday, I have an easy answer. Watching the final. I feel like hanging a 'do not disturb' sign on the door. The World Championship final is a two-day event of absorbing intensity for all snooker fans, drawing in millions of viewers across the world. It's the culmination of a season's work and a lifetime's skill. Very rarely do champions hold on to their titles, so who knows what will happen this year? The latest final finish has been 00:52 in 2006; we all need to be ready for the long sit-in, but it's a great event and well worth the late nights.