The 11th running of The Masters will be staged in Milton Keynes this weekend and the stakes are seriously high.
The title and £65,000 first prize are incentives enough for the 24 players heading for the Marshall Arena, though there is the added pressure for many of trying to stake a claim to be invited into the mega-bucks Premier League, which starts next week.
|Where||Marshall Arena, Milton Keynes|
|When||27th – 29th January, 2023|
|How to watch||ITV4 & bet365 live Sports Streaming Service|
|Odds||Michael van Gerwen 9/4, Michael Smith 4/1, Gerwyn Price 9/2, Peter Wright 9/1, Jonny Clayton 12/1, Luke Humphries 18/1, Rob Cross 25/1|
The Masters is not a ranking event but for darts fans craving some highly-competitive action almost a month after the end of the World Championship, it's a real late-winter belter.
The top 24 players in the world, headed by new world No.1 Michael Smith, will toe the oche in Milton Keynes.
Players ranked nine to 24 will fill the first-round bracket on Friday evening with the eight winners going on to take on the world's top eight in round two on Saturday.
Record five-time winner Michael van Gerwen is 9/4 though the Dutchman has not actually gone beyond the quarter-finals in any of the last three Masters. World champ Smith is 4/1, Gerwyn Price 9/2 and last week's Nordic Masters winner Peter Wright is 9/1.
For those four, the world's top four, the Masters is a chance to add yet another title to their collections and also fine-tune before the start of this year's Premier League next week.
For the rest it's not only about having a good run in a prestigious event, but also trying to nail down one of the four other places up for grabs in the Premier League.
And while form and rankings will play a big part in that decision, a winning run in the Masters can also seal the deal as proved by Joe Cullen last year. As the world No.11 he had no obvious claims for a Premier League invite 12 months ago, but then defied the odds to win the Masters and duly completed the field.
And five months after that he was £145,000 richer for his Premier League efforts which saw him go all the way to the final.
Eight members of the 24-man field heading for the Marshall Arena have been in competitive action already, in the season-opening World Series events in Bahrain and Copenhagen.
Smith, carrying on where he left off at Alexandra Palace, won in the Gulf before Wright got up at the Nordic Masters at the weekend. Price was beaten in the final both times.
Smith and Price, seeded one and four respectively, are seeded to meet in the semis this weekend though fifth seed Luke Humphries and No.8 in the world and debutant Danny Noppert are also housed in the same quarter. Cool Hand is an 18/1 chance, Noppie available at 33/1 in the To Win Outright market.
There are eight first-round matches on Friday, all best-of-11 legs affairs, capped off by a clash of the debutants, Damon Heta and Ross Smith.
Big-scoring Smith at 1/1 Match Winner might just get the nod there and there are several outsiders who make some appeal, especially at this stage of the season when form figures are non-existent.
Among the really interesting ties is Jose de Sousa against Gabriel Clemens, a heavyweight continental clash where the Portuguese Man O'Scores looks short enough given his inconsistency and the fact that the German Giant goes to a post as a World Championship semi-finalist.
There are plenty of noises that Clemens should be joining the Premier League line-up this year – (most of those noises coming from Germany, it has to be said) – which means the pressure is on since defeat to De Sousa would pretty much shatter that prospect.
It's hard to imagine Gary Anderson getting a Premier League summons this year as he tumbles down the rankings and the Scot could have hardly picked a tougher first-round opponent than another Ally Pally semi-finalist Dimitri van den Bergh.
The Flying Scotsman, a former Masters finalist, gets an 11/8 quote for his showdown with the world No.11.