Ronnie O'Sullivan is a notable absentee from this year's Dafabet Masters field but Richard Mann believes that only heightens betting appeal for the second Triple Crown event of the season.
There will be a big elephant in the room at Alexandra Palace and when that elephant is Ronnie O'Sullivan, you can be sure it will cast a dark shadow over proceedings for the first few days of The Masters at least.
O'Sullivan's decision to skip this prestigious and hugely-valuable event sent shockwaves through the sport when the announcement was made towards the end of the UK Championship and it seems remarkable to think that the biggest draw in snooker, and the greatest player it has ever produced, won't be on show at a tournament he has almost made his own over the years.
That O'Sullivan has decided against a bid for an eighth Masters success would apparently have little to do with any considerable decline in his game - for all the light might just be dimming ever so slightly at the age of 44 - and as such, it is hard to fathom why he has chosen not to try and make hay while the sun is still shining.
Not for the first time, however, O'Sullivan has seen things differently and it is worth remembering that he skipped this very event back in 2013 before going on to win the World Championship in breathtaking fashion only a few months later. Only time will tell whether he can do something similar in Sheffield later in the year.
With The Rocket out of the picture, all eyes will be on defending champion and world number one Judd Trump as he bids to further enhance his credentials as the new dominant force in snooker.
Trump was simply brilliant when dismantling O'Sullivan in the final here a year ago and the ensuing 12 months have seen him touch greatness, just as he promised when first bursting on the scene in the early part of the last decade.
Having turned in another masterful display to beat John Higgins in the World Championship final last spring, Trump has already amassed three titles this term as well reaching the final of the Champion of Champions.
He remains the man to beat but an early exit at the UK Championship and defeat in qualifying for the European Masters before Christmas confirm he is not unbeatable, something that might not be reflected in quotes as low at 2/1 for Trump to successfully defend his title in London.
Furthermore, Trump looks to be berthed in the toughest half of the draw; an opening match against Shaun Murphy likely to be followed by a blockbuster quarter-final meeting with recent UK Championship hero Ding Junhui, with the winner of that one in line to face John Higgins or Mark Selby in the last four.
While Trump will fancy his chances of getting through his opener against Murphy, Ding could represent an altogether tougher task if he can replicate the brilliant snooker he produced when brushing aside all before him in York.
If that one doesn't promise to be challenging enough, Higgins' own consistent form this term - including when pushing Trump close in a couple of semi-finals - and Selby's wins at the English Open and Scottish Open confirm just what a tricky draw this will be to navigate.
With that in mind, and the mild concern surrounding Trump's slight downturn in form before Christmas, I'm not prepared to back him at the prices, nor can I support anyone else from the top half.
With my attention turned to the bottom half, NEIL ROBERTSON is the first name to jump from the page.
Winner of this event in 2012, the Australian made the final the following year and again in 2015, and he comes into this year's tournament with a big title already under his belt this term having claimed the Champion of Champions trophy in early November.
Robertson got the better of Trump in that final in Coventry, coming from 9-8 behind to prevail at the end of a brilliant match, and while he hasn't been quite as consistent before or after that triumph, he isn't far away and we know he has the game to take down the very best.
In fact, Robertson used a run to the semi-finals here last year to kick-start a strong second half of last season, one which saw him reach four finals in a row and win at the Welsh Open and China Open.
It took a rampant Trump to derail his Masters bid 12 months ago but with that rival berthed on the opposite side of the draw this time, and with the hope that Robertson can once again enjoy another fruitful second half of the campaign, he looks a bet at 9/2.
Robertson is pitched in against UK Championship runner-up Stephen Maguire in the first round, the Scot a huge talent on his day whose impressive head-to-head record against Robertson illustrates just what a dangerous opponent he is.
Nevertheless, consistency has held him back over the years with his impressive early Masters record overshadowed by a couple of round-one exits in his last two visits to London.
As we should expect for a tournament of this quality, this won't be an easy opener for Robertson but it is one I expect him him to come through before a meeting with either Mark Allen or David Gilbert.
Allen is a fascinating runner following a string of near misses before Christmas but for all his admirable consistency, that he hasn't been able to convert six semi-final appearances already this season into some silverware suggests he is just struggling for his very best form.
A fearsome competitor with a wonderful all-round game, Allen will surely return to the winners' enclosure before the campaign is out but he will need to find top gear in order to do so and the manner in which Maguire and JACK LISOWSKI beat him in York and Scotland respectively last month suggests he needs things to click pretty quickly.
With that in mind, Robertson's appeal is only heightened but the bottom half of the draw looks to offer plenty of value and the aforementioned Lisowski is worth adding to the staking plan.
Following a breakthrough season where he reached a couple of major finals along with a host of quarter-final appearances last term, Lisowski had been a slow starter this time around until surging to the final of the Scottish Open recently.
A change of cue just before the UK Championship might have taken some a while to adjust to for some but not Lisowski, and following a solid run in York, he stepped up again when producing excellent snooker all week in Scotland before only finding Selby too strong in a high-quality final.
Selby's superior experience and nous got him over the line there but Lisowski's much-maligned safety game competed hard for long periods of that match and if that side of his game can continue to develop, this supremely gifted young man should continue to make his mark in major events.
With a first-round match against an out-of-sorts Kyren Wilson apparently affording him a favourable start, quotes of 35/1 look far too big when you consider a potential quarter-final with either Mark Williams or Stuart Bingham shouldn't concern him too much on recent form.
Williams is a real conundrum here given his struggles ever since winning his third World Championship in 2018 but he looked on much better terms with himself when qualifying for the German Masters and European Masters just before Christmas.
He might well be able to overcome Bingham but Lisowski is a young player on the up and he and Robertson look the two to take out of a bottom half of the draw that appears to offer some value in a typically star-studded field.
1425 GMT on 07/01/20.
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