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I had heard there would be a three-cushion tournament in town featuring names such as Raymond Ceulemans and Torbjörn Blomdahl. To say Ceulemans is only a “name” in the world of three-cushion billiards would be a massive understatement. He has been described as:

“…possibly the most dominant single figure in any one sport, having won 35 World Championship titles (23 in three-cushion + 12 in other carom disciplines), 48 European titles (23 in three-cushion) and 61 national titles.”

Well, shit.

Guess I gotta go watch.

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The tournament was the United States Billiards Association (USBA) International Open held at Million Dollar Billiards in North Hollywood. The room had spared no expense for this tournament: they moved all pool tables (I think they had about six full-size tables) aside to accomodate bleachers for the spectators. It was a nice set up since you were sitting just six feet from the action in the front row.

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The tournament was three days long and for the first two days, whatever attire was acceptable. Vests and collared shirts would be required for Sunday, the final day.

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Storytime.

Back in the day (I don’t know just how far back), it seems tuxedos were the only acceptable tournament attire for three-cushion billiards. At a tournament in Europe, on a particularly hot day in which the room’s air conditioning performance was particularly subpar, Mr. Ceulemans showed up in a button-up shirt and a v-neck sweater. It was too hot, he said, to wear a tuxedo. The tournament officials said he could play in a tuxedo or he could not play at all. Mr. Ceulemans said he would be fine with not playing. Mr. Ceulemans was the biggest spectator draw of the tournament and the event officials eventually gave him the go ahead to play in his shirt and sweater. The next day, everyone showed up to play, sans tuxedos, in shirts and v-neck sweaters. And that was the end of the tuxedo as a requirement in many three-cushion tournaments.

“That’s it?” I said to the storyteller.

“Well,” he said. “It caused quite a stir at the time. It was almost scandalous!”

“Yes. Sure. Scandalous. Scandalous!

Scandals in three-cushion billiards are not quite on par with scandals in the world of pocket billiards.

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Each table was cleaned between matches and a fresh set of carom balls provided for the incoming players.

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I am not entirely clear on the format of the event (the announcements indicated the format would be determined based on the number of players), but from what I gathered, it went like this: round-robin for preliminary rounds with top players in each group advancing to the next round, which was also round-robin. The final eight, however, would not play round-robin–they would play single-elimination (with the race extended to 40 points–the semifinal races had been to 30 points and the qualifying rounds had been races to 25) for the rest of the tournament. I asked some spectators what they thought of this format as I had always thought three-cushion tournaments went round-robin for the entire event, seeing as how averages were so important in this game. Most said the same thing: ideally, it would be round-robin for the entire duration of the tournament, but it simply wasn’t feasible to accomplish that with the number of players in just three days of play.

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Shortly before the 6:00 p.m. matches a raffle drawing and auction took place. The tickets were dropped in a Costco-sized Folger’s coffee tub and shaken. A ticket was drawn and the holder of the ticket received a spot in the semi-final round. After the raffle drawing, the event officials went straight into an auction for another spot in the semi-final round. I suppose this was rather like a buy-back in a tournament, except you were buying back into the next round, not back into the round from which you were eliminated.

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After some animated bidding, the spot sold for $550. Side note: entries for this event were staggered from $210 to $335, and you paid based on your ability–the less-skilled you were, the less you would pay. First place for the event paid $4,000.

But wait!

There’s more!

After the spot was auctioned off, it was time for the raffle winner to auction his spot off!

That spot went for $450.

I’ve never heard of such a thing in a tournament, the raffling of a spot in the semi-finals, the auctioning of another spot in the semi-finals, and then the auctioning of the raffle spot in the semi-finals. Someone tell me, is this shit normal?!

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While the players had kept scores themselves for the previous rounds, scorekeepers (all volunteers) were provided for the semi-final rounds. Below is George Aronek, who volunteered to score the match between auction winner Gilbert Najm and Mr. Ceulemans, the legendary sartorial rebel. The detailed scorekeeping reminded me of APA matches, except with less beer and much less suspicion of foul play.

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Mr. Aronek, it seems, has had quite the innovative life. Before he started manufacturing cue cases under the name of American Vinyl, he worked on developing reconnaissance cameras over fifty years ago. The cameras had to have shutter speeds faster than the speed of sound and the film kept in place with a vacuum.

“The pictures were so accurate we could see the wash hanging out in the yard behind a house.”

“So, you’re saying we shouldn’t air dirty laundry outside because you would be able it see it.”

“Well, we also had these infrared cameras that could tell you a tank rolled by eight hours ago.”

“Just by the residual heat?”

“Yeah, and that’s eight hours after the tank is gone.”

“So, you’re saying it doesn’t matter if we don’t air dirty laundry outside. Because you’ll see it anyway.”

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George would announce the number of points scored or “no score” after each inning. Players then marked their score with beads, keeping the last points scored separate from the main pack. It was all very orderly and civilized, but still too much math for me on a Saturday.

Mr. Najm and Mr. Ceulemans’ match was fantastic. Najm took the early lead, Ceulemans caught up and surpassed Najm during a string of Najm’s scoreless innings, Najm buckled down to keep close. Below is Najm on his last shot, the shot to win the match versus the, uh, Efren Reyes of three-cushion billiards.

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Mr. Ceulemans shook hands with Mr. Najm before the ball made contact for the last point (if you look up there, you can see the yellow ball is still moving). I don’t know what Najm won in prize money, but that match and the victory are well worth the $550 he spent on the spot. 🙂

Neither Ceulemans nor Najm would make it to the single-elimination stage.

Mr. Blomdahl would win the event.

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I played a lot of three-cushion the first year I picked up a cue. I was eventually gently redirected to the pool tables because there was “a better future” for me in pocket billiards rather than three-cushion billiards. After all these many long years I can say: perhaps there is, but not by much.

It was very interesting for me to revisit this game after such a long time away. I have a better knowledge of three-cushion shots now simply from all the years of playing pool. Even at the end of that first year of three-cushion, I still hadn’t quite grasped the concepts of spin and rails and would play mostly by swinging away and hoping. Now, I am pleasantly surprised to be able to predict at least a few routine shots. Crazy cool shots with weird reverse english and physics-bending shit is still beyond my plane of existence, though.

Three cushion is a quieter game that requires more patience to play and enjoy than your standard rotation game in pocket billiards. There is no thunderous break or clattering of balls down the subway of the ball return in three cushion. The loudest sound in three cushion is a click. Rotation games are all about instant gratification for spectators. The first thing we want to know is if the ball made it into the pocket. After that, we look at the cue ball. In three cushion, you must watch the balls from the time the cue ball leaves the cue until all three stop moving, and they can travel a long way. Even when there is an initial missed connection, you’ll hear–and this is also a phrase used in pocket billiards when someone has missed a kick–“wait for it”. And you wait for it. And the ball pings off two more rails to roll smoothly back down the way it came, and makes the hit.

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This post brought to you by “junksecret”, connoisseur of three-cushion billiards and Ginacues.

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