A new hope

In 1987, a Korean by the name of Sang Chun Lee arrived in America. Lee, who was 33 at the time, had become a dominant force in Korea’s billiards scene, having long held the top spot on the nation’s leaderboard and owning a string of billiard halls.

He came to America for two reasons: to prove himself on a global stage, and (perhaps more importantly) to “make 3-cushion billiards beautiful in America.” Lee theorized that for the game he loved to flourish across the world, it would have to find renewed popularity in the United States first.

Unfortunately, Lee died from stomach cancer at the age of 50, well before seeing his dream of a renewed interest in 3 cushion (though not, it should be added, before making a significant mark on the sport). Even today, 3c remains a niche game in North America. However, the tide may be slowly starting to change.

Where are the pockets?

A carom game, 3 cushion billiards is played on a 5’ x 10’ table without pockets. To add a little extra speed, the slate is usually heated. The balls are larger and heavier than pool balls, and there are only three of them: one white, one red, and one that can be either solid yellow or white with red dots. These balls are hit with carom cues. Compared to pool cues, carom cues are shorter, have a smaller tip, and use a straight taper rather than the typical pool cue’s pro taper.

The object of the game is fairly straight-forward. The player must hit both object balls with the cue ball, but the cue ball must impact at least 3 cushions between hitting the first object ball and the second. What sounds simple enough on paper, however, is quite difficult in reality. The 3 cushion player must have incredible cue ball control, and be able to accurately visualize the path of the cue ball as it makes its way around the table.

How do you even get into this game?

As a builder of carom cues, McDermott has many contacts who play 3 cushion. I contacted a few of them, who were happy to discuss the game and how they found it.

Bill “Mr. 3 Cushion” Smith has been playing 3c professionally since the age of 18.

My father, Merhl Smith, played 3 cushion so, naturally, when he started to take me to the billiard room (Bensingers) I was introduced to 3c players. Since I was in school for architectural design and drafting, I had an automatic attraction to the game [and its] angles, geometry, and math! It just had more of an intellectual challenge for me.

Tom “Dr. Cue” Rossman, a household name in the world of Pool, was also introduced to 3 cushion in his college years. Like many others, his introduction came via someone from a country where 3c enjoys more popularity.

I met a friend from Turkey when I was in college. He introduced me to 3c on a table we had in the student center game room. I was attracted to its ultimate challenge of learning angular play via the diamond system. I bought a book entitled Billiards As It Should be Played by Willie Hoppe and continued my study and play in college competitions from 1967 – 1972.

While these two gentlemen found 3c well before Mr. Lee set out to reinvigorate the game, Women’s Professional Billiard Association (WPBA) player Kia Sidbury is a relative newcomer.

In 2011, two Gabriel brand billiard tables were installed in my home pool hall. I had never seen a table like it before, and because I love to experiment, I had to give it a try. Peter Burrows, Chairman of American 14.1 Straight Pool Championship, held a 3 cushion billiards workshop shortly after the tables were installed. Peter taught myself and a few others the basics of the game. We had immediate hands-on experience as an in-house billiards league was formed.

Kia’s story, of being intrigued by a game foreign to her, echoes stories often heard from 3 cushion newcomers and summarized by Mazin Shooni, the former President of the US Billiard Association and founder of 3 Cushion USA:

Most people watching pocket billiards being played understand the object of the game. With 3 cushion, on the other hand, one usually has to ask someone how to play it to even understand what they’re watching.

Dealing with limited exposure

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to get the opportunity to witness a 3 cushion game in person. While many bars across the United States have pool tables seeing regular play, Kia’s home pool hall is one of only a limited number of venues that have carom tables.

What’s more, unlike pool there are no national youth programs teaching the game. In 3 cushion, such instruction is a must, as Bill explains:

It’s not a game you can learn alone, like pool! In pool, if you keep putting balls in the pocket, you’ll get better quickly. Without instruction in 3 cushion, you’ll end up shooting the wrong shots and won’t improve near as much.

Things are looking up, however. Years after Lee’s death, internet platforms like YouTube are presenting the opportunity to witness a game that can’t be seen at the local bar. Mazin’s organization, 3-Cushion USA, formed just this year, is renewing interest with multiple events that feature a fresh new format designed to help keep newer players engaged. And it’s working: Mazin reports that by their 4th tournament, in May, 3 Cushion USA expects to have over 200 active participants. But, other challenges echo those faced by pool:

How do you expose a game like 3 cushion without the resources that drive so much in this country today? Money, top-player sponsorships, and then more money.

Getting better at pool… by learning a different game

Mazin, Tom, Bill and Kia all agree that a pool player who does find 3 Cushion will improve their game on the pool table dramatically.

As Tom sees it, 3c’s required understanding of angles for “banking, kicking, and getting from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’” on any carom shot are critical for more confidently pocketing balls and playing defensively on the pool table. If taught properly, an understanding of these concepts required for 3c will help,

Eliminate the unfortunate guess work so many pool players use, which often results in ball in hand after a foul.

Bill puts it a different way, pointing to a pair of men who dominated the sport of pool by using skills learned from 3 cushion:

The two greatest all-around pool players to date, in my humble opinion, are Harold Worst and Efren Reyes! Worst was a world champion in 3 cushion, and Reyes an accomplished balkline and 3 cushion player. I’m sure many will agree that what has made Efren such a great player is his ability to play position in 9 ball that many players are afraid to attempt with the cue ball: off 3, 4 and 5 rails!

3 cushion can NEVER hurt a pool players game, it can only ENHANCE it!

As they say, a rising tide floats all boats. Even those with little interest should hope that 3 cushion billiards becomes, as Lee so eloquently put it, “beautiful in America.” An uptick in the popularity of 3 cushion would result in even more exciting performances on pool tables across the country.

To learn more about the game, check out these great resources from players mentioned in this article:

  1. 3 Cushion USA: 3cushionusa.org
  2. Rack up a Victory, a book by Tom "e;Dr. Cue"e; Rossman that includes numerous carom/diamond systems applied in an easy to understand conversion for the pool table. Email drcue@artisticpool.org
  3. Mr. 3 Cushion’s Website, offering news, lessons, and instructional DVDs. http://mr3cushion.com
  4. Sang Chun Lee: His Life in Billiards, an article by Ira Lee. Link

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