Balkline GuyThe Welcome Mat to Three-Cushion Billiards

If you attend the USBA 2013 Nationals Three-Cushion tournament this April in Edison, New Jersey or any of the many tournaments at the Carom Café in New York, you will run into a lot of knowledgeable carom billiards spectators and of course players. Any one of them will happily explain to a neophyte the meaning of a "ticky," "cross table," whether to go "short or long," or any number of other oft used expressions. But try asking them about a "rail nurse" or even "balkline" and you will probably get a blank stare. These were once prominent terms in American billiards. But with the ascendency of 3-cushion billiards, the "small games"—straight rail, balkline and one-cushion—and their wonderful terminology have all but disappeared from popular consciousness.

I've been a proponent of the small games for a number of years. I belonged to a billiard club in New York that has two straight rail tournaments going back to 1911 (handicap) and 1925 (non-handicap). On occasion, my club would set down the balklines for exhibitions by well-known players, including Raymond Ceulemans and Frédéric Caudron. But I recently began to wonder whether there was a grass roots movement, or appreciation, for the small games in America. And so, a few weeks ago, I sent an email to the USBA asking whether there was any interest in promoting straight rail and balkline in the United States. The email was copied to a few other billiard enthusiasts. When I sent it, I wondered about the reaction I would get, if I would even get one. But the responses flooded back rapidly. Andrew Janquitto, the President of the USBA, responded by confirming that the constitutional mission of the USBA was to promote all forms of carom billiards. He added that he played straight rail and balkline and would like to see those games given their due on the USBA website.

Robert Byrne, the well-known author, sent a long, thoughtful reply. He had recently watched the Belgian championship on Kozoom, in which the players compete in six disciplines, the free game (straight rail), three forms of cadre (balkline), one-cushion and, of course, three-cushion. "After watching last weekend on Kozoom the Belgian championships in 47/1, 47/2, 71/2, free, one-cushion and three-cushion, and marveling at the exquisite control of the top balkline players," Byrne's email began, " I can sympathize with anyone who would like to see the small games resurrected in the United States. The precise command on draw shots, drive shots, and masses is mesmerizing to watch." But Byrne had some reservations. "I doubt, though, that there is any chance of bringing those games back in this country. They died out here in the 1930s, and last I heard they are declining in every country, including even in Belgium, Holland, Denmark, France and Spain. There are few tournaments anywhere anymore, I'm very sorry to say." He concluded, "Three-cushion is sweeping the other carom games away -- just as 9-ball killed straight pool as a tournament game. Times change and not always for the better."

My hope was revived, however, when Bert van Manen, a Dutch player and billiard commentator, chimed in a few hours later. "Robert B. may underestimate the solid roots balkline has in Europe. It's a niche, an even smaller one than 3-C, but it is certainly not dying. Every western European country still has its annual balkline Nationals, often combined: free game, 47/1, 47/2, 71/2 and 1-cushion in the same week (mostly the same players are involved)." Van Manen added that the European billiard confederation would hold its 2013 championship in the small games in Brandenburg, Germany. Van Manen closed his email with a P.S. about the benefits of the small games: " Hey, Caudron and Eddy Leppens cared enough to play 1-cushion, 47/1 and 71/2 in [the Belgian championship]! And guess who is TAKING LESSONS in 1-cushion from Eddy? A Swedish guy living in Germany. They say he is rather talented."

My hopes were buoyed even more when Ira Lee, a New York player, instructor of all billiards games and promoter of billiard exhibitions, sent a long email about his experience with the small games. "I think that it makes sense to have at least SOME support structure and materials in the USBA for the basic carom games," Lee began. He then extolled the virtues (and difficulty) of the small games. While many, if not most, three cushion players in America begin as pool players and move to the carom game, Lee wondered if that was the best scenario. "By ignoring basic carom, we offer no stepping stone for new enthusiasts to find their way to 3-cushion outside of the pool framework. Sometimes, it's easy to forget how daunting it is for new folks to venture into the 3-cushion world uninitiated. The game needs a welcome mat, so to speak."

And there it was. Lee had hit upon it. The small games are the welcome mat to three-cushion billiards. But Lee had additional thoughts about the benefits of learning the small games, even for accomplished 3-cushion players. Learning to control the balls in the small games elevates one's 3-cushion game as the importance of object ball control is common in all the games. Lee related a story about a straight rail league he ran a few years ago at Carom Cafe. Many of the top 3-cushion players competed, including Sonny Cho and Michael Kang. Not only was it "extremely fun and competitive for all," the players were "thankful that we did it since they watched their general 3-cushion game improve and attributed it to the weekly 'exercise.'" Lee added that Sang Lee and Raymond Ceulemans each advocated that 3-cushion players venture into the small games in order to improve their three-cushion skills. And evidently Torbjorn Blomdahl, that Swedish guy mentioned in van Manen's P.S., must also see the benefit.

And so, within a few short hours of my offhand inquiry, I received confirmation that the USBA was interested in carom games other than 3-cushion, that the small games are alive and well in Europe, and that they provide the opportunity to hone skills that can better one's 3-cushion game. The small games have a long and rich history in America. They come highly recommended by luminaries such as Raymond Ceulemans, the late Sang Lee and even some Swedish guy named Torbjorn Blomdahl. There's also a YouTube video in which Efren Reyes—perhaps the greatest pool player ever—tells an interviewer that balkline is his favorite game!

For more information on the small games, check out the new menu section on the USBA web site: Other Games.

Note on Author: Michael Bray is a former Manhattan attorney now retired and living in California. He recently purchased a Verhoeven table and includes practice of the rail nurse as part of his devotion to 3-cushion billiards.