After an absence of eight years, the world amateur three-cushion billiard championship returned to the U.S. last week, with the finest players from the host country as well as from Asia, Africa, South America and Europe assembling at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. Among them was Raymond Ceulemans. Few people in any sport have won 14 world championships. Soon Raymond Ceulemans would have 15.
Ceulemans is a 40-year-old Belgian who owns the Cafè Royal in Mechelen, which contains six billiard tables. In 1963 Ceulemans won the world three-cushion championship at a meet in West Germany. He has dominated the game ever since. His name is a household word in Belgium, and in 1967 King Baudouin bestowed upon him the Trophe Merite Sportif, a once-per-lifetime award that no more than a dozen Belgians have received. Six times in world tournaments Ceulemans has picked up his favorite 18-ounce Van Laera cue and stroked, caromed, spun, massèd, banked and double-banked his way to the title without losing a game. In Belgium, Ceulemans' style of play is called kindermord. It means child-killing.
Three-cushion billiards is to pocket billiards, or pool, as chess is to checkers. The game has been described as "the ultimate in man's control over a ball." To score, a player shoots the cue ball into two object balls—but before it hits the second one, it must carom off three or more rails. "The challenge," as one player says, "is to make a peacock out of a crow. If your shot is so difficult that it turns your brains inside out, that's a crow. If you score with it, it's a peacock."
A game is 60 points, and a game doesn't end quickly. In his prime in the 1940s, Willie Hoppe averaged 1.150 points per inning or turn at the table. That was considered billiards at its best. Ceulemans, by comparison, has averaged 1.308 or better in world tournaments alone since 1972. It has been argued that scoring was tougher in Hoppe's day because the game was more defensive and the equipment less reliable. But Hoppe played under rules that permitted deliberate "safeties," the option not to attempt to score in difficult situations, and he always played in the U.S. Ceulemans routinely plays in a number of countries. While Hoppe holds the alltime high run of 25 points, he set it in a non-tournament match. Ceulemans shares the high-run record in world play (17) and holds the records in European (20) and national (23) play. In tournaments, Hoppe's best per-inning average was 1.333. At Ostend in 1976, Ceulemans averaged 1.500 or 17% higher. "Nobody ever ran points like Ceulemans," says 1977 U.S. champion Al Gilbert, who saw Hoppe play. "All players miss some shots they should make. Ceulemans never does."
The Las Vegas tournament was a 12-man round-robin of champions from every continent except Australia and Antarctica, and was played over a grueling six days. On opening day, a Mexican dance band was scheduled to appear in the ballroom next door. A billiard fan phoned the Sahara management and threatened to turn a fire hose on the musicians if they played a single note. The band moved. The billiard players all wore the requisite black slacks and sweaters bearing emblems of their home federations. In his first match Ceulemans won the lag against Larry Johnson of the U.S., scored 19 points in an early four-inning spree and cruised to a 60-point win in just 26 innings. He then wiped out Frank Torres of Hollywood by 46 points in 27 innings, setting a 2-game world record of 2.264 points an inning.
After seven rounds, the only unbeaten competitors were Ceulemans and Nobuaki Kobayashi of Japan, a shrewd defensive player who had won the title in 1974, the only one since 1963 that Ceulemans has lost. At the tournament in Tokyo in 1969, the Japanese had filmed Ceulemans so that they could study everything the Belgian does—from stance and grip to stroke to the movement of his eyes before he shoots. The films are practically a required course for members of the Japanese Federation, and Kobayashi admits that he's watched them many hours. In the eighth round Ceulemans had no trouble handling Peru's Humberto Suguimizu, but Ludo Dielis of Belgium suddenly got a hot hand and upset Kobayashi.
Two rounds later, with two rounds to go, Ceulemans (9-0) faced the runner-up in the Japanese championship, Junichi Komori (7-2), needing a win to clinch the title. Leading 7-6 in the 13th inning, Ceulemans moistened the tip of his cue with spit, chalked up—and made a peacock. The shot is called a "ticky," which means that the cue ball went rail, ball, same rail, new rail, ball. Ceulemans ran six more as Komori sat watching, leaning forward for a better view. Ceulemans ran fives in the 18th and 25th innings to open a 40-18 gap and then coasted home by 27. It was his 15th world three-cushion title and, counting all games at world, European and national levels, it was Ceulemans' 100th championship. In winning it, he also set 10 world records, including a remarkable 1.679 per-inning average.
Koen Ceulemans, 16, dashed out of the stands and kissed his father on the cheek. Dad merely sipped a glass of water and bowed and bowed. And the next night, as a final touch, he finished up his triumphant visit by waxing Kobayashi by 33 in 25 innings.
Ceulemans is a squat man with tiny feet and stubby hands, whose appearance belies the grace with which he moves. His stroke varies from a compact punch to a long-bridged stroke, depending on the shot in question. At the table he often nods and smiles before selecting a shot. Sometimes after poking the cue-ball, he shuffles backward, like an artist stepping away from his easel to admire his work. Occasionally he leans and sways while watching the balls skittering around the table. "I think always I am to make the ball," he says. "Is possible, no?"
Like Hoppe, Ceulemans built his three-cushion talents from the bottom up, learning first to master the simpler billiard games such as balkline and straight rail. He first picked up a cue at age 14. A year later he won a balkline championship on a 4' x 8' table. Two years later he won a Belgian title at three-cushion. It was in his early years that he developed a special feeling for billiards, he says. Top players all rely on the gimmick known as the diamond system, using the markings on the rails to calculate angles. Ceulemans says he had never heard of the system until he met Japan's Koya Ogata in 1965, and by then he had already won two world tournaments. The Ceulemans system is all intuition. "Most players see balls and think, 'Maybe I can make it,' " he says. "But I," he points to his head, "have some things."
Among the also-rans in the tournament, the Americans recited the familiar litany of excuses—weak national competition, lack of enthusiasm and the national fixation on pocket billiards. They also blame U.S. manufacturers for making less than world-class tables; the frames are too light, the slate is too thin and the rails too inconsistent. Belgian tables, which weigh about 3,000 pounds, are almost three times as heavy as American tables, and sometimes the rails are heated to ensure reliable bounce.
Not that anyone complained about the three old 3,500-pound Brunswicks used in Las Vegas—except maybe Harry Sims, who was assigned to procure them. He borrowed the tables from a room in Los Angeles, loaded them into a U-Haul and started to drive away. He yanked off his bumper. "If we had this kind of table to play on all the time, it might be different," Gilbert said.
An oldtimer overheard him, and when Gilbert was gone, the man turned to a companion. "Tables!" he screamed. "Why, Mr. Ceulemans could drop to his knees and beat us on the rug!"
Whether or not he had ever turned a crow into a peacock, he certainly knew a child-killing when he saw one.