Sang Chun Lee is used to being mobbed, interviewed, photographed and filmed. But not in America. Although he is a five-time U.S. national champion and the first American to win the world championship in his sport in 40 years, Sang Lee, a 40-year-old native of South Korea who emigrated to the U.S. in 1987, is virtually unknown here. Even folks who own their own cue sticks and whose favorite movies are The Hustler and The Color of Money probably haven't heard of him. Sang Lee, you see, doesn't shoot pool; he doesn't play nine ball, eight ball or straight pool. He plays three-cushion (or carom) billiards, a game that does not exactly make Americans' blood race.
Three-cushion billiards is played with three balls on a pocketless table. The object is to make the cue ball hit at least three cushions and a second ball (in any order) before touching the last ball. It's a game of precise speeds, deliberate banks and exact angles in which the degree of difficulty often requires a safety shot (a miss that leaves one's opponent with a tough shot). In short, three cushion isn't as sexy as pool, with its loud and satisfying thwack of balls being gunned into the pockets. In three cushion the same three balls begin and end a game, and a good run is eight or 10 shots as opposed to straight pool's runs of 50, 70 and even 100.
Thus three cushion, as any devotee will tell you, gets no respect in this country. Pool & Billiard Magazine's 1993 poll of its readers who play some form of billiards found that less than 3% choose three cushion. But overseas—ah, well, over there they appreciate the subtlety, the elegance, the nuances, the complexity of the game. In Europe, Asia and much of South America, three-cushion tournaments are televised and heavily attended. They offer large purses, and the best players, such as Raymond Ceulemans of Belgium and Torbjorn Blomdahl of Sweden, are national treasures. Even lesser players often have corporate sponsors. But so far neither Nike nor Pepsi nor a pizza chain has called on this country's star player, a man whose life story is being turned into a movie starring South Korea's most popular actor.
To the cognoscenti, Sang Lee is the Bobby Fischer of carom billiards, except that Sang Lee is noted as much for his good manners as for his remarkable memory. Like Fischer, he can recall every important game he has ever played and practically every move, especially those moves he would like to take back. And as the chess master from Brooklyn once did, Sang Lee seems to redefine the game every time he plays.
To get an idea of how far Sang Lee's prowess puts him above American players, think of Babe Ruth's stats for 1920, the year he banged out 54 homers while his nearest rivals, George Sisler of the St. Louis Cardinals and Tilly Walker of the Philadelphia Athletics, could muster only 19 and 17, respectively. In three-cushion terms this means that Sang Lee often plays out a 50-point game in 30 or 35 innings (turns), leaving opponents sitting on their hands most of the time. While his average of 1.5 points per inning sounds low, accomplished players are happy to average half that. The other way of measuring three-cushion skill is by handicapping—the best players have the highest handicaps. Good to excellent players have handicaps ranging in the 30's and 40's. Sang Lee's has been as high as 72.
Don Sperber, a 29 handicapper from Yonkers, N.Y., who has faced Sang Lee many times over the years, describes one of their games: "I was doing great. I needed one ball to win, and Sang Lee needed 13.1 missed, then Sang Lee looked at the table and said, 'You lose,' and ran 13 on me. I mean, that's like Ruth pointing and hitting one out. It just doesn't happen."
"What you have to understand," says Jan Carl, a 17 handicapper who owns a security firm in Yonkers, "is that the balls are bigger for Sang Lee. He looks at the third ball, and to him it's makable. He's like Ted Williams—to him the ball simply looks easier to hit."
David Levine, a 26 handicapper who is a money manager in New York City, puts it another way: "Sang Lee sees configurations that no one else does. There are maps in his head for every conceivable situation, uncharted routes that only he knows. Where you and I might feel lost because there's no way to reach the last ball, Sang Lee simply finds—or, better yet, invents—a way."
Sang Lee didn't start out to be a billiard legend. In fact, because South Korean law forbade minors to enter pool halls, he didn't pick up a cue stick until he was 17, in 1971. An excellent student at Seoul University, Sang Lee had planned to become an engineer, but a compulsory stint in the army interrupted his studies when he was 21. Discharged after one week for medical reasons, he was taken to a billiard club by a friend before he could return to school. He never did go back—though he eventually returned to the army for a full year—and two years later he was the national three-cushion champion.
Sang Lee's parents weren't thrilled that their only son had exchanged his slide rule for a cue stick. Sang Lee's mother, Gae Chung, scolded him, but he couldn't be budged. Something about the game—the distribution of balls on green baize, the spatial calculations required to connect them—satisfied him. While Sang Lee's father, Taek Lee, soon came to share his son's interest, it took seven or eight years and a few national championships before his mother came around. Sadly, Taek Lee, who had been ill for several years, was too sick to understand what everyone in Korea was celebrating last January when Sang Lee captured the world title. Taek Lee died in March without knowing what his son had accomplished.
When Sang Lee left South Korea for good in October 1987, Allen Gilbert was the U.S. three-cushion champion. Sang Lee, unable to play in the '88 U.S. national tournament because he was not yet officially a resident alien, was there as a spectator. A friend who was with him waited until Gilbert beat the field and then issued the following challenge: "You United States champ, big country. He Sang Lee, champion, Korea, small country. He play you 100-point game, give you 2 to 1 on money." Gilbert accepted and lost 100-62. Sang Lee, already a 10-time South Korean national champion, proceeded to dominate U.S. three-cushion billiards as no one had done since the great Willie Hoppe. Virtually unbeatable, Hoppe won 51 major billiards championships, including 11 of 15 three-cushion world titles between 1936 and 1952.
While reputations in three cushion are made in the 15 or so world-class tournaments held annually, a player's ranking depends on his performance in the World Cup matches, a series of six single-elimination tournaments played in the fall and winter and offering prize money ranging from $150,000 to $250,000. Because all of these tournaments are held outside the U.S., Sang Lee must travel around the world to compete. So if all the glory, not to mention the money, is overseas, why did Sang Lee move to the States?
Back in 1987, South Korea had no affiliation with either of the international governing bodies of billiards, and in Seoul, Sang Lee was finding it hard to make a living doing odd jobs and training for the world championship. He had relatives in Chicago and decided to move there. But Chicago was not much better than Seoul, and six months later Sang Lee moved to New York City. In 1991 he pooled his winnings, so to speak, and opened up S.L. Billiards, at 86th Street and Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens.
Like any pool hall, Sang Lee's place has conventional pocket tables, but unlike most other parlors, it offers 12 pocketless tables on which aficionados can play three cushion. Whenever his schedule allows, Sang Lee remains in Queens with his wife, Kyung, their daughter, Olivia, and the friends he has at S.L. Billiards.
Three-cushion players from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut come on Monday and Thursday nights to Sang Lee's pool hall to compete in a handicap tournament that often allows them to play against Sang Lee himself. In handicap games players spot their opponents the difference in their handicaps: Each player tries to make his handicap before the other reaches his. When Sang Lee—a slender man of average height whose pants ride low on a hipless frame—begins to chalk his cue, people stop what they're doing and gather around him.
"To be good at cushion billiards," Sang Lee says in his halting English, "it is not enough to practice. You must have a pure spirit. You must love the game only for itself."
Although he practiced 12 to 15 hours a day in Korea, it isn't acquired skill that ultimately separates Sang Lee from the merely excellent players. Like the truly great in any sport, he has something intangible, something inexplicable working for him. When Sang Lee strokes his cue, the ball seems to roll more smoothly along the table's surface than balls hit by other players. His cue ball travels across the cloth as if drawn by an unseen force—not so much pushed forward as inexorably pulled toward the object ball.
To the regulars gathered on the walkway above the playing area, watching Sang Lee play is a privilege. "Imagine being able to see Baryshnikov dance every night for free," one of the observers says. The idea brings a smile to his face until another thought strikes him: "Kind of tells you something about the status of the game, doesn't it?"
Sang Lee doesn't hear the comment. He is studying maps in his head, finding lanes that will take a ball around the table in ways that no one has yet imagined.
Arthur Krystal is a New York City-based literary critic and editor.