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.