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.