It has been eight years since Europe reached out a hand to the ignorant and despairing survivors of the great collapse of organized billiards in the United States. The game had fallen into such disrepute that pristine billiard parlors were scattered across the country like monastaries in a Dark Age of poolroom barbarism. In 1966, however, the persevering ones looked up from their green cloth geometry and found themselves under the benevolent regard of the World Union of Billiards, an amateur organization with Olympic hauteur. The United States was to be allowed into the world competition against the best players from European affiliates representing a quarter of a million shooters. Surely, the renaissance of American billiards was dawning.
The national three-cushion championship of the Billiard Federation of the U.S.A., a member of the World Union, was held last month in San Jose, a suburb of Los Angeles illogically located in the San Francisco Bay area. The tournament ran for five days, with games in the afternoon and evening, before whispering, rapt audiences in the San Jose Elks Lodge. There were nine competitors engaged in round-robin matches. Attention centered on Gentleman John Bonner, the courtly 65-year-old American champion who went to the 1973 world games in Cairo. He was defending his title against top contender Frank Torres, an unruffled young man who at the age of 14 first picked up a cue stick in the Club de los Intelectuales in Mexico City.
A hundred paces from the hushed room where this sporting drama was unfolding on the last day of the tournament a few of the guys at the Elks bar remained mildly mystified. That it was a classy event was certain: the players walked around the club with their personal cue sticks in leather cases. The discussion at the bar was over what the players hoped to win. How big was the prize money? Naw, interrupted the bartender with the authority of a man uncapping a beer, the prize was a trip to Europe.
"Bums play pool," the late Danny McGoorty once remarked. "Gentlemen play billiards." Although McGoorty, a superb player and the last of the hard-drinking career hustlers, was perhaps inelegant, he shared the reverent attitude of those billiard commentators who like to cite a reference to "billards" in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.
The game developed in England and France at about the same time. But while the English added pockets to their tables, the French traditionalists persisted with four unbreached rails and three balls, the knocking together of which in certain sequences produced points. Perhaps it was the sentiment of the Revolution, but the French game was predominant in America in the last century. It was largely a matter of poking a stick at a sphere until the 1820s, when someone invented the leather tip and discovered that if you applied chalk to the end it tremendously increased the coefficient of friction. In other words, you could make the cue ball swerve and back up sharply like it had a mind of its own. With the technological breakthrough billiards became to pocket billiards, or pool, what chess is to checkers.
The French were preeminent in their own game, particularly a version of billiards called balkline. In 1906 Willie Hoppe, a solemn American youth in a tuxedo, played balkline with Maurice (The Lion) Vignaux in the ballroom of the Grand Hotel in Paris. In the U.S. knots of people gathered around newspaper offices and cheered wildly when news of Hoppe's victory was posted. Fifty years of American supremacy in billiards had begun.
In the flush of the golden era of the 1920s and 1930s there were an estimated 42,000 billiard and pool rooms in this country (there may be 10,000 today). These were the bivouacs of the army of fans who followed the highly paid exploits of Hoppe and the less legendary Welker (the Manson Marvel) Cochran, Jake Schaefer Jr. and a handful of other Americans no one else in the world seemed able to beat. The most popular game was three-cushion billiards, which could be so fiercely intellectual that newspapers published diagrams of the classic shots.
In 1952 Cochran, slowed down by arthritis, sponsored a world tournament in his billiard room in San Francisco. He didn't play; Hoppe did and won. There was one last professional world-class tournament in 1953. And that, although no one was aware of it, was that.
"When I got to San Francisco it was like a billiard paradise for a young lad from Dubuque," recalled Robert Byrne, billiard historian and McGoorty's biographer. "Unfortunately, that was in 1954, when the game was going into almost total eclipse. The organization collapsed. There was no way of finding out what was happening. There were a few big cities where three-cushion was still played and a few oldtimers still played balkline. But nobody knew what was happening abroad. Everybody sort of assumed that with the United States gone, the game had died everywhere."
Billiards, in fact, was in bursting good health elsewhere. In their prime Hoppe and Cochran had three-cushion tournament averages of 1.150—the average number of points scored per inning, or turn, at the table. That was regarded as billiards at its finest. A Belgian named Raymond Ceulemans won the amateur world championship in 1963 and has held the title ever since. His average is an amazing 1.277.