In 1986, a man who could not average 0.400 himself, changed the lives of top players forever. His name was Werner Bayer, a German businessman and billiard enthusiast with vision. He founded the BWA (Billiard World Association), with the intention of professionalizing the sport. No more flowers or the occasional kitchen appliance to reward a victory; players should earn real money. No more noisy and smoke-filled low-ceiling billiard rooms for major events; the Hotel Kempinsky in Berlin, the Antwerp Hilton and the Teatro Principal in Palma would host 3-cushion events from now on, and they would be called World Cups.
Matches to 50 or 60 disappeared, sets to 15, best of five was the new format. The green cloth turned blue: an eye-catcher to remind everyone that if they saw blue, they were watching professional players. In the early BWA years, Raymond Ceulemans was the best of them all. A young Swede would soon challenge him.
It went well for a good decade, even though prize money shrank in the nineties. Bayer had set the bar high, too high maybe. Organizing a World Cup was too expensive. His building started to show cracks, the foundation was not broad, solid and global enough. And the interests of the BWA, representing two dozen professional players, were not always in harmony with those of the international governing bodies: the UMB and the powerful European confederation CEB, representing hundreds of thousands of recreational players. Before long, BWA and UMB/CEB were at each other's throats.
Top players became pawns in a game of billiard politics, there were legal battles, there were sanctions and suspensions, at some point in the nineties there were two separate world ranking lists. Without going into the details, it is fair to say that the situation had escalated to a point where nobody was morally "right" anymore. Even an outsider could see that everybody was wrong, and the sport itself had become the main casualty of the war. Not a single World Cup tournament was held in 2002.
It's been about 15 years now, since the BWA died. Cause of death? You could make a case for "strangulation", or you could argue "suicide". Neither is fully true, of course. How ironic it is, and sad, that the main warriors in this Greek tragedy had a common goal: to advance the sport they loved. These men have since passed away. I suggest we leave them in peace and remember their dedication to 3-cushion. Let the billiard Saigons be bygones.
The UMB picked up the baton in 2004, and it has organized a cycle of World Cup tournaments since: four or more every season, with the exception of 2012, when there were only three. Last year, there were seven! Many of the BWA innovations are still in place: the qualification rounds leading up to a 32-player knock-out main event, the seeding system, the overall World Cup winner for a season.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
The post-BWA prize money was not impressive. But at least there was stability, and continuity. No more reaching for the sky: the prestigious hotels in Western Europe were replaced by holiday resorts in Egypt and Turkey. World Cups became "hybrid" tournaments, where recreational players fill the qualifying days and the seeds show up for the weekend.
In 2013, the UMB did make an important change: they abandoned the set system in favor of 40-point matches. It was for a reason: people's attention span is a lot shorter than it was in 1986. And 15-13, 13-15, 15-10, 14-15, 15-12 can last three hours or more, even with a shot clock. You can't sell that in 2017. If the adjacent table ends 15-4, 15-6, 15-1, you have a timetable nightmare.
What you COULD sell (and I would recommend it) is 50-point matches in the semi-finals and final of World Cup tournaments. The averages of today allow it, the time schedule on the final day allows it, and it would produce results that better reflect the strength of the top players.
What the combined work of BWA and UMB has given us in 30 years, is a history of World Cup tournaments, 147 of them. These are our Wimbledon and US Open, this is where our players had the chance to become immortal. Yes, the world title is probably the most coveted one in our sport. Other events, like the Crystal Kelly tournament, the Agipi tournament and the World Games also command a lot of prestige. But still: World Cups have been the main focus of the top players, ever since Werner Bayer asked Simonis to make him a blue cloth.
Please browse through the all-time list of podium finishes, and find your favorite players. A few comments:
- The historical importance of Raymond Ceulemans is far greater than his ranking (on this list) suggests. His career of international wins dates back to 1961. When the BWA was founded, he had already won 21 European titles and 19 World titles.
- The likes of Caudron, Sanchez, Merckx and Jaspers will probably get a bit closer to Blomdahl in the upcoming years. But nobody will ever surpass 43-18-26, it can't be done in this day and age. Too many strong players.
- We've lost a few good men already: Steylaerts, Komori, Weingart, Pilss, Kobayashi, Gilbert, Boulanger, Sang Lee, K.R. Kim: they are no longer with us. I have fond memories of all, especially Komori-San.
- Five years from now, who do we expect to see a bit higher on this list? Here are my picks, and they all have three-part names: Myung Woo Cho, Jae Ho Cho, Haeng Jik Kim and Poly Chro Nop.
- If you want to see the full list of World Cup results, including the tournament averages and overall season winners, you can download the spreadsheet from my Facebook, at Bert's Billiard Page.