People sometimes ask me why I've stayed fascinated with 3-cushion billiards for so many years. "It's just a game", they say. And: "After four decades, you must have seen every possible position on the table a thousand times. Doesn't it get boring?"
No, it does not. And, hard to believe for the outsider, but true: I've never seen a position more than once. Let me address that issue, and make a few points about the degree of "repetition" in 3-cushion billiards. It is extremely close to 0 %.
- A three-ball position can have a difficulty of 6 (on a scale of 1 to 10) on one table, and it can be an 8 or a 4 on another table. Differences in table character tend to be so significant that good players will factor it in, when they make their choice of shot. It's one of the marks of a top player, that he's able to cash in on things that are made easy by the table, and avoid lines that the table makes difficult. The success percentage will always be his first criterion: there is no "doctrine" about the way a shot must be played. So keep in mind: if it's a different table, it's a different position.
- To change the essence of a three-ball lay-out, you don't have to move one of the balls a full centimeter. A millimeter is enough, sometimes a quarter of it, especially when two balls are really close together. Quite possibly, that quarter-millimeter has changed the solution you should play. It is now a different shot, and it may have gone from "rather makeable" to "insanely difficult", or the other way around.
- The number of ways three balls can be placed on a full-size billiard table is well in the billions; it's much lower but still in the same astronomic realm as conceivable bridge auctions or chess games. There's a difference though: most theoretically possible chess games and bridge bidding sequences are illogical. they serve no purpose and never happen. Billiard balls know no logic, every weird and uncomfortable position that is imaginable DOES happen.
- Then there is the context of the shot. If it's of medium difficulty and you are on a run of six in the first inning, chances are you feel good. You'll hit the shot with purpose and confidence. But what if you've wasted a 35-18 lead and it's now 38-37 in a match to 40? Same position maybe, but there's a different player at the table.
- Where is the red, and where is the yellow? Let's assume you are playing the white. Quite often, there is a makeable solution with built-in defense, and you love to play those. But the exact same position, only with yellow and red reversed, may have no defensive value at all. If you play it the same way, it could be a do or die shot. Again, the balls may be in identical spots, but there's a lot more pressure.
- Here's the most astonishing fact about 3-cushion positions: all are unique. With the exception of the break-off, they are one-time events. Every time you come to the table, you see something you've never seen before in your life. You may recognize the problem and instantly know the solution. But that does not mean you've seen the position before. You remember similar ones, that's all.
I heard my friend Ira Lee from New York clarify it in a creative way last year. He said: "How often have you seen the break-off shot on the table, AS A RESULT of the point you just played?" The answer is of course: never. So what makes you think all those other positions you had, WERE there before? They were not.
With that in mind, we can - in a way - explain to outsiders why 3-cushion is always so fresh and new, why no two matches are the same. How can they be, if not even two shots are? When you come to the table, there is a challenge there. A problem, but also an opportunity. You have one chance to solve it, one chance to profit from it, because it will never come back. You'll be a happy man if you make the point. You'll probably, hopefully, be a wiser man if you miss.
You guessed where I am going with this, haven't you? 3-cushion is like LIFE.
The game can be cruel to us, but it is also forgiving. If we lose the match, there is still that one glorious shot we made, that got us the applause and warmed our heart. We always get another chance, we may do better next time. And if, after a few decades, we've won a thousand matches and lost a thousand too, we have really only had one opponent. You know who he is.