Bars from Madison to Sydney have pool tables. But you don't see many 10-by-5-foot carom billiards tables, the kind with no pockets. And these days you mostly won't, unless you're obsessed with the antique game of three-cushion carom billiards, an intensely challenging pool-like game from a distant era. It turns out that some Madison residents are carrying the billiards torch, and in the face of almost no retail infrastructure, they're playing a secretive sport literally underground: basements are some of the only rooms large enough to house these giant slabs.
The family of games called carom billiards probably evolved from an indoor adaptation of a lawn game that originated in 15th-century France. The "green" (people still say "lotta green, lotta green" before long shots) might have mimicked lawn turf. In England, a few decades later, the game evolved into something we would recognize more readily, featuring big, flat surfaces with bumpers that you hit balls around on with a golf-club-like implement.
By the early 19th century the cue was developed, and the game entered a period of elegant, recursive refinement. Improvements in industrialized production made pool equipment mostly standard by 1850 and hugely popular in Europe and the United States. The table and the language of the game elements stabilized, and straight pool flourished in the 20th century.
The game of three-cushion billiards goes back about 140 years. It requires a special table, increasingly difficult to find. Larry Walsh had two billiard tables at the late, lamented Cue-Nique Billiards downtown, but his current establishment, the Brass Ring, doesn't have any.
"It is just not economically feasible," he says. "Those games are talked about like mythical creatures, though, the truth of whose one-time existence has to be verified by the elders among the pool players."
These days many people use the word billiards to refer to pocket games like eight-ball, and many are unaware that pocketless tables exist at all.
I play some pocket pool in bars, mostly eight-ball or nine-ball at Mickey's Tavern. But tonight I'm a few blocks away playing three-cushion billiards, invented in the 1870s, and therefore slightly predating the walls of the basement I'm in. Two skilled construction workers, guys who are really good at angles and geometry and the physics of vertices and spin, are my opponents. (They didn't want to be named in this article.) The table is big, and there are no pockets.
In three-cushion billiards there are three balls -- white, yellow and red -- and the goal is to hit the rails three times and strike both object balls, hitting a ball last, to notch points.
"What you want to do here," says J___, as he meticulously chalks his hands and cue, "is to hit the three rails first, then both the other two balls." Used to simple bank shots but not three-rail caroms with two balls to hit on the way, I'm dubious as I line up my shot, and indeed it goes nowhere.
"I see that you want a lot of chalk to make these shots," I say. B___ grunts in assent and pulls out what looks like an oversized pencil sharpener. "Use this to rough up your cue, and then hit it with more chalk. And get some on your hands," he says. These guys have their own cue sticks, like Minnesota Fats in The Hustler.
"You have to forget about everything but the rules and the geometry," he says. "Forget the idea of just smashing one ball into another. Forget about nine-ball."
He's right. I'm playing like there's a pocket. "Look, this is actually a fairly classic shot. You're going to want to bank off this rail, then it comes over here off this rail, then hits here -- right here -- on this red ball. That will knock it into the yellow ball, and you've scored."
"That's never going to happen," I mutter, but B___ is drawing a diagram in the air above the pool table showing me exactly where I need to hit the first ball. This time I connect.
We shoot a few games, and I start to get it. It's an intellectual sport, not unlike chess. It's a brain exerciser and conversation piece; we're discussing most shots in detail. Of course it makes sense that Madison, so lovable for all its interesting facets, harbors adherents to this retro pastime. Shooting old-school pool stick is a woof to the Willy Street warp of modified bike cruisers, all-vinyl DJ gigs and primo eats. The passion around the whole thing -- procuring the table, moving it, constantly improving at the game -- reminds me that what look like hobbies can be gateways.