Torbjörn’s nine or Raymond’s twenty-three, which is better?


Posted by Bert VAN MANEN on May 2, 2015

Bert van ManenTough task I have today: trying to convince you that 9 is about as much as 23. But I’ll give it a go. Blomdahl won his ninth European 3-cushion title last weekend, and he shares second place on the all-time list with the dominant player of the fifties, Rene Vingerhoedt. First is of course the legend, Raymond Ceulemans, who won that title 23 times between 1962 and 1992. If that statistic is not quite mind-boggling enough for you: he won it 20 times in a 21-year period (between 1962 and 1983), de Paepe spoiling the EC streak in 1973, like Kobayashi spoiled the WC streak in 1974).

I have no intention whatsoever of trying to make RC’s historic achievements look smaller, or enlarge Blomdahl’s. All I want to do is look at their record, and put it in some perspective. The first thing you have to consider, is the opposition. TB and RC both dominated their opponents because they simply needed fewer innings to get to the finish line. But there is a difference. When TB won his first five European titles in the nineties, van Bracht, Rico, Ceulemans, Jaspers and again Jaspers came in second. Blomdahl’s averages were superior, but not by a sea mile. In the Ceulemans days of the sixties, we are looking at SEVERAL seamiles. One player was runner-up to RC eleven times over: Johann Scherz. The Austrian averaged around 0.900 in the early years, with Ceulemans between 1.150 and 1.400. That is quite a gap. In 1972 it was RC 1.501, runner-up Thögersen 0.907. In 1976: RC 1.563, Dielis 0.993. In 1981: RC 1.382, Steylaerts 0.808. There’s no need to tell you what the chances are that 0.808 beats 1.382, or what 0.907 can do against 1.501. Ceulemans was a heavyweight boxer in a middleweight competition, for two decades. Mind you, no gloves in those days.

No such luxury for Blomdahl. His main rivals (first Ceulemans, then Jaspers, Zanetti, then Sanchez, Caudron, Sayginer) were on his heels in average. For Ceulemans in the seventies, there were three people who could – on their best and luckiest day – beat him. Blomdahl in the nineties could lose to a dozen different players, occasionally. The number has never stopped  growing, and in the present – with Koreans who are not even ON the world ranking and making 40 in 16 innings – that number is forty. Twist my arm, and I’ll make it fifty.

Then there is the difference between 60 points (in the sixties), 50 points (the second half of RC’s career), and the set system. Sets tend to be a disadvantage to the players with the highest averages: surprises happen more often, form of the day and outright luck play a more important role. From 1992 to 2004, Blomdahl won “just” two European titles, even though his average was the best in the world, only rivaled by Jaspers in that period. Did he NOT win several times because he did not play particularly well in crucial matches? Yes. Would he have won a few more titles in those years, if all matches had been to 50? Also, a firm yes.

Now, believe it or not, I have not yet mentioned the biggest obstacle of the modern day, and the nr. 1 reason the Ceulemans records will never be broken. It’s the format.

In the fifties, sixties and seventies, every European or World championship was decided in a round robin with at least 8, but often 12 or 16 players. That was perfect for Mr. 100, who could afford to lose a match and still win the tournament. If he tied with another player on win/loss, he always won on average. That format was actually perfect, if all you wanted was for the cream to rise to the top. RC was the best, and as a result he almost always won, a bad day or not.

Knock-out tournaments are completely different. You can be the best player that week, and win every match by a margin. But if your one weaker moment is in the final, bye bye. Quite often, the best player does not win in the KO format. It does what the set system does, times three. Would Torbjörn have won a few more European titles if he had had the advantage of the round robin format, like RC? I am absolutely convinced he would have.

There you have it. Nine is – in a way – a rival to twenty-three. In the past eight years, we’ve had eight different world champions (Umeda, Zanetti, Kasidokostas, Sanchez, Jaspers, Merckx, Caudron, Choi). That has a lot to do with the format: if matches had been to 60 in a round robin with 12 players, I think there would have been four, maybe five world champions in the past eighteen years.

Am I complaining about the way the sport has developed? Hell no. As much as I loved to watch  the Godfather from Mechelen play, I’d pick the billiard nineties over the billiard seventies any day, and the present day over the nineties. Three cushion has never been more competitive, or more interesting than it is today.