Not in the UMB top-1000. Can beat anybody


Posted by Bert VAN MANEN on May 25, 2013

Bert van ManenThe above headline may be a bit of a riddle for players from the USA or Asia. Dutch and Belgian 3-cushionists need about a nanosecond: Frans van Kuyk. Who is this enigmatic man with the 1980’s porn moustache, and why do we never see him in World Cup tournaments? Let me try to shed some light on that.

Frans van Kuyk - 007
Frans van Kuyk

Frans van Kuyk (24 Feb 1962) has a mind of his own from a young age. Not one to follow the flock, he starts to play 3-cushion when the talents of his generation are practicing balkline from dusk till dawn. He knows what he wants, he knows what he is good at. Three cushion comes naturally to him; barely in his mid-twenties, he plays 1 average.

As early as 1987, Frans is in the final of the Dutch Nationals, loses it 45 – 50 to established all-rounder van der Smissen. It’s still the Ceulemans world we live in; early days for the BWA, the set system and the blue cloth. Christ vd Smissen and twice World champion Rini van Bracht are the dominant figures in Dutch 3-cushion, but they have no idea what is about to hit them. The Jaspers era (1990 – 2034) is just around the corner, and Frans van Kuyk will be Poulidor to DJ’s Anquetil. They both find their favorite podium when a new format is introduced in Holland: the individual Grand Prix’s.

So simple, so brilliant. The simple part: 64 players in a knock-out tournament, 8 of them seeded (not unlike a tennis major). Four or five of those tournaments in a season, make up a ranking and invite the best 16 to play “the Masters”, the national championship. The brilliant part: ranking points are linked to quality of play, i.e. average. The formula: points made X average = your ranking points for that match. 50 – 30 in 40 = 50 X 1.25 = 62 pts for the winner, 30 X 0.75 = 22 for the loser. Losing with a good average will score you points. Don’t neglect your defense: winning with a mediocre average is better, because it will get you into the next round. Winning with a good average is the jackpot. This format works like a charm for two decades: the ranking point system helps to compensate for the “luck of the draw” and the best players inevitably end up on top, to get their invitation for the Masters. These GP’s become the playground where older foxes like van Bracht, van de Looy , de Wilde and de Vries meet the new generation: Havermans, van de Ven, Arnouts, de Bruijn, Burgman, Valentijn. But more than all the aforementioned, Jaspers and van Kuyk will dominate the GP circuit.

In 1994, the two are in the final of the GP in Heeswijk. Jaspers wins it 50 – 44 in 18 innings. At that time, it was the best match I had ever witnessed.

In the summer of 1998, Holland can look back on roughly a decade of GP tournaments, 40 have been played thus far. DJ has won an astonishing 22 of them, van Kuyk has won 10. Crumbs falling off the table, for everyone else. It will take FvK until 2004 to win the Masters title. Right after he wins it, he withdraws from the GP circuit, even though he is the nr. 2 player in his country. Why? He’s not too fond of all the travelling, he says.

Did he say “travelling”? If someone picked up the Netherlands and dropped it in Wyoming, it would not be noticed for weeks. But Frans feels an hour by car is about the maximum he’s comfortable with. He likes his Dutch province of Brabant and the nearby Antwerp / Turnhout region, together the hotbed of 3-cushion in the Low Countries. Billiards is fun, and it should not start to feel like doing work. The prizemoney in the GP’s? “It’s just a few hundred here and there, unless you win the tournament. I have a nice life. Billiards is not all about making money”. Don’t ever say that FvK does not put his mediocre money where his modest mouth is: he has not played a GP or Masters since.

Despite that apparent lack of ambition, his 3-cushion gets stronger every year. Some say he is more talented than Jaspers, now an established top-5 player in the world. A Dutch businessman offers to sponsor vK, send him to all the World Cup tournaments. They will settle the bill if there is prize money. If there isn’t, no hard feelings. Even to that, Frans says thanks but no thanks. He dislikes the set system, and plane travel, and foreign food, and pressure. What he loves is familiar faces, a few beers during and after a match (to 50 points!), a good laugh and sleeping in his own bed.

The Crystal Kelly tournament – too good to pass THAT up – is the only exception to the one-hour-by-car rule in all those years. Van Kuyk has a 3d and a 2nd place finish (2004 and 2000), in that elite field of eight. He has also found his niche within a niche: he has studied the available diamond systems, discarded some, improved on others, invented new ones. Frédéric Caudron’s book “Le billard an expansion” was written in collaboration with FvK, who is introduced by FC as “the foremost expert on diamond systems”. He’s one of the most reputed 3-cushion teachers in our neck of the woods, accepting beginners as well as advanced students. And how’s this for independent thinking: when you play 3-cushion on a 2.30 table instead of a regular 2.84, everything feels easy. So Frans had a snooker-size three cushion table made for him: 3.20 X 1.60. He practiced on that for a few years. It’s gone now, that experiment was not a huge success. But it says something about the man, doesn’t it?

Visit the little town of St. Willebrord (which is the 3-cushion capitol of the world by the way; Paris, Berlin, New York and Tokyo would not have a fleeting chance in a 5-best players challenge), and you may find van Kuyk in a billiard room serving drinks or refereeing a match between two 0.6 players. He’s the most approachable, folksy top player you’ll ever meet, a bit of a working-class hero maybe. No 3-Cushion equivalent of Alex Higgins though, the overrated wife-beating alcoholic with the ugly stroke. Van Kuyk is a gentle soul, his stroke is smooth as silk and his problem-solving crafty as MacGyver’s. Finger licking position play, controlled speed, rail-first solutions that would make the late great Sang Lee proud.

Was I trying a bit too hard, when I opened with “Can beat anybody”? Judge for yourself. Van Kuyk has so many matches over 2 average, nobody has kept count. He has 15 over 3 average, which, on the all-time list, puts him in the Leppens / Forthomme / Zanetti bracket. He has a personal best of 50 in 12 (4.166) against Habraken in 2004, and a high run of 27 (against Brants in 2010, that match was 50 in 13). This past season was not his best, but he has averaged between 1.6 and 1.7 in Belgium and Holland for a decade. That places him firmly in the world’s top 30, possibly in the top 20.

“He has all the Jaspers skill, too bad he never had the Jaspers mentality”, some say. I could not disagree more. What do we need two Jaspersons for? I’d rather have one textbook professional Jaspers, and one maverick, artistic, gifted van Kuyk.