by Ira Lee
There are plenty of stories and articles written about Sang Lee over the years. Most of them chronicle his breathtaking tournament performances while others attempt to put into words his wondrous talent as a player. But the stories alone do not give us a sense of the man—and if talent were all that there was to recognize about him, then I suspect that there would not be half as many people gathered at this memorial event to pay tribute to him. Sang Lee’s life in billiards is a story about inspiration, vision, conviction, and the courage to follow one’s dreams. Sang discovered his own life’s path as a boy of only fifteen years old, an age when dreams are perhaps in their purest form.
Due to Korean regulations at the time, children in their early teens were not permitted to enter billiard establishments until they were adults. They were, however, allowed to pass time after school inside recreation rooms where they usually played table tennis. But Sang showed no interest in ping-pong. Luckily for us, he was instead drawn to the one-third size carom table that was often kept in the corner of each rec-room. And even though the table was hardly playable by any standards, there was something about the spinning balls and complex patterns that mesmerized Sang to the point that he directed all of his attention to it. He was relegated to playing billiards this way until he reached an age where he could pass for being old enough to be admitted into the players’ clubs for adults.
Korean billiard rooms typically had no pool tables in them. The rooms were usually small and they only had carom tables. Most of their patrons played a form of straight-rail billiards called “4-ball.” As early as the 1940s, the Korean elders that played in the clubs maintained a gentlemanly environment that was steeped in tradition. Upon initiating younger members into their clubs, the elders enforced strict rules of respect and conduct. As a matter of custom, billiard parlors across Korea vacuumed the chalk residue off of the table surface and re-conditioned the balls after each and every game they played in order to preserve the consistency of the carom angles. Sang would later bring these high standards of etiquette and cleanliness to American carom billiard tables.
After school each day, Sang snuck into these carom clubs to practice. The elders immediately recognized his prodigious talent for the game and cast a blind eye to his age to let him develop. Despite all of the hours spent on the table as opposed to his studies, Sang graduated from Kyung Kie, the country’s elite technical High School, at the top of his class. In 1974, he applied and was admitted to the prestigious Seoul University, regarded as the “Harvard” of South Korea.
By this time, Sang’s rating in the 4-ball game was already off the charts. The maximum handicap assigned to anyone was 2000, which meant that one was capable of running out a game to two hundred points in a single inning—a routine that Sang managed with great ease. Having mastered the 4-ball discipline, he concentrated on the 3-cushion form of the game, already becoming the standard professional contest.
After two years at the university Sang left and joined the military service which gave him more time to concentrate on his billiards. By the time he completed his mandatory military commitment (18 months), he was already unofficially regarded by the player community as the most dangerous 3-cushion billiard player in the country. Sang probably received this notoriety because he actively best players in each town and challenged each one of them—on their home-turf—until he bested them all. They started calling him “Chil-Chil, Pahl-Pahl” which, when spoken, sounded a lot like a locomotive train. Translated as “Seven-seven, eight-eight”, a reference to his devastating strings of runs in which he would score a blistering thirty or forty points in only three or four innings. During these challenge bouts, Sang was reputed to have 3-cushion runs that exceeded 50 points on the small 4×8’ tables they played on. These seemingly exaggerated figures warrant some explanation. Sang’s actual runs were probably only in the mid-thirties since the Korean rules for 3-cushion awarded two points for any cushion-first shot. It was this training that would later earn Sang his reputation for being the best cushion-first player in the world.
In 1978, Sang Lee began entering tournaments on regulation sized 5×10’ tables for the first time. That very same year, he won his first official Korean National Championship on the large unheated tables.
By this time, every aspect of Sang’s life began to revolve around billiards and he jumped into the billiard-room business in 1979. Over the span of the next seven years, he opened six different billiard rooms in Korea. With income to sustain himself, he continued to dominate Korean 3-cushion billiards staying at the head of the national leader board every year continuously until 1986. Sang had achieved recognition as the undisputed national champion for a full decade, but he was not satisfied. Outside of his country’s borders, no one recognized him. He was a champion in obscurity. Sang was ready for his next big challenge.
Sang sought to prove himself at the world level, but even more than this he had a vision that the game of billiards could blossom to mass recognition if it were revived within the American culture. He felt that the only way for him to achieve his dreams was to leave Korea and attempt to pursue them in the United States. Thus, Sang’s goal became “to make 3-cushion billiards beautiful in America.” In 1987 he set foot on American soil and set forth immediately rejuvenating the game that had been popular long ago, while focusing his sights on the World Title. Sang met his wife Kyung in 1989 and they soon wed and settled down to start their family with daughter, Olivia. Together with the help of family and friends, Sang opened S.L. Billiards in Queens, New York.
Before Sang could formally represent the US, he had to wait three years to fulfill residency requirements needed to compete in his first US National Championship in 1990, a title that he would successfully retain for the next twelve consecutive years. In the meantime he trained extremely hard, often for eight hour stretches and sometimes for days straight (stopping only to eat and nap). As he pushed his game to new heights, even his practice games became spectacular to watch. Word spread and he began to attract people from all around the country, South America and Europe to witness his elegant style of play firsthand.
He had a unique ability to draw people into his world through his tremendous performance and warm personality. Inspired by him, the player population began to return slowly. To further fuel interest, Sang spent much of his tournament winnings to invite the best players from around the world to compete with him in staged exhibition tournaments with the purpose of showcasing the international talent to the American people. Thus was born in 1992 the first of a series of annual Sang Lee International tournaments hosted at S.L. Billiards in Queens.
All the while promoting the game and encouraging the players in his room to practice the game properly, Sang Lee kept his mind set on achieving the title of World Champion. In 1993, he realized his goal by completing the yearlong international circuit of BWA World Cup tournaments and besting all of the most skillful cueists (although the final and deciding tournament took place in January of 1994 it was still officially the closing of the 1993 season).
There was a short-lived celebration and fanfare when he returned victoriously to New York; his accomplishment didn’t gain the recognition and acknowledgment it deserved because of the obscurity of carom billiards in the US. Sang decided to sacrifice much of his traveling and competing abroad in the upcoming years to concentrate on building up billiards at home.
His talent and abilities as a player are well documented, but Sang was also an innovative promoter of three-cushion billiards. The atmosphere at Sang’s events was much more than just players in head-to-head matches. Sure enough, the competition was fierce, but it was also a gathering of billiard friends. By day, the players would be fully engaged in heated battle. Come nightfall, the same players would be swapping stories and sharing their knowledge about shots over dinner, as Sang was known for treating his guests to lavish Korean banquets.
In 1995 Sang Lee hosted the US National Championship, foregoing his usual international tournament that year. He hosted one more Sang Lee International tournament in 1996 before selling his establishment in 1997 with the goal of building a much larger billiard room. By 1998 the exhibition tournaments had grown from one per year into the donation-funded USBA Carom Corner Tour, a series of events throughout the year with prize funds totaling up to $135,000 annually. The events featuring the world’s best players and were hosted in any city or town that showed budding interest in the game. In the meantime, Sang continued to search for the ideal location for his upgraded 3-cushion billiard room.
In November 2000, Sang and partner, Michael Kang, unveiled their dream billiard room for the world to see. It was a culmination of over two years of hard work; the 25,000 square foot “Carom Café Billiards” was one the largest three-cushion rooms in the world. At its heart was a brightly-lit tournament arena pit that Sang specially designed for future exhibition tournaments in the years to come. As he had done with his first New York room, he hired a special staff that religiously vacuumed the tables and polished the balls after each and every practice game for his customers. The room opened up complete with high-speed Internet access and web-cams so that anyone on the Web could peer into the Café and watch 3-cushion play broadcast live in streaming video.
Despite largely withdrawing from the pro-billiard circuit for several months at a time, Sang almost became the 1999 World Champion. Missing by a hair on his final shot, he had to settle for second place.
Sang, the promoter, returned to his native country in 2003 with the goal of working with the government to lobby for the recognition of billiards in future Olympic events. Using his celebrity status, he began by rallying and uniting the players. He started a players’ association whose Korean name literally translated to “People Who Really Love Billiards.” Sang successfully arranged for industry sponsorship for the new young up-and-coming Korean players. He organized corporate sponsorship to fund more than a dozen tournaments, all bearing the name of his new-found association and held in various South Korean states. Separate qualifiers were held in each state to fill openings in his events, where upwards of 400 players would compete for three or four coveted spots. Since his return to Korea, Sang played in over thirty tournaments thrilling audiences once more, as he produced averages in the stratospheric range of 1.7 to 1.8 and beyond.
In June 2004, Sang became President of the Korean Billiard Federation (KBF), a branch of the South Korean government. In this political position, he was able to make significant strides for billiards in Korea. Shortly afterwards, he discovered that he had developed stomach cancer. Even while he was very ill, Sang continued his mission from his offices located inside the Olympic village, working tirelessly and making countless phone calls while producing his tournaments.
Sang spent his last days in Korea with his loving wife Kyung and his beautiful daughter Olivia by his side. Sang Lee passed away on October 19, 2004, at the age of fifty.
At the top of his game Sang was one of the best ever. He was arguably the most talented instinct player to ever hold a cue. There was something magical about the way he played three-cushion billiards. He was a fierce competitor with the ability to dig down deep and play his best when it mattered the most. No other player in American history had his otherworldly level of imagination, exquisite control of stroke, delicate touch, and strength of heart. Somehow, Sang had the capability to make what seemed impossible appear easy. In the eyes of the American three-cushion players, he was a superhero.
His depth of knowledge went beyond the limitations of billiard systems commonly employed to decipher three-cushion. Sang seemed to possess a photographic memory that empowered him to recognize subtle nuances between similar looking shots that demanded new solutions. As he would approach an intricate problem on the table, even expert players would gaze puzzlingly until they watched his ingenious solution unfold before them.
Sang’s ideas about the game and philosophy for play was different from others. He advocated that his students immerse themselves completely into each shot and encouraged them to exercise and trust their intuition. He taught players to treasure their moments at the table and recommended deep and honest introspection after each missed shot. Sang once confided that when he was playing his best, the thought most forefront in his mind was how privileged he felt to be alive, standing in front of the table and playing billiards.
He emphasized the importance for developing players to keep an open mind, to engage their curiosity, to explore many different approaches to the same situation, and to avoid becoming fixated on only one solution to a given problem. In order to insure that good habits became deeply ingrained, he stressed that players must always apply their maximum effort on every shot—even during practice.
Sang wanted billiard players in general to be recognized as role models of etiquette and sportsmanship whether on or off the table. He warned practitioners to beware of becoming overly selfish in their competitive pursuits, and reminded them to respect the strong sense of community in the sport. He showed others how to cherish the contact they had with their peers through the sharing of knowledge and the act of nurturing new players in the game. He advised players to always be considerate of their audience and be good ambassadors for the game.
To Sang, three-cushion billiards was much more than just a sport or a mere pastime in which to indulge—It was a way of life. In the competitive context, billiards was about the striving toward one’s personal best—always raising the bar of excellence higher and higher. Billiards was an expressive art form to be shared and passed down from generation to generation. The game was a teacher to strengthen one’s patience, perseverance, and courage.
Sang Lee’s legacy is more than a list of championship titles. He was largely responsible for the resurgence of three-cushion in the US in the 1990s, and for replanting the seeds of 3-cushion as a clean, gentleman’s sport. Sang is remembered by his loved ones as an individual of unequaled generosity, and as a warm person with a tremendous heart. He has left behind him a wake of devoted fans, who all remember him as a true Champion who always offered his time, encouragement and vast knowledge to any player who took an interest in the sport. The entire international billiard community mourns his passing and feels a very great loss.
Exactly as Sang Lee would have dreamed it, this memorial tournament is the largest assemblage to date of world-class talent playing in round robin. Top players from every billiard-playing nation—world champions and living legends amongst them—gather here as billiard friends to pay homage to Sang by competing and remembering together in the arena that he conceived and built. With impeccable style and aplomb, Sang Lee’s vision, passion and unstoppable energy lives on, showcasing something new and beautiful for all of us in three-cushion billiards. The 2005 Sang Lee International Open rolls on with this spirit at its core. “Bravo! Maestro Sang.”