Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Obscure Sports Heroes, Part Two: Jacob Schaefer, Sr.

I'm not sure if you've ever seen carom billiards before, my first exposure to it was watching "The Hustler." Though uncommon today, carom billiards is the original cue sport.

Though its origin is obscure, it became popular in pubs around the world a couple centuries back, presumably coming out of France. Carom is played on a large pocketless table with three balls. If you can strike your cue ball so that it hits both of the other balls, you get a point and get to continue shooting. Whenever you shoot and fail to touch one ball or the other, your turn ends. You play for a time limit or to a set number of points. Done.

Maybe the simplicity helped it spread, maybe the game was really interesting to watch at one point. Whatever the explanation, its popularity dwindled after Jacob Schaefer's appearance in the 1890 Championship.

Jacob Schaefer could do amazing things with a cue, he was called "The Wizard" because for his impressive shots. He used none of those skills in the 1890 World Championship.

Schaefer simply used his first few shots to push the two target balls together against a rail. He then lightly glanced the balls stroke after stroke. (This tactic is now called "nursing.") He made 3,000 nearly identical shots, winning the game, but completely losing the audience in what might be considered the most boring sporting championship of all time. (He previously had a 690 run in 1879, they had subsequently changed the rules to make it harder on him.).

Hardcore billiards players invented balkline billiards and 3-cushion billiards to compensate for Schaefer's tactics and skill. Both of these games require you to hit both balls and do something crazy (like send a ball past a line, or hit 3 cushions with the cue). Schaefer continued to dominate tournaments in these games for the next few decades. The billiards community breathed a sigh of relief when he retired, until Schaefer's son, Jacob Jr., joined the sport. (Jacob Jr. did some damage to the balkline variant, winning his sixth game in the 1925 World Championship 400-0. After an hour of shots his German opponent was begging for Jacob not to miss, to save him the embarrassment of having to stand up and follow the run.)

These days in the states, we mostly play pocket billiards. A heavily modified carom is still popular in parts of Europe, but classic carom is reserved everywhere as a novelty.

Hats off to people who think to themselves, "This game is stupid, I will now rape it." Hats off to Jacob Schaeffer, Sr.

UPDATE: It wasn't 690 shots in 1890, that was in the second World Championship, in 1879. The tournament organizers began to change the rules to prevent Schaefer's tactics in that match. He used the new rules in 1890 to make 3,000 nearly identical shots in a row. I've already updated the post to reflect this.