In the ’80s, legendary sound engineer and current Shellac frontman Steve Albini was better known for his noise-punk groups Big Black and Rapeman—and for bumming around the city’s pool halls.
It was here, “while playing pool badly,” he says, that he became fascinated with the mostly old dudes playing three-cushion billiards, the pocketless version of the game featuring only three balls but way more creative strategy.
To score a point in three-cushion billiards—which, according to Albini, was more popular than pool prior to World War II—a cue ball has to touch both of the “object” balls; but before it hits the second one, the cue ball has to touch at least three cushions on the table. Sound hard? It is. And that’s only one of four scoring patterns.
“In pool, the object of a given shot is apparent,” Albini explains during a demonstration at his immaculate, blue-felted table in his North Side studio space. “In billiards, the object of the shot is sometimes obscured by the circuitous path the ball has to take.”
Part of what drew Albini to billiards is the fact that creative shot selection and knowledge of the game can trump an opponent who’s a better shot. He works hard to give himself an advantage: His shelves are crammed with tournament DVDs, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of past greats, and his rack includes a custom cue stick that compensates for his long arms.
He hasn’t played competitively in a decade because of his packed schedule, but back in the day he used his wiles to run with some of the top players in the city. These days, Albini scratches his three-cushion itch with games against enthusiast buddies.
“I’ve just been working on my mechanics,” Albini explains. “I honestly have no idea how I would fare [competitively now]. I imagine I would be quite a pigeon at the moment…someone who gets beat.”