By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian
Terry McLain leans over the red felt-lined billiards table, draws a bead on a white cue ball and, aiming carefully, raps it with his cue stick.
It rolls into a second white ball — thunk — and glances off into the red neutral ball.
McLain has just scored a point in carom billiards.
Billiards. Pool. The same thing, right?
“People use the terms loosely,” he said. “But billiards has no pockets. Pool is also called ‘pocket billiards.’
“In regular pool, you’ve got 15 balls and six pockets. That’s a lot of selections, a lot of easy shots.”
Carom billiards is played with just three balls — the white ball (yours), your opponents’s black ball (another white ball with a black dot) and the neutral ball (colored red).
“Now you just don’t see it anymore. I’m trying to revive the game.
“‘Carom’ means collision and a glance,” he said. “I’m causing the collision here and my cue ball is glancing off (the black) ball and hitting the other ball.”
Carom billiards is sometimes called straight rail, straight billiards, the three-ball or carambole game. It may be traced to 18th-century France.
The object of the game is to score points or “counts” by caroming your own cue ball off both your opponent’s and the object ball(s) on a single shot.
“You’re constantly trying to play position to take easy shots so you can score more,” McLain said. “That, to me, is a personal challenge.”
The key is learning to control the cue ball, McLain said.
“The whole essence of the game is the cue ball, the same as in pocket billiards. But if you can control the cue ball and leave yourself easy shots, you can run the table.
“You can get a good shot, but if you don’t take position, you’re not going to run very many.
“When I turned 18, I started hanging out in pool halls,” he said, taking a break. “In Mannington, there were three pool tables and one billiard table. Everybody played both games. After several years, billiards became more interesting to me.”
He struck up a “personal, friendly but very keen” rivalry with Charlie Francis, “who was older than me, but was an excellent billiard player,” McLain said.
Playing against the man he called his mentor improved his game, made him sharper, more accurate.
“It got to the point where no one could beat Charlie but me, and no one could beat me but Charlie.
“When you play with good people, eventually you become a better player. It doesn’t do any good to play with someone not as good as you because you’re not going to learn anything.
“But of all these people, Charlie was my mentor. I keep trying to get him to come out and play, but I think he’s afraid I’ll beat him,” he said with a chuckle. “We had some nasty games together.”
The object is for your cue ball to hit both the black and neutral balls, he said.
“As long as I keep hitting those balls, it’s still my shot. The idea is to run as many as you can. I’m always looking for a better position shot and a way to bring the balls back together,” he said. “This is a very challenging game, a thinking game, like chess.
“Some people play it safe all the time. They go out of their way to play it safe. But I believe in playing aggressive and offensive.”
The preferred game is three cushion, he said.
“You have to hit at least three cushions, or rails, before you complete your shot. I don’t like this game as well as I do some other ones.”
His favorite is one cushion, in which the cue ball must strike one cushion only before striking the second object ball for a one-point carom.
“It’s very hard,” he said.
Pool is easy to find. Carom billiards is not, he said.
“Some bigger towns might have a table in a pool hall. As far as I know, this might be the only private billiard table in the state.”
He converted a pool table by designing and installing plugs in the pockets.
“We played like that for four months and then we bought these rails and put them on,” he said.
“Old-timers used to do what they called a ‘rail nurse,’” he said. The cueball hits both object balls, knocking one of them into the rail, resulting in the same position, a few inches down the rail.
“They’d slowly nudge the balls all the way down the rail and all the way back. They were running thousands of points. You couldn’t beat them.
“I just love the game. It’s totally different from pool,” he said. “It’s a good, clean game. Some day I’ll teach my granddaughters to play.”
Now McLain’s teaching his sons to play.
“The older one beat me twice and the younger one just once ... so far,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the day when they can play better and beat me.”
Email Debra Minor Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org.