The diamond systems: big help, or big lie?

by Bert van Manen

The game of billiards rests on the assumption that tables are level. Thankfully, they usually are. The diamond systems devised to teach us three cushion, rest on the assumption that tables are identical, and a system can therefore be used on any table. That is not even a half-truth. It is a big, fat lie. And yet, millions of amateur players worldwide have fallen for it.

I won’t bore you with things you already know: slates, rubbers, cloth, humidity, temperature and 100 other factors can AND WILL influence the trajectory of your cueball. The balls themselves, by the way, are a major, MAJOR factor. We’ll cut a long story short, and agree that no two tables will make balls roll on identical lines. Even factory-made billiards from the same brand will, when placed in a room and kept by that roomowner over time, take on their own identity. Anyone who has ever played in the central arena of the Carom Cafe in New York (10 Verhoeven matchtables, in beautiful condition) can testify to the fact that these tables are ALIKE, but not THE SAME.   
So billiard balls will roll a bit differently in room X or on table Y, what’s my point?  

No book or DVD with three cushion systems will ever offer you 5 different diagrams to make the same bankshot, depending on conditions. They offer just one, as if to say: this is what a billiard table is supposed to do. You, the student, try the shot according to the diagram on your home table or in your club, and find that it misses time and again. You certainly don’t want there to be a mistake in your book or DVD, because you hope to learn from it and improve your game. Besides, the graphics look very scientific, the author of the book has a famous name; who are you to question that authority? The system must be right. Therefore, the table must be wrong.  
And that is where a tragic misconception is born.

Please forgive me for using CAPS here and there, but I want to shout this from the rooftops instead of just saying it: THE TABLE IS NEVER WRONG. Its lines may differ from the ones in the book. It may even be a bad table, but it’s not wrong. It’s all you’ve got, it’s your alpha and omega. If you miss, YOU were wrong.
Imagine for a second that you play golf, not three cushion. If you habitually calculate the distance to the hole, but ignore the crosswind, what will happen? You’ll spend a lot of time in green-side bunkers, complaining about your luck.   

And that is what you do, when you apply diamond systems without considering the table. Yes, the table has THAT big an impact on the line. We are not talking about half an inch here and there. In league play, the difference between the shortest and the longest table you’ll come across, could easily be 6 inches (15 cm) on a three-rail shot and 10 inches (25 cm) on a twice-around. With margins that big, what is left of the "precision” of diamond systems? They are reduced to rough guidelines, at best.

Books and DVD’s tell you about what should be, not about what is.They suggest that their system is a precise one. And it is: on paper. But not on an every-day billiard. They describe a perfect, digital game. Your reality is analog, your billiard very imperfect.

I realise I may be using controversial words here. It’s not to antagonise anyone, but to keep others from making mistakes I have made. If a cloth is brand new, and the table mechanic has done his very, very best to stretch it to its limit, the table will be almost unplayably long for a few days. This is a good thing: it means it will be "normal” for months to come. If it plays "normal” on day 1, your mechanic is no star and the billiard will be shorter than Danny de Vito three weeks from now. We have several good mechanics in the Low Countries, and I’ve played on tables where a twice-around (go from bottom right corner to top left corner with maximum right english) travelled long/short/long/short/long to end up between the  middle and the first diamond of the top short rail. In league play, when the season is almost over and the cloth is at its oldest, (or maybe the room owner has even skipped a year), that same twice-around may travel long/short/long/short/long/long, to end up between the first and the second diamond on the right-side long rail. That’s an outcome difference of THREE DIAMONDS on the same shot. I will immediatly concede that those are the absolute extremes, and that you will not find either on a regular basis. 

The variance I do find on a regular basis though, is still so large that MAKING COMPENSATIONS to the system is the crucial thing, not applying it. Do I go 3 points higher, or 6, or 9? It takes guts to know a system, and then ignore it by almost a diamond. But if you want to put your ball on the green and not in the bunker, that is what you sometimes have to do. Who will tell you when to make a compensation, and how many points? Nobody, but your inner voice. Listen to it. 

In the first paragraph, I used the term "amateur player”. Not for a second did I mean that to sound derogatory. The distinction was needed, because professional players know all too well that tables have a mind of their own, and they don’t expect textbook conditions. They expect to be able to adjust. They use their 5 minutes of warm-up well, as much to find their stroke as to get to know the table. Adjusting to ho wit behaves is a crucial part of their ability. Of course they know the systems. Some rely on them heavier than others, but all the top players can calculate to perfection. And you know what happens? They miss bankshots. Often. Think about that, and draw your own conclusions.  

I am not advocating that we burn all the books and DVD’s. I am not calling the authors frauds, on the contrary. People like Jean Verworst, Roberto Arana and Murat Tüzül have made admirable efforts to make knowledge available to many, and they have done so with love and attention to detail. Tüzül even mentions variance and table conditions, and he provides shots that you can use in warm-up, to give you an idea of what the table has in store for you. Thumbs up for that likeable young man from Turkey. 

I find it important though, that three cushionists realise they are playing the game in three dimensions, not two. Concentrate. Aim. Hit. That is what they should do. Books and DVD’s should come with a cigarette-style government warning: "Studying diamond systems can cause serious damage to your natural game”. 
If you are fairly new to three cushion, you should not even be remotely interested in diamond systems. They will do nothing to increase your average, in the first few years. Work on a proper stance, stroke and understanding of cue-ball behaviour. 

If you are an advanced player, your main concerns should be shot selection and position play. Learning (to use!) diamond systems is fine, as long as it’s third on your list of priorities. And please don’t waste your time on those short/long/short systems with no english. Those shots come up once every other leapyear.    
Three cushion billiards is NOT an exact science, nor is it a religion. Therefore, there is no holy book, and there is no E = MC2. You’re on your own my friend. From the moment you pick up a cue, you’ll have to decide for yourself what’s right and what’s wrong.