2017/2 – Eighteen golden years

You may remember the team. You probably remember the tournament. It is actually a girl though: Crystal Kelly. She is the daughter of Dutch software billionaire Joop van Oosterom (1937 – 2016), who passed away last October. For reasons unknown, the news only came out this week, and the first thing I did was dig up this old column I wrote about him. Van Oosterom was of major importance to the world of billiards, certainly the largest private Maecenas our sport has ever had. He named a chess tournament after his firstborn (Melody Amber) and the name of his youngest became forever linked to billiards. For eighteen years, the Crystal Kelly team (Caudron, van Kuyk, Burgman, Ceulemans) and the Crystal Kelly tournament were synonymous with success, quality and class.

Van Oosterom excelled on the 64 fields himself, he was twice world champion in correspondence chess. Critics say he “bought” such expert advice that he could not lose. On the other hand, his intellect and superb business instincts were praised by many. He also played billiards, on a more modest level. The 2.30 table balkline team I was in played his threesome in ’82. His software firm (Volmac) had not yet gone public, and all Van Oosterom had back then were good prospects and a parsimonious 40 million in the bank. It was a tough evening for him (he lost), but he still generously paid for everybody’s drinks. 

Which is what he kept doing, from 1994 to 2011. The “Monaco” tournament was unlike anything the world of billiards had ever seen. Some 50 people (players, wives, kids, referees, scorekeepers, relatives, journalists, fans) were flown in every year and put up in a five-star luxury hotel, free of charge. They ate, drank, partied, free of charge. Trips were made to St. Paul de Vence, Cannes, Juan les Pins. If buses were inconvenient, helicopters were rented. The lustrous Mediterranean was always there to be enjoyed, and so was the Van Oosterom yacht, the Bon Bini. Nine days in a sun-soaked paradise, petanque and cocktails by the pool. And by the way: here’s your paycheck.

The players rewarded their Maecenas the only way they knew how: by playing 3-cushion billiards better than it had ever been played. An overstatement? I don’t think so. Yes, the players partied, danced, and threw each other in the pool from time to time, victims preferably dressed, but that one 3-cushion match a day was treated as a final, as a major event. Because it was.

Getting an invitation to play in Monaco was like a knighthood: you had arrived. The level of play was so high, that in the early years a tournament average of 1.500 was reached despite the participation of van Oosterom’s personal friend and (barely) 1.000 player Aart Gieskens. After he had been replaced, the event’s combined average quickly skyrocketed to 1.700. Players like Nelin, Bitalis and Dielis, even the now aging legend Raymond Ceulemans, were bringing the general average DOWN. Zanetti, Blomdahl, Caudron, Sayginer: just four names of guys who at least once ended SEVENTH in that field of eight. Let me walk you through a few of the Crystal Kelly tournaments.  

1995 is Blomdahl’s best year in Monaco. His tournament average of 2.324 is unheard of, and he never even has a match under 2 all week! He gets beaten 50 – 44 in 22 by Sang Lee, wins his other 6 matches decisively. 

1997’s most talked about match is the bizarre Sayginer – Zanetti encounter. “Turkish delight” can’t miss and is leading MZ 29 – 1 in 11. Bathroom break. The match somehow turns, and the Italian character player is merciless: SS makes another 6 points, Zanetti produces the remaining 49: 35 – 50 in 23. The year is also Frédéric’s debut, and it’s a nightmare. Seventh place, a poor average, a missed break-off shot in the equalizing inning (from 50 – 49) against Dick. Bitter disappointments are instrumental to great careers.

1998 is Caudron’s first of three wins in Monaco. How’s that for a bounce-back? TB and DJ average over 2.000, FC “only” does 1.700. But he makes clear once and for all that he is a lot more than just “outrageously talented”. He is a winner.  

1999 marks the first time in history a player loses a 3-cushion match averaging 3.000: Ceulemans beats Blomdahl 50 – 39 in 13 innings. It is also the year that a hotel guest in the lobby hands Jaspers 30 Francs, mistaking him for the guy who puts the suitcases in the elevator. Remind me to ask Dick if he gave it back or not.

2002, the most historic win by Jaspers, one of his eight victories at the Crystal Kelly. He loses 50 – 45 in 22 to van Kuyk, which is pretty forgivable, and the other 6 matches just take your breath away. Wins in 20, 27, 10, 18, 21 and 18 innings, tournament average: 2.536. In my humble opinion: the best tournament performance by a 3-cushion player, EVER. Beats FC’s 2.4 in Vienna, beats Zanetti’s 2.5 in Brandenburg, mostly because of the quality of the seven opponents DJ faced.  He retains the title for another three straight years, to make it five wins in a row.

The run ends in 2006. The pivotal match then is Jaspers – Blomdahl, and TB answers Dick’s run of 14 by making a 16 himself: 50 – 34 in 19. Don’t you wish you’d been there?

What about sensational close finishes? In 2009’s last round, Eddy Merckx loses 50 -47 to TB, being just a supporting actor himself. It’s between TB and FC. Merckx still has the equalizing inning, he runs 3, handing the title to Caudron. 5500 euro’s less for Sweden, 5500 more for Belgium. In case you are wondering why these two Belgian giants get along so well…

You know what? It can be closer. In 2010, the deciding match is between Blomdahl and Zanetti, and it ends 50 – 50. Penalties have to be played, and Zanetti makes 2 from the spots where Blomdahl only makes 1. The title and – once again – a 5000 euro difference in prize money, hanging on the split-second avoidance of a kiss. 

The guy who can’t make any impression at all in 2010, Filipos Kasidokostas, wins the final event in 2011. It ends an era of eighteen years, in which a very wealthy man bought himself some billiard entertainment every summer. But in doing so, he gave a lot back to the sport, and he will be remembered for it. Chalk up 1 for Kasidokostas, 1 for Zanetti, 3 for Caudron, 5 for Blomdahl and 8 for Jaspers. Crystal Kelly, the pretty blonde kid, is now a young woman. She’ll probably make headlines one day, when she marries a Formula 1 driver or some Arab prince. And all over the world, men with cues smile when they hear her name.  

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