Pool players walking into Madison 3-Cushion Billiards Club may not notice anything different about the club’s billiard tables immediately.

But a closer look at the small club's four tables, and they'll see something is missing. Six things, actually.

No pockets.

Three-cushion billiards is a tricky variation on traditional billiards in which the goal is not to sink balls in a pocket. Instead, there are only three balls on the table, and the goal of each shot is to use your cue ball to not only hit both of the other balls, but to hit at least three rails before making contact with the second ball.

The game is a lifelong passion of Bob Keller, the 91-year-old real estate developer who founded Keller Real Estate Group in Madison. On May 1, Keller opened the small private club at 1137 Greenway Cross, just off of Fish Hatchery Road, where for $75 per month players can play anytime they want. For Keller, that’s at least four times a week, and daily if he could. On a recent weekday morning, Keller and a fellow member, Bernie Kapinos, were lining up shots around one of the blue tables in the club.

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Bob Keller looks on during a game of billiards Friday against Bernie Kapinos at Three Cushion Billiards.

Three-cushion, a variation on “carom billiards,” originated in the United States sometime in the 1870s. Its origin is hazy, but some sources credit a man named Wayman Crow McCreery, who was the Internal Revenue Collector of the Port of St. Louis, Missouri, with inventing and popularizing the game.

Keller first came across the game as a teenager growing up in Beaver Dam.

“There were two pool halls in Beaver Dam at that time,” he said. “As a kid, I was playing pool all the time. I walked by this billiards table and started watching these older guys playing this game. I thought, ‘This is a better game.’”

What appealed to Keller was the game’s mathematical elegance. A website devoted to the game calls it “a convergence of sports, science and beauty.”

To make a successful shot, players must use the silver dots lining the table (known as “diamonds”) to calculate exactly where to line up the shot. Get the calculation wrong, and the three banks off the rail won’t end up exactly where you need it to go.

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Bob Keller lines up a shot.

“When we used to play in high school, we’d just bang the balls around,” Keller said. “If one happened to go into the pocket, that’d be good. That’s not totally true, but it’s mostly true. This game requires a lot more finesse.”

“It’s a very beautiful game,” Kapinos added. “You have to play with discipline, and you have to really work on your game.”

Keller is christening the club with a tournament running Friday, May 17, through Sunday, May 19. Gary Eake of Oshkosh, who officially organized the tournament, said that the game is often popular with older players who like to play billiards, but would prefer not to stay out late in noisy bars in order to play.

“It’s a disease more than anything else,” Eake said. “Several of us have tables in our homes and play daily or almost daily. Whenever the wife allows.”

While attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the late 1940s, Keller played on the school’s championship billiards team, and after graduation went on to play in tournaments around the country. In the club hangs a framed article from the July 8, 1950 edition of the Beaver Dam Citizen chronicling one of Keller’s many three-cushion billiards tournament wins.

Keller would go on to found Keller Realty Group in Madison, which he still runs in partnership with his three sons. He never stopped playing three-cushion billiards, and made it past the first round of the World Cup in Las Vegas in 2003.

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Bernie Kapinos plays a game of billiards at Three Cushion Billiards in Madison, WI on Friday, May 10, 2019.

The game was popular in the 1950s, and was even used to teach math to kids in a 1959 Disney short, “Donald Duck in MathMagic Land.” While it’s retained its popularity in Europe and Asia, it has fallen way behind the widespread game of pool in its native United States.

These days, three-cushion billiard tables are hard to come by in Wisconsin. Keller’s club is the only one in the state solely devoted to the game, although a couple of tables can be found in pool halls in Beloit and Milwaukee.

Three-cushion billiards players are notoriously finicky about the playing conditions, since even a small amount of chalk dust on the table can alter the trajectory of a shot. Keller’s club includes a ball polisher that is used after every single game, and each table also has a special vacuum to clean the table. Each table’s surface is also gently heated to give the balls a little extra mobility (making the club even more enticing during cold winter months).

For years, Keller would travel to play in an annual tournament in Rushfield, Illinois. When that tournament was discontinued, he decided to start his own club in Madison and host the tournament locally.

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Bob Keller plays a game of billiards at Three Cushion Billiards in Madison, WI on Friday, May 10, 2019.

This weekend’s tournament will bring together 18 top players, including Keller, and spectators are welcome.

“We’ve got really strong players coming from Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee,” Eake said. “They haven’t risen to national championship status yet but they could be.”

Another tournament is set for July. Keller said he’s initially hoping to sign up at least 20 members for his club, and would like to expose younger generations to the game he loves.

“The game has to get younger players playing it,” he said.