In 1918, after a decades-long absence, billiard champion Alfredo de Oro returned home to his native Cuba. His mission: to defend the world title.
Some years ago I took a deep dive into three-day match, now remembered as one of the most dramatic in the history of three-cushion billiards. It was played out Jan. 10-12, 1918 and the challenger was a man named Charles Otis, then one of the leading U.S. three-cushion players. I examined the daily scores and also reviewed the contemporaneous press coverage. I found reports in the Associated Press, The New York Times, and the Cuban newspapers. I then published my findings in a 2010 Untold Stories column for the print edition of Billiards Digest.
I won’t recount the whole story here, although I would like to reproduce some of the newspaper clippings, which I photographed while doing research at the Latin American Studies Library at the University of Texas in Austin. If you look closely in some of the images below, you’ll see that the title match was played out in the regal Payret Theater (which faced the Capitol) and among those in attendance was the president himself, Mario Garcia Menocal.
De Oro, thanks to a generous pension from the Cuban government, had been living for decades in New York City — and living comfortably. He had agreed to return to Havana to defend the title only as a favor to the Cuban government. What came next, however, defied both his and the government’s wildest expectations. The match was one of the most compelling sports events in Cuba that year, and it involved both long runs and unlikely come backs.
If you don’t know about De Oro, here’s some quick background: According to his short bio in the BCA’s Official Rules and Record Book, De Oro first gained the pocket billiards crown in 1887 and then went on to win it 31 more times. De Oro also held the three-cushion title ten times between 1908 and 1919. He was born in Manzanilla, Cuba on April 28, 1863.
De Oro stands now among the very best players, ever, to play pool or billiards. As my friend Mike Shamos notes in a 1985 edition of Billiards Digest, De Oro “beat world champions at all the American pocket billiard games, English billiards, pyramid pool and three-cushion caroms on tables varying in length from 10 to 12 feet.”
De Oro died in 1948.
— R.A. Dyer