The game of billiards a.k.a. pool has a long and rich history. It's been played by kings, commoners, presidents, mental patients, ladies, gentlemen and hustlers alike.
What Is Billiards and How Did It All Start?
Billiards began as a lawn game similar to the croquet played sometime during the 15th century in Northern Europe. It has evolved from that point into the present-day style of billiard/pool table and rules.
The game moved indoors to a wooden table with green cloth to simulate grass (I'm not really sure why they decided to simulate grass) and a simple border around the edges. The term "billiard" is derived from the French language, either from the word "billart," one of the wooden sticks, or "bille," a ball.
Most of our information about early billiards comes from accounts of playing by royalty and other nobles. It has been known as the "Noble Game of Billiards" since the early 1800's but there is evidence that people from all walks of life played the game since its inception. In 1600, the game of billiards was familiar enough to the public that Shakespeare mentioned it in his play "Antony and Cleopatra." Seventy-five years later, the first book of billiards rules remarked of England that there were "few Tones of note therein which hath not a publick Billiard-Table."
From Mace to Cue
In the original game (when they first brought it indoors), the balls were shoved (rather than struck) with wooden sticks called maces. The cue stick was developed in the late 1600s. When the ball lay near a rail, the mace was very inconvenient to use because of its large head. In such a case, the players would turn the mace around and use its handle to strike the ball. The handle was called a "queue" meaning "tail" from which we get the word "cue." For a long time only men were allowed to use the cue; women were forced to use the mace because it was felt they were more likely to rip the cloth with the shaper cue (it must have been all the trick shots they were trying to do).
At some point, someone used chalk to increase friction between the billiard ball and the cue stick (even before cues had tips) and found significant improvement in their performance. Around the turn of the 18th century in Europe, the leather cue tip was developed, which allowed a player to apply side-spin, topspin, or even backspin to the ball.
All billiard/pool cues used to be one single shaft until the two-piece cue arrived in 1829.
The Pool Table
Billiard/pool tables originally had flat walls for rails and their only function was to keep the balls from falling off. They used to be called "banks" because they slightly resembled the banks of a river. Billiard players discovered that the balls could bounce off the rails and began deliberately aiming at them, and therefore the "bank shot" was born! This is where the billiard ball is hit toward the rail with the intention for it to rebound from one cushion as part of the shot—possibly even three, four or five rails and into the pocket.
Wood was the table bed of a billiard table until around 1835, when slate became popular due to its durability for play and the fact that it won't warp over time like wood. In 1839 Goodyear discovered the process for vulcanization of rubber and by 1845 it was used to make billiard cushions. As for the size of billiard tables, a two-to-one ratio of length to width became standard in the 18th century. Before then, there were no fixed table dimensions. By 1850, the billiard table had essentially evolved into its current form.
Billiard/pool equipment improved rapidly in England after 1800, largely because of the Industrial Revolution.
The talent of a professional pool player is truly amazing! Visitors from England showed Americans how the use of spin can make the billiard ball behave differently depending on what type and amount of spin you put on the ball, which explains why it is called "English" in the United States but nowhere else. The British themselves refer to it as "side."
The Game of Pool
The word "pool" means a collective bet, or ante. Many non-billiard games, such as poker, involve a pool but it was pocket billiards that the name became attached to. Another interesting fact is that the term "pool room" now means a place where pool is played, but in the 19th century a pool room was a betting parlor for horse racing. Pool tables were installed so patrons could pass time between races. The two became connected in the public mind, but the unsavory connotation of "pool room" came from the betting that took place there, not from billiards.
The game of pool evolved with many different flavors.
In Britain the dominant billiard game from about 1770 until the 1920's was "English Billiards," played with three balls and six pockets on a large rectangular table. The British billiard tradition is carried on today primarily through the game of "Snooker", which is a complex and colorful game combining offensive and defensive aspects and played on the same equipment as English Billiards but with 22 balls instead of three. The British appetite for snooker is comparable only by the American passion for baseball; it is possible to see a snooker competition every day in Britain.
In the U.S. the dominant American billiard game until the 1870's was American Four-Ball Billiards, usually played on a large (11 or 12-foot), four-pocket table with four billiard balls - two of them white and two red. This was a direct extension English Billiards. Points were scored by pocketing balls, scratching the cue ball, or by making caroms on two or three balls. What is a "Carom"? A "carom" is the act of hitting two object balls with the cue ball in one stroke. With many balls, there were many different ways of scoring and it was possible to make up to 13 pints on a single shot. American Four-Ball produced two offspring, both of which surpassed it in popularity by the 1870's. One of the games used simple caroms played with three balls on a pocketless table was something known as "Straight rail" which was the forerunner of all carom games. The other popular game was American Fifteen-Ball Pool, the predecessor of modern pocket billiards.
Fifteen-Ball Pool was played with 15 object balls, numbered 1 through 15. For sinking a ball, the player received a number of points equal to the value of the ball. The sum of the ball values in a rack is 120, so the first player who received more than half the total, or 61, was the winner. This game, also called "61-Pool" was used in the first American championship pool tournament held in 1878 and won by Cyrille Dion, a Canadian. Later in 1888, it was thought more fair to count the number of balls pocketed by a player and not their numerical value. Thus, Continuous Pool replaced Fifteen-Ball Pool as the championship game. The player who sank the last ball of a rack would break the next rack and his point total would be kept "continuously" from one rack to the next.
- Eight-Ball was invented shortly after 1900; straight pool followed in 1910. Nine-ball seems to have developed around 1920.
While the term "billiards" refers to all games played on a billiard table, with or without pockets, some people take billiards to mean carom games only and use pool for pocket games. Through the 1930s, both pool and billiards, particularly three-cushion billiards, shared the spotlight.
From 1878 until 1956, pool and billiard championship tournaments were held almost annually, with one-on-one challenge matches filling the remaining months. At times, including during the Civil War, billiard results received wider coverage than war news. Players were so renowned that cigarette cards were issued featuring them. Pool went to war several times as a popular recreation for the troops. Professional players toured military posts giving exhibitions; some even worked in the defense industry. But the game had more trouble emerging from World War II than it had getting into it. Returning soldiers were in a mood to buy houses and build careers, and the charm of an afternoon spent at the pool table was a thing of the past. Room after room closed quietly and by the end of the 1950s it looked as though the game might pass into oblivion.
How Paul Newman Saved Pool—Twice
Billiards was revived by two electrifying events. The first was the release of the 1961 movie, "The Hustler." The black-and-white film depicted the dark life of a pool hustler, with Paul Newman in the title role. New pool rooms opened all over the country and for the remainder of the '60s pool flourished until social concerns, the Vietnam War, and a desire for outdoor coeducational activities led to a decline in billiard interest. In 1986, "The Color of Money," the sequel to "The Hustler" with Paul Newman in the same role and Tom Cruise as an up-and-coming professional, brought the excitement of pool to a new generation. The result was the opening of upscale pool rooms catering to people whose senses would have been offended by the old rooms if they had ever seen them. This trend began slowly in 1987 and has since surged.
Women and Pool
In the 1920s, the poolroom was an environment in which men gathered to loiter, smoke, fight, bet, and play. The rooms of today bear no resemblance to those of the earlier times. Until very recently, billiards was completely dominated by men. The atmosphere of the poolroom was very forbidding and women had trouble being accepted there. Nonetheless, women have been enthusiastic players since the game was brought up from the ground in the 15th century. For over two hundred years, women of fashion have played the game. In the past, it was very difficult for a woman to develop billiard skills because male players, her family, and friends usually did not support her efforts and it was not easy to find experienced female instructors or coaches. As these situations changed, and continue to change, we can expect women to equal or even exceed men in ability and take the game to new heights.