Billiards is a game played on a rectangular table with a certain number of balls and a long stick called a cue. It is not something new. In fact, historians suggest that billiards has been around for centuries and even played by kings, presidents, and ladies, etc. Today, the sport offers international competitions around the world and features several different variations as well.
You have English billiards, snooker, and pocket billiards that are among the world’s most common variations. Over the years, many countries such as Italy, China, France, England, and Spain have taken the credit for inventing the game. However, the truth is that nobody actually knows about its origin. Therefore, let’s take a look at when and how it all started.
A Brief History of Billiards
Although very little is known about the actual origin of Billiards but its history is quite long and rich. To begin with, kings, presidents, and ladies sometimes spent some time relaxing playing billiards with their partners. It is a bit similar to croquet that was played in the 15th century in both France and probably Northern Europe.
At the time, it was a lawn game that was played outdoors. However, with time, the play was brought indoors to a wooden table. It would now require a special wooden table customized particularly for the game. The table featured a green cloth on top, mimicking the grass while the edges had borders with pockets. Additionally, a shoving technique was used instead of using wooden sticks to strike the balls. It is assumed that the term “Billiard” is derived from the French word “Billart” or “Bille” a ball.
Originally, the game was played on a six-pocket table with two balls and a hoop that resembled a croquet wicket. Additionally, as a target, an upright stick was used. Later down the road, during the 18th century, the target stick along with the hoop disappeared, leaving only the pockets and balls. If history is a witness, most of the information related to billiards goes back to the time it was played by nobles and royals.
Even though it is called the “Noble Game of Billiards” since the early 1800s, there is sufficient evidence suggesting that common people played it. It was even popular in the 1600s when Shakespeare had mentioned it in Cleopatra and Antony.
The cue stick is the most important component of the game that was introduced and developed in the late 1600s. Back then, the mace used had a very large head that made it quite impossible to use when the ball was positioned near the rail. In such a situation, the players would then turn the mace around and use the handle to strike the ball. The handle was termed “queue”. It is the same word from which we get “cue”.
Since men were comparatively more experienced, women were only allowed to use the mace to prevent the cloth from being ripped. Meanwhile, the men enjoyed their shots with cues. Furthermore, the tables featured vertical walls that served as rails and their job was to prevent the balls from falling over the table.
Often called “banks” since they resembled riverbanks, the players soon realized that the balls could be easily aimed at them and a trend of such deliberately aimed shots came about. This gave birth to the term “Bankshot” in which the players strike a ball against the cushion for it to bounce off the rail.
It wouldn’t be long until billiards rapidly improved and progressed. It was in England in the 1800s, primarily due to the Industrial Revolution that Billiards experienced a tremendous amount of growth. For instance, chalk was introduced to increase the friction between the cue and the balls. Then, the leather cue tip was introduced through which the players could apply side-spin to the ball, perfected by 1823.
Visitors from England taught the Americans how to spin. As a result, in 1829, the two-piece cue arrived. Around 1835, slate was being commonly used as a table bed material. Prominent tire manufacturer Goodyear stumbled upon vulcanization of rubber in 1839 and by 1845, started making billiard cushions. Finally, by 1850 the billiard table had achieved its true form, which we see today as well.
However, during the 1770s to about 1920s, the most commonly played billiards game was the one with three balls and six pockets on a rectangular table, called English Billiards. During the 18th century, the two-to-one ratio became the standard for pool tables. There were no set dimensions before that.
Today, the English billiard is played on the same table with the same sticks but 22 balls instead of three. Moreover, it is called Snooker and features both offensive and defensive aspects. It is also the most popular in Britain. That is why you come across a professional snooker event almost every month.
Billiard balls are not the same. Infact, they vary based on design, quality, and game. For instance, in the Russian Pyramid and Kaisa, the size of cue balls is 68 mm. Additionally, the game features sixteen balls amongst which fifteen are white and numbered while the remaining one is usually red. In Kaisa, five balls are used, two white cue balls, two red object balls, and one cue ball having a dot.
On the other hand, Carom billiard balls are comparatively larger than pool balls. The game features two cue balls along with an object ball. Meanwhile, the standard pool balls are 57.15 mm in size and are commonly found everywhere in the world. The balls come as a set, which includes seven stripes and seven solids along with a cue and an 8 ball. Depending on the game, the racks are prepared differently.
On the other hand, snooker balls as compared to the American-styled pool balls tend to be smaller. These balls come in a set of 22. In addition to that, over the years, billiard balls have been made using different materials. There was a time when they were made from plastic, ivory, celluloid, and wood, etc. For a long time, ivory was the dominant material but was replaced by celluloid, which was volatile and was dropped as well.
Also known as the “crutch”, “rake” or simply “bridge” is a technique that allows the players to reach a cue ball, which is otherwise impossible to by using the normal hand bridging. It is basically a wooden stick with a metalhead. It is often that professional players decline to use the mechanical bridge to avoid the perception of cheating. However, many amongst them do use the stick whenever required.
Even though chalk is a subtle addition to pool games, one cannot underestimate its importance. In recent years, chalk has played a crucial role in winning and losing and has caused many professional players to lose their games just because they did not chalk their sticks. Professionals apply the chalk before every shot, which increases the friction of the tip preventing miscue. It was introduced during the industrial revolution when the English began experimenting with the sidespin.
A rack is a tool that is used to organize the balls before the game begins. It is a triangular object in which the balls are placed. There are two common rack types; the triangular shape rack that is used for eight-ball and the diamond-shaped racked used for nine-ball. There are other types of racks available as well but since these are the most common, you will mostly found them being used in professional events
The Decline of Pool in the 20th Century
During the 20th century, annual cue sports tournaments and other related events were held. Even during the two world wars, billiards were played as entertainment for both veterans and soldiers. But the overwhelming devastating effects of the Second World War on the entertainment industry led to the game’s decline. It was a time when economies needed to be rebuilt. Therefore, the soldiers went back and work on their careers. As a result, no one had extra time to spend in pool rooms.
Playing Billiards in the United States
Historians are not confident about how billiards arrived in the United States. At some point, it was thought that the Spaniards in the 1580s had brought the game to St. Augustine but there is close to zero research or evidence that proves it. It might be that the English and Dutch settlers had brought it. In the 1700s, the American cabinetmakers came up with exquisite billiard tables.
Although they were made in small quantities but caught everyone’s attention, regardless, the game made its way through the colonies and even George Washington is reported to have won a match in 1748. By 1830, devoted billiard rooms were introduced. These rooms only had pool tables and nothing else. The most famous billiard room was New York’s Brassford room that offered its services to stockbrokers. This was where several other American variations of billiards were introduced.
When it comes to the American Billiard, Michael Phelan, the father of American Billiards is the most credited individual. It was due to his efforts that the game reached entirely new heights of popularity. Phelan was an immigrant from Ireland and wrote the first book on the game in 1850. He played an important role in setting rules and the game’s behavior. He introduced new table and cushion designs while adding diamonds to the table to improve the aim.
Types of Play
Until the 1870s, the dominant American Billiard game involved four billiard balls (two white and two red) on a large four-pocket table. Points were scored by pocketing the balls, making caroms, or scratching the cue ball. Carom is an act of hitting two object balls with one stroke. Therewere multiple ways to score at the time, and a player could score 13 points on a single shot. The American Four-Ball gave birth to two variants called “Straight Ball” and the American Fifteen-Ball Pool.
Initially, the word “Pool” means a collective bet. Back in the day, many non-billiard games such as poker featured pool as well, but the pocket billiards to which the name attached. Today, the term “Poolroom” means a place or an area where a pool is played. However, previously, it was an area used for betting during horse racing. Then the tables were installed so that the patrons could spend some time during races. Therefore, the original term “Poolroom” came from the area where betting took place, not due to billiards.
How Paul Newman Saved Pool-Twice (The Revival)
If you revisit history, you will observe that two very important events played a crucial role in saving the pool. First, Paul Newman’s movie “The Hustler” played a lead role highlighting the dark life of a pool hustler. As a result, more pool rooms began opening all over the country. Then, another movie called “The Color of Money” a sequel to “The Hustler” starring Paul Newman in the same role but Tom Cruise as a young and upcoming professional, was released.
Although there was a time when the nobles and royals played billiard and other pool gamesbut thanks to the industrial revolution, it is now being enjoyed all over the world. The same revolution brought significant development and progress to the game, which we see and play today. It might have lost its charm mid-way as claimed by many historians but Paul Newman and Tom Cruise breathed fresh air into the pool trend, where it is nowadays being debated whether it should or should not be made part of the Olympics.