Billiards, any of various gamesplayed on a rectangular table with a designated number of small ballsand a long stick called a cue. The table and the cushioned rail bordering the table are topped with a feltlike tight-fitting cloth.
The history of billiards is long and very rich. The game has been played by kings and commoners, presidents, mental patients, ladies, gentlemen, and hustlers alike.
It evolved from a lawn game similar to the croquet played sometime during the 15th century in Northern Europe and probably in France.
Play was moved indoors to a wooden table with green cloth to simulate grass, and a simple border was placed around the edges.
The balls were shoved, rather than struck, with wooden sticks called “maces”.
The term “billiard” is derived from French, either from the word “billart”, one of the wooden sticks, or “bille”, a ball.
There were many famous enthusiasts of the sport in the past such as: Mozart, Louis XIV of France, Marie Antoinette, Immanuel Kant, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, George Washington, French president Jules Grévy, Charles Dickens, George Armstrong Custer, Theodore Roosevelt, Lewis Carroll, W.C. Fields, Babe Ruth, Bob Hope, and Jackie Gleason.
King Louis XI of France had the first known indoor billiard table. Louis XIV further refined and popularized the game, and it swiftly spread among the French nobility. While the game had long been played on the ground, this version appears to have died out (aside from trucco) in the 17th century, in favor of croquet, golf and bowling games, even as table billiards had grown in popularity as an indoor activity.
By 1670, the thin butt end of the mace began to be used not only for shots under the cushion (which itself was originally only there as a preventative method to stop balls from rolling off), but players increasingly preferred it for other shots as well. The footless, straight cue as it is known today was finally developed by about 1800.
Initially, the mace was used to push the balls, rather than strike them. The newly developed striking cue provided a new challenge. Cushions began to be stuffed with substances to allow the balls to rebound, in order to enhance the appeal of the game. After a transitional period where only the better players would use cues, the cue came to be the first choice of equipment.
The demand for tables and other equipment was initially met in Europe by John Thurston and other furniture makers of the era. The early balls were made from wood and clay, but the rich preferred to use ivory.
Early billiard games involved various pieces of additional equipment, including the “arch” (related to the croquet hoop), “port” (a different hoop) and “king” (a pin or skittle near the arch) in the 1770s, but other game variants, relying on the cushions (and eventually on pockets cut into them), were being formed that would go on to play fundamental roles in the development of modern billiards.
The dominant billiard game in Britain 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, 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 approached only by the American passion for baseball; it is possible to see a snooker competition every day in Britain.
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 balls – two white and two red. It 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. 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, simple caroms played with three balls on a pocketless table, is something known as “Straight
rail”, the forerunner of all carom games. The other popular game was American Fifteen-Ball Pool, the predecessor of modern pocket billiards.
Snooker is a pocket billiards game originated by British officers stationed in India during the 19th century, based on earlier pool games such as black pool and life pool. The name of the game became generalized to also describe one of its prime strategies: to “snooker” the opposing player by causing that player to foul or leave an opening to be exploited.
The game of eight-ball arose around 1900 in the United States as a development of pyramid pool, which allows any eight of the fifteen object balls to be pocketed to win. The game arose from two changes made, namely that the 8 ball must be pocketed last to win, and that each player may only pocket half of the other object balls.
The first coin-operated billiard table was patented in 1903. The cost of a game on the first pay-for-play table: one penny.
How billiards came to America has not been positively established. There are tales that it was brought to St. Augustine by the Spaniards in the 1580’s but research has failed to reveal any trace of the game there. More likely it was brought over by Dutch and English settlers. A number of American cabinetmakers in the 1700’s turned out exquisite billiard tables, although in small quantities.
In 1765, the first billiard room was built in England. Played there was One-Pocket, which was a table with one pocket and four balls.
In 1586, the castle of Mary, Queen of Scots, was invaded and captured. The Invaders made a note of forbidding her the use of her billiard table. They then killed her, and used the covering of the table to cover her body.
The word “cue” is derived from the French queue, meaning tail. Before the cue stick was designed, billiards was played with a mace. The mace consisted of a curved wooden (or metal) head used to push the ball forward, attached to a narrow handle. Since the bulkiness of the mace head made shots along the rail difficult, it was often turned around and the “tail” end was used. Players eventually realized this method was far more effective, and the cue as a separate instrument grew out of the mace’s tail.
The etymology of “pool” is uncertain. The Oxford English Dictionary speculates that “pool” and other games with collective stakes is derived from the French poule (literally translated “hen”), in which the poule is the collected prize.
The most expensive pool table in the world is also one of the most historical billiards tables. Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Billiards Table costs $1.5 million. It features portrait figures of William of Normandy, Henry I, Henry II, John, Henry III, Edward I, Edward II, Edward III, Edward IV, Elizabeth of York, James I and Charles I above each leg.