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A history of Pool or Billiards

The history of billiards is long and rich. Pool or billiards has been played by all -- from kings to commoners, from ladies and gentlemen to hustlers. Billiards evolved from a lawn game that was similar to the croquet played sometime during the 15th century in Northern Europe and probably in France. Play was later moved indoors to a wooden table with green cloth to simulate grass, and a simple border was put up 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. The game was originally played with two balls on a six-pocket table with a hoop similar to a croquet wicket and an upright stick used as a target. During the 18th century, the hoop and target gradually disappeared, leaving only the balls and pockets. 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 have played the game since its inception.

In 1600, the game was familiar enough to the public that Shakespeare mentioned it in Antony and Cleopatra. Seventy-five years later, the first book of billiard rules remarked of England that there were “few Towns of note therein which hath not a publick Billiard-Table”. The cue stick was developed in the late 1600’s. 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 sharper cue.

Tables originally had flat vertical walls for rails and their only function was to keep the balls from falling off. They resembled riverbanks and even used to be called “banks”. Players discovered that balls could bounce off the rails and began deliberately aiming at them. Thus a “bank shot” is one in which a ball is made to rebound from a cushion as part of the shot.

Billiard equipment improved rapidly in England after 1800, largely because of the Industrial Revolution. Chalk was used to increase friction between the ball and the cue stick even before cues had tips. The leather cue tip, with which a player can apply side-spin to the ball, was perfected by 1823. Visitors from England showed Americans how to use spin, which explains why it is called “English” in the United States but nowhere else. (The British themselves refer to it as “side”). The two-piece cue arrived in 1829. Slate became popular as a material for table beds around 1835. Goodyear discovered vulcanization of rubber in 1839 and by 1845 it was used to make billiard cushions. By 1850, the billiard table had essentially evolved into its current form.

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. A two-to-one ratio of length to width became standard in the 18th century. Before then, there were no fixed table dimensions. 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.

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