Billiards History Is A Fascinating Story

The Game

Billiards history is a long and very interesting tale. Billiards evolved from a lawn game much like croquet in Europe in the 1500s. The game was moved indoors at some point and played on a table covered in green cloth, presumably, to simulate a lawn.

The first balls are believed to be stone, eventually being replaced by wooden ones. Rails were mounted around the edge of the table to prevent the balls from falling off. The balls were shoved around the table by a wooden stick called a mace.

In early billiards history, the game was played with an upright target stick behind a hoop, like the stake in croquet. Eventually the hoop and stick were fazed out and pockets were added. The word "billiards" is believed to come from either the French terms "billart", which means stick, or "bille" which means ball.

It seems France was the first country in billiards history to embrace the game in a big way. From the French kings down to the lowest commoner, The game spread throughout French society. They enjoyed the competition and considered it a feather in their cap to be good at the game.

Political careers were enhanced by a show of respect for the game and an ability to play it well. This great love of the game soon spread throughout the rest of Europe. Members of the European nobility would engage in billiards tournaments among themselves and would hire skilled players to give lessons to themselves and their children.

Billiards became a full-fledged sport in Europe and eventually spread to many cities and towns all over the continent. One indication of the historic popularity of billiards across Europe was the publication of The Compleat Gamester, a book of billiard history, rules, and equipment, in 1674 England. In the 1700s the game continued to evolve, especially with the creation of the modern style cue stick.

The Cue

In the late 1600s, players began to use the narrow end of the mace for shots along the rail, which were difficult to hit with the larger head section. The handle of the mace was called the "queue". This word is believed to be the origin of the modern term "cue". Eventually the queue evolved into just a straight stick without the larger head of a croquet-type mallett.

Tip chalk was introduced to allow better control of the cue ball and the leather cue tip was perfected by 1823. The leather tip allowed a player to put spin on the cue ball to affect its handling on the pool table. In billiards history, this cue-spinning ability was introduced to America by the British, which is why side-spin is today called "English".

The Table

As mentioned earlier, pool tables evolved as a replacement to the lawn of a croquet game. The first recorded pool table in billiards history belonged to Louis XI of France in 1470. Although billiards tables initially could only afforded by nobility and the rich, they were becoming common in the bars and public places of France by the 1500s.

In 1826 John Thurston, an Englishman, invented the slate table bed. This material helped prevent the warping that wood beds were prone to. In 1845 Thurston was granted a patent for pool table cushions that were made from rubber, cork, and leather.

Billiards history in the US is believed to have begun when the first billiards tables were first brought here in the 1600s. American cabinetmakers were crafting quality tables in the 1700s and historic reports are given of George Washington winning a pool match in 1748. By the mid 1800s, pool tables were appearing in public places in this country.

Michael Phelan, an 1850 Irish immigrant, was a very influential figure in American billiards history. He wrote one of the first American books on the game, and invented the use of diamonds on the table rails as an aid to aiming. He founded the Phelan and Collender company, which developed new table and cushion designs and heavily promoted the sport. In 1884 his company merged with the Brunswick & Balke Company, the ancestor to today's giant Brunswick Billiards.

The Balls

The earliest balls in billiards history were believed to be the stone ones that were used for the croquet-type ancestor of billiards. These gave way to wood as the material of choice. In the 1600s, elephant ivory was used because of its glossy appearance and good looks.

Eventually, due to problems such as cost of manufacture, lack of durability, and shortage of elephants, plastics such as Celluloid began to replace ivory in the manufacture of pool balls. Due to its bad habit of exploding on a hard shot, Celluloid has since been replaced by Phenolic Resin as the standard material in modern billiard ball construction.

Billiards in America

Billiards remained pretty much a European phenomenon until the early 1800s. Today the word "pool" mainly refers to pocket billiards games, with the word "billiards" being more associated with carom-type games, such as three cushion billiards, on pocketless tables.

The word "pool" itself is believed to have evolved from poolrooms, which historically were gambling halls where people bet on horse races. The bet money was "pooled" together to determine the odds and payoffs. Pocket billiards tables were placed in these halls to entertain the bettors between horse races and the name stuck.

Thanks to the promotional efforts of the aforementioned Michael Phelan, billiards in the US began to be quite popular. He was one of the first specialized columnists in billiards history and was influential in setting rules and standards of behavior for the game. Billiards in America maintained a steady growth in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Many championship tournaments were being held, and in 1906, 18 year old Willie Hoppe won his first tournament in what would be his nearly five decade reign of championship carom and three cushion billiards titles. In 1919 Ralph Greenleaf won his first pocket billiards championshop and dominated the game until the advent of Willie Mosconi in 1940.

During this time in billiards history, pocket billiards took over from three cushion billiards as the dominant game. Mosconi dominated until 1957. In more recent times, games such as 8-ball and 9-ball have begun to get more popular than the straight pool of years past.

The popularity of billiards declined in this country after the second world war. It seems the country was obsessed with other things and many poolhalls closed during this era. In 1961 the movie "The Hustler", starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason, singlehandedly caused a revival in the public's interest in billiards.

During the 60s many poolhalls reopened due to increased demand. In the late 70s and early 80s interest in billiards again died down due to the Vietnam war and other social concerns. And again it was a movie that brought it back to life.

"The Color of Money", again starring Paul Newman and newcomer Tom Cruise, caused an upswing in the popularity of pool and billiards once more. Today billiards is still very popular with many poolhalls in operation and many pool tables available in bars and taverns.

Billiards history was once one of seedy reputation, but it has shed that image and today sports a more upscale ambiance with many clean modern establishments. Visiting a chic poolhall is once again a good bet for a social evening with friends.

Several organizations currently promote the sport of billiards in the United States. The Billiard Congress of America has been promoting the billiard industry since 1948. This organization sponsors various leagues and tournaments and has produced the definitive rule books for several different pool games and standardized billiard equipment specifications.

The American Poolplayer's Association was formed in 1981 and promotes amateur billiards through the use of 8-ball and 9-ball leagues. The United States Billiard Association promotes carom billiards around the world.

The Women's Professional Billiards Association was formed in 1976. This group works to promote the interests of women in the sport and is a sponsor of major billiard events throughout the world.




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