Pool History

I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a condensed version of "A Brief History of the Noble Game of Billiards" written by Mike Shamos, the esteemed Curator of The Billiard Archive. This non-profit organization was established with the noble goal of preserving the rich history of this beloved game. It is worth mentioning that I obtained this excerpt with the kind permission of the Billiard Congress of America.

The game of billiards holds a vast and illustrious history, spanning across centuries. It has captivated the attention of various individuals, ranging from monarchs and ordinary citizens to esteemed leaders, individuals with mental health conditions, as well as both refined ladies and gentlemen, and even those known for their skillful manipulation. Originating from a lawn game akin to croquet, this pastime emerged during the 15th century in Northern Europe and, quite possibly, France. Over time, it transitioned to an indoor setting, where a wooden table adorned with green cloth aimed to mimic the appearance of a grassy surface, complemented by a modest border encircling the perimeter. In the earlier stages, the balls were propelled forward through the use of wooden implements referred to as "maces," rather than being struck forcefully. The term "billiard" itself derives from the French language, drawing inspiration from either the word "billart," alluding to one of the wooden sticks employed, or "bille," denoting a spherical object.

There is evidence that people from all walks of life have played billiards since its inception; however, most of our information about early billiards comes from accounts of playing by royalty and other nobles. The game has been referred to as the "Noble Game of Billiards" since the early 1800s. In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare mentions billiards, indicating that by 1600, the game was familiar enough to the public. Seventy-five years later, the first book of billiards rules noted that there were few notable towns in England without a public billiard table.

In the late 1600's, the development of the cue stick took place. Due to the mace's large head, it became quite inconvenient to use when the ball was positioned near a rail. In such situations, players would resort to turning the mace around and utilizing its handle to strike the ball. The handle, referred to as a "queue," originated from the word "tail" and eventually gave rise to the term "cue." For a considerable period, the cue stick was exclusively reserved for men, while women were compelled to utilize the mace. This decision was based on the belief that women were more likely to damage the cloth with the sharper cue.

Originally, tables were constructed with flat walls acting as rails, primarily serving the purpose of preventing balls from rolling off. These walls were reminiscent of river banks, hence the term "banks" used to refer to them. It was during gameplay that players stumbled upon the discovery that balls could actually bounce off these rails, leading them to intentionally aim at them. Consequently, the concept of a "bank shot" was born, signifying a shot wherein a ball is intentionally made to rebound off a cushion as an integral part of the shot.

After the advent of the Industrial Revolution, billiard equipment witnessed significant advancements in England during the early 19th century. Prior to the introduction of cue tips, players used chalk to enhance the friction between the ball and the cue stick. The leather cue tip, which enabled players to apply side-spin to the ball, was perfected by 1823. It was during this time that visitors from England demonstrated the use of spin to Americans, leading to its distinctive name "English" in the United States. In contrast, the British themselves referred to it as "side". The innovation continued with the arrival of the two-piece cue in 1829 and the growing popularity of slate as a material for table beds around 1835. The discovery of rubber vulcanization by Goodyear in 1839 further revolutionized billiards, as rubber became the primary material for making billiard cushions by 1845. By the 18th century, a two-to-one ratio of length to width had become the standard for billiard tables, replacing the previous absence of fixed table dimensions. Finally, by 1850, the billiard table had essentially evolved into the form we recognize today.

In Britain, the game of English Billiards reigned supreme for over a century, beginning in 1770 and lasting until the 1920s. Played on a spacious rectangular table with three balls and six pockets, this billiard game held a dominant position in British culture. Today, the British billiard tradition lives on primarily through the beloved game of snooker. With its intricate and vibrant gameplay, snooker combines offensive and defensive strategies, captivating players and spectators alike. Interestingly, snooker is played on the same equipment as English Billiards but with a staggering 22 balls instead of just three. The British appetite for snooker is comparable to the American passion for baseball, with snooker competitions taking place on a daily basis across the country.

The predecessor of modern pocket billiards was American Fifteen-Ball Pool, one of the two popular games that surpassed American Four-Ball Billiards in the 1870s. American Four-Ball Billiards, which derived from English Billiards, was the dominant American billiard game until then. It was typically played on a large four-pocket table with two white balls and two red balls. Points could be scored by pocketing balls, scratching the cue ball, or making caroms on two or three balls. Caroms involved hitting two object balls with the cue ball in a single stroke. The game offered numerous scoring possibilities, allowing for up to 13 points to be made in a single shot. American Four-Ball Billiards had two offspring that gained even more popularity. One of them was "Straight rail," a game played with three balls on a pocketless table, known for its simple caroms.

In the world of gambling, the term "pool" refers to a collective bet or ante that players contribute to. Interestingly, this concept extends beyond billiard games and encompasses other popular games such as poker. However, it was in the realm of pocket billiards that the term "pool" truly found its footing. It is worth noting that the modern-day meaning of "poolroom" is now associated with a venue where people gather to play pool. Nevertheless, during the 19th century, the term "poolroom" had an entirely different connotation – it denoted a betting parlor specifically catering to horse racing enthusiasts. These poolrooms were equipped with pool tables to provide a source of entertainment to the patrons in between races. Over time, the public started to associate the two concepts, even though the negative reputation of a "poolroom" stemmed from the betting activities rather than the game of billiards itself.

In the game of Fifteen-Ball Pool, players would compete using a set of 15 object balls, which were conveniently numbered from 1 to 15. Every time a player successfully pocketed a ball, they would earn a specific number of points, corresponding to the value assigned to that particular ball. To win the game, a player had to accumulate a total score that exceeded half of the sum of all the ball values, which totaled to 120 points. This meant that the magic number to secure victory was 61 points. Interestingly, this particular version of the game, also known as "61-Pool," was featured in the inaugural American championship pool tournament back in 1878, where the victor happened to be Cyrille Dion, a talented player from Canada. However, in 1888, the rules were modified to ensure fairness, as it was deemed more reasonable to count the number of balls a player pocketed rather than their assigned numerical value. Consequently, a new variant of the game called Continuous Pool took over as the championship format. With Continuous Pool, the player who successfully sank the final ball of a rack would then have the privilege of breaking the subsequent rack, while their accumulated points would carry over "continuously" from one rack to the next.

The game of Eight-Ball emerged in the early 1900s, with Straight Pool following in 1910. It appears that Nine-Ball came into existence around 1920.

Through the 1930's, billiards and pool were both popular games, with billiards referring to all games played on a billiard table, whether with or without pockets, and pool specifically referring to pocket games. However, some individuals use the term billiards exclusively for carom games, while using pool for pocket games. Three-cushion billiards, in particular, enjoyed significant attention during this time period.

From 1878 until 1956, billiard championship tournaments were held yearly, accompanied by one-on-one challenge matches throughout the rest of the year. It is worth noting that at certain times, such as during the Civil War, the results of billiard games garnered more attention than news of the war itself. The players were so esteemed that they were even featured on cigarette cards. Additionally, pool became a popular pastime among the troops during various wars. Professional players traveled to military bases to give exhibitions, and some even found employment in the defense industry. However, after World War II, the game faced more challenges than ever before. The returning soldiers were focused on settling down, purchasing homes, and establishing careers, and the nostalgia of spending an afternoon at the pool table had become a thing of the past. As a result, one billiard room after another quietly closed its doors, and by the end of the 1950s, it seemed as though the game of billiards was on the verge of being forgotten.

In 1961 and 1986, two extraordinary events breathed new life into the world of billiards. The first event occurred with the release of the film "The Hustler," a mesmerizing black-and-white masterpiece that delved into the shadowy existence of a pool hustler. With the charismatic Paul Newman taking on the titular role, the movie captivated audiences and sparked a widespread resurgence in the popularity of billiards. As a result, countless new billiard rooms sprouted up across the country, and throughout the 1960s, the game thrived with resplendent vigor. However, as the 60s came to a close, societal concerns, the turmoil of the Vietnam War, and a growing inclination toward outdoor coeducational activities caused the once-booming interest in billiards to wane. Then, in 1986, history repeated itself in a glorious fashion with the release of "The Color of Money," a highly anticipated sequel to "The Hustler." This time, Paul Newman reprised his role, accompanied by the magnetic presence of Tom Cruise as an aspiring professional. The film brought the electrifying excitement of pool to an entirely new generation, igniting a fresh wave of enthusiasm. As a direct result, a wave of "upscale" billiard rooms emerged, catering specifically to those whose refined sensibilities would have recoiled at the sight of the old, run-down establishments. This transformative trend began its gradual ascent in 1987 and has since surged with unstoppable force, forever altering the landscape of billiards.

In the 1920s, the poolroom was a lively gathering place for men, where they would congregate to socialize, engage in various activities like smoking, arguing, gambling, and playing billiards. These places have evolved tremendously over time, bearing no resemblance to their earlier counterparts. Historically, billiards has been a male-dominated sport until recently. The atmosphere in the poolroom used to be quite intimidating, making it challenging for women to be accepted in this environment. However, women have always been passionate about the game, even since its inception in the 15th century. For more than two centuries, women of high social standing have been actively participating in the sport. In the past, it was exceedingly difficult for women to hone their billiards skills due to the lack of support from male players, family, and friends. Additionally, finding experienced female instructors or coaches was no easy task. Thankfully, these circumstances have gradually changed and continue to do so. As a result, we can anticipate women reaching equal proficiency with men and propelling the game to new heights.

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