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The History of Billiards

Maddy Marcus / June 4, 2020
The History of Billiards

Billiards, commonly known as pool, is one of the most popular games of all time. It's easy to learn but hard to master, and can win professionals some serious cash. What many players, both amateur and professional don't know, however, is the fascinating history of billiards that made it the smash hit it is today.

Keep reading for a detailed history of billiards.

Early History of Billiards

The history of billiards is surprisingly complicated. Billiards has been played in some shape or form since the 15th century at least. The first owner of a billiard table was King Louis XI, but who invented pool isn't known. Back in those days, it was a very different game, though.

Billiards started as a lawn game, more similar to croquet than anything else. It played similarly, only with "maces" rather than cues. Then, as the game caught on in popularity, it eventually moved indoors. 

The green field of felt is often thought of as a tribute to the sport's humble field beginnings. The word "billiard", French in origin, is most likely derived from the word "billart", referring to the wooden sticks used to play the lawn game. It could also come from the word "bille", which refers to the ball itself.

Early billiards was most often played by royalty and member of the nobility. From here, it gathered the title "Noble Game of Billiards". Billiards wasn't exclusively played by those in power, though.

By the 1600s the game was so well known that The Bard himself, William Shakespeare, mentioned it in the play Antony and Cleopatra. By the late 1600s, billiards tables became commonplace across Europe, with most towns having a public table available.

The Equipment

The earlier versions of billiards were played with "maces" rather than cues. Originally, the balls were meant to be shoved rather than struck. This required a little more power than the billiards of today.

The cue stick didn't come around until the latter half of the 1600s as the sport progressed. The mace simply had too large of a head to pull off all the necessary billiard moves you see today. When the ball was in a corner, the large head of the mace made everything far too difficult.

During the 1800s, billiard equipment got a lot better. Chalk was introduced as a way to increase friction, and leather cue tips came around in 1823. Not only that, but skill started to pass around, including how to add spin to a ball.

Coming to America

We're not sure how or when billiards came to America. We do have some theories, though.

Some say billiards came across with the Spaniards, as they arrived in St. Augustine in the 1580s. This, however, has never been confirmed. It's more likely that English and Dutch settlers brought the game over from Europe.

By the 1700s, billiards tables were being made in the US, mostly by cabinet makers. George Washington was reportedly a player. By 1830, billiards started to spread around bars, with certain ones being dedicated to the sport entirely.

Then 1850 rolled around, and so did Michael Phelan, the "father of American billiards". He was an Irish immigrant, and penned the first book on billiards. He set into stone the standard rules and settings, added aim-assisting diamonds to the table, and revolutionized the cushion and table designs necessary for play.

Phelan had a regular column on billiards in Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, which helped popularize the sport further. To make things even better, Phelan won $15,000 playing the first stake match of billiards in Detroit. When people saw they could make serious money with the sport, well, that inevitably increased the popularity.

Modern History of Billiards

When it comes to the table, rules, and equipment, the start of "modern billiards" can be considered 1850. Not much has changed rule or equipment-wise since then. However, that doesn't mean the history of billiards stops there.

Between the late 1800s and mid-1950s, billiard tournaments became an annual tradition. It became one of America's favorite pastimes, the result receiving tons of airtime. Pro players like Jacob Schaefer Sr., Johnny Layton, and Alfredo DeOro all rose up during this time, becoming legitimate sports stars.

The Big Games

Billiards started to get treated as a sport somewhere around the 1890s. Games like pool, nine-ball, snooker, and three-cushion billiards took particular prominence. Larger prize pools were introduced, and wide-spread coverage of each match was available.

Between 1878 and 1956 tournaments were in full swing, happening annually. The players became popular enough to be featured in their own cigarette cards, which were highly collectible. People couldn't get enough of the game, whether they played or not.

Billiards was featured in the World Games starting in 2005 in Duisburg, then again in 2006 at the Asian Games.

Billiards on the Army Base & the Rise of Willie Hoppe

During the 1900s, billiards tables became commonplace on army bases. The troops loved to unwind with a game of pool, and still do to this day.

It was also around this time that one of the most popular billiards games, Eight-Ball, was invented. Shortly following, Straight Pool came around, followed by Nine-Ball sometime around the 1920s.

1906 saw the rise of billiards legend Willie Hoppe, an 18-year-old who laid his claim by beating pool heavyweight Maurice Vignaux at a game of Balkline. Balkline itself, a harder version of pool with specific restrictions, rose in popularity after this. Hoppe continued his career, dominating at three-cushion billiards, then retired in 1952. Hoppe was a certified legend during his time, and is still remembered fondly in the pool community to this day.

However, after World War II settled down, billiards saw a downturn in popularity.

Soldiers needed to use their money to buy homes, and support their families. They stopped spending as much time playing and investing in pool. Other games were simply cheaper and more available, like card games.

As the 1950s came to an end, it seemed like billiards might disappear entirely.

Billiards Big Comeback

The 1961 release of the hit film The Hustler renewed a lot of interest in the sport of billiards. The film stars Paul Newman as a pool hustler who gets too involved in the wide, dark world of hustling. This movie alone saw pool houses open across the country, which boomed in popularity throughout the decade.

The game started to decline again as the Vietnam War raged on and outdoor sports thrived. Then, in 1986, the sequel to The Hustler -- The Color of Money -- came out, and just like that billiards was back. More poolrooms opened up, and more people than ever were playing.

The Rise of Pocket Billiards

Nowadays, we don't even need a billiard table to play billiards games.

Pocket billiards took off in the 2000s thanks to the rise in video games and technology. Billiard games became available across internet Flash game websites, and further once cellphones came around. The touch-screen is perfect for playing billiards, and you can even play with friends wirelessly.

Apple's iMessage app even has a built-in pocket billiards game that can be played right through the messenger with anyone you're texting. Imagine showing that to old Willie Hoppe!

What the Future Holds for Billiards

You may be wondering, "How much can billiards change?" You'd be surprised. With the rise and continual improvement of technology, the history of billiards is not completely written.

One of the more incredible work-in-progress' is the augmented reality aiming glasses. With these on your face, you can see where a ball might end up before hitting it, as represented by augmented lines on the table. The most impressive version of this is called PoolLiveAid, and it could do a lot for practicing billiards players.

People are also working on accurate billiards data-tracking apps. These would show things like how much spin is on a given shot, how many kilometers you've shot balls total, and where you can improve your game.

Beyond technology, billiards continues to be a popular sport. Tournaments are worth more than ever, and televised coverage is widely available. While it doesn't seem like any big changes to the game itself are on the way, you can never be sure what's going on behind-the-scenes. 

Billiards: The Game That Refused to Disappear

As you can see, the history of billiards is long and fascinating through and through. The sport has had its fair share of ups and downs, almost vanishing from the peoples' minds on several occasions. Like a ball in a pocket, though, it keeps being fished back out, refusing to let the people forget how fun and rewarding it is.

Billiards is one of the most revolutionary sports of all time and will continue to be a staple across the world.

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