If you love pool, snooker or billiards, you may be wondering how these different table games came into existence. It all started with the predecessor to pool and snooker, billiards. The history of billiards is an exciting tale that will take us from French noble castles deep into soldiers’ barracks (but sadly not into a casino to place a bet at an exciting casino table game.)
Join us as we travel back in time to explore the history of billiards and see how the game evolved from a lawn game for kings into the beloved pastime of many, played in both bars and homes alike.
What Is Billiards? And How Does It Relate to Pool and Snooker?
Some readers may not have heard the term “billiards” before, while some may have wondered why billiards is called pool, and yet others may be curious to know how snooker fits into the mix. While people sometimes use these terms to describe the same game, the reality is that the term “billiards” is used to describe a category of games played on a rectangular table with balls and a cue. In contrast, “billiards,” “pool,” and “snooker” refer to three different games, each with their own rules. Yes, the Merriam-Webster dictionary entry for “billiards” confirms that it does indeed refer to both a category of games as well as the name of a specific game itself, which undoubtedly causes confusion.
What is less confusing is when these games were invented, with billiards being the first and snooker and pool coming later. This is why many sources can’t discuss the history of pool and snooker without first exploring the origins of billiards, the game upon which these two were based. Let’s take a look at where and when billiards was invented before it evolved into these two other billiards sports.
Where and When Was Billiards Invented?
Billiards is believed to have originated in France in the 14th century. The word “billiards” may stem from the French word “billette,” referring to the mace stick used in the game, or the word “bille,” referring to the balls themselves. What is certain is that, by the 17th century, the game had become popular among nobles. Even King Louis XI of France owned a pool table.
But the game of billiards was not originally played on tables. The table’s green surface is a clear remnant of the game’s beginnings as a lawn game where it shares common roots with other lawn games such as croquet and trucco, both of which were popular in parts of Europe between the 14th and 19th centuries. In fact, the original game of billiards was very similar to croquet, and players used a hoop similar to a croquet wicket and a stick as a target.
Tabletop games were created when players decided to take the game indoors so they wouldn’t be affected by the weather. Early players then constructed wood-framed tables covered with green cloth, similar to the pool tables we use today. The hoop and target slowly disappeared during the 18th century until only the balls and six-pocket table remained.
A Worldwide Progression
As we all know, billiards games weren’t only played in Europe but spread to countries worldwide. Here’s a look at the game and its history in countries that came to love the sport.
Billiards in the United States
The French origin of billiards may be rather surprising, considering the game is such an iconic part of American culture and history. Today, billiards (or more specifically, its successors, pool and snooker) is seen as a truly American sport, and for good reason.
According to Mike Shamos’ article “A Brief History of the Noble Game of Billiards” for the Billiard Congress of America, billiards were supposedly introduced to the US by Dutch and English settlers as a form of entertainment. Later, poolrooms began to appear all over the country as the game became more widespread. During the American Civil War, professional billiards players competed in matches, and it became a popular pastime and distraction. The article also describes how billiard competitions received more national coverage than the war and how professional billiard players were like modern sports stars and even featured their faces on cigarette cards.
The article further details how the rise of billiards in the US is not only due to Dutch and French settlers but also to a man named Michael Phelan, an Irish immigrant who wrote the first American book on the game and helped to standardize the rules and standards for the game. Following in his father’s footsteps, Phelan decided to operate poolrooms, too. He managed a successful pool hall business and a pool table and equipment manufacturing company. Also known as the Father of Billiards, Phelan was a great player. He won $15,000 in the first significant stake match held in the United States.
However, billiards began to decline in popularity after World War II, before experiencing a resurgence again later. Much of its return to popularity was attributed to the popular Paul Newman film The Hustler. After interest dropped again because of the Vietnam War, it was The Hustler’s sequel, The Color of Money, that ignited a billiards upsurge in America once again. After the film’s successful release, new poolrooms were built that attracted a different kind of player.
As for the game’s popularity today, there are two popular variations of billiards (or “pool” as it’s commonly known) in the US. The first is the 8-ball, which was invented in the early 1900s. In this game, 14 balls are divided equally between solid and striped balls. The 8-ball is centered on one side of the table and hit with a cue ball in a “break.” After that, and depending on whether the ball was pocketed, players try to pocket a ball of their choice. They attempt to knock all balls before attempting to pocket the 8-ball to win. Pocketing the 8-ball too early amounts to an automatic loss.
The second version of billiards is 9-ball. Here, nine balls are placed together in a diamond-shaped rack on the table. Balls are labeled numerically, and players must try to pocket each ball in numerical order until they pocket the 9-ball to win the game. The twist in 9-ball is that if you pocket the 9-ball early but hit it with a lower-numbered ball, you automatically win the game.
Billiards in the United Kingdom
Billiards in the UK has evolved to become snooker. British Army officers created Snooker in India during the 1800s. This variant is much more complex than American games and is played on a 12x6ft table with 15 red balls and six more balls of a different color. Each color has a different value of up to seven points. To score points, a red ball must be pocketed and followed by a colored ball. Once all the red balls are pocketed, players must pocket the remaining balls from the lowest to the highest number. Whoever has the most points is the winner.
Billiards in France
The French version of billiards, called Carom, doesn’t include any pockets. Carom is played on a heated slate table. To win, players must strike the cue and hit the first yellow ball and then bounce it off of three walls to hit the second red ball. If you’re looking for a challenge, you’ll definitely enjoy Carom. The game is considered one of the most difficult variations of billiards.
Billiards and the World of Betting
You would think that billiards became known as “pool” when bets began to be made on the game itself. The word “pool” technically refers to a collective bet. This is where people “pool” their money in wagers to stand a chance to win a prize. In the past, these wagers were placed on activities such as poker and horseracing. This is why, back in the day, a “poolroom” actually referred to as a place to make sports bets during horse races.
Billiards was introduced to poolrooms, not as another activity to bet on, but to occupy and entertain guests between races. They soon became synonymous with poolrooms until the game itself was referred to as pool. Today, a poolroom no longer refers to a betting house but a place where people play billiards.
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