All cue sports are generally regarded to have evolved into indoor games from outdoor stick-and-ball lawn games (retroactively termed ground billiards), and as such to be related to trucco, croquet and golf, and more distantly to the stickless bocce and balls.
The first known mention of a form of the word "billiards" appears in Edmund Spenser's Mother Hubberd's Tale in 1591, where he speaks of "all thriftles games that may be found ... with dice, with cards, with balliards." The word "billiard" may have evolved from the French word billart or billette, meaning "stick", in reference to the mace, an implement similar to a golf club, which was the forerunner to the modern cue; the term's origin may have also been from French bille, meaning "ball". The modern term "cue sports" can be used to encompass the ancestral mace games, and even the modern cueless variants, such as finger billiards, for historical reasons. "Cue" itself came from queue, the French word for a tail. This refers to the early practice of using the tail of the mace to strike the ball when it lay against a rail cushion.
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A recognizable form of billiards was played outdoors in the 1340s, and was reminiscent of croquet. King Louis XI of France (1461-1483) had the first known indoor billiard table. Louis XIV further refined and popularized the game, and it swiftly spread amongst the French nobility. While the game had long been played on the ground, this version appears to have died out in the 17th century, in favor of croquet, golf and bowling games, while table billiards had grown in popularity as an indoor activity. Mary, Queen of Scots, claimed that her "table de billiard" had been taken away by what would eventually become her executioners (who covered her body with the table's cloth). In 1588, the Duke of Norfolk, owned a "billyard bord coered with a greene cloth... three billyard sticks and 11 balls of yvery". Billiards grew to the extent that by 1727, it was being played in almost every Paris cafe. In England, the game was developing into a very popular activity for members of the gentry.
By 1670, the thin butt end of the mace began to be used not only for shots under the cushion (which itself was originally only there as a preventative method to stop balls from rolling off), but players increasingly preferred it for other shots as well. The cue as it is known today was finally developed by about 1800.
Initially, the mace was used to push the balls, rather than strike them. The newly developed striking cue provided a new challenge. Cushions began to be stuffed with substances to allow the balls to rebound, in order to enhance the appeal of the game. After a transitional period where only the better players would use cues, the cue came to be the first choice of equipment.
The demand for tables and other equipment was initially met in Europe by John Thurston and other furniture makers of the era. The early balls were made from wood and clay, but the rich preferred to use ivory.
Early billiard games involved various pieces of additional equipment, including the "arch" (related to the croquet hoop), "port" (a different hoop) and "king" (a pin or skittle near the arch) in the 1770s, but other game variants, relying on the cushions (and eventually on pockets cut into them), were being formed that would go on to play fundamental roles in the development of modern billiards.
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The early croquet-like games eventually led to the development of the carom or carambole billiards category - what most non-US and non-UK speakers mean by the word "billiards". These games, which once completely dominated the cue sports world but have declined markedly in many areas over the last few generations, are games played with three or sometimes four balls, on a table without holes (and without obstructions or targets in most cases), in which the goal is generally to strike one object ball with a cue ball, then have the cue ball rebound off of one or more of the cushions and strike a second object ball. Variations include three-cushion, straight rail and the balkline variants, cushion caroms, five-pins, and four-ball, among others.
Over time, a type of obstacle returned, originally as a hazard and later as a target, in the form of pockets, or holes partly cut into the table bed and partly into the cushions, leading to the rise of pocket billiards, especially "pool" games, popular around the world in forms such as eight-ball, nine-ball, straight pool and one-pocket amongst numerous others. The terms "pool" and "pocket billiards" are now virtually interchangeable, especially in the US. English billiards (what UK speakers almost invariably mean by the word "billiards") is a hybrid carom/pocket game, and as such is likely fairly close to the ancestral original pocket billiards outgrowth from 18th to early 19th century carom games.
Most of our information about early billiards comes from accounts of playing by royalty and other nobles. It has been know as the "Noble Game of Billiards" since the early 1800's but there is evidence that people from all walks of life 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 billiards rules remarked of England that there were few "few Tones 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 shaper cue.
Tables originally had flat walls for rails and their only function was to keep the balls from falling off. They resembled river banks 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.
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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 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. A two-to-one ratio of length to width became standard in the 18th century. Before then, there were no fixed table dimensions. 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. 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.
The dominant American billiard game until the 1870's was American Four-Ball Billiards, usually played on a large (11 or 12-foot), four-pocket table with four balls - two white and two red. It was a direct extension English Billiards. Points were scored by pocketing balls, scratching the cue ball, or by making caroms on two or three balls. A "carom" is the act of hitting two object balls with the cue ball in one stroke. With many balls, there were many different ways of scoring and it was possible to make up to 13 pints on a single shot. American Four-Ball produced two offspring, both of which surpassed it in popularity by the 1870's. One, simple caroms played with three balls on a pocketless table, is something known as "Straight rail", the forerunner of all carom games. The other popular game was American Fifteen-Ball Pool, the predecessor of modern pocket billiards.
The word "pool" means a collective bet, or ante. Many non-billiard games, such as poker, involve a pool but it was to pocket billiards that the name became attached. The term "poolroom" now means a place where pool is played, but in the 19th century a poolroom was a betting parlor for horse racing. Pool tables were installed so patrons could pass time between races. The two became connected in the public mind, but the unsavory connotation of "poolroom" came from the betting that took place there, not from billiards.
Fifteen-Ball Pool was played with 15 object balls, numbered 1 through 15. For sinking a ball, the player received a number of points equal to the value of the ball. The sum of the ball values in a rack is 120, so the first player who received more than half the total, or 61, was the winner. This game, also called "61-Pool" was used in the first American championship pool tournament held in 1878 and won by Cyrille Dion, a Canadian. In 1888, it was thought more fair to count the number of balls pocketed by a player and not their numerical value. Thus, Continuous Pool replaced Fifteen-Ball Pool as the championship game. The player who sank the last ball of a rack would break the next rack and his point total would be kept "continuously" from one rack to the next.
Eight-Ball was invented shortly after 1900; Straight Pool followed in 1910. Nine-Ball seems to have developed around 1920.
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While the term "billiards" refers to all games played on a billiard table, with or without pockets, some people take billiards to mean carom games only and use pool for pocket games. Through the 1930's, both pool and billiards, particularly three-cushion billiards, shared the spotlight.
From 1878 until 1956, pool and billiard championship tournaments were held almost annually, with one-on-one challenge matches filling the remaining months. At times, including during the Civil War, billiard results received wider coverage than war news. Players were so renowned that cigarette cards were issued featuring them. Pool went to war several times as a popular recreation for the troops. Professional players toured military posts giving exhibitions; some even worked in the defense Industry. But the game had more trouble emerging from World War II than it had getting into it. Returning soldiers were in a mood to buy houses and build careers, and the charm of an afternoon spent at the pool table was a thing of the past. Room after room closed quietly and by the end of the 1950's it looked as though the game might pass into oblivion.
Billiards was revived by two electrifying events, one in 1961, the other in 1986. The first was the release of the movie, "The Hustler". The black-and-white film depicted the dark life of a pool hustler with Paul Newman in the title role. New rooms opened all over the country and for the remainder of the 60's pool flourished until social concerns, the Vietnam War, and a desire for outdoor coeducational activities led to a decline in billiard interest. In 1986, "The Color of Money", the sequel to "The Hustler" with Paul Newman in the same role and Tom Cruise as an up-and-coming professional, brought the excitement of pool to a new generation. The result was the opening of "upscale" rooms catering to people whose senses would have been offended by the old rooms if they had ever seen them. This trend began slowly in 1987 and has since surged.
In the 1920's, the poolroom was an environment in which men gathered to loiter, smoke, fight, bet, and play. The rooms of today bear no resemblance to those of the earlier times. Until very recently, billiards was completely dominated by men. The atmosphere of the poolroom was very forbidding and women had trouble being accepted there.
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 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.
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.