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Billiards refers to a category of games played with hard balls, between and inches in diameter, on a raised, rectangular, cloth-covered table surrounded by padded walls, or "rails," that prevent the balls from leaving the table. There are two general forms of billiards. In one, players score points by propelling one of the balls (the "cue ball") into others, thus scoring a "carom." In the second type, scoring is accomplished when the cue ball is propelled into "object balls" causing the latter to fall into one of six pockets on the table, one in each corner and one on either side of the long sides of the table. Hence, there are two principal types of tables, those without pockets and those with pockets. Tables are half as wide as long and range between 6 and 12 feet in length. Most "standard" tables in the United States are 8 feet long and 4 feet wide. The bed, or playing surface of the table, should be between 29-¼ and 30-¼ inches from the floor. The best table beds are made of slate—between ½- and 2-inches thick—resting on wooden supports.

Players propel the cue ball using a "cue stick," a tapered cylindrical rod approximately 57 inches long and weighing between 14 and 22 ounces. The tip of the cue is affixed with a rounded leather tip and is approximately ½-inch in diameter. Most cue sticks are made of wood, but other materials, such as aluminum or graphite, are sometimes used as well. The handle end of the cue stick is often covered with a material to provide a pleasant grip and may be decorated with inlays.

Origins of Billiards

The earliest known reference to billiards as an indoor game is in a 1470 inventory of the accounts of King Louis XI of France, who reigned from 1461 to 1483. The game most likely developed from outdoor games similar to croquet, wherein balls were propelled at various sorts of targets, such as hoops, sticks, or other balls, by cudgels, maces, hammers, or similar devices.

"Billiards" probably derives from the medieval Latin word "billa," which comes, in turn, from the Latin "pila," meaning "ball." "Cue," is from the French "queue," meaning "tail," and may refer to the handle of the billiard mace, the device that preceded the modern cue stick. The mace, which had a wide, flat-faced head attached to a shaft, was used to shove the cue ball into contact with the other balls on the table. The cue stick first appeared in the late 1600s but did not completely supplant the mace until the early twentieth century.

Billiards in America

While knowledge of billiards may have arrived in Florida in the 1580s with the Spanish, it is certain that British and Dutch colonists brought the game to America by the 1600s. American cabinetmakers were producing small numbers of tables in the early 1700s, and the game spread rapidly through the colonies and to the west. A billiard parlor, built in 1764, was one of the first buildings to be erected by the French in St. Louis. Billiard tables had reached Bent's Fort, a trading post on the Santa Fe train route in present-day southeastern Colorado, by the 1830s. The billiard industry, producing tables, balls, and cues, was well established in America by the 1850s.

Despite its popularity, billiards has not always enjoyed a positive reputation in America. "Blue laws" enacted in New England in the 1600s severely restricted recreational activities on the Sabbath and were directed, in particular, at taverns, which frequently had billiards tables. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts Act of 1830 was an effort to control both players and the play of billiards by sanctioning tables. Owners of unauthorized tables could be arrested and their billiard equipment seized and destroyed. Because of its association with gambling, billiards was outlawed in other areas of the country from time to time, as well.

While the term "billiards" technically includes both carom and pocket games, pocket billiards games have come to be known as "pool." In the nineteenth century, however, a "pool" was a bet or ante, such as in poker, and betting parlors for horse racing were called "poolrooms." Billiards tables were often installed in poolrooms so that patrons could play between races. Over the years, the game became associated with the betting parlors. Billiards became "pool" and billiard halls became "pool halls." The games also came to be associated with the hustlers, thugs, and other unsavory characters who presumably frequented betting parlors. In the late twentieth century, however, with increased popularity of home pool tables, the establishment of family oriented pool parlors, and, especially, the frequent television coverage on ESPN and ESPN2 of both men's and women's tournaments, the reputation of billiards was substantially rehabilitated.

Early billiard games varied greatly in terms of the design of the tables, the number of balls, and how the balls were propelled on the table. Four-Ball was the most popular billiards game in America during the first half of the nineteenth century. It was played on a four-pocket table with a white cue ball, one white object ball and two red object balls. Scoring was accomplished in several ways, including pocketing balls, making caroms, and combinations of both. In the 1870s, Four-Ball was largely replaced by Straight Rail, a carom game played with three balls on a pocketless table and American Fifteen Ball, played on a six-pocket table with a cue ball and fifteen object balls. These games were the forerunners of modern carom and pocket games, although others have now surpassed them in popularity. Eight-Ball, invented around the turn of the twentieth century, and Nine-Ball, which first appeared around 1920, are the most common billiard games in America in the early 2000s. Nine-Ball is frequently seen in televised tournaments because it requires exquisite shotmaking and games are of short duration when played by skilled professionals. These features make it ideal for television viewing.

See also: Colonial-Era Leisure and Recreation, Gambling


Billiard Congress of America. Billiards: The Official Rules and Records Book. Iowa City, Iowa: Billiard Congress of America, 1995.

Hendricks, William. William Hendricks' History of Billiards. Roxana, Ill: William Hendricks, 1974.

Mizerak, Steve, with Michael E. Panozzo. Steve Mizerak's Complete Book of Pool. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1990.

Shamos, Mike. "A Brief History of the Noble Game of Billiards," In Billiards: The Official Rules & Records Book. Iowa City, Iowa: Billiard Congress of America, 1995, pp. 1-5.

Stein, Victor, and Paul Rubino. The Billiard Encyclopedia: An Illustrated History of the Sport. Minneapolis, Minn.: Blue Book Publications, 1996.

Garry Chick