“Conman” or “Pool Shark” are the first words that come to mind when most people think of the game of pool. This is largely due to the fact that most people associate pool with rough bars, smoke filled pool halls, and suspicious looking men waiting to take their money.
But pool hasn’t always had this image attached to it. And, truth be told, most pool halls don’t live up to the stereotype. Today’s pool halls are a long shot from what is commonly portrayed by our culture at large.
Pool actually comes from a noble heritage, so what exactly has led to the current world view, or at least American view, of the game? How is it that the image associated with billiards has become that of gruff men looking to kill time with a glass of beer in their hand when its origins are that of 15th century nobility?
In this article we’re going to discuss the history of pool, the evolution of its equipment, and how con men have popularized and saved the pool industry in America multiple times, and how this salvation has led to imagery commonly associated with the game itself.
What is known about the origins of pool actually comes from the accounts of Northern European and French nobility. These nobles document the birth of pool to be around the 15th century as a game similar to croquet that was played outside on the grass. Over time it was eventually moved indoors where it was played on a table lined with small walls meant to keep the balls from falling off, and green cloth meant to mimic grass.
In addition, many of the terms for billiards actually derive from French words meant to describe parts of the game. For example, historians believe there are two possible roots for the word billiards, either coming from the French word “bille”, a ball, or “billart”, one of the wooden sticks.
Even the bank shot (any shots made using the walls of a pool table) carries with it a romanticized origin to its name, where the early European players saw the walls of the table and believed them to resemble the sides of river banks.
Evolution of the Game
In the same way that basketball started off with no one knowing how to dribble, billiards began without striking the ball. That’s right, the most iconic part of the game wasn’t even part of the original rules!
The early European nobility would play the game by using a stick called a “mace” that they would use to push the ball forward, as opposed to striking with a direction in mind. The cue stick itself wasn’t created until the late 1600s with a change in the strategy of the game.
At this point in time it had become clear that using the head of the mace proved disadvantageous when a ball got too close to the walls. The fix was to flip the mace upside down and use the smaller head of the handle to strike the ball and send it forward. Unsurprisingly, the name for handle in French is “queue”, or tail in English.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this evolution in the game is that women were not allowed to use the smaller head of the cue because it was believed they lacked the coordination to properly hit the ball and not rip the table’s cloth.
The Cue Stick
It wasn’t until the 1800s and the industrial revolution in England that the modernized version of pool came into existence with improvements to almost every aspect of play.
First came the changes to the cue. Although the cue had long ago replaced the mace as the weapon of choice, players continued to find small ways to improve their play. One such way was the introduction of chalk which helped to increase friction and decrease the power of moisture on the wooden tip of the cue.
The single most important addition to the cue came with the perfection of the leather cue tip in 1823. The leather tip is what allowed billiards players of this time to utilize the power of rotation to control the ball after it had been struck. In the United States, this rotational control is known as English, because the English introduced it to the U.S. during the mid-1800s.
In the rest of the world this is known as sidespin. Sidespin is what allows a pool player to make a ball return to its original spot or stop on a dime when it hits another ball. The improvement of the cue then continued with the development of the two-piece cue, which allows for both ends of the cue to be customized to the user’s preference.
Naturally, with improvements to the main tool of the game came improvements to the playing field. The pool table itself received major improvements with the introduction of slate in 1835 and the wide-scale use of vulcanized rubber in 1845.
Slate proved to be a sturdier material that could handle more rigorous play and would not warp over time like wood. The vulcanized rubber served to encourage a more refined version of the game. Prior to this, players would hit the soft cloth or linen-lined walls of the pool table to produce a bank shot. With the introduction of vulcanized rubber, these type of shots became easier to replicate and the rubber was more capable of absorbing their impact.
Even the dimensions of pool tables became standardized with a two-to-one ratio of length to width being introduced. In essence, the first half of the 19th century is what modernized billiards into the game that it is today, but it is gambling that has given it both its modern name and reputation.
Why is it Called “Pool”?
One of the prime locations for billiard tables in the 19th century were in the pool rooms for horse racing tracks. I know, it sounds like I’m asking what came first, the chicken or the egg? Well, in this case, the chicken named whatever came out of the egg. I say this because the pool rooms of the time had their name due to their association with collective bets, otherwise known as pools.
The owners of these pool rooms decided to add billiards tables so that their patrons would have something to do during the time between horse races. In an interesting turn of fate, the term pool room which once meant a betting parlor in the 19th century now means a place where people go to play pocket billiards, and in some instances still lose money.
Why is Billiards Popular in America?
The introduction of billiards to the United States is not associated with any particular person, but researchers do believe that its introduction most likely came with the early Dutch and English settlers who brought it with them as a form of entertainment. These settlers would proceed to continue the tradition, keeping the game popular enough that George Washington played it in 1748. Despite having worse equipment than their European counterparts, pool rooms grew in popularity and proceeded to appear throughout the country.
The growth of pool would then become largely attributed to its popularity during war with professional billiards players competing in matches during the Civil War, and billiards acting as a primary source of distraction during the World Wars. Unfortunately, after WWII and the creation of American suburbia the returning troops moved away from wanting to play pool in favor of raising families.
How Conmen saved American Billiards
While the game has existed in the Americas since the time of the settlers, this does not mean that it has not had its struggles. As I mentioned earlier the popularity of pool dipped shortly after World War II, until a man by the name of Paul Newman played the leading man in the movie “The Hustler”. The popularity of the movie would cause an explosion in interest for billiards that would continue until the social upheaval of the Vietnam War would once again quell interest.
Interestingly enough, a sequel would be the spark that once again helped to restore American interest in pool with the movie “The Color of Money”. In this sequel to “The Hustler”, Paul Newman, in the same role as the first movie, teaches the younger Tom Cruise the art of hustling over the course of a week-long road trip. The movie is credited with the resurgence of pool in America after its release in 1986, leading to the development of new pool rooms that catered to a modern audience.
In truth, especially in the U.S., it shouldn’t come as a surprise that someone immediately associates billiards with conmen and gambling. Now that the history is understood, let’s move on to some of the ways that the game is played around the world.
Billiards is a general term that covers any game played using billiard balls and a cue stick. This is important to remember because the preferred version of billiards can change depending on the country, which we will now discuss.
The United States has two preferred methods of playing the game of billiards. The first is known as 8-ball, where 14 balls equally split between solid and striped and one 8-ball will be centered on one side of the table and then struck by the cue ball in something known as a break.
After the break, and depending on if the player who broke pocketed a ball, players will try to pocket a ball type of their choice, either solid or striped. Once the ball type is chosen, that player will attempt to knock in all their balls before finally going after the 8-ball to win the game.
Scratching on the 8-ball, the process of accidentally pocketing the cue ball, or making the 8-ball in before the other balls have been pocketed results in an automatic loss. This version of the game was believed to have been invented sometime in the early 1900s.
Another popular version of billiards played in the States is the game of 9-ball. Ironically, 9-ball uses less total balls than 8-ball. The game is played by placing nine balls together in a diamond shaped rack on a designated spot on the table and then having someone break similarly to 8-ball.
The difference is that these balls are numerically labeled in ascending order up to nine with the goal being to pocket every ball in numerical order and be the player that pockets the 9-ball. However, unlike in 8-ball where the 8-ball going in early results in an instant loss, if a player is able to pocket the 9-ball by striking it with a lower numbered ball that player automatically wins the game.
The United Kingdom
The most popular version of billiards in the United Kingdom is a version of the game called Snooker. Snooker was developed by British Army officers in India during the late 1800s. Now, please bear with me as the rules of Snooker are much more complicated than the previously mentioned games.
Snooker is played on a 12’ x 6’ table with 15 red balls and 6 other colored balls. To get a point in snooker, a player must first pocket a red ball, then pocket a colored ball. The catch is that each color has a different value up to 7 points. Points are calculated by adding the value of each ball pocketed in one go.
Finally, once all the red balls have been pocketed players must then pocket all the colored balls from least to greatest. The player who achieved the highest number of points at the end is declared the winner.
Unlike their English speaking compatriots, the French play a style of billiards that does not include pockets called Carom that is played on a heated slate table. The objective of Carom is to strike the cue, hit the first yellow ball, bounce the ball off of three walls on the table and then hit the second red ball. Carom is largely deemed to be one of the harder variations of billiards and is not as popular in the United States as it is in Europe.
The Beauty of Pool
This article has only spoken about a small fraction of billiards history. Billiards is a worldwide source of entertainment with players as varied as the different strategies or variations of the game.
There are lots of different billiard games that you can learn and master. Billiards is a sport that takes time, patience, and determination to learn and master. If you’d like to learn more about billiards and how you can improve your game, feel free to check out our other super helpful articles just like this one.