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A Brief History of the Noble Game of Billiards
By Mike Shamos
Copyright©1995 All Rights Reserved
How billiards came to America has not been positively established. There are tales that it was brought to St. Augustine by the Spaniards in the 1580s but research has failed to reveal any trace of the game there. More likely it was brought over by Dutch and English settlers. A number of American cabinetmakers in the 1700s turned out exquisite billiard tables, although in small quantities. Nevertheless, the game did spread throughout the Colonies. Even George Washington was reported to have won a match in 1748. By 1830, despite primitive equipment, public rooms devoted entirely to billiards appeared. The most famous of them was Bassford's, a New York room that catered to stockbrokers. Here a number of American versions of billiards were developed, including Pin Pool, played with small wooden targets like miniature bowling pins, and Fifteen-Ball Pool, described later.
The American billiard industry and the incredible rise in popularity of the game are due to Michael Phelan, the father of American billiards. Phelan emigrated from Ireland and in 1850 wrote the first American book on the game. He was influential in devising rules and setting standards of behavior. An inventor, he added diamonds to the table to assist in aiming, and developed new table and cushion designs. He was also the first American billiard columnist. On January 1, 1859, the first of his weekly articles appeared in Leslie's Illustrated Weekly. A few months later, Phelan won a prize of $15,000 at Detroit in the first important stake match held in the United States. He was a tireless promoter of the game and created the manufacturing company of Phelan and Collender. In 1884 the company merged with its chief competitor, J.M. Brunswick & Balke, to form the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company, which tightly controlled all aspects of the game until the 1950's. Its successor, Brunswick Billiards, is still the largest American manufacturer.
The dominant American billiard game until the 1870s was American Four-Ball Billiards, usually played on a large (11- or 12-foot), four-pocket table with four balls-two white and red. It was a direct extension of 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 at one stroke. With so many balls, there were many different ways of scoring and it was possible to make up to 13 points on a single shot. American Four-Ball produced two offspring, both of which surpassed it in popularity by the late 1870s. One, simple caroms played with three balls on a pocket less table, is sometimes 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 the time between races. The two became connected in the public mind, but the unsavory connotation of "pool-room" 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. One-Pocket has ancestors that are older than any of these; the idea of the game was described in 1775 and complete rules for a British form appeared in 1869.
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. The BCA Hall of Fame honors many players from this era, including Jacob Schaefer, Sr. and his son, Jake Jr., Frank Taberski, Alfredo De Oro, and Johnny Layton. The first half of this century was the era of the billiard personality. In 1906 Willie Hoppe, 18, established the world supremacy of American players by beating Maurice Vignaux of France at balkline. Balkline is a version of carom billiards with lines drawn on the table to form rectangles. When both object balls lie in the same rectangle, the number of shots that can be made is restricted. This makes the game much harder because the player must cause one of the balls to leave the rectangle, and hopefully return. When balkline lost its popularity during the 1930s, Hoppe began a new career in three-cushion billiards, which he dominated until his retirement in 1952. Hoppe was a true American legend-a boy of humble roots whose talent was discovered early, a world champion as a teenager, and a gentleman who held professional titles for almost 50 years. One newspaper reported that under his manipulation, the balls moved "as if under a magic spell." To many fans, billiards meant Hoppe.
While the term "billiards" refers to all games played on billiard tables, with or without pockets, some people take billiards to mean carom games only and use pool for pocket games. Carom games, particularly balkline, dominated public attention until 1919, when Ralph Greenleaf's pool playing captured the nation's attention. For the next 20 years he gave up the title on only few occasions. Through the 1930s, both pool and billiards, particularly three-cushion billiards, shared the spotlight. In 1941, the Mosconi era began and carom games declined in importance. 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 1950s it looked as thought the game might pass into oblivion. Willie Mosconi, who won or successfully defended the pocket billiard title 19 times, retired as champion in 1956.
Billiards was revived by two electrifying events, one in 1961, the other in 1986. The first was the release of the movie, "The Hustler," based on the novel by Walter Tevis. The black-and-white film depicted the dark life of a pool hustler with Paul Newman in the title role. The sound of clicking balls sent America into a billiard frenzy. New rooms opened all over the country and for the remainder of the '60s pool flourished until social concerns, the Vietnam War, and a desire for outdoor coeducational activities led to a decline in billiard interest. By 1985, there were only two public rooms left in Manhattan, down from several thousand during the 1930s. In 1986, "The Color of Money," a sequel to the Hustler with Paul Newman in the same role and Tom Cruise as a 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, even resulting in a public stock offering in 1991 by Jillian's, a Boston-based room chain.
While the game has had its heroes since the early 1800s, it has had to wage a constant battle for respectability. Poolrooms were often the target of politicians and legislators eager to show an ability to purge immorality from the community. Even today, obtaining a billiard license can require compliance with antiquated regulations. In the 1920's, the poolroom was an environment in which men gathered to loiter, smoke, fight, bet, and play. The rooms of the 1900's bear no resemblance to those of earlier times. The new rooms have a cachet approaching that of chic restaurants and night clubs. They offer quality equipment, expert instruction, and the chance for people to meet socially for a friendly evening. Being totally without stigma, these rooms are responsible for introducing an entire new audience to the game and are resulting in the greatest surge in billiard intern the United States in over a century.
Since 1978, Billiards Digest magazine has been the pool world’s best source for news, tournament coverage, player profiles, bold editorials, and advice on how to play pool. Our instructors include superstars Nick Varner and Jeanette Lee. Every issue features the pool accessories and equipment you love — pool cues, pool tables, instruction aids and more. Columnists Mike Shamos and R.A. Dyer examine legends like Willie Mosconi and Minnesota Fats, and dig deep into the histories of pool games like 8-ball, 9-ball and straight pool.
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