Billiards evolved from a lawn game similar to croquet played sometime during the 15th century in Northern Europe (probably in France).
The term “poolroom” now means a place where billiards is played, but in the 19th century a poolroom was a betting parlor for horse racing. Billiard tables were installed so patrons could pass the time between races. The game of billiards and the poolroom became connected in the public’s mind. Today, the two terms are used interchangeably.
The dome on Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, conceals a billiard room. In Jefferson’s day, billiards was illegal in Virginia.
The term “scratch,” as applied to a pocketing of the cue ball, was derived from the penalty assessed for such a foul. In pool’s early days, the score was often kept on a chalkboard. When a player pocketed the cue ball, his opponent “scratched” a point off the shooter’s score.
Billiards was the first sport to have a world championship (1873).
In 1586, the castle of Mary, Queen of Scots, was invaded and captured. The Invaders made a note of forbidding her the use of her billiard table. They then killed her, and used the covering of the table to cover her body.
The first coin-operated billiard table was patented in 1903. The cost of a game on the first pay-for-play table: one penny.
Before the invention of celluloid and other new-age plastics, billiard balls were made out of ivory. The elephants can thank their present existence on the invention of plastics. Because billiard balls had to be cut from the dead center of a tusk, the average tusk yielded only 3 to 4 balls.
Captain Mingaud, the inventor of the leather cue tip, was imprisoned for political reasons during the French Revolution. With the help of a fellow prisoner, he was able to have a billiard table installed in his cell. It was during his incarceration that be became obsessed with the game, that he devised and perfected his invention. His obsession became so intense, that at the end of his prison term, he actually asked for a longer sentence so that he could complete his study of the game.
The world’s largest billiard hall was built during billiards’ “Golden Age.” “The Recreation,” a mammoth seven-story health spa, was a bustling Detroit business in the 1920s. It featured 103 tables, 88 bowling lanes, 20 barber chairs, three manicuring stands, 14 cigar stands, a lunch counter on each floor, a restaurant that could seat 300, and an exhibition room with theater seating, that could accommodate 250 spectators.
Charles Goodyear – the inventor of vulcanized rubber, which revolutionized billiard cushions and countless other industries – died a virtual pauper. His company failed, he was imprisoned for debt, and he profited little from his breakthrough invention.
Marquetry – the art of making pictures or designs with thin slices of wood, shell or other materials – has long enhanced the beauty of tables and cues. The art form is hardly a recent development. It has been practiced in Egypt and the Orient for more than 3,000 years.
Many handicapped people have played the game of pool, but the story of “Handless George” Sutton is truly one of inspiration. Born in 1870, Sutton lost both hands in a sawmill accident at the tender age of eight. Despite his handicap (and long before the days of advanced prosthetics), he studied medicine and graduated from the University of Milwaukee. During his college years, he took up the game of billiards. He became so proficient, he set an 18.2 Balkline world record with a run of 799, in 1921. He took his playing skills on the road, touring the country and amazing audiences for nearly 35 years. He left an everlasting legacy – the resolve of the human spirit – upon his death, in 1938.
W.C. Fields, despite his slapstick persona, was an accomplished pool player.
Wille Hoppe was truly a legendary player. Yet, his most famous match strangely had more to do with a penknife, than his unequaled wizardry of the game. In 1925, he met Robert Cannefax, the Three-Cushion champion. After several games, Cannefax, who preferred a fast cloth, asked to move the match to a different table. Hoppe, who was leading, said the cloth was just fine, and refused to allow a change. An incensed Cannefax drew a penknife and savagely cut the cloth down the center of the table. Hoppe was immediately awarded the match, and Cannefax was suspended from competition for a year. Ironically, Cannefax never played another match. He toured vaudeville for several years, and then died of meningitis in 1928.
Throughout most of the 1800’s, the chalk used on the new leather cue tips was carbonate of lime, better known as blackboard chalk.
Most chalk used today is comprised of fine abrasives and does not contain a speck of chalk.
The Church has long been a part of billiard history. From its earliest days, the game was often denounced as a sinful, dangerous, morally corrupt activity. In 15th century France, billiards play was forbidden, by the Church, as well as the King. In early American history, actual laws were passed (thanks to religious influences), outlawing the game in many parts of the land.
The first 18.2 Balkline Championship was held in Paris, in 1913. It will probably be the only world championship in history ever decided by the courts. After six days of play, three contestants were tied for the first place. When a tie-breaking playoff was suggested, Maurice Vignaux, the French champion and notorious whiner when things weren’t going his way, scoffed at the suggestion. He insisted the title should be awarded based on the highest overall average (which he, of course, had at the time). Vignaux refused to continue, and the matter wound up in the French courts. (Which, of course, awarded Vignaux, their countryman, the title, after a delay of more than two months).
No one knows exactly who, when or where the first billiard table was built. The earliest documented record of a billiard table was made in 1470. In an inventory of the possessions of King Louis XI of France, his table was said to have contained the following: a bed of stone, a cloth covering, and a hole in the middle of the playing field, into which balls could be driven.
Harvey Hendrickson probably made as much money as anyone with his “limited” skills at the billiard table. He actually toured the country and amazed audiences. Not with his ability to run racks or pocket balls, but with his freakishly unique ability to pick up and hold 15 billiard balls at once using one hand.
What is billiard cloth made of? Amazingly, the main component of billiard cloth has remained unchanged for over 400 years. Wool was used in the 1500’s, and remains the fabric of choice today. It has, of course, undergone some perfecting (and some wool/nylon blends are also produced).
The word “cue” is derived from the French queue, meaning tail. Before the cue stick was designed, billiards was played with a mace. The mace consisted of a curved wooden (or metal) head used to push the ball forward, attached to a narrow handle. Since the bulkiness of the mace head made shots along the rail difficult, it was often turned around and the “tail” end was used. Players eventually realized this method was far more effective, and the cue as a separate instrument grew out of the mace’s tail.
There were few, if any, women’s tournaments in the early 1890s. Whatever titles there were, were local, and usually self-proclaimed. Until, of course, Frances Anderson came along. The Indiana native merely proclaimed herself Champion of the World, and offered $5,000 to any woman who could beat her at pocket billiards. Anderson toured the country, playing both men and women. Legend has it, she went undefeated for 25 years against her female competitors. She was paid handsomely for her appearances throughout the 1920’s, taking on challengers and giving exhibitions, in both America and Europe. She followed this up with a well-publicized announcement that shocked the pool-playing world. Her real name was Orie (from Kansas), not Frances – and she was actually a he.
Behind the eight-ball – A dangerous position from which it is unlikely one can escape. From a version of the game of pool. The balls are numbered and must be potted in order. The game is forfeited if a player’s cue ball hits the (black) eight-ball first. A “behind the eight-ball” position leaves a player in imminent danger of losing.
Tables originally had flat vertical walls for rails and their only function was to keep the balls from falling off. They resembled riverbanks 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.
At times, including during the Civil War, billiard results received wider coverage than war news. Players were so renowned that cigarette cards were.