Billiards (sometimes known as cue sports), and also known as billiard sports, are a wide variety of games of skill generally played with a cue stick which is used to strike billiard balls, moving them around a cloth-covered billiards table bounded by rubber cushions.
Historically, the umbrella term was billiards. While that familiar name is still employed by some as a generic label for all such games, the word’s usage has splintered into more exclusive competing meanings in various parts of the world. For example, in British and Australian English, “billiards” usually refers exclusively to the game of English billiards, while in American and Canadian English it is sometimes used to refer to a particular game or class of games, or to all cue games in general, depending upon dialect and context.
There are two major subdivisions of games within cue sports:
Pool, covering numerous pocket billiards games generally played on six-pocket tables of 7, 8, or 9 foot in length, including among others eight-ball (the world’s most widely played cue sport), nine-ball, ten-ball, straight pool, one-pocket and bank pool; and
Snooker and English billiards, games played on a billiards table with six pockets called a snooker table (which has dimensions just under 12 ft by 6 ft), that are classified entirely separately from pool based on a separate historical development, as well as a separate culture and terminology that characterise their play.
Billiards has a long and rich history stretching from its inception in the 15th century, to the wrapping of the body of Mary, Queen of Scots, in her billiard table cover in 1586, through its many mentions in the works of Shakespeare, including the famous line “let’s to billiards” in Antony and Cleopatra (1606–07), and through the many famous enthusiasts of the sport: Mozart, Louis XIV of France, Marie Antoinette, Immanuel Kant, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, George Washington, French president Jules Grévy, Charles Dickens, George Armstrong Custer, Theodore Roosevelt, Lewis Carroll, W.C. Fields, Babe Ruth, Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason, and many others.
The History of Billiards
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 croquet and golf, and more distantly to the stick-less 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 thriftless games that may be found … with dice, with cards, with billiards.” 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 cue-less 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.
A recognisable 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 popularised 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 favour 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 “billiard board covered with a green cloth… three billiard sticks and 11 balls of ivory”. Billiards grew to the extent that by 1727, it was being played in almost every Parisian coffee shop. 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.
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, including “pool” games such as eight-ball, nine-ball, straight pool and one-pocket; Russian pyramid; snooker; English billiards and others.
In the United States pool and billiards had died out for a bit, but between 1878 and 1956 pool and billiards became very popular. Players in annual championships began to receive their own cigarette cards. This was mainly due to the fact that if was a popular pastime for troops to take their minds off from battle. However, by the end of World War II pool and billiards began to die down once again. It wasn’t until 1961 when the film “The Hustler” came out that sparked a new interest in the game. Now the game is generally a well-known game and has many players of all different skill levels around the world.
Popular Types of Billiards
In the United States, the most commonly-played game is eight-ball. The goal of eight-ball, which is played with a full rack of fifteen balls and the cue ball, is to claim a suit (commonly stripes or solids in the US, and reds or yellows in the UK), pocket all of them, then legally pocket the 8 ball, while denying the opponent opportunities to do the same with their suit, and without sinking the 8 ball early by accident.
On the professional scene, eight-ball players on the International Pool Tour (IPT) were the highest paid players in the world as of 2006 (the IPT nearly folded in 2007, and as of 2008 is attempting a comeback). In the United Kingdom the game is commonly played in pubs, and it is competitively played in leagues on both sides of the Atlantic. The most prestigious tournaments including the World Open are sponsored and sanctioned by the International Pool Tour.
Rules vary widely from place to place (and between continents to such an extent that British-style eight-ball pool/blackball is properly regarded as a separate game in its own right). Pool halls in North America are increasingly settling upon the World Pool-Billiard Association International Standardised Rules.
Tavern eight-ball (also known as “bar pool”), typically played on smaller, coin-operated tables and in a “winner keeps the table” manner, can differ significantly even between two venues in the same city. The growth of local, regional and national amateur leagues may alleviate this confusion eventually.
Nine-ball uses only the 1 through 9 balls and cue ball. It is a rotation game: The player at the table must make legal contact with the lowest numbered ball on the table or a foul is called. The game is won by legally pocketing the nine ball. Nine-ball is the predominant professional game, though as of 2006–2008 there have been some suggestions that this may change, in favour of ten-ball.
There are many local and regional tours and tournaments that are contested with nine-ball. The World Pool-Billiard Association (WPA) and its American affiliate, the Billiard Congress of America (BCA), publish the World Standardised Rules. The European professional circuit has instituted rules changes, especially to make it more difficult to achieve a legal break shot.
The largest nine-ball tournaments are the independent US Open Nine-ball Championship and the WPA World Nine-ball Championship for men and women. Male professionals have a rather fragmented schedule of professional nine-ball tournaments. The United States Professional Pool Players Association (UPA) has been the most dominant association of the 1990s and 2000s. A hotly contested event is the annual Mosconi Cup, which pits invitational European and US teams against each other in one-on-one and scotch doubles nine-ball matches over a period of several days. The Mosconi Cup games are played under the more stringent European rules, as of 2007.
Snooker is a pocket billiards game originated by British officers stationed in India during the 19th century, based on earlier pool games such as black pool and life pool. The name of the game became generalised to also describe one of its prime strategies: to “snooker” the opposing player by causing that player to foul or leave an opening to be exploited.
In the United Kingdom, snooker is by far the most popular cue sport at the competitive level, and major national pastime along with association football and cricket. It is played in many other countries as well. Snooker is uncommon in North America, where pool games such as eight-ball and nine-ball dominate, and Latin America, where carom games dominate.
The first International Snooker Championship was held in 1927, and it has been held annually since then with few exceptions. The World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA) was established in 1968 to regulate the professional game, while the International Billiards and Snooker Federation (IBSF) regulates the amateur games.