When Daryl Peach (the first Englishman to win the 2007 World Pool-Billiard Association World Nine-Ball Championship) or Allison Fisher (an Englishwoman from Sussex, who won the Women’s Pool-Billiard Association Orlando Classic in 1995) and many more championships since, demonstrate their skills on pool tables, they add to the lore of what is already a truly historic game.
Billiards, as pool is also known, began most likely in France during the 15th Century. Initially played as a lawn game similar to croquet, it used stone balls that were shoved by players using a wooden stick known as a mace. This had a shaped head at one end to do the shoving and was called a ‘billiart’ by the French and this, some believe, is the derivation of the name ‘billiards’.
Adapting an outside sport for all weathers
The game moved indoors and was played on a wooden table with a green cloth to imitate grass. To prevent the balls from falling off, the table was edged with wooden borders called ‘banks’, since they resembled the grassy banks that surrounded the original outdoor game. This spawned the use of the term ‘bank shot’, to mean when a player purposely plays into the bank for a rebound.
The first recorded billiard table belonged to King Louis XI of France in 1470. At that time playing the game well could make political careers and there is evidence that billiards was played not just by royalty but by people from all walks of life. Even Shakespeare referred to it in Anthony and Cleopatra. In 1674, Charles Cotton published his billiards rulebook ‘The Compleat Gamester’ [sic] in which he reported that most towns in England at that time had public billiard tables, demonstrating the game’s growing popularity.
By this time, players had begun striking the balls with the mace handle since it was difficult to reach the balls with the head when they had rolled close to the banks. The handle was called the queue, meaning tail, giving rise to our modern term ‘cue’. Stone balls had also long given way to wooden ones.
Development of pool tables and game equipment
The game reached America in the 1600s and quality Pool tables began to be crafted there by American cabinetmakers in the 1700s. Even George Washington was a player and it is recorded that he won a match in 1748. Up until the 1870s the prominent game was four-ball billiards played on a table with four pockets. This progressed to 15-ball billiards, which formed the basis of our modern game of pocket billiards with a six-pocket table.
During the 1800s a number of improvements were made to the equipment. Chalk was employed to increase the friction between the cue end and the ball. A certain Captain Mingaud, while languishing in a French prison, became obsessed with the game and invented a leather cue tip to enable players to add spin to the balls. English visitors to the US then taught Americans how to apply spin and this became known as English spin, while in the UK it is called ‘side’.
Pool table design
In 1826 John Thurston invented the slate table bed to overcome the tendency of wooden tables to warp. Later, in 1845, he patented cushions made from vulcanized rubber, then a recent invention from Goodyear, along with cork and leather to replace and significantly improve upon the original wooden edgings. The two-piece cue made its appearance in 1829.
During this period of improvement, the table itself evolved from not having any fixed dimensions to one with a ratio of 2:1 between length and breadth. From that point, in around 1850, pool tables as we know them began to take the form we see today.
Wooden balls gave way to ivory but were very expensive and had to be carefully cut so as to have the nerve of the tusk running through the centre of the ball. This used to be filled with ebony, which is why the spot ball is so designed. By the middle of the 19th Century ball manufacturers began to run out of ivory, despite elephants being slaughtered in their thousands. Around that time, John Wesley Hyatt invented the plastic ball – in 1868 to be exact. Initially he used a nitro-cellulose compound that had the unfortunate habit of catching fire when struck. However he moved on to ultimately develop the modern billiard ball made from Bakelite and phenolic resin.
Pool in the 21st Century
Nowadays a pool room means a room where pool is played, but back in the 19th Century, a pool room was a place for betting on horse races. Punters were kept amused during quiet periods by playing on pool tables thoughtfully provided for their amusement. The term ‘pool’ derives from the pool bet, meaning a collective bet, but despite it being applicable to many games it ultimately became attached solely to pocket billiards.
Pool tournaments were held regularly from 1878 onwards and the game became so popular that it received wider coverage during the American Civil War than news of the war itself. However, after the end of World War II, pool fell out of favour in America and almost died out until the film ‘The Hustler’ with Paul Newman was released in 1961. Pool rooms opened almost overnight to accommodate renewed enthusiasm for the game only for it to die down again as the effects of the Vietnam War and related social concerns took hold.
Once again Hollywood came to the rescue with the release of ‘The Colour of Money’ in 1986 starring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise performed all his own trick shots apart from one when he ran out of practice time and professional pool player Mike Sigel took it instead. The movie reinvigorated the game and helped make it the international sport it is today.
Alongside well-known European, American and Australian players such as Daryl ‘The Dazzler’ Peach, Mika ‘The Iceman’ Immonen and Earl ‘The Pearl’ Strickland, players from Asia are making the game truly international. Efran ‘The Magician’ Reyes from the Philippines and Chao Fong-Pang from Taiwan are just two of the many new names now on the circuit. Pool today is an exciting, fast-moving game that is well-established and thriving alongside its sister game snooker, which is reputed to have been invented by bored army officers in India in the 1870s.