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THE ORIGINS OF THE GAME:
There are many theories as to the origins of billiards. Much of what is known about the evolution of the sport has been limited by the absence of "real" information, concerning the cultures of ancient times. What we've relied upon are the verifiable historical records, which has sadly limited our search considerably. Consequently, most historians trace the origins of billiards to the lawn games played in the royal courts of Europe, in the mid to late 1300's.

But what led to the origin of these lawn games? Uncovered ruins and hieroglyphics offer a possible answer, setting back the timeline thousands of years. "Bat-and-ball" games, from which these lawn games may well have evolved, have been depicted on tombs, artifacts and in drawings, dating back more than 3000 years. Whether these images depict "sport" has been widely debated. Many rightfully claim that not enough is known, that the activities portrayed could very well have been social or religious in nature. Whatever the case, the ancient Greeks and Egyptians clearly utilized the tools—the bats, the balls and other curious devices—in some sort of integral activity. Tools strikingly similar to those wielded by kings, in 14th century lawn games ... yet dated nearly 3000 years earlier, to at least as far back as 1500 BC.

An even earlier discovery—and one seemingly more compelling in proving the role of sport among the ancient cultures—was made during the excavation of a child's grave in Egypt (c. 3300 BC). A complete "Skittles" set was discovered, after more than 5000 years. ("Skittles" is the English game of ninepins, played with a disk or a ball.) The set was as exquisite in its beauty as in its significance. Each gaming piece—9 skittles, 4 balls, and 3 bars to form an arch—was expertly sculpted and polished, comprised of fine marble or stone. Still, the role of sport was debated. Doubters continued to downplay the find, dismissing it as a mere child's toy. As before, they claimed that not enough was known, that without a written record to shed light on its significance, no absolutes could be drawn.

Which inevitably brought us back to where we began: the written historical record. To the undeniable link in the evolution of billiards (and thankfully, the most important). To the traceable truth, which to some degree, most scholars and historians agree on: "... that regardless of the 'finds' locked away in ancient ruins, it's safe to say billiards ultimately evolved from the lawn games of 14th century Europe.

THE EVOLUTION OF THE SPORT: The evolution of billiards can actually be traced to the centuries preceding the Renaissance (approx. 1100 AD). It was during this time that images and descriptions of early billiard-like games first began appearing with any frequency.

Life in Europe changed dramatically during this period. With the onset of the Crusades—Christian military expeditions to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims—cultures came together like never before. Men from England, Scandinavia and most of western Europe traveled thousands of miles to fight a common enemy. Long-feuding states joined forces. Roads and bridges were built. Industries were born. Migrants flocked to the cities in search of employment. Rome was re-established as the capital of Christianity. Towns sprang up around churches. Local governments were formed. The "cause," cooperation, and contact with the East, opened rivers of communi-cation, revitalized Europe and helped bring it out of the "Dark Age." And the games, pastimes and traditions of Roman culture were brought back to western Europe by returning Crusaders.

The Knights Templar were among the wealthiest and most powerful Crusaders. Primarily of French descent, active during the first Crusade, they are widely credited as being the first to bring billiards to western Europe.

Many have suggested, even argued, that billiards was invented in France. That the name "billiards" was derived from the French word bille (meaning: a piece of wood, or a curved stick); or billes (a variety of spherical objects, including balls). And that these words were used in reference to ball games, as far back as 1164.

No one can deny France's influence in transforming the game—embracing it as a culture, refining the tools, moving it indoors to be played upon tables, and spreading its popularity throughout western Europe. But to call it "the birthplace of the game" will probably always be questioned ... as billiards was not "invented" in France at all, only named, nurtured and encouraged to grow there.

But not without substantial opposition. And not for nearly 400 years. The game flourished among the Templars during the Crusades. But the end of the struggle brought the end of the Templars. They had simply become too wealthy, too powerful. They were no longer seen as conquering heroes (in part, because the Crusades were unsuccessful), but very real threats to the aristocracy. In 1314, under the direction of the Pope and several European monarchs, the Knights Templar was abruptly abolished. Its members were tortured, their properties seized and taken by the King of France.

During this period, the monarchs of Europe began to regulate not only the commoners' time for work, but also their time for relaxation. The Crusades had ushered in a zealous Christianity. Government and religion had become integrally entwined. Recreation time was naturally controlled by the ruling class. But also, to an increasing degree, by the Church, who denounced all forms of recreation, outside the Church, as dangerous sins against God.

Pleasure, simply put, was seen as evil; commoners engaged in pleasurable pursuits as threats to the status quo. Only in church was such gaming acceptable, and only under the "rules" laid down by the Church. Competition was all but abolished. Skillful displays on the playing field were seen only as offerings to God. "Winning" meant loving one's opponent, working together to achieve a common goal. Games once played for fun, for the love of the game, had become little more than religious rituals, symbolic celebrations of faith.

And even these were gradually seen as "too dangerous." In 1369, Charles VI of France tried to suppress the playing of these ritualistic games by limiting their play—to one day a year! In 1441, the Bishop of Trequier issued a warning concerning the evils of the games, prohibiting all play within Church jurisdictions. Calling the games a direct cause of hatred and malice, he threatened excom-munication to all who disobeyed.

Of course, the games hardly died with the decrees of the Church, or even the orders of the King. They'd quietly been growing for nearly 300 years, from the outskirts of the cities to every sleepy rural town. They'd trickled throughout the countryside upon the Templars' return. They'd been passed down for generations and spread from town to town. They'd provided joy and needed pleasure to the life of the common man—who wasn't about to give up what little pleasure he had in what was surely a mundane existence.

Instead, they simply moved the games further out of view—perhaps even indoors—deeper into the countryside. In an attempt to appease the church, "gentler" games were invented ... which gradu-ally evolved into other modern-day pastimes, like golf, tennis and croquet.

Ground billiards of the 1300's was actually very similar to golf and croquet. Variations of the game were probably as numerous as the towns in which it was played. The object was generally to propel a ball, through obstacles, to a predetermined destination. The equip-ment was often primitive, but definitely functional: a ball (sizes varied, often one per player); a propelling device (maces—elongated sticks, curved and flattened at the end—were widely used by the 1300's); and a variety of posts, pegs, cones and arches, to be struck, knocked down or passed through.

Many of the cities of this period had been designed to protect their inhabitants from hostile attacks. Many were built on plateaus and surrounded by walls. This greatly reduced the areas where ball games requiring a great distance could be played. Consequently, many games became miniaturized, played in small enclosures or courtyards. From there, it was just another small step to reduce the game further by moving it indoors and onto a table.

No one knows precisely when, or even where, the first billiard table was constructed and the game moved indoors. Very little is known about the day-to-day lives of the commoners. Only the wealthy could afford to document their history through artwork or written records that would withstand the test of time. Consequently, most of the earliest evidence concerning gaming and sport resides in the annals of nobility and kings. The first definitive account of the existence of a billiard table was found in a 1470 inventory of the possessions of King Louis XI of France.

This account did more than place a date on the first known billiard table. It spoke volumes about the changing social attitudes, and the influence of the Church on recreation and sport. With the King's approval for the game, came a long-awaited end to religious persecution. The decrees of the Church slowly faded. Nobility, even the clergy, joined in the rebirth of the game. Players came out of the "closet." Tables sprang up like flowers after a rain. And France's passion for billiards, no longer enchained, blossomed like love unrestrained.

The early table games were played much like the ground games, with an assortment of posts, pegs and arches. The maces were smaller, re-contoured to accommodate the raised surface. Rails were affixed to keep the balls in play. As with the outdoor games, there were many variations. Generally, tables were built for specific monarchs or noblemen, who dictated the rules on his "home" table. Records of "pocketed" tables remain sketchy, at best (though Louis XI's 1470 table did have a hole in the center).

In the 1500's, the popularity of the table game spread through all levels of French society. By the end of the century, tables could be found in taverns, inns and other public places. The game steadily spread to other European countries, taking root among the nobility and in the royal courts. As the need for tables increased, the monarchs vied with one another—hiring the finest artisans in an unspoken quest to create the most magnificent tables and gaming rooms.

Of course, tables weren't restricted to the wealthy. The commoners, migrants, farmers, field hands ... well, they built their own tables too. They were crude perhaps, by noblemen's standards, comprised of whatever materials could be had. A base. A surface. A tablecloth cover. Makeshift pegs and arches and rails. The games they played, like their method of construction, was limited only by imagination. And their passion to play, and the joy it brought them, was unequaled by the wealthiest kings.

Billiards fever spread to England in the mid 1500's. One of the more noted enthusiasts was Mary, Queen of Scots, who was executed for her part in an assassination attempt on Queen Elizabeth I in 1588. Initially, upon her incarceration, she was allowed the use of her billiard table inside her prison cell. When this privilege was revoked, months before her beheading, she wrote a letter of complaint to the Archbishop of Glasgow. Though she was never allowed to play again, one final wish was granted, reflecting her undying passion for the game. Upon her beheading, her body was wrapped in the cloth from her beloved table.

It's clear from the earliest images of billiards that women have enjoyed the game as much as men; that they've played and competed on a virtually even level, from the earliest table games to modern-day pool. Legend has it, a number of prominent female players—Marie Antoinette, for one, on the eve of the French Revolution—were so highly skilled in the intricacies of the game, they regularly trounced their male competition. Perhaps like no other sport combining strategy, concentration and physical execution, billiards is—and always has been—an equal battle of the sexes. One far more reliant on subtlety and mental toughness than size, speed and brute strength.

By the 1600's, references to billiards were regularly being made in European literature. In Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra—probably the most quoted passage—the Egyptian queen suggests to her handmaiden, Charmian, "Let's to Billiards" (Act II, Scene V).

While the game had been embraced by European royalty, only in France had the mania spread to all levels of society. Outside of France, it was a Nobleman's game, confined to the Crown's inner circle. It wasn't until the reigns of the French Kings Louis XIII and Louis XIV (1610-1715), that the game truly spread across Europe.

What differentiated these kings from their predecessors, wasn't merely their love for the game. It was their expectations of others—their courts, foreign dignitaries, anyone seeking to gain favor—to not only join them at the table, but to exhibit a competent level of play. No longer were the games a mere amusement. They were chances of a lifetime, pivotal affairs, makers or breakers of political careers. To play and play well was a show of respect—to the King, the Crown and country. Even visiting monarchs, seeking favor with the King, were silently judged by their respect for the game.

Which seemingly led to a passion all its own, in kingdoms all across Europe. Whether to keep in France's good graces, or for the sheer love of the game, billiards play suddenly exploded, with a renewed competitive edge. Accomplished players were imported by royal families, to teach their children—and themselves—the subtleties of the game. Rivalries developed. Royal tournaments were played. What had always been seen as a genteel pastime was steadily turning to "sport." The enthusiasm inevitably splashed into the cities, where tables emerged in taverns and inns. And just as in France, the wave rose and spread outward, to every connecting village and town.

Charles Cotton's book, The Compleat Gamester, was published in 1674 and contains some of the earliest descriptions of English sports and pastimes. Though largely devoted to rules and equipment, the book is a telling study of 17th century European society and the marked distinction between classes.

Gambling, at the time, was an accepted pastime for all levels of society. While "gentlemen" were required to play by the rules (and definitely had far more to lose), it was generally assumed that those "nearer to the gutter" would do anything within their means to cheat them of their stakes. Cotton repeatedly warned his readers to beware of "sharpers" and to avoid playing in "publick" rooms. In this and similar writings, the earliest seeds were sown, seeds that would forever tarnish billiards' reputation. Hustlers. Intimidation. Dark, smoky rooms. From subsequent writings to modern-day Hollywood, the stigma continues to tarnish the game.

By the mid 1600's, the table version of the game was still strikingly similar to the ground game. The most significant change in the evolution of the sport was, indeed, the move to the table. In the next hundred years, changes would come quickly, moving the game ever closer to its modern-day character. The implements of ground billiards would gradually disappear, giving way to a variety of complex new games, requiring greater skill and more exacting equipment.

THE TRANFORMATION TO THE MODERN - DAY GAME: The innovation most responsible for transforming the game of billiards was the creation and refinement of the billiard cue. Though the cue did not appear until the 1700's, "makeshift" cues had been utilized for nearly 100 years. Ironically, it was the mace that led to the cue (and, ultimately, the mace's disappearance). By using the narrow end of the mace to execute shots, players discovered a whole new way of playing.

Before the 1600's, the mace had always been used to "push" the ball forward (much like a miniature shuffleboard stick). Its narrow end had always been a handle. The new way of "shooting" likely grew out of the difficulties faced in executing shots with the cue ball pressed against the rails. By turning the mace around and striking shots with the "handle," players discovered a stunning revelation: Immediate improvement. Increased accuracy and control—that the most demanding shots could be "struck" not pushed, utilizing the narrow end of the mace.

With the emergence of the cue came other improvements: leather tips, chalk, slate beds, fine cloth, rubber rails and standard sizes for tables. More dependable cushions led to more elaborate shotmaking, giving birth to the "carom" games that swept across France. Billiards gradually became seen as a scientific game, as well as a game of skill. Rules, like the equipment, slowly became standardized. Variations evolved into games all their own. By the mid 1700's, Europe's passion for billiards had spread to the rest of the world.

Thanks, in part, to perhaps the most significant event in the long history of billiards. By the 1700's, billiards popularity was soaring throughout Europe. With an ever-growing market came a monstrous demand for standardized rules, tables and equipment. Which led, of course, to Big Business, manufacturing plants—the rapid industrialization of billiards. Merchants, investors and, not least of all, kings, scampered to capture a piece of the market.

Once again, monarchs competed with one another—not merely to create the finest tables and gaming rooms, but to grab the biggest piece of the lucrative pie. Craftsmen and manufacturers, often working for the king, covered every nook and cranny of the burgeoning industry. Many specialized, producing only cushions or cloth. Others purchased their products and built entire tables. Importers worked feverishly to satisfy demand, bringing in entire fleets of the finest linen, wood and metals. Jeweled maces, inlaid tables—whatever needed could be had— or exclusively produced, for a hefty price.

It was the industrialization of billiards and the competition for profits that spurred the many changes that would transform the game. There was money to be made now—big money. Innovations that caught on could yield lifetimes of profit, pouring in from all ends of the world.

In Cotton's Compleat Gamester of 1674, there is already mention of the mace being used as a cue and tipped with metal ferrules. By the end of the century, maces designed solely for this purpose were commonplace in many parts of Europe. No one man is actually credited with the invention of the cue. It seemingly emerged as a result of a sharing of ideas between players, countries and inventors. By the early 1700's, the earliest cues had appeared in France, Spain and Portugal. By 1740, it had become the tool of choice, utilized by the game's finest players.

Perhaps as influential as the cue in transforming the game was the addition of the leather cue tip. No other invention would so dramatically affect the magic one could perform on a table.

The cue tip was invented by Captain Mingaud, an imprisoned French soldier, in the early 1800's. Though leather had been used on the end of cues prior to his invention, these "tips" did little to affect shotmaking. They were little more than leather patches, used to protect the wood. The exact date of Mingaud's invention has always been questioned. Most historians place the date between 1807 and 1823. What differentiated his tips from the earlier leather "patches" was the radical effect they had on shotmaking ... on the "spin" that could now be imparted on the ball: "touch," positioning, accuracy and control.

Mingaud was a student of the physics of shotmaking, and truly transformed the cue into a scientific instrument. By first creating a hard backing, on which the tip could be adhered to the surface of the cue, he reduced the pressure exerted on the wood. More importantly, an even distribution of force was created between the point of impact and the shaft of the cue. His greatest advancement was in the cue tip itself. By rounding off the hitting surface, he increased the area of the tip that could impart rotation on the ball, when the ball was struck off-center. What resulted was the magic of "english" and "backspin" that would impact the game forever.

With improvements in the cue came improvements in the tables and other innovations that would elevate the game. Throughout the 1800's, advancements would be made—from the construction of tables, cushions and balls, to the advent of chalk, the first championship tournaments and standardized rules for a host of new games.

Historically, tables developed much like the game itself: very slowly, until the 1800's. Though the early tables of the monarchs were breathtaking visions, they were functionally crude by modern-day standards. Generally, they were constructed by cabinetmakers. Because the beds were made of wood, they often warped within years, and structurally weren't very sturdy. The "cushions" were little more than attached wooden rails, unpadded until at least 1600. Their function was more to keep the balls on the playing field, than adding to the level of strategic play.

There was little standardization in the early years—in table size, implements, even the use of pockets. Even the shape of the table evolved slowly. Many early tables were square. As they increased in size to accommodate newer games (or larger rooms), they became oblong, generally twice as long as they were wide. The implements used depended on the game. Since the game of choice varied widely—not only among the nobility within the same country, but also among countries themselves—the tables were as varied as the games. Bagatelle tables had pockets. Many "post-and king" games did not. Some forms of ground billiards utilized a hole in the playing field. Consequently, some versions of the post-and king games were played on pocketed tables. The make-up of a table was generally reliant on the wishes of the table's owner. The question of size and the addition of implements or pockets, was reliant on the game he wished to be played.

Tables continued to vary in the 1700's, even as the games became standardized. Different countries simply embraced different games, and built their tables accordingly. In France, "The French-Game" became the newest billiard rage. The king, post and arch were discarded. Pockets, widespread throughout Europe by this time, were eliminated from the table. The game featured one red ball and two white cue balls, one for each player. The objective was to make caroms. This was achieved when a player's cue ball struck the remaining two balls in succession. Variations requiring the striking of cushions were gradually added to the game. This version of billiards is still widely popular in many parts of the world.

In England, a similar game was adopted. They also discarded the king, post and arch. They added the red ball but continued to use pockets, which served as hazards. They developed a complex system of strokes and scoring. There were eleven different ways a player could score points. By 1819, there were seven different versions of the game ... all of which would contribute—along with the French, Spanish and other European influences—to the developing game in America.

As late as 1820, the beds of most billiard tables were still constructed of wood. In 1826, England's John Thurston made a change in the composition of table beds, that would alter the game forever. Unsatisfied with the playability and warping tendency of wood, he set out in search of a new material. Though marble had been used, with some success, on the most extravagant tables, the cost was far too prohibitive. What he strove for was something cheaper, readily available, to be used on every table his company produced.

His discovery came in the form of slate, which offered many advantages to both producer and player. First and foremost, was cost and availability. Slate, unlike marble, was inexpensive, and the supply was virtually limitless. Like marble, it offered a far smoother surface, which resulted in faster, more elaborate games. Finally, once cut to the correct measurements and fitted correctly, slate all but eliminated the problem of warping. Its only problem was weight—which indirectly led to a further advancement: tables had to be constructed far sturdier, which also led to an improvement in play. By 1835, 2-inch slate beds had become standard features in English tables. Its cost and playability continue to make it the material of choice today.

With vast improvements in the construction of tables, focus once again shifted to the cushions. It was generally agreed that to truly elevate the game, consistent play off the cushions was imperative. The earliest cushions were nothing more than short walls of wood. Lining the walls with leather or cloth—even stuffing them with hair or cotton— did little to achieve the desired result. Crude rubber from India was tried around 1835. Affixed to wooden blocks screwed into steel plates, these first rubber cushion showed immediate promise.... Until, of course, the seasons and the weather changed. The India rubber turned soft in the heat and rock hard when the temperature dropped. Remedies to keep the cushions at a "playable degree"—candles, ice, pots of hot water—proved far more bothersome than they were worth.

In 1837, Charles Goodyear began experimenting with a process combining sulfur and rubber. Two years later—by accidentally dropping a mixture of the components onto a hot stove—he discovered the process for vulcanized rubber. It was a discovery that would impact a host of different industries. Vulcanized rubber retained its resiliency in the most searing heat and the bitterest cold. In 1845, John Thurston was granted a patent utilizing Goodyear's discovery in the construction of billiard cushions. His "frost-proof" cushions, constructed of cork, leather and vulcanized rubber, was truly a long-awaited breakthrough. Cushions were suddenly consistent and reliable. Bank shots, once all but unpredictable, became integral parts of the game. The impact on the carom games was astronomical. Three-cushion shots became games all their own. Vulcanized rubber has proven so unsurpassed, it is still used in cushions today.

Major improvements in the quality of billiard cloth were also not made until the early 1800's. Like the improvement in cushions, it was a technological innovation that enhanced the quality and playability of billiard cloth.

Cloth had been problematic, from the earliest tables. Finding the right type of cloth—one providing a smooth surface, yet durable enough to withstand play—was a problem that would linger for centuries. Properly "fitting" the cloth was a whole other headache. Commoners generally draped a cloth across the table, spreading out the wrinkles with their hands. Only the wealthy had custom-fit cloths, which often had to be replaced, on their custom-built tables.

By the 1500's, wool had become the fabric of choice. (And, surprisingly, to this day, it remains so; some wool/nylon blends are also produced.) Wool proved to be durable, but not very playable. (Major refinements in the production of textiles were hundreds of years away.) Even stretched, wool provided a coarse playing field. Wool was thick, rough and whiskered, and often misdirected the roll of a ball. Frustrated monarchs imported weavers, who tried vainly to transform it into a smooth-playing cloth.

It wasn't until the late 1700's, that England developed a machine for spinning wool. Unlike earlier machines, the English "spinning mule" utilized more than one spindle for the spinning of wool into yarn. To ensure a worldwide monopoly on the machine and the process, the British Government issued a decree: anyone caught trying to export the techniques or details of the mechanisms, would be sentenced to exile for life.

Fortunately, one man was not so patriotic. He realized the enormity of this invention, and the riches that could be had in foreign lands. What the spinning mule did for the texture of wool would revolutionize the entire textile industry.... And with it, of course, the future of billiards. In 1797, William Cockerill left England, armed with a secret that would impact the game by bringing unparalleled smoothness to the table.

Perhaps by fate, he landed with the Iwan Simonis Company—the most famous billiard cloth manufacturer in the world. Founded in 1680, in the Belgian town of Verviers, they remain, to this day, one of the most respected—and copied—producers of fine billiard cloth. They immediately set to work, building their own spinning mule. The effects on the wool were miraculous—especially when applied to their signature product. Subsequent treatments—weaving, felting, dyeing, shearing—resulted in a cloth that had only been dreamed of....

One strikingly similar to the cloths of today. One steadily improved upon—higher quality wool, improved methods of produc-

tion—with the advancements of the past 200 years. Yet, a cloth, even then, so revolutionary, so perfect, it immediately—and forever—changed the game. Even when used on wooden table beds, the result was near-perfection. When added to Thurston's new tables, the texture was so sublime, it actually enhanced the smoothness of the slate.

Billiard balls have also undergone many changes. Most notably, in their composition. Most of the earliest billiard balls were made of wood. It was easily shaped, inexpensive and readily available. Ivory balls came into use in the 1600's. While far more playable than wood, they were relatively scarce. Only the wealthy could afford the material.

While beautiful to look at, ivory balls were never very dependable. They were also time consuming to make—properly seasoning a tusk was a preparatory process that often took as long as two years. The gelatin in tusks provided a rich, glossy finish. Unfortunately, it was also a source of moisture. Unless properly dried, temperature changes could cause the ivory to fracture or split. New balls had to be broken in gently, struck softly for the first couple months. Even then, they tended to lose their shape quickly, when subjected to a high-impact game.

Still, ivory all but entirely replaced wooden balls by the early 1800's. As the demand for the balls increased, so did the number of slaughtered elephants. (Curiously, the concern at the time was not the treatment of the elephants, but the safety of those who tracked them to their deaths.) One elephant tusk generally yielded only four or five balls. (Balls had to be cut from the dead center of the tusk in order to roll properly.) As the demand grew greater and the herds dwindled, the price of ivory skyrocketed. With games and equipment becoming standardized, another problem developed: producing balls of the exact same size, weight and density was nearly impossible when working with ivory.

In 1869, an Albany chemist mixed nitrocellulose with camphor under high pressure. The result was a hard, shiny, moldable substance he called celluloid. Though John Wesley Hyatt didn't know it at the time, he'd just invented the world's first plastic. Though its application to billiard balls would continue for years, it was Hyatt's discovery and subsequent improvements that would lead to the balls of today.

His discovery resulted, in part, from an ongoing quest. Six years earlier, the New York firm of Phelan and Collender had offered a $10,000 prize for the patent rights to anyone who could develop a suitable substitute for ivory in the manufacture of billiard balls. In the next five years, Hyatt was granted two patents—for improved methods of "constructing a composition billiard ball." The first utilized shellac, alcohol and ivory dust; the second, paper pulp and gum-shellac. Though neither was deemed worthy of the $10,000, he continued in his search for the perfect product. (It is interesting to note, that Hyatt's discovery of the world's first plastic may well have resulted from a billiard-related quest: the search for the perfect billiard ball.)

In April of 1869, Hyatt discovered "collodion," a forerunner to celluloid. The addition of collodion to the surface of the balls resulted in a hard and perfectly smooth surface. Though Phelan and Collender weren't quite ready to award him the prize, they did offer to distribute the balls, under an exclusive contract. The results were ... well, calamitous, at best. Shortly after the first shipments, reports of exploding billiard balls surfaced all over the country. Rumors spread that the new materials were highly explosive and dangerous. And they were, but only during the manufacturing process. In truth, the balls weren't explosive at all. The problem was merely a design flaw. The inner weight of the ball was simply too great, causing the collodion casing to shatter, upon heavy impact.

The discovery of celluloid ended the "explosions." (At least as they applied to the actual balls; in the next 36 years, Hyatt's celluloid factory was the scene of 39 fires and explosions, resulting in nine deaths.) Hyatt's balls—whether comprised entirely of celluloid, or only coated with the material—gained only luke-warm acceptance. It was his process, however, that led to the discovery of Bakelite and cast-phenolic resins, in the early 1900's. These "artificial plastics" proved cheaper, less flammable and far more playable, and remain the main component in billiard balls today.

Billiard chalk came into use soon after the advent of the leather cue tip. Throughout most of the 1800's, common white chalk was used, because it was cheap and easily obtained. The early chalk was made entirely of carbonate of lime—blackboard chalk. Its short-coming was its inability to "grip" the cue ball, especially when the tip became glazed. While it kept the leather dry and somewhat prevented "slipping" upon impact, it had no "grit" allowing the leather "to take hold of the ball." Consequently, miscues were common, especially with the higher-impact games.

In 1892, William A. Spinks, a professional billiard player from Chicago, began working with chemists on the components of chalk. During a visit to Paris, he'd discovered a chalk unlike any in America, being used by players in France. Upon analysis, the chalk proved very different, grittier, made from an entirely different material. Encouraged by its ability to "grip" while shooting, he sought to develop a chalk with even more "gripping" power. In 1897, he was granted a patent for a billiard chalk—which did not contain a speck of chalk at all. It was comprised entirely of abrasives—silica and axolite— crushed to near-powder and air-floated, to exactly the right fineness.

The effect of this new "chalk" on shotmaking would forever alter the game. The "grit," when applied to the cue leather—"took hold of the ball" upon impact, in a way never before seen. It also remedied another problem of the "blackboard" chalk. Carbonate of lime, with time, not only discolored the billiard cloth; it actually rotted the fabric. Spinks thusly chose green for the color of his chalk. (As other manufacturers joined the market, spurred by his success, chalk became available in virtually every color.) It was the effectiveness of his chalk that changed the game of billiards and carved a whole new niche in the industry. Spinks' Billiard Chalk revolutionized the performance of the cue tip. By allowing it to "grip the cue ball" at the moment of impact, every aspect of shotmaking was enhanced.

Cue construction became an art form with the earliest cues. With the elaborateness of the maces that preceded them—the hand-carved ivory, the inlaid jewels and gold—the finest craftsmanship was all but required. Even the early tables were magnificent works of art ... because the birth of billiards coincided with the Renaissance, where expression, beauty and creativity were revered. (And royal families ruled over the tables.) Consequently, the game—and everything about it—was sculpted with a regal elegance. To this day, the role of beauty has never diminished. The influences of the Renaissance can still vividly be seen in the creation of cues and tables.

Marquetry—the art of making pictures or designs with thin slices of wood, shell or other materials—has been a part of billiard culture from its infancy. Floral, geometric or other inlaid designs have richly enhanced the beauty of tables and cues. Precious gems and metals have also been used, on extravagant pieces for the wealthy. Mother-of-pearl (to this day, a cue maker's favorite) has been used in inlays for thousands of years. Even the art of "finishing," applying the final luster, was perfected by the days of Stradivari, as evidenced by his prized violins.

With the advancements in machinery in the early 1800's, breathtaking cues were not only created, but mass-produced in hundreds of styles. One of the earliest manufacturers was the B. Finck Company. Founded in 1839, in Berlin, Germany, they were pioneers in the science of cue making. Their quality—both in beauty and playability—was unequaled. Their cues were used by Europe's finest players. They rapidly expanded to meet the growing demand, and became "the largest billiard cue company on the continent."

By 1879, Finck's catalog contained 162 cues, each unique in its own way. They offered one- and two-piece cues, in a host of designs and styles. There were cues designed for specific games—and specific levels of society. In addition to its production lines, Finck also specialized in "cues built for kings." These custom-made cues were ornately decorated and often inlaid with precious gems and gold. These were often more "status-symbol" than pool cue, bought more to be admired than played with. He created other custom cues, which were awarded as prizes at some of the world's first tournaments.

Since Finck, many other "legendary" cue makers have emerged. Britner. Rambow. Paradise. Balner. Martin. Szamboti. Balabushka. Today, their cues are treasures, hallowed possessions, their names synonymous with billiard cue excellence.

The quality of cues was already mind-boggling by the late 1800's. Perhaps that's why beauty has remained so valued—because the producing of a sound, reliable cue has been a science for over a century. Because advancements in production have perfected every detail. Because methods of lathing and splicing (advanced even in the 1800's) have only improved with more exacting machinery. Because the quality of wood is always superior. (Manufacturers employ timber experts, who travel the world, leaving no stone unturned in their search for the perfect wood.)

Variations in cues remain numerous. Often, they are dictated by the game. (Billiard cues, for example, are stiffer than pool cues, because billiard balls are larger and heavier.) Other variations—the type of wood used, joints, shafts, wraps—remain as numerous as the product lines available, from manufacturers all over the world. Their common goal, like the pioneers before them—from Thurston to Goodyear, Hyatt to Finck—is not only to create the finest product ... but to never stop searching for new ideas and innovations, to enhance the beauty of the game.

What began as a mania in France, was quickly becoming a worldwide phenomenon. By the 1850's, games had become standardized, and equipment was approaching its modern-day level. Individual players began to emerge. Claims of superiority spurred challenges, and competitive billiards rose to new heights. With the advent of tournaments, the final step was taken, elevating billiards to its next incarnation. No longer could the game be considered a mere pastime. It had reached the level of "sport."

BILLIARDS IN AMERICA: The story of billiards in America is older than the country itself. Knowledge of the sport undoubtedly arrived with the Spanish Conquistadors in the late 1500's. It was the early colonists, however, who established the game and made it part of the culture. As in Europe, the earliest players were the landowners and aristocrats—who brought not only their heritage, but often their tables, on their voyage to the New World.

With the American Revolution, large migrations of people flocked to the new country from Europe. This greatly increased the game's popularity and the demand for places to play. The game developed much as it had in Europe. Throughout the 1700's, tables could be found in taverns, inns and private residences. As the century closed, the first public billiard rooms sprang up in the larger cities. The first American billiard companies were founded shortly thereafter to meet the growing demand.

The first American billiard industry was table making. Until the mid 1800's, most of the other implements were imported from Europe. By the 1850's, the entire industry had become well established. Companies specializing in cues, balls, cushions and slate beds had spread to every corner of the country. As in Europe, professional billiard players began to emerge, and contests between them became huge spectator events. Thousands of people attended the contests, and the prize money—$15,000 for the first major stakes match—rivaled that of any other sport.

Of course, the history of American billiards has not always been so celebrated. Social influences, religion, even controversy, has often darkened the image of the game. During most of the colonial period, church law governed the behavior of almost all activities. Recreation and gaming were certainly no exception. (It is important to remember that many people left Europe in search of religious freedom. To many of them, the Law was the Bible. They wanted stricter controls imposed by the Church, on virtually every aspect of their lives. Many still embraced the earlier decrees of the Church, warning of the evils of pleasure. In some areas of the country, beliefs were so fervid, entire towns turned into fanatical mobs and burned their own children at the stake.)

New England was surely a hotbed of intolerance. The opposition of its colonists to "pleasurable pursuits" would continue well after the Revolution. In the 1600's, they instituted the "Blue Laws." These severely restricted the recreational activities one could pursue on the Sabbath. More precisely, they were aimed at the one ungodly place where many forms of amusement were available. Where men drank, smoked, gambled, played—and perhaps most importantly, dishonored God: the tavern.

Similar forces emerged after the Revolution. A more "billiard-specific" law was passed. In many parts of the country, billiards was seen as a "morally corrupt" pastime. One synonymous with boozing, gambling and unsavory characters, cheating honest men of their money. In the Act of 1830 of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, specific laws were drawn up to regulate and control both the playing of billiards and those who played it. All but calling the game "the Handiwork of Satan," the Act placed strict controls on the playing of the sport. Billiard tables actually had to be sanctioned, approved for play by the Commonwealth itself. Unauthorized tables were seized and destroyed, their owners placed under arrest.

Massachusetts wasn't alone in its opposition to billiards. Because the game was commonly associated with gambling, it was banned or regulated in many parts of the country. To moralists—especially those seeking political power—the game became an issue in itself, a symbol of man's "evil pursuit of pleasure." And a sure way to win votes, by attacking one's "righteousness." In the 1820's, these "moral forces" created a monstrous controversy and actually toppled a president.... The issue: a billiard table installed in the White House, and his undying love for the game.

The roots of the controversy actually began during the War of 1812. In 1814, the original White House was burned by British forces. It was gradually rebuilt over the next ten years. In 1825, John Quincy Adams—the son of the 2nd president and a reputed billiard hustler—became the first president to live in the completed mansion. He decided to install a billiard table for his own "exercise and amusement," as well as the enjoyment of his family and their guests. He purchased a secondhand table, had it refurbished, and purchased additional balls and cues. This innocent purchase and the uproar it would create, would blacken the image of American politics and ultimately sweep him from office.

The accusations began even before he took office. Four candidates ran for the presidency, in the election of 1824. Andrew Jackson received the largest number of electoral votes (99, to Adams' 84). But because there was no majority, the House of Representatives had to decide. When one of the other candidates, Henry Clay, threw his support to Adams, Adams was elected president.

Jackson and his supporters were outraged. The first charges of "corruptness" were leveled (charges that would reverberate throughout Adams' presidency). For the next four years, the Jackson camp blasted Adams' every move and sought out ways to disgrace him.... They didn't have to wait long. The installation of the billiard table—in the White House, of all places ... well, needless to say, they pounced on the opportunity. Moral corruption. Gambling. Misuse of public funds. The dirt was endless—especially in the hands of a shrewd politician, who could shape it, twist it, and deliver it to the public in all its scandalous glory.

The first assault was on the misuse of taxpayer's money. Public funds—for the purchase of a billiard table? Adams insisted the costs were modest (and they were: table, $50; cloth and work, $43.44; cues, $5; balls, $6). His opponents, nonetheless, called the spending an outrage. (Entertaining foreign guests over a friendly game of billiards was apparently a luxury afforded only to kings. Not—God forbid—a president.)

It didn't matter that he'd purchased a "secondhand" table; that $14,000 had been appropriated to furnish the White House, and he'd spent a mere pittance on entertainment. To the opposition, the issue wasn't one of "amount." It was the slap in the face he'd inflicted on the people—the decent, hard-working, God-fearing Americans. Like an arrogant king, he'd "pissed on the public." He'd taken their money, bought "an instrument of the Devil," and placed it in the symbol of everything American, the most hallowed home in the land.

And that's where his true problem resided, in the negative image of the game. When public outcry seemed to fade over his "scandalous" spending, the opposition targeted his character. Like dirty politics of today, they left no stone unturned in their quest to defile his reputation. Adams' love for the game of billiards was all the Jackson camp needed—to paint him as an ungodly, morally corrupt cretin, who endorsed gambling, boozing and play above work.

Jackson's supporters succeeded in turning the "scandal" into a national issue. Newspapers across the country pounced on the story. Those aligned with Jackson were particularly harsh. Not only did they attack Adams' character, trumpeting the moral card ad nauseam. They attacked his heritage, calling him an "aristocrat" (which he most surely was), a spoiled brat who'd been "given" the presidency, in exchange for favors from his "Daddy." They attacked him for his deficiency as a role model. For the message he—a renowned billiard hustler—was sending to the country's children. A message all the more confusing considering the source: "Billiards isn't bad, Mom. The president plays it. I wanna grow up to be just like him."

Adams, by all accounts, did little to defend himself (which did little to enhance his aristocratic image). He felt it was below the dignity of the Office of the President to engage in political debate.

The end results of the scandal would change the face of politics and further tarnish the reputation of the game. In 1828, Jackson won the Presidency, in the largest landslide of the rest of the century. He, of course, had the billiard table removed from the White House ... where a new one was eventually installed, at the request of Ulysses S. Grant, in 1869. This time, there was no moral outcry. Public opinion—perhaps more sober in the wake of the Civil War—seemed a bit more tolerant of imaginary evils. Plus, in spite of all the forces against it, the game's popularity continued to grow. Even among—gasp—the high-and-mighty moralists. Despite lingering whispers and a dark, smoky image, billiards was becoming a sport for the masses. The game was growing and spreading all over the world, and America was becoming its number one patron.

Michael Phelan, the senior partner of Phelan & Collender, will forever be known as the Father of American Billiards. An accomplished player, businessman, writer and inventor, he almost single-handedly turned American billiards into a socially acceptable pastime.

Born in 1817, in Ireland, Phelan emigrated to America in 1825. His father, who'd emigrated five years earlier, had established himself in the business by opening several billiard parlors in New York City. It was there that Michael honed his early playing skills. Though he was only allowed to use a mace (to prevent damaging the tables), he was clearly a student of the game. By the age of fourteen (when he was finally allowed a cue), he'd already become an accomplished player.

Despite his love for the game (and the family business), he was apprenticed by his father to learn a different trade, the art of jewelry manufacturing. Upon his father's death, he abandoned his schooling. He set out on his own to pursue a career in the billiard industry. (It is unclear why he didn't take over his father's parlors. What few records there are seem to suggest they were turned over to Mr. Phelan's business partners.)

Michael secured a position as an attendant at one of the many parlors in the city. There, he was able to learn how a room was run, while he sharpened his skills as a player. Having grown up in the business, he was naturally aware of the problems associated with the game. The problem, most notably, of public perception and the image of billiards as an unsavory game.

His goal was to change that perception. To elevate the game to a beloved pastime—not only to those who criticized the sport, but to every last soul in the country. His first step was to create a very different kind of parlor. Not another murky snake pit, but a veritable palace—one as resplendent in its beauty and elegant surroundings as in its devotion to the game. A place where people—everyone—could not only feel safe, but spend hours on end, practicing, playing and learning the intricacies of the game.

Attitudes about gambling had actually softened by the mid 1800's. Americans, in general, weren't opposed to it per se; just the cheating and hustling that often came with it. It was this "dark side" that remained billiards greatest obstacle. The game itself was admired, widely enjoyed and ever-growing in popularity. What people wanted was a level playing field. An honest arena in decent surroundings, where they could play without fear of being "taken." Perhaps what they needed, more than anything else, was a thorough billiard education. A respected teacher, who could teach them how not to get taken, by teaching the rules, skills and tricks of the trade.

In 1847, Phelan opened his first billiard room, the Arcadia Billiard Parlor, in New York City. Its posh design and elegant atmosphere would set a trend for the lavish rooms to follow. In 1850, his first book, Billiards Without a Master, was published. It was the first American book devoted exclusively to billiards. In it, he diagrammed hundreds of shots. Each was accompanied by easy-to-follow instructions, along with a chart detailing the necessary skills required for the shot's execution. Virtually every possible shot was included, enabling the true student, with practice and patience, to perform any shot on the table. There was basic instruction for the novice, tips for the well-schooled, and a complete set of rules for both billiards and pool. The book succeeded in its most important mission: bringing scores of new players into the game. To this day, it remains one of the best, and most often quoted, books ever written on the game.

Phelan's reputation as "the most expert and scientific billiard player in the country" was only enhanced by his writing and inventions. His "modified" cushions improved consistency and playability. He was the first table maker to put ivory "diamonds" on the rails. These reference or target points would prove invaluable in the carom games, and in the execution of bank shots. His "angular" pockets—perhaps his greatest invention—led to incredible shot-making streaks. Previously, cushions had been rounded at the pockets, making access difficult, especially on rail shots. By straightening the cushion edge, an angle was created. Players could count on a dependable bank, leading the ball into the pocket.

Aside from his teaching and business successes, Phelan was a tireless promoter of the game. He continued to write throughout the 1850's, in his never-ending quest to reach a larger audience. His second book, The Game of Billiards, was a billiards manual, published in 1856. That same year he began publishing The Billiard Cue, a four-page monthly periodical, devoted to billiards. For over twenty years, this publication became the definitive voice for billiard news, promotion and tournaments. He also pursued more general outlets. In 1859, he began writing a column in Illustrated Weekly, in an effort to reach an even broader audience. Rise and Progress of the Game of Billiards, Phelan's third book, was published in 1860.

Nothing quite captured the public's attention, however, like the event that took place in Detroit, on April 12, 1859. What occurred the next four days would do more to catapult the game into the spotlight, than all Phelan's writings and inventions combined. The first major stakes match in American history captured the imagination of the entire country. For many, perhaps, it was just a curiosity—made all the more intriguing by a winner-take-all purse that rivaled those of boxing and horse racing.

The match pitted the renowned Michael Phelan against Jim Seereiter, the local billiard hero. The purse was $15,000—at the time, a staggering amount. The event was highly publicized in newspapers across the country. Articles reporting on the animosity between the two men, turned the event into a media circus. The lathered excitement was well under way before the match even began. Hundreds packed the billiard room while thousands more stood outside, awaiting the updated scores.

The match was Four-Ball, to 2,000 points. The stakes were seemingly as high among the spectators. It is estimated 100 times the $15,000 purse was wagered in and around the arena. (Not to mention the amounts wagered in friendly bets and among gamblers throughout the country.) The contest lasted the better part of four days. Phelan emerged triumphant in a nail-biting match, 2,000-1904. The results of the match were eagerly awaited in newspapers across the country. Billiards, it seems, had not only been accepted, but embraced by America as an admirable sport.

Four-Ball was the dominant American game until the 1870's. An extension of English Billiards, it was played on a four-pocket table with four balls—a white cue ball and three object balls, one white and two red. Points could be scored in a variety of ways: by pocketing an object ball; by pocketing the cue ball after stiking an object ball; by making caroms on two or three object balls; and a variety of combinations thereof.

Four-Ball produced two offspring, each of which surpassed it in popularity by the late 1870's. The first, "Straight Rail," was played with three balls on a pocketless table. It was the forerunner to the carom games that would dominate the sport in the early 1900's. The second, "American Fifteen-Ball Pool," was the predecessor to modern-day pocket billiards.

Curiously, the word "pool," in 19th century America, referred to a collective bet, or ante. Many games, such as poker, involved the use of a pool, yet the name somehow got attached to pocket billiards. The term "poolroom" now means a place where pool is played. But in the 1800's, a poolroom was a betting parlor for horse racing. Pool tables were installed in parlors all across the country, so their patrons could amuse themselves in between races.

Apparently, the two—the game of pool and the parlors—became connected in the public mind. And when pool inherited its name, the unsavory images associated with the parlors were attached to the game of pool. The name itself evoked an image of betting, fighting, and shady characters in a dangerous world. And that reputation, fairly or not, became synonymous with the game, from the day it was named. It was merely what the term had meant, for as long as anyone could remember. Like "adultery" or "prostitution," the name evoked a certain ugliness, one that wasn't about to abruptly go away. In the eyes of the public, in the late 1800's, "pool" was, and always would be, an unsavory activity. And a "poolroom" was a dark and foreboding arena, filled with hustlers, criminals and the dregs of society.

Pool and billiards traveled down very different paths in their quest for public acceptance. (While the term "billiards" refers to all games played on a billiard table, with or without pockets, many purists insist billiards refers only to the carom games, pool to those using pockets.) From 1878 until 1956, championship pool and billiard tournaments were held almost every year. While the earliest pool tournaments received very little fanfare, billiards took off almost immediately, capturing widespread attention.

The early 1900's was a golden age for American billiards. Championship players—Willie Hoppe, Johnny Layton, Jacob Schaefer, and his son, Jake Jr.—were as beloved as their brethren in any other sport. Major championships—both world and national—were often interspersed with thrilling one-on-one challenge matches. Billiard results were so greatly in demand, they often received wider coverage than war news.

Throughout the 1900's, both the carom and pocket games would undergo changes to meet popular demand. At the turn of the century, "Balkline" replaced Straight Rail as the game of choice in American billiards.

In Balkline, an additional element was added. Horizontal and vertical lines were drawn on the table, creating rectangular boxes, or "balk areas." Rules were drawn up preventing a player from "gathering" the three balls in a small area along the rail. Through "gathering," a player could literally score hundreds of points, and never move the balls more than a few feet. While this did wonders for rapid and massive scoring, it was pretty damn boring to watch. By adding the lines, players were allowed only a small number of points within each balk area, before being required to move the balls to a different area. Though the game made the scoring of points far more difficult, it added greatly to viewer enjoyment.

Balkline's earliest years were dominated by American world champions Jacob Schaefer and Willie Hoppe. Thought by many to be the greatest all-around billiard player of any era, Hoppe won his first world title at the age of eighteen. For over twenty years, his successes were so numerous, to many fans, "billiards" simply meant "Willie Hoppe." In 1928, "Three-Cushion Billiards" replaced Balkine as the championship game of choice. (In Three-Cushion, players were required to strike one of the two object balls and three cushions in any order, before striking the second object ball.) Faced with a fresh challenge, ever the champion, Hoppe merely retooled his game. Between 1936 and 1952, he won the world Three-Cushion title eleven times.

While billiards' popularity emerged like a thoroughbred, pool's hobbled out of the gate like a plowhorse. The first American championship pool tournament was held in 1878. The winner, Cyrille Dion, and the event itself, all but went unnoticed.

Fifteen-Ball (also known as 61-pool) was the game for the first ten years. The game was played with fifteen object balls, numbered 1-15. For pocketing a ball, a player received the number of points corresponding to the value of the ball. Since the total of the rack was 120, the first player to receive more than half, or 61, was the winner of the "frame." In 1878, the match was based on a best-of-21 format. Dion won the match by the very unthrilling score of 11 frames to 7, to capture the championship.

In 1889, the game was modified. It was thought more fair to count the number of balls pocketed by a player, rather than their numeric value. "Continuous Pool" was thusly born, replacing Fifteen-Ball as the professional game. In Continuous Pool, the player who sunk the final ball in the rack was awarded the break for the next. No ball had to be called on the break, so incredible runs were possible, extending over many racks. Scores were kept "continuously," from rack to rack, to a specified number of points.

As players became more accomplished, many also began playing more defensively. Sinking a ball on a break was never guaranteed; a miss meant leaving the balls widely scattered, easy pickin's for a skilled opponent. Consequently, top players began to change the way they played. They began to play "safeties" at the end of a rack, preferring their opponents to take a chance on the break. As a result, title games became tedious to watch, with players exchanging safeties every fifteen balls.

To eliminate the problem, Jerome Keogh, the champion in 1910, suggested that the last ball in each rack be left free, to be used as a target on the next rack. This all but eliminated the exchanging of safeties, as players could now "call" a shot, while effectively breaking the rack. Thus, the game of "14.1 Continuous" was born. Also known as "Straight Pool," the game was adopted as the championship game in 1912.

Eight-Ball was invented shortly after 1900, Nine-Ball around 1920. While the new games added a small measure of popularity to pool, it was the emergence of a spellbinding personality that lifted the game to new heights.

Ralph Greenleaf was truly the game of pool's first showman. His flamboyance, good looks, and almost magical talents, elevated the game with a flash and flair, right out of modern-day Hollywood. He burst onto the scene with a salvo, winning the world title in 1919 (and defending it nine straight times). As much P.T. Barnum as championship player, he toured vaudeville with his beautiful show-business wife—performing spectacular trick shot exhibitions, with a huge mirror suspended over the table, to enhance the spectators' view. Professionally, he was virtually untouchable, winning fourteen world titles by 1937. More than anyone else, he lit the first torch and blazed the brightest trail—all but rescuing the game by casting it into the spotlight, and enlightening America to the beauty of pool.

By the late 1920's, both the pocket and the carom games had reached unprecedented heights. Tobacco companies issued cigarette cards featuring the games' finest players. To fans, who followed their heroes all across the country, they were the most cherished of all collectibles. Manufacturers of tables, cues and all the needed accessories, shared in the billiard boom by reaping incredible profits. The most successful of these firms (by a monopolistic margin) was the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company.

For almost 150 years, Brunswick has been the most visible billiard concern in America. From its acquisitions in the 1800's to the end of World War II, it remained virtually unchallenged as the leader of the American billiard industry.

The company was founded in 1845, by John M. Brunswick. A Swiss immigrant and woodworker, the story of his life embodies the American Dream. He was born in Bremgarten, Switzerland, in 1819. At fifteen, he set sail for America and found work in New York as an errand boy for a butcher. Six months later, he moved to Philadelphia, where he received a job with a carriage maker. After four years as an apprentice, he became a journeyman, married, and moved to Cincinnati, where he opened his own woodworking shop.

As his business prospered, so did his social standing. At a lavish dinner party in 1845, he was taken aside and led into a large room. In the middle stood a Thurston billiard table. As his host raved about the woodwork and craftmanship, Brunswick admired the table in silence, like a sculptor examining a competitor's work. He built his first table shortly thereafter. Within two years, he'd built a small factory, and his tables were being shipped across the country.

His company quickly became one to reckon with, especially in the midwestern market. His main rivals were Julius Balke, also in Cincinnati, and Phelan & Collender in New York.

In 1873, Brunswick orchestrated a merger. Julius Balke's company joined forces with his, creating the J.M. Brunswick & Balke Company. The merger was a result of several factors. First, it was simply good business—for both parties. By joining forces, each had eliminated his chief competition. Their pooled resources created a monster-sized company, one capable of far greater production, at a far lower per-unit cost. Perhaps most importantly, their sole remaining rival had suffered a devastating blow. Two years prior to the merger, Michael Phelan had died. (Just as he'd lived, he'd died heroically, falling deathly ill and slowly succumbing after saving his grandson from drowning.)

Phelan's death created a void in Phelan & Collender. Though Hugh Collender, Phelan's son-in-law, was an accomplished businessman and inventor in his own right; though he had also contributed greatly to the success of the company; though he worked hard to fill that void by successfully patenting a host of new table designs and accessories ... in the eyes of the public, the company would never be the same without Michael Phelan. (Collender's decision to change the name of the firm to the H.W. Collender Co.—omitting Phelan's name entirely—probably wasn't the wisest decision.)

In 1879, thoroughly outgunned, Collender agreed to merge with Brunswick and Balke. In 1884, when the merger was finalized, Brunswick-Balke-Collender officially became Goliath, the largest billiard company in the world. Not only did the new firm acquire Collender's facilities; it inherited decades of innovation, patents and expertise. (Not to mention the legendary reputation of Phelan, the admiration and goodwill he'd brought to the game, and the formidable talents of Collender.) Unfortunately for John Brunswick, he was only allowed a glimpse of the successes to follow. He died of a heart attack in 1886, two years after the merger.

Hugh Collender ran the company upon John Brunswick's death. Upon his own death in 1890, leadership was passed to Moses Bensinger, Brunswick's son-in-law. For the next 39 years, the company experienced an incredible upward spiral of growth, profits and success. To its competitors, it simply became known as "The Trust"—an unchallenged monopoly that owned or controlled virtually every aspect of the billiard industry. In many ways, their promotion and name-recognition was a forerunner to that seen in modern-day sports. Their cues were used by the finest and most famous players; tables emblazoned with the Brunswick name were the centerpieces of championship tournaments. In the more humble surroundings, Brunswick tables and equipment were every bit as prevalent. They were by far the dominant name found in pool rooms, bars and homes all across the country.

In the 1890's, the company seized another growing market. If Brunswick ever owned a monopoly on the billiard industry, it was nothing compared to what they would soon enjoy in bowling. No one was more prepared for the sport's sudden popularity. With its expertise in woodworking and countless production plants, it didn't take long to expand operations and begin production on a massive scale. With resources unlike any competitor, they immediately dominated the market. As with billiards, they created the newest innovations (new-age plastics for bowling balls; improved alleys and pins; mechanical pinsetters; ball returns). Unlike billiards—in spite of its increased popularity—bowling was a family game; clean, respectable, without a long history of moral oppostion. There were no rumors to contend with, no image to repair. The popularity of bowling soon surpassed that of billiards, and Brunswick was there to reap the rewards.

Brunswick did everything in its power to change billiards' reputation. Throughout the early 1900's, tables were donated to orphanages, boys' clubs and old-age homes. They worked with church groups, YMCA's, and social organizations, teaching the virtues of good sportsmanship, honesty and fair play. Even with the endorsements of respected leaders—champion athletes, politicians, even members of the clergy—selling the public on the virtues of the game proved a formidable task. The past seemingly resurfaced every ten to twenty years, with moralists—and in the 1920's, the prohibitionists—warning of the evils of the game.

It was the players themselves, and their engaging personalities, that did the most to change perceptions of the game. That, and of course, their incredible talents, coupled with the excitement of championship play. By 1929—with the entire country marvelling over the magic of Ralph Greenleaf—billiards popularity was at an all-time high. Brunswick had become a $30 million company. Both the pocket and the carom games drew enthusiastic crowds. By 1930, everything in America had changed. Depression, and then war, would shape a very uncertain future, for both the fate of the game and the country itself.

The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Depression changed the face of America. Though billiards continued to be popular throughout the 1930's, even successful companies were forced to change the way they operated. By 1934, Brunswick's line of cues had been reduced from several hundred to twelve. Functionality (and affordability) became priority one, resulting in far less inspired craftmanship and design. Its cues, once elaborate artworks, became far less striking in appearance. Even its signature product suffered from the cutbacks. The once massive, intricately carved and inlaid wooden tables gave way to far blander, cookie-cut creations, comprised of stainless steel or chrome.

The decline of the game's equipment was a foreshadower of the times to come. Not even Willie Mosconi—perhaps the greatest pocket player in the history of the sport—could rescue the game from the societal changes that would soon sweep across the country.

Mosconi was truly a champion's champion. From 1940 to 1957, he had a near-stranglehold on the world title, winning it fifteen times. His record high-run of 526 balls remains unbroken to this day (at the time of this writing). If Ralph Greenleaf had rescued pool in the 1920's, it was Willie Mosconi who kept it alive with his wizardry in the 1950's. It was during the "Mosconi Era" that pool replaced billiards as America's game of choice. It was upon his retirement in 1957, that public interest in the game went into a sharp decline.

The beginnings of that decline actually began after World War II. (Surprisingly, billiards popularity remained strong during the Depression. Despite widespread destitution, monstrous billiard rooms opened and thrived all across the country. Players from all levels of society, perhaps seeking escape, shared nickels and commiserated with others, discovering moments of pleasure in the game they loved to play.) During the war, billiards remained a favorite form of entertainment. Tables were often sent, along with tanks and artillary, to provide a welcome respite to war-weary soldiers. Professional players toured military posts, giving exhibitions and lifting spirits. Back home, the game offered a needed diversion, a moment of pleasure in a war-ravaged world.

The end of the war, however, brought dramatic changes to American society. Returning soldiers were in a mood to buy houses, start families and build careers. Long afternoons and evenings striking balls at the pool hall was seemingly a thing of the past. The "Baby Boom" led to a far more family-oriented society and way of life. Families flocked from the cities—where the vast majority of pool rooms had long been established—to the "comfortable" life of the suburbs. Thirty-year-old pool rooms began falling like dominoes. Interest in the sport—now challenged year-round by far more popular sports, on the professional and college level—all but withered and died. Television—perhaps the biggest competitor of all—was soon a staple in every American household. By the late 1950's, the condition of the game was fast approaching terminal.

In 1961, the sport received a shot of adrenaline. The Hustler, starring Paul Newman, was released. Though the film portrayed the darker side of the sport—one haunted for centuries by its sleazy reputation—it did more to renew public interest in the game than any singular event ever had. Almost immediately, the game was revitalized. Hundreds of new pool rooms opened all across the country, as millions of new players got hooked on the game. By the late 1960's, this latest boom was over. The Vietnam War, social changes, and the desire for outdoor activities had once again sent billiards into a major decline.

By 1985, there were only two public rooms left in Manhattan, down from several thousand during the 1930's. Though tournaments continued, and remained popular to die-hard fans, there was little interest for the game among the general public. Once again, it took Hollywood to renew the public interest. In 1986, The Color of Money was released. A sequel to The Hustler, starring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise, the film brought the excitement of pool—and to many, a new game—to a new, and eager generation.

The game hasn't been the same since. A very different type of poolroom—and player—has emerged in cities all across the country. Since 1987, hundreds of new rooms have opened—rooms catering not to the back-alley hustler, but the young, professional man and woman. Jackets and ties, and business suits have become common attire. In many rooms, cappuccino and pastries have replaced the age-old peanuts and beer. Some of the more fashionable clubs have become "places to be seen," and have attained almost "celebrity" status. The seedy underbelly of society so long associated with pool, has seemingly given way to an aura of class, sophistication and true respectability.

That, and a booming new business. Not since the heyday of the 1920's and 1930's, has pool's popularity been greater. Elaborate cues and tables are once again in demand. Championship tournaments—televised almost weekly on ESPN—continue to draw greater and greater audiences. Nine-Ball, the current professional game of choice, has proven a perfect fit for public play and consumption, with its lightning-strike pace and unpredictable finishes. With a captive new audience and a legion of new players, billiards is enjoying its greatest surge in more than half a century. With its image finally (hopefully) cured, the future of the sport holds enormous promise for continued growth and prosperity.

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