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.
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 toolsthe bats, the balls and other
curious devicesin 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.
even earlier discoveryand one seemingly more compelling
in proving the role of sport among the ancient cultureswas
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 piece9
skittles, 4 balls, and 3 bars to form an archwas 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.
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.
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.
in Europe changed dramatically during this period. With the onset
of the CrusadesChristian military expeditions to recapture
the Holy Land from the Muslimscultures 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.
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.
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.
one can deny France's influence in transforming the gameembracing
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
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.
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.
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
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 playto 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.
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 manwho wasn't about to give up
what little pleasure he had in what was surely a mundane existence.
they simply moved the games further out of viewperhaps even
indoorsdeeper 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.
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 (maceselongated
sticks, curved and flattened at the endwere widely used
by the 1300's); and a variety of posts, pegs, cones and arches,
to be struck, knocked down or passed through.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 anotherhiring the finest artisans
in an unspoken quest to create the most magnificent tables and
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.
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.
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 playersMarie
Antoinette, for one, on the eve of the French Revolutionwere
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 isand
always has beenan equal battle of the sexes. One far more
reliant on subtlety and mental toughness than size, speed and
the 1600's, references to billiards were regularly being made
in European literature. In Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatraprobably
the most quoted passagethe Egyptian queen suggests to her
handmaiden, Charmian, "Let's to Billiards" (Act II,
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.
differentiated these kings from their predecessors, wasn't merely
their love for the game. It was their expectations of otherstheir
courts, foreign dignitaries, anyone seeking to gain favorto
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 respectto
the King, the Crown and country. Even visiting monarchs, seeking
favor with the King, were silently judged by their respect for
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 childrenand themselvesthe
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 controlthat the most demanding shots could be "struck"
not pushed, utilizing the narrow end of the mace.
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.
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 plantsthe rapid
industrialization of billiards. Merchants, investors and, not
least of all, kings, scampered to capture a piece of the market.
again, monarchs competed with one anothernot 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 tableswhatever
needed could be had or exclusively produced, for a hefty
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 nowbig money. Innovations
that caught on could yield lifetimes of profit, pouring in from
all ends of the world.
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.
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.
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
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.
improvements in the cue came improvements in the tables and other
innovations that would elevate the game. Throughout the 1800's,
advancements would be madefrom 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.
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.
was little standardization in the early yearsin 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 widelynot
only among the nobility within the same country, but also among
countries themselvesthe 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.
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.
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 contributealong with the French,
Spanish and other European influencesto the developing game
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.
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
weightwhich 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.
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 clotheven 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 waterproved
far more bothersome than they were worth.
1837, Charles Goodyear began experimenting with a process combining
sulfur and rubber. Two years laterby accidentally dropping
a mixture of the components onto a hot stovehe 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.
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.
had been problematic, from the earliest tables. Finding the right
type of clothone providing a smooth surface, yet durable
enough to withstand playwas 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
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.
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.
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.
by fate, he landed with the Iwan Simonis Companythe 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 respectedand copiedproducers of fine billiard
cloth. They immediately set to work, building their own spinning
mule. The effects on the wool were miraculousespecially
when applied to their signature product. Subsequent treatmentsweaving,
felting, dyeing, shearingresulted in a cloth that had only
been dreamed of....
strikingly similar to the cloths of today. One steadily improved
uponhigher quality wool, improved methods of produc-
the advancements of the past 200 years. Yet, a cloth, even then,
so revolutionary, so perfect, it immediatelyand foreverchanged
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.
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.
beautiful to look at, ivory balls were never very dependable.
They were also time consuming to makeproperly 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.
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.
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.
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 patentsfor
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.)
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.
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 ballswhether comprised entirely
of celluloid, or only coated with the materialgained 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.
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 limeblackboard 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.
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 chalkwhich
did not contain a speck of chalk at all. It was comprised entirely
of abrasivessilica and axolite crushed to near-powder
and air-floated, to exactly the right fineness.
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
construction became an art form with the earliest cues. With the
elaborateness of the maces that preceded themthe hand-carved
ivory, the inlaid jewels and goldthe 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 gameand
everything about itwas 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.
art of making pictures or designs with thin slices of wood, shell
or other materialshas 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.
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 qualityboth in beauty and playabilitywas
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."
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 gamesand
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.
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.
quality of cues was already mind-boggling by the late 1800's.
Perhaps that's why beauty has remained so valuedbecause
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.)
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 variationsthe
type of wood used, joints, shafts, wrapsremain as numerous
as the product lines available, from manufacturers all over the
world. Their common goal, like the pioneers before themfrom
Thurston to Goodyear, Hyatt to Finckis not only to create
the finest product ... but to never stop searching for new ideas
and innovations, to enhance the beauty of the game.
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."
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 aristocratswho brought not
only their heritage, but often their tables, on their voyage to
the New World.
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.
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 matchrivaled
that of any other sport.
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.)
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, playedand
perhaps most importantly, dishonored God: the tavern.
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.
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 moralistsespecially those
seeking political powerthe 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.
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 Adamsthe son of the 2nd president and a reputed billiard
hustlerbecame 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.
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.
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 tablein
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 endlessespecially in the hands
of a shrewd politician, who could shape it, twist it, and deliver
it to the public in all its scandalous glory.
first assault was on the misuse of taxpayer's money. Public fundsfor
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. NotGod
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 peoplethe 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.
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 neededto paint him as an ungodly, morally
corrupt cretin, who endorsed gambling, boozing and play above
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 hea renowned billiard hustlerwas 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."
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.
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 opinionperhaps more sober in the wake of the Civil
Warseemed a bit more tolerant of imaginary evils. Plus,
in spite of all the forces against it, the game's popularity continued
to grow. Even amonggaspthe 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
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.
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.
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.)
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.
goal was to change that perception. To elevate the game to a beloved
pastimenot 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 palaceone as resplendent in its beauty and elegant
surroundings as in its devotion to the game. A place where peopleeveryonecould
not only feel safe, but spend hours on end, practicing, playing
and learning the intricacies of the game.
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.
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.
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"
pocketsperhaps his greatest inventionled 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.
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
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 curiositymade
all the more intriguing by a winner-take-all purse that rivaled
those of boxing and horse racing.
match pitted the renowned Michael Phelan against Jim Seereiter,
the local billiard hero. The purse was $15,000at 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.
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.
was the dominant American game until the 1870's. An extension
of English Billiards, it was played on a four-pocket table with
four ballsa 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.
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.
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
the twothe game of pool and the parlorsbecame 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.
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.
early 1900's was a golden age for American billiards. Championship
playersWillie Hoppe, Johnny Layton, Jacob Schaefer, and
his son, Jake Jr.were as beloved as their brethren in any
other sport. Major championshipsboth world and nationalwere
often interspersed with thrilling one-on-one challenge matches.
Billiard results were so greatly in demand, they often received
wider coverage than war news.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
wifeperforming 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 trailall but rescuing the
game by casting it into the spotlight, and enlightening America
to the beauty of pool.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 businessfor 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.)
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 entirelyprobably wasn't the wisest decision.)
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.
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.
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 billiardsin
spite of its increased popularitybowling 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.
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
leaderschampion athletes, politicians, even members of the
clergyselling the public on the virtues of the game proved
a formidable task. The past seemingly resurfaced every ten to
twenty years, with moralistsand in the 1920's, the prohibitionistswarning
of the evils of the game.
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 1929with the entire country marvelling
over the magic of Ralph Greenleafbilliards 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.
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.
decline of the game's equipment was a foreshadower of the times
to come. Not even Willie Mosconiperhaps the greatest pocket
player in the history of the sportcould rescue the game
from the societal changes that would soon sweep across the country.
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.
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.
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 citieswhere the
vast majority of pool rooms had long been establishedto
the "comfortable" life of the suburbs. Thirty-year-old
pool rooms began falling like dominoes. Interest in the sportnow
challenged year-round by far more popular sports, on the professional
and college levelall but withered and died. Televisionperhaps
the biggest competitor of allwas soon a staple in every
American household. By the late 1950's, the condition of the game
was fast approaching terminal.
1961, the sport received a shot of adrenaline. The Hustler, starring
Paul Newman, was released. Though the film portrayed the darker
side of the sportone haunted for centuries by its sleazy
reputationit 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.
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 pooland to many,
a new gameto a new, and eager generation.
game hasn't been the same since. A very different type of poolroomand
playerhas emerged in cities all across the country. Since
1987, hundreds of new rooms have openedrooms 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.
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 tournamentstelevised
almost weekly on ESPNcontinue 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.