The Complete History of Billiards and Pool
Updated: Nov 8
The game of billiards has cemented itself as a pastime in many countries throughout the world. Teens enjoy visiting the local pool hall for a few games after school, and young people challenge each other to a game or two at local bars and restaurants. Professionals hone their skills every day and even enjoy some international fame through televised championships. Most common of all, the game is used to entertain friends and families at home with some cordial competition.
The way we experience billiards in today's society is different than what it used to be. The evolution of billiards took place over a long and rich history, growing into the game we know and love today. When you contemplate your shot and add chalk to your pool cue stick, you're experiencing the culmination of hundreds of years in the making. If you love pool games and want to know more about it, HB Home is your trusted source for reliable billiards game information. We'll take a look at who invented pool, the expanded history of pool and what it has become today.
Origins of Billiards: Who Invented Billiards?
It's hard to know who invented the game of pool, but we do know how and where billiards originated. It all started during the 15th century in France and northern Europe. In northern Europe especially, people enjoyed playing lawn games such as croquet. It was from this enjoyment that people decided to take the game indoors and create a tabletop version. Then, people could enjoy their favorite pastime despite the weather. This marks the point when pool was invented.
Early players constructed bordered, wooden tables covered in green cloth to simulate the look of grass for their "tabletop croquet." During play, they'd take a wooden stick called a "mace" and use it to shove balls across the surface of the table. The French called the mace a "billart" and referred to each ball as a "bille." This could be where the word "billiards" comes from. The table contained six pockets, two balls and a hoop reminiscent of a croquet wicket with an upright stick as the target.
We know little information on billiards from this period. What we do know comes from the accounts of people of royalty and noble upbringing. For this reason, many people refer to the sport as the Noble Game of Billiards. Yet, it's likely that people from all upbringings and social status played and enjoyed billiards. Billiards gets a mention in Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra," which is evidence of the game's widespread familiarity and popularity during the 17th century.
The Evolution of Pool
It didn't take long for the game of billiards to diverge from its croquet-like beginnings. This was a result of two major factors — player preferences and the Industrial Revolution. Like any sport, people figured out what works best to streamline the game and make it more enjoyable over time. But the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century also opened up new opportunities for production, shaping the possibilities for what billiards could be.
How the Equipment Changed
Early players discovered that their maces were not the best tool for moving balls around the table. People had a difficult time hitting balls that landed near the rails, or edge, of the table because of the size of the mace's head. They would turn the mace around and hit these balls with the thinner handle instead. People referred to this part of the mace as the "queue," which means "tail." This is how we get the word "cue" that we use today to refer to the playing stick.
Players had their new and improved cue sticks, but they needed a proper table to keep up with the times. Tables in the 1700s were wooden with flat walls around the edge to keep balls from falling off during play. People associated these walls with outdoor river banks and referred to them as "banks." They realized they could bounce balls off the banks to take more elaborate shots. And so the term "bank shot" was born. This inspired designers to create new ways to construct the billiards table.
In the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution changed billiards forever. People began using chalk to increase the friction between the cue and the ball. Companies began developing dedicated tips for cue sticks, including options made of leather, which allowed players to practice new ways of striking balls to achieve spin. With the invention of the two-piece cue in the first half of the 1800s, the cue stick took on today's recognizable form.
Proper pool tables were invented around this time as well. Wooden tables warped over time, so people started using slate in place of wood for tabletops. This ensured a smooth, even surface that would last. With the popularization of rubber during this time, companies developed billiard cushions to put around the edge of tables. By the middle of the 19th century, billiard tables started looking like they do today.
English Billiards: The History of Pocket Billiards
As players settled on the right equipment for the game, more modern billiards game modes began to take shape. The 1700s found players agreeing upon the proper dimensions of a billiards table for the first time. Players built the earliest tables in any shape and size they wanted. In the 18th century, it was agreed that a 2:1 ratio for length to width was best. This unified the game and gave players a cohesive experience from table to table.
A unified playing surface helped players create new rules and game versions throughout the 19th century. This led to the development of English billiards, the most popular version of billiards in Britain at the time. This game mode used three balls and six pockets. Over time, this version was left to the history books in favor of Snooker — a version still played to this day.
Snooker uses 22 colorful balls and incorporates defensive and offensive elements to provide more of a challenge. The object of the game is to score more points than your opponent by knocking balls into the pockets with a cue ball. This version of billiards should sound familiar since it shares characteristics with billiards games played in pool halls around the world today. People in England feel the same way about Snooker as Americans do about baseball. It's one of their favorite pastimes.
History of Billiards in the United States
Billiards has firm roots in British culture, but how did it get to the United States? The probable answer to this question is that English and Dutch settlers brought billiards with them to the New World in the 17th and 18th centuries. These settlers would have played billiards in their home countries, leading them to build billiards tables to play in their new homes.
The game spread throughout the colonies in the 1700s. This was due to the efforts of American cabinetmakers who began building fine billiards tables on the side. They didn't flood the market, but they did make their way around. Some legends even state that George Washington enjoyed the game and won a match in the mid-1700s.
Once the 1800s arrived, public billiards rooms sprang up across the United States. Billiards became a shared pastime for people in cities across the states. The most famous public billiards room was Bassford's in New York, where stockbrokers played each other. They even invented their own version of the game called Pin Pool. They would play it with tiny wooden targets, creating a sort of "tabletop bowling."
Michael Phelan: The Father of American Billiards
Eventually, the billiard industry in the United States exploded, reaching a wider audience than ever before. This was thanks to Michael Phelan, who many consider the father of American billiards. An immigrant from Ireland, Phelan penned the first American book dedicated to billiards. He helped devise lasting rules and set standards for behavior while playing the game.
Phelan was also an inventor and used this to enhance the pool experience. He was the first to add diamonds to the table to help players aim when taking their shots. He even developed new designs for tables and cushions to streamline the game and give it its signature appearance. This was when the pool table was made to look like it does today. Phelan was the first American billiard columnist, raising awareness and excitement for the game in his weekly articles.
Phelan solidified billiards as an American pastime when he won a large sum of money at the first betted match in the country. This made more people take note of the game, and everyone wanted a piece of the action. Phelan continued to promote the game and went on to start the manufacturing company called Phelan and Collender. His company merged with his chief competitor, and by the end of the 1800s, he had become the nation's leading billiards manufacturer and authority on the topic.
Why Is Billiards Called Pool?
When considering billiards vs. pool, many people wonder how the two terms relate to each other and if they're interchangeable. For the sake of accuracy, you want to make sure you're using the right name to refer to the game you're playing. Here's the bottom line — both terms can refer to the same game. So why not use the term billiards? Why is pool called pool in the first place?
The word "pool" takes its meaning from the concept of a collective bet. When people put their money together in a game that involves wagers, you could say they're "pooling" their money. Everyone who participated in the pool has a chance to claim the entire prize of money if they win or if the person they bet on won. Common activities that include pools of money include poker and horse racing.
The word "poolroom" has a much different meaning today than it did in the 1800s. Then, a poolroom was a place to make bets during horse races. Participants needed a way to occupy themselves between races, so the owners of these establishments installed billiards tables to keep their patrons entertained. The connection between billiards and poolrooms stuck, and people began referring to billiards as pool.
Billiards in the 20th Century
Billiards continued to evolve into the 20th century. Societies around the world went through many changes during the 1900s due to wars, political climates and advances in technology. As society changed, billiards' place within society changed as well. Its popularity ultimately declined before it spiked again into the beloved game it is today.
American troops brought billiards with them during both World Wars. It was a favorite recreational activity, helping to keep spirits high during both wars. The game stayed popular after World War I, but it had trouble staying relevant after World War II.
Troops returning from World War II came back to a different society than the one they had left. In the mid-to-late forties, society shifted its focus to commercialism and consumerism. Many of the soldiers who returned from World War II weren't in the mood to spend afternoons and evenings with their buddies around the pool table. They wanted to build careers, start families, buy houses and enjoy the latest gadgets and products.
At this point, billiards was fighting an uphill battle in society. Throughout the early 1900s, politicians waged moral wars on activities such as gambling and drinking alcohol. Another natural target was billiards and local pool halls. Politicians framed pool halls as harmful to a moral society, which soured people's opinions of the game. People stopped playing billiards, forcing local poolrooms across the country to close their doors for good.
This marked the first true decline in the entire background of billiards. By the '50s, it seemed like the Noble Game of Billiards would not be seen or played again.
Pop Culture Revivals
Two events brought billiards back to the forefront of public attention. The first was the release of the 1961 movie "The Hustler" starring Paul Newman. The film was based on Walter Tevis' novel of the same name, depicting the shadowy life of a pool hustler. The film raised the public's interest in pool once again. Pool halls started opening up across the country. Billiards remained popular for several years after nearly a decade of decline.
This resurgence was short-lived. The Vietnam War, social unrest and a rise in the popularity of outdoor activities caused billiards to shrink from public favor by the end of the 1960s. This low point lasted until 1986, when the sequel of "The Hustler" hit theaters. "The Color of Money" brought Paul Newman back to reprise his role and cast Tom Cruise to play an up-and-coming billiards player. The movie was a hit, and it brought about a billiards renaissance like never before.
More pool halls opened, but this time they chose a new look to appeal to a new generation of players. They forsook the shadier aesthetic of pool halls for a more modern and approachable appearance. People still attached stereotypes to the game of pool, but these new pool halls helped dispel these opinions. In some aspects, this moment was when the modern experience of billiards was invented. These are the pool halls people around the country enjoy today.
Women in Billiards
Women have enjoyed playing billiards since the game's earliest form in the 1600s. As billiards developed with society, women played less pool due to various factors. Men's dominance in the game led to women being more excluded from the activity as men treated billiards as a way to spend time with their male friends. Men also enjoyed betting, carousing, drinking and smoking around the billiards table. There were no women's billiards leagues during the game's early years, leaving women unfairly left out of the game.
The good news is that today's pool halls make space for women and people of all genders. Everyone plays together to laugh, have a good time and prove who has the most skill. Friendly competition can get heated, but the old stigmas of billiards have passed away. Pool is a game for people of all races, genders and social upbringings. Everyone can gather around a billiards table at the local pool hall for a good time with friends and family.
Greatest Pool Players of All Time
As with any sport with a long history, some people have been recognized as the greatest pool players of all time. Many of the people on this list have videos online that you can watch to see how amazing they are. Seeing a professional pool player in action is quite a sight. They've practiced for years to get to their current level of play, and it's inspiring to watch. Here's a list of some of the greatest to ever play the game:
Buddy Hall: Known as a living pool legend, Buddy Hall started young. He practiced pool at his local soda shop in the late 1950s before he was old enough to play in a real pool room. He dominated competitors of all ages, earning his first professional win at age 17. His nickname is The Rifleman.
Allison Fisher: With the nickname The Duchess of Doom, Allison Fisher strikes fear into her opponents. She rose to fame after winning her first world championship at the age of 17. Since then, she's won over 50 titles. Billiards Digest dubbed her the best female pool player of the year in 2007.
Mike Sigel: Known as Captain Hook, Mike Sigel is one of the all-time greats. He's won over 100 professional pool tournaments. He was inducted into the Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame at age 35 — the youngest player to ever achieve that honor.
Jeanette Lee: Jeanette Lee is one of the most popular female pool players of all time. She earned the nickname Black Widow from her signature black clothing and domination on the pool table. She has over 27 national and world titles under her belt. Now, she spends her time as an ambassador of the game of pool.
Willie Mosconi: Mosconi's name was synonymous with pool in the United States for most of the 1900s. He even had the nickname Mr. Pocket Billiards. He won the World Straight Pool Championship fifteen times in a row in his prime, solidifying his place on this list. He later became the technical advisor to Paul Newman during the filming of "The Hustler."
Efren Reyes: Born in the Philippines, Reyes has made a name for himself as arguably the best pool player of all time. He has won championships in two different pool disciplines and has garnered over 70 international titles. He's beaten many people on various "all-time great" lists, usually landing the top spot himself on many of these lists.
If you want to see some amazing billiards shots, look into these players. Their shots may inspire you to hone your skills on a pool table of your own!
Join in Pool's History and Future With a Pool Table From HB Home
When you play billiards, you're participating in its rich history. Every strike, every sound, every sunk billiard ball and every story told around the table becomes a part of that long history. Billiards has always brought people together, and you can enjoy that experience with your friends and family when you purchase a pool table for your home's game room or public area.
HB Home is your source for high-quality pool tables. You and your loved ones can make some of your best memories around the pool table, so choose one that looks beautiful and offers the best playing experience. In addition to our pool game information, we offer all things related to home entertainment furniture. We even sell various accessory kits so you can start playing right away. Contact us today to take the next step toward getting your very own pool table.