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History of Billiards

Updated on May 28, 2010

Billiards is a type of game played with balls and a cue on a rectangular, felt-covered table. In forms of the game played on tables with pockets (pocket billiards), one ball, called the cue ball, is used to drive other balls, known as object balls, into the pockets. In games played on tables without pockets (carom billiards), the cue ball is made to hit two balls in succession, thereby scoring a carom.

The origin of billiards is obscure. There is reference to the game in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (written about 1607), but the existence of billiards in pre-Christian times has not been substantiated. Some believe that the Knights Templar brought the game to England in the llth century, on their return from the Crusades. Even the origin of the name is not certain, although it appears to be derived from the French billard or billart (cue) or bille (stick).

The first concrete evidence of the existence of billiards appears in France in the 15th century, during the reign (1461-1483) of Louis XL In 1571, Charles IX had a billiard table constructed for the court. Its bed was of stone, and it was covered with a cloth that had pockets at each corner. Sometimes later a similar game was played in England at the court of James I (reigned 1603-1625). The first billiard table to appear on the American continent was brought to Florida by Spaniards in 1565.

In 1735 a wooden stick resembling the modern cue replaced the mace which previously had been used to propel the ball. In 1798 a Captain Mingaud, while a political prisoner in France, perfected the game. He was the first player to use a leather cue tip. In the 19th century, Jack Carr, an Englishman, first applied chalk to the cue tip. He also originated the "English" shots. A slate bed replaced the wooden bed about 1825. India rubber cushions supplanted the wooden sides in 1835, and vulcanized rubber cushions became commonplace about 1854.

The first championship game in the United States was held in Detroit in 1859. Since then the game has improved considerably in both method of play and equipment. In the 1930's, billiards lost its popularity, but interest was revived by the 1960's, with well-kept billiard rooms opening their doors to both men and women. Eye-appealing equipment appeared in volume for both commercial and home use. By the mid-1960's, billiards had become a popular family sport, and about 20,000,000 players competed annually in the United States. Tournaments are sanctioned by the Billiard Congress of America, with headquarters in Chicago.

The American Willie Hoppe, until his death in 1959, was regarded as the greatest all-around billiardist. Top carom players were Maurice Vignaux of France and Jacob Schaefer, Sr., Jacob Schaefer, Jr., Welker Cochran, and Harold Worst, all of the United States. Outstanding modern pocket billiard players in the United States include Alfredo DeOro, Ralph Greenleaf, Andrew Ponzi, Erwin Rudolph, Willie Mosconi, Luther Lassiter, and James Caras. George Che-nier dominated pocket billiards in Canada.

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