The History of Billiards
The origin of the game we call billiards is a bit of a mystery. Most historians believe that the game has its origins in fourteenth-century Britain where games were commonly played outdoors using balls and clubs, while others will try to trace the game to ancient Egypt.
While we still play similar outdoor ball and club games like cricket, baseball, and croquet, at some point in our history, the game that evolved into billiards moved inside and onto a table. The closest ancestor to billiards is a game called “ground billiards,” an outdoor game in the croquet family that originated in the Middle Ages and maintained its popularity well into the seventeenth century.
Ground billiards was played throughout Europe. In Italy it was called biglia; the French referred to it as bilhard; and in Spain the game was known as virlota.
The word itself — “billiards” — is believed to be a derivative of two French words: billart (mace or club) and bille (ball). While this is commonly assumed, historians still debate the derivation of the word.
From the Ground to the Table
Ground billiards was played outdoors in a court with a straight stick at one end and a hoop at the other. While there is no recorded history of the rules of this game, it is believed that the object was to move the ball around the court, through the hoop and into the stick using a “mace” or a croquet-type mallet. No one really can set a date on this billiards ancestor, but research indicates that the earliest documentation dates back to at least the mid-fourteenth century and is very similar to an early indoor table game called “port and king.”
Some say that ground billiards was moved indoors and onto a table when bored soldiers, waiting for their next battle, moved inside to continue their downtime games during periods of inclement weather.
The earliest evidence of the existence of billiards as a table game dates back to a 1470 inventory list indicating that King Louis the XI of France ordered the purchase of a billiard table and billiard balls “for pleasure and amusement” in his court. In the sixteenth century, Mary Queen of Scots was given special treatment when she was granted a billiard table in her prison cell while she awaited execution.
While billiards may have moved from the masses to the monarchies, it never lost its appeal with the general public. In fact, the game continued to develop through the ages, becoming a popular pastime throughout Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the publication of the first official rule book, The Compleat Gamester by Charles Cotton in 1674.
Like its outdoor predecessor, one of the games in Cotton's book, and the most popular — having lasted over three centuries — “port and king,” was comprised of a cloth-covered table with a hoop (the port) at one end and an upright stick at the other (the king). The pockets were referred to as “hazards” because they were to be avoided (contrary to the billiard games we are familiar with today).
The object of the game was to be the first to push the balls across the table from the king and through the port, with the use of a mace (a clublike version of today's cue), while avoiding pocketing any of the balls. The game had less to do with precision strikes on target balls, and more with knocking your competitor out of the way in an effort to be the first through the hoop.
The word “cue” derives from the French word queue or “tail.” In the early seventeenth century, Europeans began using the smaller end of the mace (the handle), instead of the larger end, to strike the balls. This later developed into the tapered cue stick that we know today.
Billiards became a two-player competition in the early nineteenth century with players competing for stakes (or “the pool”). More balls were added to the British table later in that same century allowing for more players and creating the option of team competition.
In 1991, the World Confederation of Billiard Sports was founded in an effort to meet Olympic criteria for the inclusion of cue sports in the Olympic games. After years of international organizing and reorganizing, the criteria were finally met, and in 1998 the World Confederation became a permanent member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). This means that the Olympic Federation has officially recognized cue sports as an Olympic sport. So don't be surprised if you see pool on the agenda in a future Olympics.
Now that you have a taste of the origins of billiards, what is the game all about today? For some it's a way to unwind on a Friday night in a neighborhood tavern or in the dimly lit ambiance of a pool hall, while for others it's a sport, and one that they practice on a regular basis in order to play with the “pros.” There are the diehard pool enthusiasts and the occasional hobbyists. To figure out where you will fit in, you just have to play. Practice, practice, practice, and then head off to a local pool table and give it your best shot.
When you are in the early stages of learning, you may want to find a local league and observe the action. You will learn a lot just from watching. Don't compare yourself to the “pros.” To begin with, just observe their stance, their grip, their aim, their concentration, and their confidence. That will be enough to get you started.