A Brief History
Pocketless pool has undergone many changes over the years. It has evolved from one country to the next, waxing and waning in American billiards popularity. Also called carom billiards, with versions like balkline, straight rail, and 3-cushion, the game has one major common thread that has carried through the ages: It is simply billiards played on a table without pockets.
The Early Years
Pocketless pool, otherwise known as “carom billiards,” is related to a European billiard game (particularly popular in France) called “carambole.” Carambole was played … you guessed it … on a table without pockets. Carambole is also referred to as
These early versions of pocketless pool became hugely popular in America in about 1870 and would stay in the spotlight until about 1919. For a brief period during the 1930s both pool and carom billiards shared that spotlight. Up until 1870 most American pool players could be found playing a game called “four ball” which, like snooker today, was played on an English-sized billiard table (12 feet long). Straight rail and fifteen-ball pool evolved from four ball, which was played with only four balls and four pockets. While straight rail is the precursor to all carom billiard games, fifteen ball is the forerunner of all modern pocket billiard games.
In four-ball carom, there will be four balls on the table: two cue balls, one red ball, and a darker red ball. Four ball is usually played with a standard set of carom balls, but sometimes it is played with a different set of balls that are slightly larger than the average carom balls. It all depends on who's playing and what their preferences are.
Evolution of the Game
Carom games began with a version of four ball played without pockets. When the game was young it was a champion's game of choice, but eventually, as the players increased their skill levels, they outgrew four ball and the game became too easy. From four ball came three ball, and, again, this game became not only easy but a little mundane as players figured out that the best way to score points was to keep the balls close to the cushion, forcing them to make the same shot over and over again. That soon became tiresome, and the next carom game emerged.
In order to cut down on this kind of monotonous play, balkline billiards was developed. In this game, lines were drawn to form rectangles on the playing surface. These lines, called “balk lines,” were far enough from the rails to eliminate the temptation of playing so close to the cushions. These rectangles were called “balk areas” and the goal was to strike the object balls so that they would leave and return to the balk area. In 1883, the balk line was drawn 8 inches from the cushion, which later turned into 14 inches (14.2 balkline). In 14.2, the area of play was restricted and allowed for only two object balls in the balk area at any one time.
In 1897, 18.1 balkline became the game of choice, and by the turn of the century pocketless pool became 18.2 balkline. Finally, three-cushion carom billiards took hold to replace 18.2, complicating the game still further. The goal in this version was to strike three cushions before striking an object ball. Three-cushion is still the most popular pocketless pool game played today.
Decline of Pocketless Pool
While people still play pocketless pool to this day, it does not enjoy nearly the popularity it did around the turn of the century (the twentieth century, that is). Balkline enjoyed enormous popularity until almost 1920. By 1941, when William Mosconi, one of the greatest pool players of all time, came onto the billiards scene, pocketless pool had become a mere glimmer of what it had been before.