Rich history of popular game has many variations

I think that most people have felt they have been behind the “eight ball.” If they have never been so, then at least they have heard of that expression, or of “dealing with a full rack.”

Of course, those two expressions are from the universally popular game of billiards, commonly referred to as pool. I myself, am pretty inept at the sport, but I have always found it fascinating to watch others, including my opponents, convert shot after shot, and not even give me a remote opportunity to make our game anything but a landslide.

However, having spent a bit of time around England pubs and having drunk my share of pints and quarts, I am familiar with not only billiards but snookers as well.

Historically, the best that can be surmised is that billiards most likely evolved from a lawn game, possibly similar to croquet, sometime during the 15th century in Northern Europe. Many feel that the game may actually have started in France. The game made its way indoors, and was played with a wooden table with green cloth (which was supposed to simulate grass). A simple border was places around the edges. Balls were shoved, as compared to struck, by wooden sticks called maces.

“Billiard” is derived from the French, either from the word “billart,” one of the wooden sticks, or from the word “bille,” a ball.

In the 1600s, the public knew enough about the game that Shakespeare mentioned it in Antony and Cleopatra. In the late 1600s, the cue stick was developed. When a ball lay near a rail, the mace was very inconvenient to use because of its large head. Players would then turn the mace around and use its handle to strike the ball. The handle was sometimes called a “queue,” meaning tail. Therefore, the work “cue” was derived, and used the last few hundred years.

Pool tables originally had flat walls for rails, and were only designed to keep balls from falling off. They often resembled river banks, and a “bank shot” was one in which a ball rebounded as part of the shot. Chalk was introduced in the early 1800s, and slate became a popular pool table material in the mid-1800s.

The various types of pool games, such as American Four-Ball Billiards, Fifteen-Ball Pool, and others, emerged.  Troops during the Civil War held tournaments, and professional players toured military stations giving exhibitions. Cigarette cards were even issued featuring these renowned players.

Eight-Ball was introduced shortly after 1900, and is the most well-known and popular billiards game known to the world.

However, the popularity of the game declined in the 1900s until 1961, when the movie “The Hustler,” starring Paul Newman, depicted the somber life of a pool hustler. Suddenly, pool was back in the spotlight. The sequel to “The Hustler” was released in 1986, as Paul Newman and Tom Cruise both starred in “The Color of Money.” It brought the excitement of pool to a new generation. The game has continued to increase in popularity to this day.  

In addition, collectors have been known to spend thousands of dollars on pool equipment as well.

In a 2008 Heritage Auction, Glenn Ford’s pool table was auctioned. Evidently, the actor Glenn Ford spent countless hours playing on his Brunswick table against such Hollywood celebrities as John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Richard Burton, William Holden, Roy Rogers, and others. The auctioned table went for nearly $8,000.

Another Heritage item fetched a lot more in 2012. A world-renowned Jacob Strahle Inlaid Pocket Billiards Table from 1875 went for almost $19,000.

Yes, the game of billiards, which has been played by people from all walks of life from kings and presidents to pool hustlers and domestic engineers is, and has been for centuries, a game of the masses.

Jeff Figler has authored more than 700 published articles about collecting. He is a certified professional appraiser and one of the world’s leading experts on collectibles. His latest book, “The Picker’s Pocket Guide to Baseball Memorabilia” has been #1 on Amazon. He can be reached at info@jefffigler.com.