Billiards: A Brief History

You walked through the smoke-filled bowling alley on the way to the even more smoke- filled room with multiple pool tables. At this time the only thing you can think of is the “noble” game of billiards. Sure, you are surrounded by young hooligans and less-than- savory adults, but this game of billiards has always gone by the moniker of “noble”. Why is billiards referred to as a “noble” game?

Even though your local game of billiards may not resemble a gathering of royalty, the billiards games of yesteryear did. As far back as the 1600s there are records of billiards being played by the royalty of the British Empire, though the game didn’t exactly resemble what is played today. Billiards, which moved from an extremely popular lawn game to its final inside resting place, was mentioned in William Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra.

After the industrial revolution improved game equipment in the 1800s, the game began to make its way into America. The term “English” that is used when referring to the spin put on a ball is actually a reference used by the Americans at the time who observed the way the English hit the ball and mastered the game. There are sporadic reports of the game being played in America long before the 1800s, some say St. Augustine brought the game in 1580 and others claim George Washington won a game around 1748, but not until the 1800s were parlors opened with billiards being the central focus.

Many different names are credited with furthering the popularity of billiards in America, but none are more important to American Billiards than Michael Phelan. By creating a standardized set of rules and writing a long-term billiards column in a popular periodical, Phelan created a following for a sport that demands concentration and competition. Phelan and his eventual cohorts formed the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company that controlled the design, form, and expansion of the game of billiards in America.

So, the next time you walk out of your local pool hall or finish your billiards tournament inside the local bowling alley, don’t forget the noble history of billiards. Don’t forget that the game you just won has added to the illustrious history of billiards, or that the game you just lost was lost long ago by much more accomplished people than you. Kings and Presidents have won and lost at billiards just like you, although they probably didn’t drown their sorrows in a cheap beer with a basket of mozzarella sticks.

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