Inset from School of Recreation, 1710. "We perceive from the engraving of the Billiards of the seventtenth century, that the game was altogether different from what it is now."
All cue sports are generally regarded to have evolved into indoor games from outdoor stick-and-ball lawn games (retroactively termed ground billiards), and as such to be related to trucco, croquet and golf, and more distantly to the stickless bocce and balls.
The first known mention of a form of the word "billiards" appears in Edmund Spenser’s Mother Hubberd’s Tale in 1591, where he speaks of "all thriftles games that may be found … with dice, with cards, with balliards." The word "billiard" may have evolved from the French word billart or billette, meaning "stick", in reference to the mace, an implement similar to a golf club, which was the forerunner to the modern cue; the term’s origin may have also been from French bille, meaning "ball". The modern term "cue sports" can be used to encompass the ancestral mace games, and even the modern cueless variants, such as finger billiards, for historical reasons. "Cue" itself came from queue, the French word for a tail. This refers to the early practice of using the tail of the mace to strike the ball when it lay against a rail cushion.
A recognizable form of billiards was played outdoors in the 1340s, and was reminiscent of croquet. King Louis XI of France (1461–1483) had the first known indoor billiard table. Louis XIV further refined and popularized the game, and it swiftly spread amongst the French nobility. While the game had long been played on the ground, this version appears to have died out in the 17th century, in favor of croquet, golf and bowling games, while table billiards had grown in popularity as an indoor activity. Mary, Queen of Scots, claimed that her "table de billiard" had been taken away by what would eventually become her executioners (who covered her body with the table’s cloth). In 1588, the Duke of Norfolk, owned a "billyard bord coered with a greene cloth… three billyard sticks and 11 balls of yvery". Billiards grew to the extent that by 1727, it was being played in almost every Paris cafe. In England, the game was developing into a very popular activity for members of the gentry.
By 1670, the thin butt end of the mace began to be used not only for shots under the cushion (which itself was originally only there as a preventative method to stop balls from rolling off), but players increasingly preferred it for other shots as well. The cue as it is known today was finally developed by about 1800.
Initially, the mace was used to push the balls, rather than strike them. The newly developed striking cue provided a new challenge. Cushions began to be stuffed with substances to allow the balls to rebound, in order to enhance the appeal of the game. After a transitional period where only the better players would use cues, the cue came to be the first choice of equipment.
The demand for tables and other equipment was initially met in Europe by John Thurston and other furniture makers of the era. The early balls were made from wood and clay, but the rich preferred to use ivory.
Early billiard games involved various pieces of additional equipment, including the "arch" (related to the croquet hoop), "port" (a different hoop) and "king" (a pin or skittle near the arch) in the 1770s, but other game variants, relying on the cushions (and eventually on pockets cut into them), were being formed that would go on to play fundamental roles in the development of modern billiards.
The early croquet-like games eventually led to the development of the carom or carambole billiards category – what most non-US and non-UK speakers mean by the word "billiards". These games, which once completely dominated the cue sports world but have declined markedly in many areas over the last few generations, are games played with three or sometimes four balls, on a table without holes (and without obstructions or targets in most cases), in which the goal is generally to strike one object ball with a cue ball, then have the cue ball rebound off of one or more of the cushions and strike a second object ball. Variations include three-cushion, straight rail and the balkline variants, cushion caroms, five-pins, and four-ball, among others.
Over time, a type of obstacle returned, originally as a hazard and later as a target, in the form of pockets, or holes partly cut into the table bed and partly into the cushions, leading to the rise of pocket billiards, especially "pool" games, popular around the world in forms such as eight-ball, nine-ball, straight pool and one-pocket amongst numerous others. The terms "pool" and "pocket billiards" are now virtually interchangeable, especially in the US. English billiards (what UK speakers almost invariably mean by the word "billiards") is a hybrid carom/pocket game, and as such is likely fairly close to the ancestral original pocket billiards outgrowth from 18th to early 19th century carom games.
There are few more cheerful sights, when the evenings are long, and the weather dull, than a handsome, well-lighted billiard room, with the smooth, green surface of the billiard table; the ivory balls flying noiselessly here and there, or clicking musically together.
—Charles Dickens Jr., (1889)
As a sport
At least the games with regulated international professional competition have been referred to as "sports" or "sporting" events, not simply "games", since 1893 at the latest. Quite a variety of particular games (i.e. sets of rules and equipment) are the subject of present-day competition, including many of those already mentioned, with competition being especially broad in nine-ball, snooker, three-cushion and eight-ball.
Snooker, though technically a pocket billiards variant and closely related in its equipment and origin to the game of English billiards, is a professional sport organized at the international level, and its rules bear little resemblance to those of pool games.
Billiard balls vary from game to game, in size, design and quantity. Carom billiards balls are larger than pool balls, and come as a set of two cue balls (one colored or marked) and an object ball (or two object balls in the case of the game four-ball). American-style pool balls, used in any pool game and found throughout the world, come in sets of two suits of object balls, seven solids and seven stripes, an 8 ball and a cue ball; the balls are racked differently for different games (some of which do not use the entire ball set). Blackball (English-style eight-ball) sets are similar, but have unmarked groups of red (or blue) and yellow balls instead of solids and stripes, and are smaller than the American-style; they are used principally in Britain, Ireland, and some Commonwealth countries, though not exclusively, since they are unsuited for playing nine-ball. Snooker balls are also smaller than American-style pool balls, and come in sets of 22 (15 reds, 6 "colours", and a cue ball). Other games also have custom ball sets, such as Russian pyramid and bumper pool.
Billiard balls have been made from many different materials since the start of the game, including clay, bakelite, celluloid, crystallite, ivory, plastic, steel and wood. The dominant material from 1627 until the early 20th century was ivory. The search for a substitute for ivory use was not for environmental concerns but based on economic motivation and fear of danger for elephant hunters. It was in part spurred on by a New York billiard table manufacturer who announced a prize of $10,000 for a substitute material. The first viable substitute was celluloid, invented by John Wesley Hyatt in 1868, but the material was volatile, sometimes exploding during manufacture and was highly flammable.
There are many sizes and styles of pool and billiard tables. Generally, tables are rectangles twice as long as they are wide. Most pool tables are known as 7-, 8-, or 9-footers, referring to the length of the table’s long side. Full-size snooker and English billiard tables are 12 feet (3.7 m) long on the longest side. Pool halls tend to have 9-foot (2.7 m) tables and cater to the serious pool player. Pubs will typically use 7-foot (2.1 m) tables which are often coin-operated. Formerly, 10-foot (3 m) tables were common, but such tables are now considered antique collectors items; a few, usually from the late 19th century, can be found in pool halls from time to time. Ten-foot tables remain the standard size for carom billiard games. The slates on modern carom tables are usually heated to stave off moisture and provide a consistent playing surface.
The length of the pool table will typically be a function of space, with many homeowners purchasing an 8-foot (2.4 m) table as a compromise. High quality tables are mostly 4.5 by 9 ft (2.7 m). (interior dimensions), with a bed made of three pieces of thick slate to prevent warping and changes due to humidity. Smaller bar tables are most commonly made with a single piece of slate. Pocket billiards tables normally have six pockets, three on each side (four corner pockets, and two side pockets).
All types of tables are covered with billiard cloth (often called "felt", but actually a woven wool or wool/nylon blend called baize). Cloth has been used to cover billiards tables since the 15th century. In fact, the predecessor company of the most famous maker of billiard cloth, Iwan Simonis, was formed in 1453.
Bar or tavern tables, which get a lot of play, use "slower", more durable cloth. The cloth used in upscale pool (and snooker) halls and home billiard rooms is "faster" (i.e. provides less friction, allowing the balls to roll farther across the table bed), and competition-quality pool cloth is made from 100 % worsted wool. Snooker cloth traditionally has a nap (consistent fiber directionality) and balls behave differently when rolling against versus along with the nap.
The cloth of the billiard table has traditionally been green, reflecting its origin (originally the grass of ancestral lawn games), and has been so colored since the 16th century, but it is also produced in other colors such as red and blue.
The cloth was earlier said to be the most important part of the game, most likely because of the reflection of the game’s origin. The players were stubborn in the fact that the cloth should not be ripped. They even made women continue to use maces after cues were invented, for fear that they would rip the cloth with the sharper cues.
A rack is the name given to a frame (usually wood, plastic or aluminum) used to organize billiard balls at the beginning of a game. This is traditionally triangular in shape, but varies with the type of billiards played. There are two main types of racks; the more common triangular shape which is used for eight-ball and straight pool and the diamond shaped rack used for nine-ball.
Billiards games are mostly played with a stick known as a cue. A cue is usually either a one piece tapered stick or a two piece stick divided in the middle by a joint of metal or phenolic resin. High quality cues are generally two pieces and are made of a hardwood, generally maple for billiards and ash for snooker.
The butt end of the cue is of larger circumference and is intended to be gripped by a player’s hand. The shaft of the cue is of smaller circumference, usually tapering to an 0.4 to 0.55 inch (10 to 14 mm) terminus called a ferrule (usually made of fiberglass or brass in better cues), where a rounded leather tip is affixed, flush with the ferrule, to make final contact with balls. The tip, in conjunction with chalk, can be used to impart spin to the cue ball when it is not hit in its center.
Cheap cues are generally made of pine, low-grade maple (and formerly often of ramin, which is now endangered), or other low-quality wood, with inferior plastic ferrules. A quality cue can be expensive and may be made of exotic woods and other expensive materials which are artfully inlaid in decorative patterns. Many modern cues are also made, like golf clubs, with high-tech materials such as woven graphite. Skilled players may use more than one cue during a game, including a separate generally lighter cue for the opening break shot (because of cue speed gained from a lighter stick) and another, shorter cue with a special tip for jump shots.
The mechanical bridge, sometimes called a "rake", "bridge stick" or simply "bridge", and "rest" in the UK, is used to extend a player’s reach on a shot where the cue ball is too far away for normal hand bridging. It consists of a stick with a grooved metal or plastic head which the cue slides on. Many amateurs refuse to use the mechanical bridge based on the perception that to do so is unmanly. However, many aficionados and most professionals employ the bridge whenever the intended shot so requires. Some players, especially current or former snooker players, use a screw-on cue butt extension instead of or in addition to the mechanical bridge. Bridge head design is varied, and not all designs (especially those with cue shaft-enclosing rings, or wheels on the bottom of the head), are broadly tournament-approved. In Italy a longer, thicker cue is typically available for this kind of tricky shot. Commonly in snooker they are available in three forms depending on how the player is hampered; the standard rest has a simple cross, the ‘spider’ has a raised arch around 12 cm with three grooves to rest the cue in and for the most awkward of shots, the ‘giraffe’ (or ‘swan’ in England) which has a raised arch much like the ‘spider’ but with a slender arm reaching out around 15 cm with the groove.
ChalkBilliard chalk is applied to the tip of the cue.
Chalk is applied to the tip of the cue stick, ideally before every shot, to increase the tip’s friction coefficient so that when it impacts the cue ball on a non-center hit, no miscue (unintentional slippage between the cue tip and the struck ball) occurs. Cue tip chalk is not actually the substance typically referred to as "chalk" (generally calcium carbonate, also known as calcite or carbonate of lime), but any of several proprietary compounds, with a silicate base. "Chalk" may also refer to a cone of fine, white hand chalk; like talc (talcum powder) it can be used to reduce friction between the cue and bridge hand during shooting, for a smoother stroke. Some brands of hand chalk actually are made of compressed talc. (Tip chalk is not used for this purpose because it is abrasive, hand-staining and difficult to apply.) Many players prefer a slick pool glove over hand chalk or talc because of the messiness of these powders; buildup of particles on the cloth will affect ball behavior and necessitate more-frequent cloth cleaning. Some players find it useful to moisten the chalk with saliva thereby creating a chalky paste which performs as a lubricant on the cue stick. This lubrication method is usually attributed to professional pool player Hal "Spitty-Smitty" Smith.
Cue tip chalk (invented in its modern form by straight rail billiard pro William A. Spinks and chemist William Hoskins in 1897) is made by crushing silica and the abrasive substance corundum or aloxite (aluminum oxide), into a powder. It is combined with dye (originally and most commonly green or blue-green, like traditional billiard cloth, but available today, like the cloth, in many colors) and a binder (glue). Each manufacturer’s brand has different qualities, which can significantly affect play. High humidity can also impair the effectiveness of chalk. Harder, drier compounds are generally considered superior by most players.