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Any of several games played with a leather-tipped stick (cue) and various numbers of balls on an oblong, cloth-covered table with raised, cushioned edges. The three main types are carom billiards, played with three balls on a pocketless table; pocket billiards (or pool), using a cue ball and 15 object balls on a table with six pockets; and snooker, similar to pool but with 21 object balls. Variants were popular in England and France in the 16th cent.

The origins of billiards, as we know it, might never be known exactly. While it may have come from some earlier games played with balls on a table in China, Italy, or Spain, it is most likely that it originated in France as an indoor version of croquet. (Although, some historians have suggested that croquet originated as the outdoor version of billiards.)

The name billiards comes from the French word billart, which was the stick that was used, and that word probably comes from the word bille, meaning "ball." When first reported the object of the game was to push a ball through a wicket to hit a peg, similar to croquet. Players used a club-like stick, which became known as the "mace" in England.

However, when the ball was up against a rail the head of the mace was too bulky and the other, more narrow end of the stick was used. This was called the "queue," meaning tail. Hence the modern word, cue.

In his play "Antony and Cleopatra" William Shakespeare refers to billiards, which led some early sports historians to conclude that it was an ancient Egyptian sport And the first known rule book was published in 1675 when billiards gained great popularity in England. Its writer claimed that there were "few Towns of note therein which hath not a publick Billiard-Table."

The first steps toward making billiards a "scientific" sport were taken by a Frenchman, known only as Captain Mingaud, who was a political prisoner in Paris during the French Revolution. While in prison, he enjoyed playing billiards so much that he refused to be released when his time was up.

Mingaud discovered that, if he rounded the cue tip with a file, he could aim more accurately. He also added a leather tip to further improve control of the ball. After finally leaving prison, Mingaud traveled around France giving exhibitions and stirring a great deal of interest in the sport.

The leather tip lost its effectiveness when it became shiny with use and had to be replaced frequently. An English billiards teacher, Jack Carr, learned that putting chalk on the tip prevented miscues. He was also evidently the first player to hit the ball off-center to apply spin.

Carr was a genuine hustler. He traveled around Europe during the 1820s, giving his demonstrations and selling his magical "twisting chalk" at an exorbitant price, throwing in a free lesson on how to make it work. As a result, the term "English" entered the lexicon of billiards--although, ironically, it's called "side" in England.

By that time, there were several different versions of billiards. In France, the most popular game was carom billiards, played with three balls (occasionally four balls) on a pocketless table. As in modern billiards, the object was to hit both of the object balls with the cue ball--called a carom or a billiard.

The most common game in England was also played with three balls, but on a table with six pockets. There were two ways of scoring: By pocketing a ball (other than the cue ball) or by hitting both of the other balls with the cue ball. This game is the ancestor of modern pocket billiards and English snooker.

Billiard Balls
Billiard balls were originally made of wood. We cannot state when ivory balls were introduced but they were a great improvement, albeit requiring constant attention to make sure they remained spherical and restaining to maintain the required colour. Sadly, the best ivory for billiard balls came from the small tusks of the female elephant, and, at the beginning of the 20th Century, some 12,000 elephants had to be slaughtered to supply just the British game ! Fortunately, composition balls became more prevalent in the late 1920's as evidenced by their use in the amateur Billiard championships in 1926 and the Professional championships in 1929, although they had been originally developed at the end of the 1870's

The Birth of Snooker
So how did the game of Snooker develop ? In 1875 the junior officers of the Devonshire Regiment serving at Jubblepore, India, became disenchanted with the game of billiards, and Colonel Sir Neville Chamberlain decided to take the coloured balls from the game of 'Pool' (where every player has a different coloured ball) and placing these on different spots on the table. In 1882 the officers arranged a meeting at Ootacamund where precise rules were drawn up and published. With the constant movement of personnel both throughout India and Britain, the game was soon accepted throughout the British Empire, although the Billiards Association resisted formal acknowledgment of the game until 11th December 1900, when they officially recognised the game and published the rules.

Billiards remained the most popular of the two games until the late 1930's when Snooker took over, largely due to the skill and effort of the legendary Joe Davis in promoting not just the game, but the skill with which it could be played and the planning that was necessary to produce the highest possible 'breaks'.


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