Sport for royalty and riffraff

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Billiards has a long and fascinating history.

To the general public the games and their names are casually mentioned interchangeably. Confusion persists about billiards, snooker, and pool, since some folks picture dingy parlors and street corner sharks while others conjure images of aristocrats formally attired amid regal surroundings. True, similar equipment is involved in all three pastimes, but the games themselves are decidedly different despite their names which now have a generic connotation – to the despair of aficionados.

Billiards has a long and fascinating history. France gets considerable credit for a form of croquet that used a wooden stick or mace to shove balls about on grassy lawns and then moved indoors (said to be why pool tables have green cloth covers!). The French word “billiard” means “wooden stick” and “bille” translates to “ball.” First record of a pool table dates to France’s King Louis XI in 1470. It’s believed Mary Queen of Scots was such a devotee she asked, before her execution in 1587, that her billiard table’s cover be her burial shroud.

Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra written 1606-07 includes the line “let us to billiards.” By that century’s end, players had turned the awkward mace around to strike a ball with its handle which the French called “queue,” meaning “tail” and it soon became “cue.” Mozart, Pope Pius IX, Louis XIV, Marie Antoinette all played billiards as did Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington.

No clear evidence describes billiards reaching the Colonies but reportedly George Washington won a match in 1748, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello had a hidden billiards room – because the game was then illegal in Virginia, even though several American cabinetmakers had made some billiard tables. Abraham Lincoln became the first American celebrity to own a table produced by Swiss-born John Brunswick who, by the mid-1800s opened billiard parlors as well as table manufacturing plants in Chicago.

During the Civil War, game results sometimes received wider coverage than war news! The Billiard Congress of America honors many players of this era such as Jacob Schaefer Sr., Frank Taberski, Alfredo De Oro and Johnny Layton and memorabilia such as tobacco cards featuring players are highly valued and highly priced.

The early 20th century hailed player personalities especially when in 1906 Willie Hoppe, then just 18, established American players’ supremacy by beating Frenchman Maurice Vignaus at “balkline” – another game among many where names and variations are used interchangeably by novices. One Web site helpfully explains: “‘Billiards’ and ‘pool’ are not the same thing. ‘Billiards’ refers to all cue sports including pool, carom (a game that involves a pool table with no pocket) and snooker (a British version of pool); however, pool is a specific type of billiards game.”

 As for balls – originally made from ivory, then crystallite and now phenolic resin – those for billiards require 3, snooker 22 and pool 15.

Not only does the Internet offer a plethora of sites describing games’ history, rules, vocabulary, famous players and availability of collectors’ treasures, a vast array of books is available. Michael Shamus, curator of The Billiard Archive in Pittsburgh, Pa., has written extensively about these subjects. His The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Billiards: Completely Revised is particularly praised. Googling “The Origin of The Term ‘Pool’” shows his explanation of its connection with horse racing and pool betting that resulted in the game’s unsavory reputation emphasized in the hit show The Music Man by Meredith Willson. Shamus tells how 1930s Manhattan boasted several thousand public rooms that dwindled to only two by 1985.

Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason in the 1961 film The Hustler sent players rushing to parlors. Interest declined after the Vietnam War, but Tom Cruise and Paul Newman caused an enthusiastic resurgence with 1986s The Color of Money. Suddenly pool paraphernalia displayed in flea markets and garage sales took on added value as collectors recognized the growing scarcity factor. Today, lobby posters advertising these two films command prices from $25 to more than $1,000 for originals.

Visit www.billiardcue.com to find custom, antique, and artistic pool cues as well as historic cue sticks and custom cases. Visit Pat McKune’s site – www.sportingcollectibles.com/billiards.html – which provides hundreds of game accessories that many people never heard of such as a cast iron Victorian billiard tablecloth iron priced at $225, as well as trophies, cues that come apart, ivory and composition balls. McKune points out, “A piece of cue chalk can be as rare as a postage stamp.” He offers one for $50.

Check out such sites and sources among many such as www.rockwellbilliards.com for Rockwell Billiards, Medford, Ore., or Flyin’ Lion Antiques and Billiard Table Co, at www.billiard-antiques.com, Iowa City, Iowa. Prices accommodate new collectors; sellers offer items such as a cue tip repair clamp for $10. At the other end, custom-made Paul Mottey one-of-a-kind all-ivory cue sticks may run from $2,500 to $35,000.

Consult the vast array of literature available. Mark and Connie Stellinga, Flyin’ Lion Antiques owners, wrote Pool and Billiard Collectibles: A New Antique Billiard Collectibles Price Guide Book. Steve Rushin’s Pool Cool in 132 pages offers “The right lingo. The best shots. The proper attire … from the funkiest pool hall to the most elegant billiards parlor.”

The 2001 book Mordecai Richler On Snooker, authored by the late popular Canadian of that name is a who’s who of persons and tidbits about this game popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Its cover features elegantly-hatted Elizabeth, consort of King George VI and mother of Queen Elizabeth, leaning and ready to strike her white ball.

So many luminaries loved these games! Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, George A. Custer, Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain and players such as W.C. Fields, Babe Ruth and Bob Hope all shared a fondness for the click of cue-on-ball regardless of the name of the table game they enjoyed.

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Billiards has a long and fascinating history.
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Billiards has a long and fascinating history.
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Postcard depicting pool players.
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Women playing on an elaborately decorated green-covered table in an early 1880s advertising poster.
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Billiards has a long and fascinating history.
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Billiard tablecloth iron, solid cast iron, 10 inches long and 4 1/2 inches wide. Marked "BURROUGHS & WATTS LTD. JOHANNESBURG." An extremely rare Victorian era piece of billiards memorabilia in excellent condition. $225. Courtesy of www.sportingcollectibles.com.
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Vintage billiards pool cue tip repair tool or clamp. Solid brass and boxwood with a steel file. Marked with registration number indicating 1916 vintage. Pictured in the Billiard Encyclopedia.
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Willie Mosconi nicknamed "Mr. Pocket Billiards," (June 27, 1913-Sept. 12, 1993), born William Joseph Mosconi, was an American professional pocket billiards (pool) player from Philadelphia, Pa., and a Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame member. Between 1941 and 1957, he won the BCA World Championship of pool an unmatched 15 times. He is often regarded as pool's greatest ambassador and his name is synonymous with pocket billiards. Mosconi pioneered and regularly employed numerous trick shots, set many records, and helped to popularize the game of billiards as a national recreation activity.

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