by Kathy Wolfe

This week, Tidbits invites you to take a look to learn more about the game of pool!

• The game of pool evolved from an early European lawn game, similar to croquet. The earliest documented billiard table was made in 1470. When King Louis XI of France died in 1483, an inventory of his property contained “a bed of stone, a cloth covering, and a hole in the middle of the playing field, into which balls could be driven.”

    The word “cue” translates from the French word “queue,” meaning “tail.” Centuries ago, a curved wooden head attached to a narrow handle, an apparatus known as a mace, was used to push the ball forward. The bulky head made it difficult to make shots along the rail, so players turned the handle around and started using the tail end. This evolved into the cue.

      Early billiard tables had flat vertical walls for rails, which functioned to keep balls from falling off. Because they resembled river banks, players began referring to the walls as banks, and honed the skill of bouncing balls off the walls, which naturally came to be called a “bank shot.”

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    The cloth on the table hasn’t changed in centuries. In the 1500s, builders started using wool, and it’s still what’s used today for the most part. Some manufacturers use a wool/nylon blend.

The early billiard balls were made of ivory. In 1863, Michael Phelan established a contest with a $10,000 prize for the best substitute for ivory billiard balls. Phelan was not only a manufacturer of billiard supplies and an owner of numerous billiard parlors, he was the first billiards star in the U.S. Along with the concern for a shortage of ivory, Phelan sought to reduce the cost of the expensive ivory balls. In 1850, Phelan published the first book in the U.S. outlining the science, etiquette, and rules of billiards, “Billiards Without A Master.” Although John Wesley Hyatt had more than 235 patents to his credit, the most well-known of his inventions was that of a celluloid composite billiard ball. In addition to billiard balls, Hyatt used his celluloid compound to produce false teeth and piano keys. Thirty years after his success in billiards, Hyatt founded a roller bearing company, serving General Motors and the Ford Motor Company.

    John Thurston revolutionized billiards with the invention of slate beds and rubber cushions for billiard tables. In 1799, he established a billiard tables and cabinet making company, and was the first to mass-produce billiard tables. In 1826, Thurston was dissatisfied with wood’s tendency to warp, and discovering that slate was cheap, easily available, with a much smoother playing surface than wood, he developed a slate table. Following Charles Goodyear’s invention of vulcanized rubber in 1844, Thurston patented rubber cushions for his pool tables. Thurston’s company, which supplied the table that Napoleon used during his exile on St. Helena, is still in business today.   

The first big name in the American billiards business was John M. Brunswick, who emigrated to the U.S. from Switzerland in 1834. After serving an apprenticeship with a Philadelphia carriage-maker, he began working for a German woodworker. In 1845, Brunswick opened his own carriage company in Cincinnati, expanding into fashioning chairs, tables, and cabinets. When an acquaintance showed him an expensive heavy, beautifully-carved English billiards table, he saw the potential of crafting American-made tables. The popularity of billiards soared, and soon Brunswick was one of the top three companies in the market. He merged with his competitors and by the 1880s, they were the largest billiards manufacturer in the world. At the same time, the company branched out in bowling, producing wood lanes, bowling balls, and pins.

    Pool’s six-pocket tables range in size from 3.5 x 7 feet (1.07 x 2.13 m) to 4.5 x 9 feet (1.37 x 2.74 m). A “regulation” pool table is simply one with a playing surface whose length is twice as long as its width. The most common for home use measures 4 x 8 ft. with a playing surface of 44” x 88”. A tournament table measures 4.5 x 9 feet, with a 50” x 100” playing surface.

    Official pool balls weigh from 5.5 to 6 oz. (160 to 170 g) and have a diameter of 2.25 inches (57 mm).

    There are several different types of games of pool, including eight-ball, blackball, nine-ball, straight pool, one-pocket, and bank pool. The game of one-pocket has its origins in the 1700s. Each player is assigned one of the corner pockets on the table, which is the only pocket the player can sink the balls. Whoever pockets the majority of eight balls into their pocket is the winner.

    The most common pool game, eight-ball, was introduced around 1900. In the game of eight-ball, there are 15 colored balls – 7 solid, 7 striped, and the black 8-ball. When racking the balls for a game, the 8-ball should always be located at the center of the rack, two rows from the top and two rows from the bottom of the triangular rack. A player forfeits the game if his/her cue ball hits the 8-ball first. After the player has pocketed all of his/her colored balls, the player must call which pocket the 8-ball will be going in. If the 8-ball goes into any other pocket other than that one, the opposing player wins. In addition, even if the 8-ball does go into the called pocket, if the cue ball is also pocketed, the player loses to the opponent.

    Have you noticed pool players chalking their pool cue? Pros do it before every shot.    This creates friction to the tip of the cue, essential to making good contact with the ball so that the cue does not deflect off the cue ball. Proper chalking involves brushing the cube across the cue’s tip, lightly and evenly, everywhere the cue might contact the ball. Spinning it around on the tip leaves it heavy in some areas and light in others. Even though it’s called “chalk,” most products are made of fine abrasives without a single speck of actual chalk.

    Detroit was home to the world’s largest billiard hall, built during the sport’s Golden Age of the 1920s. The enormous seven-story Recreation Health Spa, in addition to their 20 barber chairs, 14 cigar stands, 7 lunch counters, 3 manicurists, a 300-seat restaurant, and 250 person capacity theater, added 103 billiards tables and 88 bowling lanes.