The Saratoga Sun -

Pool, from the deep end


March 21, 2018

Pool, or billiards, began with …

I know that because I made up a funny bit about how darts began, you are waiting for me to give you a completely fabricated, cock-and-bull story about how this sport arose.

I, being a semi-sadist, refuse to do it.

… plus I couldn’t think of anything outlandish enough.

The Name of the Game

Billiards got its name from France. It either came from the word “billart, “ one of the wooden sticks originally used or “bille,” meaning a ball.

In the 19th century, “poolroom” was the term used for a horse racing betting parlor and the term “pool” refers to a collective bet made on the horses. Pool tables were often brought in so patrons could pass time between races. Eventually, the two became connected in common parlance but the negative connotations often connected to the term came from the betting, not the billiards.


“Lets to billiards.”

—from Antony and Cleopatra

by William Shakespeare


Table Croquet?

Pool was derived from a croquet-like game played in the 1340s around Northern Europe or France. The traditional green felt on a table represents the grass on which the original outdoor game was played. The rails, which were originally straight up and down, were simply a means to keep the balls used on the table. Because the rails originally resembled river banks shots taken using them began to be called bank shots.

Pool was originally a game for royals and other nobles and the first recorded billiard table belonged to King Louis XI of France (1461-1483). This is pretty much a “duh” deduction since it was likely hard for commoners who toiled in the mud all day to pay for a table … and a castle was obviously an easier fit for a table than your run-of-the-mill thatched hut.


“When I played pool I was like a good psychiatrist. I cured ‘em of all their daydreams and delusions.”

—Minnesota Fats


Cue Pasa?

The original objects used to push the balls around were called “maces.” Maces were basically a stick with a shaped wooden block on one end. A mace wielder would push the balls with the block end in kind of a shuffleboard fashion. When balls were up against the rail though, a player might use the tail end of the mace to push a ball. This end of the mace was called a “queue” which is French for “tail.” I’m thinking you see where today’s term for a pool stick or “cue” comes from.


“The game of billiards has destroyed my naturally sweet disposition”

—Mark Twain


Chalk it up to …

There is an interesting story that the man credited with inventing the leather tip, a captain Mingaud, was a political prisoner during the French Revolution. During his incarceration, Mingaud is said to have persuaded his jailers to install a billiard table in his cell (I am guessing this was not a standard sized cell). The story goes that when it was time for his release, he asked to stay longer so he could continue to play. Whether that part is true or not is anyone’s guess, but apparently he did get a table in his cell.

In 1807 he began to publicly demonstrate his leather-tipped cue and the “magic” of spin. Mingaud would impart bottom spin on the cue ball (the one hit by the cue) and feign horror when it rolled back at him after striking an object ball—claiming the ball should be seized because it was “tormented by the devil.”

The captain learned so much about spin that he is also credited with inventing the “massé” shot in which the cue ball spins around a middle ball to strike the object ball.

Leather tips had made imparting spin on the ball possible because the leather could “grab” onto the sides of the cue ball.

Even before cues had leather tips, chalk had been applied to cue tips (not to be confused with Q-tips) to increase friction on the ball. By 1800, the Industrial Revolution had improved billiard equipment quality and leather tips had been perfected. About this time the English began to widely use both chalk and leather for side spin shots.

Eventually visitors to the United States began showing their American cousins how to use spin. This is why spin is called putting “English” on the ball in America. The English themselves refer to the shot as a “side.”

By the way, if you do miscue around a group of people, eventually you will hear the phrase: “chalk is free.” What chalk ever did to gain its freedom is a mystery … but there you go.


“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.


It Takes Balls

Pool balls have been made from wood, clay plastic and steel, but the first balls were made from elephant tusks. The average ivory tusk yielded 3 to 4 balls which eventually got both dangerous and expensive. The first viable substitute for ivory was celluloid. The only problem with this material is that it was volatile and these balls were said to explode occassionally—talk about having a dynamite game!

Today, extremely chip and crack resistant phenolic resins are used to create balls … these rarely, if ever, explode.


“It is certain. It is decidedly so. Without a doubt. Yes—definitely. You may rely on it. As I see it, yes. Most likely. Outlook good. Yes. Signs point to yes. Reply hazy, try again. Ask again later. Better not tell you now. Cannot predict now. Concentrate and ask again. Don’t count on it. My reply is no. My sources say no. Outlook not so good. Very doubtful.”

—The 20 answers

floating in the blue fluid

of a Magic 8 Ball


Gaming it up

If you want to learn the game, show up at an establishment with a pool table. There are usually folks around willing to impart their levels of learning to you. I, myself, learned the game from these types. Because of this, I am usually willing to show someone the game.

During the course of learning you will get beat … a lot.

Do not get discouraged.

I had one guy quit playing me because he got tired of beating me after 10 games straight … even though I was paying for the games.

After many defeats and many more games, I have got to beat that same person on several occasions.

I like to say, “the game of pool is hitting a round ball, with another round ball, with a stick … how good can you be?”

The answer is very good … but it will take practice.


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