Home

The Online Guide to Traditional Games

Features
  Board Games

A History of Pool in the USA

Lawn Games  
  Pub Games Game Index  
  Table Games About  

Following centuries of Billiards dominated by England and France, during the 19th century a third country became obsessed with the sport of cues and balls. Billiard tables had been appearing in all the colonies from the 1600s but Americans were particularly keen. As with other aspects of American life, Billiards culture became a mish-mash of the cultures of the immigrant populations. Americans played early Port and King Billiards, held English Billiards competitions, indulged in Pin Billiards from Italy and, in contrast to Britain and its empire, imported Carambole tables without pockets from France.

 

Early American Billiards development

The oldest Billiards games played in the USA were One-Pocket and Four-Ball Billiards.   One-Pocket, is the earliest game, a description of the game was recorded in 1775 - complete rules for a British form appeared in 1869 showing that the return trip across the Atlantic for the various games of Pool probably also started with One Pocket.

Until the 1870's, though, most Americans would have played American Four-Ball Billiards, which was played on an English Billiards sized table (12' x 6') with only 4 pockets and four balls - two white and two red. It was played like English Billiards by aiming to pocket balls, go in-off (scratch) or by making canons which were called 'caroms'.

Americans had taken to playing mainly two new forms by the late 1870's - Straight Rail and Fifteen-Ball Pool.  Straight Rail was the American name for the French and European game, Carombole, played on the French Carombole tables without pockets and is the forerunner of all American 'Carom Billiards' games.  Conversely, American 'Fifteen-Ball Pool' or 'Sixty-one Pool' is the predecessor of all modern 'Pool' games, being played on a table with pockets and based upon the the game of Pyramid from England, an ancestor of Snooker.

The term 'Carom' should, of course, not be confused with the much more ancient and equally popular Indian table game, Carrom or Karum.  Beware also of the the ambiguity of the American usage of the term 'Billiards' - see the note at the end of the early Billiards history page for an explanation.

Carom Billiard games, particularly Balkline, dominated the American public eye until 1919, when Ralph Greenleaf's pool playing captured the nation's attention. Through the 1930's, both Pool and Carom Billiards, particularly three-cushion billiards, shared the spotlight. For more information on the development of Carom Billiards, see the Carombole page.

 

Development of Pool in the USA

American Fifteen-Ball Pool or "Sixty-one Pool" is the predecessor of all modern 'Pocket Billiards' games.  It was played with 15 object balls as in the English game Pyramid, but crucially, the balls are numbered 1 through 15. For sinking a ball, the player received a number of points equal to the value of the ball. The sum of the ball values in a rack is 120, so the first player who received more than half the total, or 61 , was the winner. The word "pool" means a collective bet and became a term for the game when it began to be played in 19th century "pool rooms" which were then places for betting on horse.races.

Continuous Pool replaced Fifteen-Ball Pool as the championship game when, in 1888, it was thought more fair to count the number of balls pocketed by a player and not their numerical value . Thus, the player who sank the last ball of a rack would break the next rack and his point total would be kept "continuously" from one rack to the next.

Eight-Ball Pool was invented shortly after 1900 and is one of the most widely played of all Billiards games today.

Straight Pool followed in 1910. Also known as 14.1 Continuous. The object is to pot 14 of the 15 balls one after the other and in any order leaving just one ball whereupon all the others are racked up and the break continues. One point is scored for each ball potted.

Nine-Ball Pool seems to have developed around 1920. This game is now more popular in Europe particularly in Sweden and Germany. Balls one to nine are racked up in a diamond with the nine ball in the middle and the one ball nearest the baulk line. Each shot must always hit the lowest numbered ball on the table first and then pocket a ball or make two balls reach a cushion. If this isn't achieved, it is a foul and the balls are re-racked for the opponent to play.

The World Pool-Billiards Association, which controls the various Pool (American Pocket Billiards) games, is one of the primary members of the The World Confederation of Billiard Sports along with The World Snooker Federation and Union Mondiale de Billard.  There is some information about it on the the BCA site.

 

Links

Billiard Congress of America.  The governing body for the sport of pocket billiards (meaning pool) in North America.
The European Pocket Billiard Federation
United States Pool Players Association (USPPA) (700 member league, based in Florida)
The Women's Professional Billiard Association

Some of the information on this page comes from an extract from 'A History of the Noble Game of Billiards' by Mike Shamos which can be found on the Billiard Congress of America site.

 

 

 

 

 

Email to jm at tradgames.org.uk

Copyright 1997 - now by James Masters.