Byrne's Standard Website of Pool and Billiards

Tripping through billiard history
Compiled by Robert Byrne
Why is pool table cloth usually green? Because grass is green. Billiards (taken to mean all cue games) is a form of a croquet-like game played on grass. It was brought indoors and put on tables in the fifteenth century in England and France, when the game begins to appear in works of art. The first recorded billiard table is ordered by Louis XI of France in 1470.

In 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots, complains of being deprived of her billiard table while imprisoned at Fotheringay Castle. After her execution, her lady-in-waiting reports that Mary's headless body was wrapped in the cloth from the table.

In 1591, Edmund Spenser describes billiards as "a thriftless game."

One of the best-known early references to the game is in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, first performed in 1609. In Act II, Scene 5, the old joker has Cleopatra say: "Let's to billiards. Come, Charmian." There is no evidence that the game was played before the 1400s.

In 1616, Ben Jonson mentions the smoothness of a billiard ball in his play The Devil Is an Ass.

The game is very popular in the royal houses of England and the Continent, and commoners like it, too. In The Complete Gamester, published in 1674, the first book to contain instructions for billiards (as well as other games), author Charles Cotton states that the game "is much approved of and played by most nations in Europe, especially in England, there being few towns of note that hath not a publick Billiard Table." Gambling is already a problem. Cotton cautions: "Let not a covetous desire of winning another's money engage you to the losing of your own."

In the late 1600's, Louis IV, supporting a court of 3,000 people, installs an elaborate billiard room in his new palace at Versailles and plays in the light of 26 chandeliers and 16 floor candelabras. H.G. Wells later writes that Louis "guided his country towards bankruptcy" with "an elaborate dignity that still exhorts our admiration."

One of the earliest mentions of the game in America is in the secret diary of Colonial legislator, William Byrd II of Westover, Virginia. After making love to his wife, he writes: "It is to be observed that the flourish was performed on the billiard table."

Pool hustlers go way back. In the 1689 memoirs of the Duke of St. Simon, a hustler is described who later becomes a Catholic Bishop. In 1789 in Paris, there is a player willing to bet that he can make thirty bank shots in a row, not bad considering that cues then didn't have leather tips and rails were made of tightly bundled cloth instead of rubber. At about the same time, a shark in Hamburg, Germany, makes shots by jumping the cueball from one table to another.

Billiards was Mozart's main form of relaxation.

In 1792, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette play billiards on the eve of their imprisonment. Her cue is said to have been fashioned from a single elephant tusk decorated with gold inlays. Records show that she beat the king in those final games. In the words of American writer John Grissim, "The woman was in stroke, but so was her executioner."

Thomas Jefferson plans to install a billiard table in Monticello but is thwarted by the state, which bans the game.

The first book in English devoted entirely to the game appears: E. White's A Practical Treatise on the Game of Billiards, London, 1807.

While in exile on St. Helena, Napoleon, an enthusiastic player, happily receives a table sent to him from England.

George Washington plays a game or two with the visiting French General Lafayette.

In about 1815, a French political prisoner, Captain Francois Mingaud, discovers the amazing things that can be done with a cueball if a leather tip is put on the cue. He asks for his sentence to be extended so he can continue his researches. Upon his release he tours Europe giving exhibitions of trick shots that are so dazzling that some observers see the devil's hand.

In 1828, John Quincy Adams installs a table in the presidential quarters, leading to congressional criticism of his "gambling furniture."

In 1833, a billiard table is hauled by mule train to Bent's Fort in Colorado on the Santa Fe Trail.

In 1838, Queen Victoria installs a billiard table in Windsor Castle.

In 1846, Pius IX installs a billiard table in the Vatican.

1850: The first American book on the game: Michael Phelan's Billiards Without Master.

Napoleon III sends an ornate billiard table to Russia in 1855 as a gift for the coronation of Tsar Alexander II.

Twelve thousand elephants are being killed every year to provide ivory for piano keys and billiard balls. Ivory prices rise as elephants dwindle. A $10,000 prize is offered by Brunswick for an ivory substitute.

Abraham Lincoln calls the game "health-inspiring" and "scientific," lending "recreation to an otherwise fatigued mind."

1859: Michael Phelan defeats John Seereiter to claim the first American championship.

In 1860, Harvard and Yale compete in the nation's first intercollegiate billiard match.

1864: Charles Dickens gets a billiard table for Christmas.

In 1868, chemist John Hyatt saves thousands of elephants by inventing celluloid for billiard balls. The balls sometimes spark on collision and even explode, requiring a search for improvements that lead to the invention of plastics, an industry that Hyatt can be said to have founded.

1876: Mark Twain and Bret Harte write a play in the billiard room of Twain's Connecticut home.

1888: Vincent Van Gogh paints Night Cafˇ in Arles, with a billiard table as the central feature.

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