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The Story of American Billiards

Feb 10, 2020

Billiards (otherwise known as American pool) has had a turbulent yet fascinating history in the United States. Most likely introduced by English and Dutch settlers, by the 1700’s numerous American cabinetmakers were producing high quality billiard tables in limited numbers throughout the country. This brought attention to the subtle differences between American pool/billiards and English pool. The balls used in the American game are slightly larger, at 57mm as opposed to the 56mm balls used in English pool. The pockets are also larger to accommodate this contrast, and diamond system markings can be seen on the rails of American pool tables.

Father of American Billiards

Following this, the phenomenal rise of popularity began with Michael Phelan, the father of American billiards. A staunch promoter of the game and founder of the Phelan and Collender manufacturing company, he merged his business with his chief competitor, J.M. Brunswick & Balke, to form the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company in 1884. This new company had a large amount of control over every aspect of the game until the 1950’s, and its successor, Brunswick Billiards, remains the largest American manufacturer to this day.

Real Money Bets Are Common

Like many competitive sports, the game has often been played for gambling purposes, and real money bets have been a common occurrence since the sport’s inception. The legality of gambling on billiards today differs by state, though New Jersey has displayed particularly progressive laws regarding real money bets and online gambling. As long as the outlet is licensed and regulated and the patron is over the age of 21, sites like enable gambling to be safer and more accessible than it ever has been.

Improved Equipment and Industrial Revolution

This accessibility began with a dramatic improvement in the equipment used for billiards due to the Industrial Revolution. Around this time, visitors from England began showing Americans how the use of a spin could change the behaviour of a billiard ball after it was struck. The technique was coined “English” in the United States due to this, though the British referred to it as a “side”.

Most Popular American Billiard Games

The most popular billiard game in the U.S. all the way up until the 1870’s was American Four-Ball Billiards. This was played on an 11 or 12 foot table with four pockets and four billiard balls, two white and two red; in other words, an alternate form of English billiards that utilized both pockets and caroms to score points. The additional object ball allowed players to score in many unique ways, and it was possible to land 13 points on a single shot if all the conditions were met. 

From this style spawned two branching game types: straight rail and Fifteen-Ball Pool. Straight rail featured three balls on a pocketless table and required basic caroms to score points, while Fifteen-Ball Pool became the predecessor of modern pocket billiards in America. From this, Eight Ball, Straight Pool and Nine-Ball were formed, early in the 1900’s.

World War II Effect on Billiards in the U.S.

Billiards continued to be widely-played and had a thriving competitive scene up until World War II, though it struggled to recover in the aftermath. During this time, billiard halls were closing left and right, and the future of the sport was uncertain.

This changed in 1961 upon the release of the movie, “The Hustler”, starring Paul Newman; the film covered the gritty life of a pool hustler, and was a smash hit. New pool rooms and billiard halls began opening all across the country, and the sport remained prominent for the remainder of the 1960’s.

Vietnam War Shines The Limelight on American Billiards

After the Vietnam war, when billiards play was once again in decline, a sequel to the “The Hustler” was released in 1986: “The Color of Money”, starring Tom Cruise. This shone the limelight on American billiards and brought the sport to a new generation.

This resulted in more fashionable, upscale halls and rooms such as Amsterdam Billiards (founded in 1989) opening up throughout the United States. These catered to patrons who would’ve been put off by the style of the old rooms, and contributed towards alleviating the stigma surrounding the sport.

Summary: American Billiards Fight for Popularity

While the game has had its ups and downs since the 1800’s, American billiards has also had to contend with a fight for recognition and respectability, as the sport was long-associated with crime and indolence. Politicians constantly attempted to have pool rooms and billiard halls closed down, and to this day the process for acquiring a license to open these types of venues can be fraught with archaic regulations.

Nevertheless, the game and its reputation have only improved over the years, and rooms these days have a chic nightclub vibe to them, far removed from the dingy halls of old. Even Las Vegas casinos such as Mandalay Bay have an abundance of high quality billiard tables these days. This has allowed a brand new audience to engage with the game without the prejudice as a factor, which can only spell good things for the future of American billiards as we begin the 2020’s.


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