A History of Cue Sports

Cue sports are to be found in many establishments nowadays and millions enjoy playing the different variants on a regular basis. In the US alone, about 35 million people play billiards every year, from pros to recreational players, according to Statista. But how did our favorite sport emerge and develop? How did how the games become the ones they are today?
Generally, all cue sports (often also collectivized under the name billiards sports) are thought to have developed from outdoor stick-and-lawn games such as golf and croquet. Many different countries have been credited with the invention of billiards, but as is often the case with anything that happened a handful of centuries ago, nothing about its true origin can be said with complete certainty. However, the oldest known references to the game were made in 15th century England, while King Louis XI of France was reported to have owned the first indoor billiard table in history.

The game was further developed in France and rapidly gained popularity among the French aristocracy. Billiard was played virtually in every café in France by the early 18th century, while in England it was still mostly reserved for nobility. Up until then, a mace was used to push the balls forward rather than actually striking them. It was not until around 1800 that the cue as we know it today became the most popular striking device of choice.

The development of carom - or carambole - billiards was the direct result of early croquet-like games, but would eventually lose popularity rapidly in favor of pocket billiards variants. The pockets were originally designed to form hazards rather than targets, but the obvious alternative purpose swiftly became the most commonly used objective, leading to variants such as 8-ball, snooker, English billiards, and many others.
Cue Sport Equipment
The equipment used for playing these different variants has a rich history in its own right. The balls were predominantly made out of ivory for the lion’s share of the games’ history. Out of economic necessity, alternatives were sought and found in the late 19th century, spurred by the Industrial Revolution. During that same time, the tables on which the game were played underwent significant improvements.

Since a perfect table requires a combination of perfect balance, friction and measurements, many different materials were experimented with. The two-to-one table ratio became the standard during the 18th century and inventions such as vulcanized rubber dramatically improved certain aspects of the game, in this case, a minimization of the loss of kinetic energy when the balls would rebound off the cushions. The inventiveness of those times led to the development of other games too. For instance, mathematician Blaise Pascal accidentally invented the roulette wheel in 1965 in his attempts to come up with a perpetual motion machine. The roulette wheel is based on frictionless motion, enabling it to function in a way that provides equal chances of the ball landing in any of its 37 (European roulette) or 38 slots.

On the contrary, friction was sought after in billiards technology. At about the same time, chalk started to be used on the cues to increase friction, leather cue tips were invented, and slate was introduced as a superior table surface. It remains the preferred playing surface to this day, for manufacturers like DPT and A.E. Schmidt Billiard Co. A typical table weighs 450 pounds or more. This weight helps keep the table stationary in addition to its great qualities when it comes to friction and density. Later refinements were rather minimal compared to the developments of those times, and largely involved different construction techniques rather than significant changes to the tables or materials themselves. Unsurprisingly, pool table production is quite limited to a small number of highly-specialized manufacturers.
Competitive Billiards
In the 19th century, pool and billiard championships started to emerge and soon became immensely popular. According to some accounts, billiard results were featured more prominently in the news than war news during the US Civil War. After World War II, the games seemingly lost their appeal and billiard rooms were closed in rapid succession.

Billiards were resurrected in the early 1960s, when the cult classic The Hustler, starring Paul Newman, was released, but interest declined again swiftly during the Vietnam War. However, when its sequel, The Color of Money was released in 1986 the game regained its position as both a leisure and competitive activity and the trend surged up until today. The film starred an up-and-coming Tom Cruise and was directed by Martin Scorsese.


Although correlation does not imply causation, the popularity of these two movies almost certainly played a tremendous role in the development of cue games. Tours such as the Derby City Classic followed closely all throughout the world, but the sport is still most popular in the United Kingdom.  British love for snooker is almost unrivaled by any other sport, and nowadays it is possible to see a snooker game every day in Britain.

Billiards Galore
Even though billiards games have been around for over half of a millennium, the sport was mostly reserved for aristocrats and nobility for a big part of its history. Current conditions, with a lot of countries full of pool halls have surprisingly only been stable for the past three decades. Nevertheless, the growth has been tremendous and the game’s popularity is holding strong, despite challenges of the past. Variation of pools and billiards are very strong in Commonwealth countries and the USA, as well as many East Asian countries, where it can be seen on television very often. Many players have made a name and a fortune for themselves playing our favorite game and many more are sure to follow.