As the world snooker championships progress I pose the question: ‘When is a snooker table not a snooker table?’
The answer is – when it’s a Billiard table. Honest.
There are many views as to when Snooker as a game was established – but it seems to be generally agreed that it morphed out of Billiard derivatives ‘invented’ by the British forces in India in the latter part of the 19th century. In the Billiard Room at Burghley House is a beautiful table all laid out for a game of snooker! The table was made by Thurstons of London in the 1850’s. When this table was made snooker hadn’t been created so you could not have played the game anyway! However, there is another serious difference between Billiard and Snooker tables – Snooker tables have wider throats and pockets than a Billiard one, thus making easier to pot on a snooker table – but harder for a snooker player on a billiard table. To your scribe it makes little difference – I am useless at both games!
However – the original game of billiards was nothing like the present game; it was more like playing crocket on a table. The earliest evidence found for the existence of Billiards played on a table was in an inventory of 1470 listing items purchased by King Louis XI of France. On the list were “billiard balls and billiard table for pleasure and amusement”. The term “billiard”, incidentally, is derived from French, either from the word “billart” – one of the wooden sticks, or “bille” – a ball.
The earliest mentions in England were in 1588 when Billiard tables were in the possession of the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Leicester. Mary Queen of Scots appears to have had a billiard table in her Fotheringhay prison cell while she awaited execution because, in 1576, she complained bitterly that her Billiard table had been taken from her.
The first description of the game of Billiards in English was in Charles Cotton’s Complete Gamester of 1674. The table had a croquet-like hoop at one end called the ‘Port’ and an upright skittle at the other called the ‘King’. Each player – usually two were playing – was allocated a single ball which he pushed rather than struck. The device used was called a ‘mace’ and was used standing near upright compared to the bent stance of modern-day games. The idea was to be the first through the Port in the correct direction (if your ball went through in the ‘wrong’ direction, you were deemed a ‘fornicator’) and then back to touch the King without knocking either Port or King over. A point was scored for each time you did this and the winner was the first to a number of points – typically 5. Later six hazards were added to the table. These ‘hazerds’ were round holes in the bed of the table and were to be avoided like the plague. They really were hazards – very much like a miniature recreation of a golf bunker.
If the ball was close to the edge of the table – close to a barrier something like the present-day cushion – the player may turn his ‘mace’ round and use the tail end of it to strike the ball. As French was the common language in many of these games he would be using the ‘queue’ of the mace. ‘Queue’ is French for ‘tail’. The spelling morphed later into ‘cue’ but the cue as we know it did not gain real popularity until around 1800. It appears to have been in use by most players by 1810 and by 1820, following the invention of the leather cue tip, the mace was virtually dead. Balls were of Ivory until late 19th century when synthetics started to be used.
Have fun if you play – and imagine today’s players standing up and pushing the balls around trying to keep them out of the pockets.