This is also the proper name for the games of pool commonly played in America.

"Billiards" is usually understood to mean a game that is played on a table that does not have pockets, namely Three Cushion Billiards or Straight Billiards.

"Pocket billiards" refers to games played on a table with pockets, notably Eight Ball, Nine Ball, Straight Pool, Bank Pool, Snooker and One Pocket.

The BCA (Billiard Congress of America) publishes the standard rules for games that are commonly played with cue sticks and balls on tables.

In the midwest United States, where I am from, the euphamism for masturbation is more commonly called pocket pool.
The game we call "pool" as a lawn game similar to croquet. It was originally played in Europe during the 15th century. Since it was played outside, players were at a loss when bad weather reigned (no pun intended). Thus, players invented the table for playing the game. With this innovation, they could enjoy billiards indoors during weather. To keep the original flavor of the game, the table was covered with a green grass-like cloth. A simple wooden border then erected about the perimeter the table to keep the balls from falling off. The balls were pushed (not struck like today) around the table with big wooden sticks, or maces. The of the game, "billiards" came either from the French word the sticks used, "billart", or "bille", a ball.

The original game very different from the game we see today in bars bowling alleys. It was played with only two balls a table with six pockets and a hoop similar to a croquet wicket. An upright stick was as a target, again, similar to croquet. The hoop and upright target less and less action through the 18th century and eventually, leaving the familiar balls and pockets. The game was very popular with nobles and royalty and was known as "Noble Game of Billiards". However, there is evidence that even common folk played the game. The game's increased, and by 1600, Shakespeare mentioned it in Anthony and Cleopatra.

The cue stick that we use today was developed in the late 1600's. See, when a ball lay up against a rail, the bulky mace proved nearly impossible to use because of its large head. In instances like these, it became common practice to turn the mace around and use the smaller handle to strike the ball. This handle was called a "queue", a word meaning "tail". You see it now, don't you? Queue...cue! For a long time, women were forbidden to use the cue because the men said that women were more likely to rip the cloth with the cue.

In the beginning, tables had flat vertical walls for rails, there for the sole purpose of keeping a player's balls from dropping. Apparently, the players thought that the walls resembled river banks and so called them "banks". Some of the more inventive players discovered that balls could bounce off the rails, so they started aiming at them to make more difficult shots. And so, we now have what we call the "bank shot", where a ball is made to bounce off a cushion as part of the shot.

Improvements in billiard equipment were rapidly made in England after 1800, due largely to the Industrial Revolution. The crafty fellas started using chalk on the cue to increase friction between the ball the stick. The leather cue tip was later invented and lead to the use of the side-spin on the balls. The technique was perfected by the English by 1823. Another cool factoid: English visitors to the U.S. introduced the crude Americans to what they called "side", which is why in America, it is referred to as "English".

The two-piece cue made its debut in 1829. Slate became popular for table beds at around 1835. The discovery of the vulcanization of rubber by Goodyear in 1839 led to the use of rubber billiard cushions in 1845. By the year 1850, the billiard table had essentially evolved into its current form.

Many thanks to Mike Shamos from for the info.

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