Both carom billiards and pocket billiards (pool) are cue sports. Billiards as a general class of games is played with a stick called a cue which is used to strike billiard balls, moving them around a cloth-covered billiard table bounded by rubber cushions attached to the confining rails of the table.
Carom or carambole billiards (often simply called "billiards" in many varieties of non-British English) is a type of billiards in which the table is bounded completely by cusions, and in which (in most variants) three balls are used.
Pocket billiards,most commonly called "pool", is a form of billiards usually equipped with sixteen balls (a cue ball and fifteen object balls), played on a pool table with six pockets built into the rails, splitting the cushions. The pockets (one at each corner, and one in the center of each long rail) provide targets (or in some cases, hazards) for the balls.
The two types of billiards have developed into a wide array of specific games with widely divergent rules, and require equipment that differs in some key parameters. Skill at one type of billiards-family game is widely applicable to the other, but expertise usually requires at least a degree of specialization. A few games such as English billiards are hybrids, using carom balls on pocket tables, and snooker, a non-pool-based pocket game, also uses such tables.
Cue sports evolved from ancient outdoor stick-and-ball games, generally referred to (retroactively) as "ground billiards", a game similar in various respects, and closely related to, modern croquet, golf and hockey. Billiards has been a popular game since the 15th century which is evident through its many mentions in the work of Shakespeare, including the famous line "let us to billiards" in Antony and Cleopatra (1606–07), the wrapping of the body of Mary, Queen of Scots, in her billiard table cover in 1586, the dome on Thomas Jefferson's home Monticello, which conceals a billiard room he hid, as billiards was illegal in Virginia at that time; and through the many famous enthusiasts of the sport including, Mozart, Louis XIV of France, Marie Antoinette, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and many others.
Carom billiards was long the most popular type of billiards, and remains an important international sport. Carom games, especially three-cushion, are intensely popular in many parts of Europe, Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America. In former times, extremely complicated and difficult carom games such as 18.2 balkline were played in world championship bouts by players whose skill was so immense that the serious playing field often consisted of only 4 major players for decades at a time, some of whom could literally score over 1000 points, one shot at a time, in series. The carom world opened up in the latter half of the 20th century and grew to its current level of much broader international competition with the rise of three-cushion billiards and its greater difficulty (a run of only 25 points in a row is considered exceptional). Along with snooker and perhaps nine-ball (see below), three-cushion is expected to become an Olympic sport within perhaps a decade.
The most common pool game, eight-ball is derived from an earlier game invented around 1900 and first popularised in 1925 under the name B.B.C. Co. Pool by the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company. The forerunner game was played with seven yellow and seven red balls, a black ball, and the cue ball. Today, numbered stripes and solids are preferred in most of the world, though the British-style variant (known as eight-ball pool or blackball) uses the traditional colors. Eight-ball, in one variant or another, is played world-wide, is played by millions of amateur league players, and draws intense competition at professional and amateur tournaments using the WPA World Standardized Rules. However, the most intense competition in pool is in the game nine-ball, which has been the professional game of choice since the 1970s, with the decline of straight pool (also known as 14.1 continuous). Nine-ball grew in popularity because of its speed, the increased role played by luck, and its suitability for television. Today there is some indication that the more difficult variant ten-ball may supplant nine-ball in pro play, but nine-ball is likely to remain the most popular gambling game for many years, and eight-ball the most popular recreational and amateur team one.
Differences in Equipment
Billiard balls vary from game to game, and area to area, in size, design and number. Though the dominant material in the making of quality balls was ivory until the late 1800s (with clay and wood being used for cheaper sets) , there was a need to find a substitute for it, not only due to environmental issues but also because of the steepness in the cost of the balls. This search led to the development of celluoid, the first industrial plastic, and balls have been made of various plastic compounds ever since, from now-obsolete materials such as bakelite, to modern-day phenolic resin, polyester and acrylic.
Carom billiards balls are larger in size than pool balls, and come most often as a set of two cue balls (one plain white and one colored or marked) and a red object ball (or two object balls in the case of the game four-ball, known in Japanese as yotsudama).
Internationally-standardized (sometimes called "American-style" or "Kelly") pool balls, used in any pool game and found throughout the world, come in sets of 16, including two suits of numbered object balls, seven solids (1-7) and seven stripes (9-15), a black 8-ball and a white cue ball. "British-style" balls (actually used in many areas outside of the UK, including Ireland, Australia and sometimes New Zealand, as well as various European countries) are slightly smaller, and come in unnumbered suits of reds and yellows. The balls are arranged differently depending on the game; usually in a triangular rack, although a diamond shaped rack may be used in the game of nine-ball. The pocket billiards offshoot snooker requires smaller balls, and several additional balls with special point values. Some unusual pool games such as baseball (named after the field sport) require additional balls, while other rare variants like poker pocket billiards, use an alternative ball set.
There are many sizes and styles of carom and pool tables. With the exception of some variants of bumper pool, and some novelty tables, all billiard tables are rectangles that are twice as long as they are wide. Quality tables have a multi-slab slate bed over which the cloth (baize) is stretched. Less rigid materials are prone to game-affecting changes due to humidity, and even permanent warping, as well as other problems.
The international standard for carom billiard tables is a playing surface (measured from rail cushion to rail cushion) of 2.84 by 1.42 meters (112 by 56 in., or 9.32 by 4.66 ft), +/- 5 mm, though many (especially American) tables for amateur use are 10 x 5 ft. The slate bed of profession-grade billiard tables are usually heated to stave off moisture and provide a consistent playing surface (a practice that has actually dated for centuries).
Most pool tables are known as 7-, 8- or 9-footers, referring to the length of the playing surface's long side. The internationally standardized size for professional play is 9 by 4.5 ft. (274 by 137 cm). In former times, 10 by 5 and even 12 by 6 ft. tables were common, but today these are used only for the highly diverged pocket billiards variant snooker (a major international sport in its own right, and not considered a form of pool), the carom-pocket hybrid known as English billiards ("billiards" in British English almost always refers to this game), and some other regional variants, such as Russian billiards and Finnish kaisa (both of which are played with balls even larger than carom balls, and very tight pockets). Ten-foot pool tables mostly date from the early 20th century back, but can occasionally still be found in older pool halls. Pool tables as small as 6 by 3 ft. are available for homes and cramped public spaces, but are not commonly preferred (nor are even smaller sets with miniaturized equipment).
Snooker (and English billiards) tables use smaller pockets, baize with a directional nap, and rounded pocket entrances.
The beds and rail cusions of all kinds of billiard-type tables (carom, pool, and snooker) are covered with a tightly-woven, napless cloth called baize, generally of worsted wool, although wool-nylon blends are common and some 100% synthetics are in use. Baize is principally a Commonwealth term, with "cloth" being preferred in North American English. It is often erroneously referred to as "felt". Blends and synthetics are more common in the bar/pub market (they are more durable, but slow the balls down, and many serious players eschew them). Faster-playing 100% woolen cloth is most commonly used on home tables and in high-end billiard parlours and pool halls. The cloth plays faster because it is smoother, thinner, more tightly-woven, and less fuzzy, providing less friction and thus allowing the balls to roll farther across the table bed. Billiard cloth has traditionally been green for centuries, representing the grass of the ancentral lawn game. Some have theorized that the color may serve a useful function, as (non-color-blind) humans allegedly have a higher sensitivity to green than to any other color. However, no known studies have demonstrated any noticeable effect of cloth color on professional or amateur play. Today, billiard cloth is available in a wide array of colors, with red, blue, grey and burgundy being very common choices. In recent years cloth with dyed designs has become available, such as sports, university, beer, motorcycle and tournament sponsor logos.
There is no core difference between carom and pool cloth. Serious players of both types of cue sports generally prefer fast cloth, as it requires less force when shooting, allowing a more accurate and "finessed" stroke, and better ability to control cue ball speed and thus position. Rebound angles off of cushions are also more accurate with faster cloth, and a tighter, thinner cloth retains less moisture. The principal difference is that the vast majority of pool tables encountered by the general public (i.e. in taverns and average pool halls) are considerably thicker, coarser and slower, with the result that average recreational players have little understanding of the finer points of the effects of fast cloth on the game, and tend to shoot too hard when on fast cloth.
Snooker cloth, on the hand, has a notable directional nap (except on most US-based tables, which use napless cloth), and compensating for the effect of this nap on ball speed and trajectory is an important element in mastery of the game.
Carom billiards games do not make use of ball racks. Depending upon the specific game in question, the balls may be released randomly, or set in very specific positions at the beginning of the game.
In most pool games, the object balls are tightly racked (placed within a usually wooden or plastic ball rack and moved into position) at a specific location on the table (which can vary from game to game). In internationally-standardized games such as nine-ball and eight-ball, the apex ball of the rack (the ball pointing toward the end of the table from which the opening shot will be taken) is placed on the foot spot, a spot (marked or otherwise) that is at the intersection of the lateral middle of the racking end of the table and its longitudinal center, and the game-winning ball is in the center of the rack. (In many games there may also be other racking requirements, such as the 1-ball at the apex). In some regional versions, such as the British eight-ball variant known as "eight-ball pool" (itself becoming internationally standardized under the new name "blackball"), the game-winning ball, again in the center of the rack (or pack, in British English), must go on the foot spot. Some pool games, such as "Chicago", are not racked at all, but as in many carom games have specific spotting locations for the balls. Snooker makes use of both tactics, with the pack of 15 "reds" being racked much as in pool, and the special "colour balls" each having certain spots assigned to each.
There are two main types of racks; the more common triangular type which used in eight-ball, fifteen-ball, straight pool and many other games, and a diamond-shaped one, is used in a nine-ball game (for convenience; nine-ball can easily be racked up in a triangular rack, and most venues do not provides diamonds for racking). Special hexagonal racks are available for seven-ball, but the diamond rack can actually be used, sideways, for racking this game.
All cue sports (with the exception of cueless offshoots known as finger billiards and hand pool) are of course played with a stick known as a cue (often redundantly referred to as a "cue stick"). A cue is usually either a one-piece tapered stick, commonly called a "house cue", or a two-piece personal cue intended to be carried in a case. The butt end of the cue is of larger circumference and is intended to be gripped by the player's shooting, while the narrower cue shaft, usually tapering to an 10 to 15 mm (0.4 to 0.6 in.) rigid terminus called a ferrule, where a leather tip is affixed to make final contact with balls. Cues can be made of different varieties of wood depending upon the cost factor; usually a cheap kind called ramin is used in lower-quality cues, while hard rock maple is one of the more common woods used in quality cues. Traditionally hand-crafted cues are often spliced with various decorative hardwoods, and further decked out with inlays of attractive and/or valuable materials such as silver, ivory (today usually harvested from mammoth tusks, as elephants are protected) and semi-precious stones. The basic nature and constuction of cues of all sorts is essentially the same, but due to the enormous increase in numbers of amateur league players since the mid-1980s, a large market has emerged, and continues to develop and specialize, for relatively inexpensive, mass-produced pool cues. In recent years, the array of available options has mushroomed, and cues are now available that look like hand-crafted cues to anyone but a collector, or with football team logos on them, or dragons and skulls, floral patterns, and many other options. Some have a high-tech appearance and are designed with modern materials and techniques in ways similar to high-end golf clubs.
There are various cue aids. Chalk, which comes in hard, often dyed, paper-wrapped cubes, must be periodically applied to the tip of the cue during every game to prevent miscuing, especially when attempting to impart spin to the ball. The mechanical bridge, or bridge stick, is a cue-like stick with a head on it upon which the cue can be rested in a groove or crook; this is used to give support to the cue in shots not reachable by or too awkward for the bridge hand. A tip tool or scuffer is an abbraisive or micro-puncturing hand-held tool that is used to prevent the tip from becoming too hard and smooth from repeated cue ball impacts to properly hold chalk. Hand talc (also sometimes mislabeled "chalk") or a pool glove may be used on the bridge hand to keep the stroke smooth; this is especially helpful in moist environments.
Carom billiard cues are typically a couple of inches shorter, and thicker at the tip, than pool cues (and even more so than snooker cues), but the exact dimensions are a matter of player preference. Personal (non-house) carom and pool cues are both typically jointed at the half-way point in the piece, while snooker cues most commonly are 2/3 shaft and 1/3 butt, requiring a longer carrying case. Carom cue ferrules and tips are most often approximately 13.5 to 14.5 mm in diameter, while pool tips average around 12.5 to 13.5 mm in diameter, with snooker tips at typically 10.5 to 11.5 mm. Many skilled pool players prefer to shoot with a snooker-sized tip, but few professionals do so, including the former snooker pros who have long dominated women's nine-ball. Carom cues most often have a ferrule of brass, although fiberglass is becoming more common, and fancy hand-made cues may have an ivory ferrule. Pool cues usually have a ferrule of fiberglass (or plastic, in cheap models), although metal was formerly very common along with ivory. Most snooker cues have a brass ferrule. Two piece carom and snooker cues usually have a wood-to-wood joint, often even featuring a wooden pin and threads, on the principle that this produces a better feel, while pool cues most often have a metal joint and pin, since pool games tend to involve considerably more force, necessitating reinforcement. Carom (and snooker) cues are more often hand-made, and are more costly on average than pool cues, since the market for mass-produced cues is only particularly strong in the pool segment. High-end hand-made but non-custom carom and snooker cues are largely products of Europe and Asia, while their pool counterparts are mostly North American products. The bulk of machine-made cues are sold by American brands, but are outsourced from non-US labor pools. It should be noted that in the extreme carom discipline known as artistic billiards (and its pool equivalent artistic pool and trickshooting, as well as in trick shot snooker), a master practitioner may have 20 or more cues, of a wide range of specifications, each customized for performing a particular shot or trick.
Aims of the Games
The aim of virtually all carom billiards games to amass a predetermined score (25, 50, 1000, etc.) before the opponent does so, or amass a greater score than the opponent within a predetermined about of time. In most such games, one successful shot earns one point, with no penality for a miss, but some games, such as Italian five-pins, provide various different scoring and fouling opportunities.
Some pool games work on the principle of a point per ball up to a pre-set score (14.1 continuous or straight pool, for example), while others have point-scoring systems based on the number shown on the ball, lowest-score wins systems, or last-man-standing rules. The most popular pool games today, however, are "money-ball" games, in which a specific ball must be pocketed under particular conditions in order to win. The most popular pool game in the world (but unfortunately the one with the least consistent rules from area to area) is eight-ball, in which each player attempts to pocket a particular suit of balls, and then finally the 8-ball. In nine-ball and its variant seven-ball, there are no suits, and each player must always shoot the lowest-numbered ball on the table first, and either attempt to eliminate all of them in turn to pocket the namesake money ball on the last shot, or use the lowest-numbered ball in some way to pocket the money ball early. A game increasingly popular among professionals is ten-ball, which is played with the same core rules, except that (in the internationally-standardized version) the 10-ball cannot be pocketed early for an easy win.
Some games combine aspects of both carom and pocket billiards. English billiards is played with carom balls on a snooker-sized table with larger pockets, and there various ways to earn different amounts of points. Russian billiards is played with even larger balls, pockets barely large enough to admit them, and the goal of pocketing the cue ball by caroming it off of numbered object balls into a pocket to earn the point value of the numbered balls struck.
Differences in Rules
The World Pool-Billiard Association in concert with the Union Mondiale de Billard (UMB) and various other governing bodies have established worldwide rules for a number of carom billiards games, including three-cushion, straight rail and five-pins. While there are, of course, locally popular games of various sorts that differ from region to region, the main games in the carom field are totally standardized.
In the realm of pool, there are many associations which have issued rules for the various games over the years. Eight-ball in particular is a thorny issue. WPA and its regional and national affiliates like the Billiard Congress of America (BCA), professional tournament series like the International Pool Tour (IPT), and amateur leagues like the Valley National Eight-ball Assocation (VNEA, which despite its name is multi-national) and the American Poolplayers Association/Canadian Poolplayers Association (APA/CPA) all have different rulesets. By far, most professional pool players use the WPA/BCA rules, and while some progress has been made moving league rules toward the WPA standard, some such as the APA/CPA have wildly diverging rulesets for eight-ball. Meanwhile, millions of individuals play informally using colloquial rules which vary not only from area to area but even from venue to venue. Nine-ball, on the other hand, has been the paramount gambling and tournament pool game for several decades, and has globally almost completely standardized on the same rules in both professional and amateur play. Snooker has long since also been completely standardized, as has been English billiards.