How Billiards Evolved into the “P” Word

Oh we got trouble,
Right here in River City!
With a capital “T”
And that rhymes with “P”
And that stands for pool.

The message in “Ya Got Trouble,” a song from The Music Man, was critical of pool, denouncing the game as “the devil’s tool” and one capable of corrupting a person. However peculiar this may seem, the game of pool did become associated with billiards as a direct result of gambling.

Once a lawn game not unlike croquet, billiards evolved into an indoor game, played on a table covered with a green grass-like cloth. Today a number of games played on this table are collectively known as billiards. Native to Europe, billiards gained popularity in 19th-century England. English Billiards was the most popular game played at that time; however, snooker is nowadays played regularly and competitively.

Billiard games, including the pocket billiards game that we are familiar with today, became popular in America in the late 19th century. During that time period, a “pool” was a collective bet (as in poker), and a pool room was place where a person could place bets on horse races. As a means to fill time between horse races, pool room owners installed billiard tables. The public then began to associate betting or “pools” with billiard tables, and the negative connotation of pool rooms resulted from the gambling and not billiards.

Set in the early twentieth century, The Music Man recalls a time when pool rooms were a place that men assembled to hang out, play, bet and (sometimes) fight. With the success of the movies The Hustler and The Color of Money (in 1961 and 1986, respectively), however, pool – and billiards – has realized renewed popularity and substantial growth. Billiards is now considered to be a reputable sport and an acceptable pastime.

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