Story: Billiards, snooker, pool and darts

Page 1. Billiards and its history

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Cue sports

Billiard sports or cue sports are games played with a cue stick, which is used to strike hard balls on a cloth-covered table. The table has a slate base and is bounded by rubber cushions. Billiards is both an umbrella term for all cue sports and a specific name for point-scoring games played with three balls. Carom billiards, played on a table without pockets, is popular in some parts of the world. In New Zealand the most popular cue sports – billiards, snooker and pool – involve a six-pocket table. Cue sports can be played individually or by teams, usually of two players each.

Origins of billiards

Billiards is thought to have developed from a European lawn game resembling croquet. An indoor version on a cloth-covered table had developed by the 15th century. By the 17th century various forms of billiards were played by the well-to-do in England and France. In the most common variation the ball was pushed with a mace. The aim was to be the first to get the ball through the ‘port’ (an upright hoop) and back to the ‘king’ (a skittle) without knocking either object over. The table had pockets called hazards, which were obstacles to be avoided.

Billiards rules

All cue sports have evolved from billiards, which is played with three balls: a red ball and two cue balls (one white, the other yellow or white with a mark) and a red ball. Points are scored when a player:

  • strikes the red ball into a pocket with their own cue ball (potting)
  • pockets their own ball after it has struck another ball (an ‘in-off’)
  • strikes both of the other two balls with their own cue ball (a ‘cannon’).

Points are awarded to the player’s opponent when fouls are committed. Fouls include missing the object balls altogether or potting one’s own ball without hitting any others. The game is played until an agreed time limit or score is reached.

Billiards in New Zealand – the early days

Pākehā settlers arriving in New Zealand in the 1840s brought with them a form of billiards with rules and equipment closely resembling those of the modern game. Billiards was no longer confined to the wealthy, but had become a popular pastime for those with access to a public table.

Māori and billiards

Māori soon adopted billiards, a practice some Pākehā saw as a sign of the corruptions induced by ‘civilisation’. Parihaka, the centre of non-violent resistance in Taranaki, had its own billiard saloon. In the King Country it was considered ungentlemanly to pot an opponents’ ball, an offence given the title of ‘Turakina’. A Pākehā journalist noted, ‘When an opponent “pots” a ball, the expression “Turakina” or “Turakina cannon” comes from all sides of the room … I believe the Natives generally, with the same amount of practice … would beat most whitemen.’1

In 1842 there was at least one billiard room in Auckland, and by the end of the decade tables were found in all major settlements. Billiard rooms were set up within hotels and as stand-alone enterprises. In public billiard rooms customers paid by the game, although some rooms had a membership system resembling that of a club. Gentlemen’s clubs and the homes of wealthy settlers boasted their own billiard rooms.

In the 19th century billiards tended to be either a leisurely activity for the gentry or a gambling-based game for working men. This link with betting, public houses and drinking ‘nobblers’ (glasses of spirits), led many temperance campaigners to condemn billiards as a pathway to iniquity. Provincial and colonial governments attempted to restrict gambling and regulate the hours of play on licensed premises.

  1. Press, 14 May 1891, p. 2. Back
How to cite this page:

Peter Clayworth, 'Billiards, snooker, pool and darts - Billiards and its history', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 5 Sep 2013