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.
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.
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:
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.
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 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.
By the 1860s professional ‘billiardists’ emerged from among the working-class players. Mostly from Britain or Australia, the professionals played a completely different class of billiards. They were familiar names throughout New Zealand, their games receiving extensive and detailed press coverage. A number of ‘world champions’ (as the British champions were known) and Australian champions travelled throughout New Zealand playing exhibition matches against locals, turning billiards into a spectator sport.
The popularity of billiards created the profession of ‘billiard markers’, who worked at billiard halls. They were in charge of keeping the scores for games, looking after the equipment and collecting fees from the patrons. The billiard marker may also have been responsible for overseeing bets when games were played for wagers. Their duties might also entail coaching learners and playing against patrons. The development of the coin-operated billiard table in 1903 spelt the beginning of the end for billiard marking as a job.
In the early 20th century New Zealand produced a professional of real world class, Clark McConachy. In 1915, shortly after his 20th birthday, McConachy defeated Bill Stevenson to become New Zealand professional champion, a title he retained until his death in 1980. He went on to become one of the ‘Big Four’, with Australian Walter Lindrum, and Englishmen Tom Newman and Joe Davis. These players completely dominated billiards from the 1910s to the 1930s. They were so good they killed off billiards as a spectator sport, racking up impossibly high scores through long sequences of repetitive shots.
Clark McConachy was known for his obsession with being, as he described it, ‘as fit as a buck rat’.1 He was known to warm up for games by walking round the table on his hands. On one occasion he picked up, one-handed, a chair in which his opponent Walter Lindrum was sprawled half-asleep.
Walter Lindrum dominated professional competition for many years but, after Lindrum’s retirement, McConachy finally became world billiards champion in 1951. In 1968, aged 73 and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, McConachy lost the world title in a close match against English player Rex Williams.
From the 1930s onwards billiards went into decline as a recreational cue sport, as snooker and then pool became more popular. However, a number of important billiards events did occur in New Zealand. Frank Holz organised the 1964 World Amateur Billiards Championships at Pukekohe, the McConachy versus Williams World Professional title match in 1968 and the 1972 World Open Championship in Christchurch. The World Amateur Billiards Championships were held in Auckland in 1975.
Snooker is played with a cue ball, 15 red balls (1 point each), and one ball each of the colours yellow (2 points), green (3), brown (4), blue (5), pink (6), and black (7). When all the reds are potted, the colours must be potted in numerical sequence. Points are awarded to the opposing player for fouls, such as misses or potting a non-designated ball.
Snooker is reputed to have been invented by an Englishman, Lieutenant Neville Chamberlain, while he was stationed at Jubbulpore, India, in 1875. It was probably derived from the earlier game ‘pyramids’. The name ‘snooker’ came from a derogatory term for artillery cadets.
Snooker was played in New Zealand from around the 1890s, although billiards remained the dominant game. In the early 20th century amateur clubs started running snooker tournaments alongside billiards tournaments. The 1930s saw snooker begin to take over as the most popular recreational cue sport. After the Second World War snooker in turn started to lose its dominance with the rise in popularity of pool. Snooker did receive a huge boost due to the 1970s British television programme Pot black, which was very popular in New Zealand.
Pool (or pocket billiards) comes in a number of forms. The most common form played in New Zealand is 8-ball, which involves a cue ball and 15 numbered balls. The numbered balls consist of seven solid coloured balls numbered 1 through 7, seven balls with a coloured stripe numbered 9 through 15, and a black 8-ball. The player must pocket all seven of their designated group of balls (striped or solid), before they can pot the 8-ball. The first to legally pot the 8-ball wins.
The term ‘pool’ originally applied to any game in which a group or pool of people put in a gambling stake. Modern pool evolved in the United States around the early 20th century from earlier forms of billiards, ‘black pool’ and pyramids. Pool only took off in New Zealand in the 1960s and 1970s, when pool tables, smaller than the traditional billiard tables, were installed in pubs throughout the country. Eight-ball pool replaced snooker as the game commonly played in pubs, clubs and snooker halls. Women have become more involved in pool playing, perhaps influenced by the fact that pubs and clubs are no longer the male domains they were in previous years. Since 1990 the Clubs New Zealand 8-Ball Association champion team has played annually against the champion Australian team for the Clancy Cup.
Pool was made more popular by the 1961 American film The hustler, in which Paul Newman played the young ‘Fast Eddie’ Felson who was out to challenge the legendary player ‘Minnesota Fats’, (Jacky Gleason). New Zealand has its own pool movie, Stickmen (2001). It features the local custom of the ‘down trou’. Generally observed in pub or student games, the custom dictates that a player who loses without sinking any of their balls is expected to drop their trousers.
Eight-ball pool is by far the most commonly played cue sport in New Zealand. Most people play at a recreational rather than competitive level. Pool is played throughout New Zealand by players with a wide range of ages and backgrounds. Pool tables are found in many pubs, clubs and recreation rooms. Some towns also have pool halls and billiard saloons dedicated to cue sports. Snooker, like billiards, is more commonly played in billiard saloons or clubs.
A range of amateur national and island (North and South island) snooker and billiard championships are run through the New Zealand Billiards and Snooker Association (NZBSA). The New Zealand Pool Association (NZPA) holds ranking tournaments for eight- and nine-ball pool, at regional, island and national level. It organises a team for an annual trans-Tasman competition. Clubs New Zealand organise billiard, snooker and eight-ball tournaments between individuals and pairs from chartered clubs.
Darts probably arrived in New Zealand in the late 19th century. It was largely a working-class game, usually played in pubs or workingmen’s clubs, often involving wagers on the result. Darts was also played for prizes at fairground side shows. In such forms it was not regarded as a serious sport by newspapers or sports administrators.
The origins of darts are obscure, although the game may have evolved from archery or javelin throwing. A mid-19th-century English game called puff and dart, where darts were blown through a tube to strike a numbered, circular board may have been a forerunner of modern darts. From the 1860s various dart throwing games were developed in both France and England. The basic design of the dart still used in the 21st century was perfected in the 1880s. The modern ‘clock’ dartboard was developed in 1913, but may have been devised earlier.
The 1930s saw a ‘darts craze’ that spread from the United Kingdom to New Zealand. Darts went from being the pub sport of working-class men to being a game played by all classes and both genders in many different settings. Dart boards became standard equipment in scout halls, recreation rooms and in many family homes. While in Britain serious darts championships began in the 1920s, in New Zealand darts for many years remained largely a recreational pastime.
In the 2000s darts remains a game often played recreationally in pubs and clubs, but it has also become more of an organised sport. The New Zealand Darts Council (NZDC), established in 1955, acts as the governing body for 46 darts clubs across the country. These clubs are based in club rooms set up for darts playing, rather than pubs, and they are open to amateurs of all ages. The NZDC organises an annual New Zealand open, age group championships and the Puma masters tournament. The NZDC is affiliated to the World Darts Federation (WDF) and sends teams to the Asia Pacific Cup and the Darts World Cup.
In 1978 the British Darts Organisation (BDO) set up a World Professional Darts Championship. In 1992 a group of players set up the Professional Darts Council (PDC) and split away from the BDO. Since 1994 there have been two world championship competitions, one run by the BDO and one by the PDC. New Zealand dart players have played in both competitions, but as of 2012 no New Zealander has advanced beyond the early rounds of the world championships.
The Clubs New Zealand Darts Association (CNZDA) organises major annual North Island, South Island and national tournaments between chartered clubs. The CNZDA has a ranking system aligned with the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC). The wide coverage of the PDC’s premier league darts competitions on sports television has boosted the popularity of darts as a sport in New Zealand.
Everton, Clive. The history of snooker and billiards. London: Partridge Press, 1986.
Metcalfe, Nick. The pool bible. London: Apple Press, 2010.
Norton, David, Patrick Mcloughlin and Steve Brown, The darts bible. London: Apple, 2010.
Taylor, Mark. High flying Kiwis: 100 heroes of New Zealand sport. Auckland: Sporting Press, 1988.