How "Billiards" became
"Carom Billiards", then "French Billiards"

To understand how "Billiards" became "Carom Billiards" and then "French Billiards", it is interesting to go back - briefly - to the very origins of the game of Billiards (more information in the chapter "History of Billiards and its Tables"):

        In the 14th century, an "outdoor" game, “Plein Champ” (=played in the fields), consists of propelling the balls as far as possible with a stick. Later, the game is limited to a smaller area, surrounded by "buttées" (= stops) ("la Courte Boule") (= the Short Ball) and the rule is to push the ball under an arch before scoring a goal by getting into the "Tiret", a kind of pin stuck in the ground) with a stick or a sledgehammer bearing the same name as the game: the "Billart". Floor billiards was born.

        In the 15th century, the game is brought indoors and the 1st known billiard table is manufactured. The rule remains the same: passing under an arch before knocking down a pin.

        In the 16th century, "blouses" (or pockets) are introduced, the goal being for the player to force the opponent’s ball into them while avoiding falling into them himself. The arch, the pin, the mace and the stick are still unchanged.

        In the 17th century, billiard tables enter the "Academies" and are found together with unsavoury gambling games (Dice, Piquet, etc.) generating conflict. The game of billiards is no exception, hence the need for precise written rules. In 1665, the 1st known written rule of the "Nouveau jeu de Billard tel qu'il se joue à présent" (= New Game of Billiards as it is played now) is published. The principle remains the same: 2 players, one ball each, an arch to pass through, a pin to knock down, and "blouses" where the opponent’s ball is to be sent but which the player has to avoid. This is the "jeu Ordinaire" (= Common Game). Then, very quickly, the "Jeu de la Guerre" (= War Game) appears, in which several players (up to 9 or 10) can play at the same time, each with a personalised ball at the start to determine the order of play. The rule is slightly modified: the pin is removed but the arch is kept and each player, in turn, tries to push the opponent’s ball into a pocket to eliminate him.

        In the 18th century, the design of the game and the equipment used are changed, but the “Jeu de la Guerre” continues to be played, as shown in the engraving by Nilson (1756) below.

       Around 1770, the pin, already removed, is replaced by a "neutral" ball which belongs to nobody but that is to be touched before or after the opponent’s ball to create a "Carambolage", the French word for the action of crashing (voluntarily or not) into several objects or obstacles. This neutral ball is tinted red to distinguish it from the other 2, and takes the name of "Carambole", derived from "carambolage", giving rise to the "Jeu à la Carambole" (= Carom game). Later, some people have tried to associate the word "carambola" with the fruit of the carambola tree, by analogy with its round shape and red colour. The introduction of a 'neutral' ball, no longer static like the old pin, but mobile because it changes position at each shot, paves the way for series (quite limited at first) of several caroms without falling into a pocket. There were already straight cues at the beginning of the century for a more precise game, and the arch disappears at the end of the century. There are several variants of the "Carom" game: "partie blanche, à écrire, Doublet à Doublet, de Lorraine, de la perte, de commande, de la Royale and à la Bricole", all of which are adopted by French and then European players and are played with 3 balls, 1 red and 2 white (except for "carambole à la Russe", which requires 5 balls: 1 red, 1 yellow, 1 blue and 2 white).

            At the end of the 1700s, the word "carambole" can be found in the two engravings below:

"Les joueurs à la Mode (= The popular players) " (the rules of the "Carambole" and of the " Poule" games are displayed in French on the wall)

and the " Règles (= rules) de la Carambole " (identical to those in the previous engraving).

     1799: The word Carambole is found in German in the title of the Austrian book on the 'white game' (anonymous author, ed. G. Binz, Vienna) below


The real revolution occurs in the 19th century:

       In 1823, F. MINGAUD invents the "tip" (a small leather rounded patch glued to the end of the cue) which makes it possible to perform hitherto unknown shots such as the "retro". It paves the way for surprisingly long runs.

       1825, PAYSAN (*) runs 25 points.

       1827, MINGAUD publishes his 1st book in French: "Le Noble Jeu du Billard" (= The Noble Game of Billiards): it shows about fifteen spectacular points scored using the "tip". It is translated into English (by the THURSTON firm) in 1830.

1837, CHARRIER publishes a book showing 56 shots to be made by avoiding the pockets. Here are two of them based on a 'bricole’

double (left) and single (right).

     1839, KENTFIELD, in England, publishes a book showing about a hundred shots.

     Around 1850, the pockets are removed so as not to hinder the runs.

     Around 1860, VENANCE performs runs of 50 to 60 pts, quickly surpassed by BERGER.

     1869, UBASSY runs 132 pts.

     1880, VIGNAUD runs 1531 pts.

     Invention of the "American series" (= American runs) by Canadian DION, who teaches it to VIGNAUD.
     1890, 3000 pts run by SCHAEFFER, putting an end to the free game, far too monotonous for spectators at that level. The Backline game and the 3-cushion game, both much more spectacular, are then invented.

Carom billiards with 3 balls, born and played in France and adopted by the majority of European countries, is naturally and logically given the name of "French Billiards", synonymous with "3-ball Billiards", as opposed to "English Billiards": until the beginning of the 19th century, the British usually play 3-ball carom billiards, but they also discover a game developed specifically in Great Britain: larger billiard tables, a multitude of multicoloured balls and different rules. Snooker was born. When pockets are removed in France and Europe, the British keep them and concentrate on this particular mode of play. Since then, Snooker has become the most popular billiard game in the British Isles. North America adopts a game directly derived from Snooker. Italy and Latin America are also going to develop specific billiard games such as Five-Pins and La Boccete, a hand game much loved by Napoleon Bonaparte during his exile on the island of Elba.

French (or 3-ball) billiards remains the most popular billiard game in the world thanks to the current worldwide craze for the 3-cushion game.




(*) PAYSAN (= peasant), so named because of his 'aspect extérieur' (= appearance) [1], invented the "run'" [2, 3] and called himself "the billiard Napoleon" [3].

According to a newspaper of the time, "PAYSAN made a name for himself by his talent, now so perfected, of gathering the three balls and then, without moving them away, having a run of carom shots that leaves the opponent no choice but to ask for the Monitor." [1,3,4].



[1] MARTY Jean, Billards, Ed. du Garde-Temps, Paris, France, 2002.

[2] ALBOUKER Robert, Autour du billard. Découvertes. Gallimard N°162, France, 1992.

[3] TROFFAES Georges, Le billard et l'histoire. Chronique des temps passés. Ed. Laguide, Paris, France, 1974.

[4] ANONYMOUS, La physiologie du billard par un amateur. Ed. Ledoyen, Paris, France, 1860.



This page was written in co-operation with Jean-Luc Chiche.