After a long climb to the third floor of the house, guests entered the Tudor-style billiard room. Centered within the room was a very large, almost mammoth, pocket billiard (pool) table. At that point, a guest proclaimed:
That’s the largest billiard table I have ever seen. I don’t think that’s a pool table; it’s a snooker table or a carom table. I’m not sure which one, but it’s not a regulation size pool table.
Had we all been wrong up until now? This statement inspired us to do a little digging to find out more about the table and the games the Callaways and their guests played. Here’s what we found: The original receipt in our archives tells us this six-leg table was purchased from the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company (B-B-C) by Fuller E. Callaway for the opening of the home in 1916. The table has six pockets and measures 9.32 feet long by 4.65 feet wide, which is larger than regulation size and proved our guest correct about one thing already. According to the brass plaque on the table and the original receipt, it is a Monarch Cushion table that was patented on October 6, 1908. The B-B-C company dates back to John Brunswick, a Swiss immigrant who moved to Cincinnati and started building carriages in 1845. Brunswick soon changed to a more lucrative product. At that time most billiard tables were imported from England and were quite expensive, so he decided to begin making them at his shop. His decision proved to be a good one. In 1873 he acquired the Julius Balke Billiard Company, and in 1884 he purchased the Collender Company to create B-B-C, which for nearly a century was the industry ‘Goliath.’
Underneath the table we discovered a long wooden box containing four additional rail cushions that were part of the original purchase. We then realized the six pocket rail cushions were removable and could be replaced to create a true carom billiard table – with no pockets. So once again, our guest was on the right track.
But what about being a snooker table? Well, it appears that they are typically twelve feet long and six feet wide, considerably larger than Mr. Callaway’s. In addition, snooker tables have smaller pockets with curved entrances, which this one does not have. Even more convincing was that a set of the twenty-two balls needed to play the game has not been located, which brought us to conclude that the table, depending on which railings are installed, is a perfectly sized carom billiard table and a slightly larger-than-regulation pocket billiard table. But definitely not a snooker.
So what games were played on the table when it was set up to be a no-pocket table? A traditional set of carom balls in a drawer (two white cue balls made of ivory and one red ball) suggests that they played straight rail or some of its variants. Straight rail is a two person game and each player has a white cue ball. To win the game you try to outscore your opponent by hitting your opponent’s cue ball and the red ball with one hit. If you hit just one ball you earn one point and if you hit both balls you earn two points. A win is achieved by reaching an agreed-upon number of points, which are tracked using a wall-mounted billiard scorekeeper. Other more complex carom games may have been played, but straight rail was probably the most popular.
Once the pocket rails were installed, it is likely they played some English billiards even though the table is technically too small. This very old game, a precursor of snooker, became quite popular in the United States after 1915 and is almost identical to straight rail. It is played with the same three-ball set and the objective is to earn points by striking your opponent’s ball and the red ball on the same shot. The only difference is that in English billiards you earn extra points by hitting your opponent’s cue ball or the red ball into a pocket. The first player to reach a predetermined score is the winner.
In addition to the English games, they competed with American 15 ball pool, sometimes called 61 pool, using a white cue ball and 15 balls numbered 1-15. The balls are racked into a triangle shape and then broken up by the first player. The object is to score the most points by hitting balls into the pockets. Each ball is worth a different number of points depending on the ball number. The scoring method made the higher numbered balls the most desired targets. As the name suggests, the first player to reach 61 points wins the game.
Other games they probably enjoyed were straight pool, sometimes called 14-1 continuous and B.B.C. company pool. Straight pool originated in 1910 and is almost identical to 61 pool except that each ball is worth one point. Players call the pocket and try to sink balls successively to earn the most points. Balls are re-racked after 14 balls are made, hence the name 14-1. Once a player reaches 100 points, they are declared the winner. This is the game that made international news in 1954 when the great Willie Mosconi scored 526 points in a row! The company game originated about 1900, was widely popularized in the 1920s and is essentially the same game as the eight ball of today. It used seven red balls and seven yellow balls along with a single black eight ball instead of the now popular numbered solids and stripes. Once the triangular rack was broken and the first ball sunk, you were assigned either yellow or red (now solids or stripes.) The same goal applies to both: pocket all seven of your balls and then sink the eight ball into a called pocket to win the game.
One could speculate about whether nine ball was also played because it originated during the 1920s, and given its popularity it probably was. As the name suggests, nine balls are racked into a diamond shape. The goal is to be the first one to sink the nine ball but the rules require you to strike or sink the lowest numbered balls in order prior to sinking the nine ball. It is quite challenging, but that is the great appeal of billiards!
So, anybody up for game of American 15 ball?