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Carom billiards

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Title: Carom billiards  
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Carom billiards

Carom (or carambole) billiards
Highest governing body Union Mondiale de Billard (UMB)
First played 18th century France
Contact No
Team members Single opponents, doubles or teams
Mixed gender Yes, sometimes in separate leagues/divisions
Type Indoor, table, cue sport
Equipment Billiard ball, billiard table, cue stick
Venue Billiard hall or home billiard room
Olympic Proposed for 2010
Carom billiards

Carom billiards, sometimes called carambole billiards or simply carambole (and in some cases used as a synonym for the game of straight rail from which many carom games derive), is the overarching title of a family of billiards games generally played on cloth-covered, 1.5-by-3.0-metre (5 by 10 ft) pocketless tables, which often feature heated slate beds. In its simplest form, the object of the game is to score points or "counts" by caroming one's own cue ball off both the opponent's cue ball and the object ball(s) on a single shot. The invention as well as the exact date of origin of carom billiards is somewhat obscure but is thought to be traceable to 18th-century France.[1]

There is a large array of carom billiards disciplines. Some of the more prevalent today and historically are (chronologically by apparent date of development): straight rail, cushion caroms, balkline, three-cushion billiards and artistic billiards. There are many other carom billiards games, predominantly intermediary or offshoot games combining elements of those already listed, such as the champion's game, an intermediary game between straight rail and balkline, as well as games which are hybrids of carom billiards and pocket billiards, such as English billiards played on a snooker table and its descendant games, American four-ball billiards, and cowboy pool.[1]


  • Etymology 1
  • Equipment 2
    • Cloth 2.1
    • Balls 2.2
    • Cues 2.3
    • Heated slate 2.4
  • History of games 3
    • Straight rail 3.1
    • The champion's game 3.2
    • Balkline 3.3
    • Cushion caroms 3.4
    • Three-cushion billiards 3.5
    • Artistic billiards 3.6
  • Competition disciplines 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


The word carom, which simply means any strike and rebound, was in use in reference to billiards by at least 1779, sometimes spelled "carrom".[1]:41 Sources differ on the origin. It has been pegged variously as a shortening of the Spanish and Portuguese word carambola, or the French word carambole, which are used to describe the red object ball. Some etymologists have suggested that carambola, in turn, was derived from a yellow-to-orange, tropical Asian fruit also known in Portuguese as a carambola (which was a corruption of the original name of the fruit, karambal in the Marathi language of India),[1][2][3] also known as star fruit. But this may simply be folk etymology, as the fruit bears no resemblance to a billiard ball, and there is no direct evidence for such a derivation.[4]

In modern French, the word carambolage means 'successive collision', currently used mainly in reference to carom or shots in billiards, and to multiple-vehicle car crashes).



The Family Remy by Januarius Zick, c. 1776, featuring billiards among other parlour activities

Cloth has been used to cover billiards tables since the 15th century. In fact, the predecessor company of the most famous maker of billiard cloth, Iwan Simonis, was formed in 1453. Most cloth made for carom billiards tables is a type of baize that is dyed green, and is made from 100% worsted wool, which provides a very fast surface allowing the balls to travel with little resistance across the table bed. The green color of cloth was originally chosen to emulate the look of grass, and has been so colored since the 16th century. However, as in green eyeshades, the color also serves a useful function: Humans have a higher light sensitivity to green than to any other color, so green cloth permits play for longer periods of time without eye strain.[1][5]


A standard set of carom billiards balls (61.5 mm [2716 in] diameter), including a red object ball, a plain white cue ball, and a dotted cue ball for the opponent. Some games use an additional object ball.

Modern billiard balls are made from highly resilient plastics with a typical diameter of 61.5 millimetres (2.42 in). They are significantly larger and heavier than their pocket billiards counterparts, ranging between 205 and 220 grams (7.2 and 7.8 oz) with a typical weight of 210 g (7.5 oz).[6] While UMB, the International Olympic Committee-recognized world carom billiards authority, technically permits balls as small as 61 mm (2.4 in),[6] no major manufacturer produces such balls any longer, and the de facto standard is 61.5 mm (2.42 in). The three standard balls in most carom billiards games consist of a completely white cue ball, a second cue ball with typically a red or black dot on it (to aid in differentiation between the two cue balls), and a third, red ball. In some sets of balls, however, the second cue ball is solid yellow.[1] Both types of ball sets are permitted in tournament play.[7]

Billiard balls have been made from many different materials throughout the history of the game, including clay, wood, ivory, plastics (including celluloid, Bakelite, crystalate, and phenolic resin, polyester and acrylic) and even steel. The dominant material from 1627 until the early- to mid-20th century was ivory. The search for a substitute for ivory use was not for environmental concerns but based on economic motivation and fear of danger for elephant hunters. It was in part spurred on by a New York billiard table manufacturer who announced a prize of $10,000 for a substitute material. The first viable substitute was celluloid billiard balls, invented by John Wesley Hyatt in 1868, but the material was volatile and highly inflammable, sometimes exploding during manufacture.[1][8]


George Sutton tobacco card, c. 1911. The game shown is balkline.

Carom billiard cues have specialized refinements making them different from the typical pool cue with which many people are more familiar. Such cues tend to be shorter and lighter overall, with a shorter ferrule, a thicker butt and joint, a wooden joint pin (in high-end examples) and collarless wood-to-wood joint (for a one-piece cue "feel"), a fast, conical taper, and a smaller tip diameter as compared with pool cues. Typical cues are 140–140 cm (54–56 in) in length and 470–520 g (16.5–18.5 oz) in weight—lighter for straight rail, heavier for three-cushion—with a tip 11–12 mm (0.43–0.47 in) in diameter.[9] The specialization makes the cue significantly stiffer, which aids in handling the larger and heavier billiard balls as compared with pool cues. It also acts to reduce deflection (sometimes called "squirt"), which may be defined as displacement of the cue ball's path away from the parallel line formed by the cue stick's direction of travel. It is a factor that occurs every time english (side) is employed, and its effects are magnified by speed. In some carom games, deflection plays a large role because many shots require extremes of English, coupled with great speed; this is a combination typically minimized as much as possible, by contrast, in pool.[10]:79, 240–1 The wood used in carom cues can vary widely, and most quality carom cues are handmade.

Heated slate

The slate bed of a billiard table is often heated to about 5 °C (9 °F) above room temperature, which helps to keep moisture out of the cloth to aid the balls rolling and rebounding in a consistent manner, and generally makes a table play faster. A heated table is required under international carom rules and is an especially important requirement for the games of three-cushion billiards and artistic billiards. Heating table beds is an old practice. Queen Victoria (lived 1819–1901) had a billiard table that was heated using zinc tubes, although the aim at that time was chiefly to keep the then-used ivory balls from warping. The first use of electric heating was for an 18.2 balkline tournament held in December 1927 between Welker Cochran and Jacob Schaefer, Jr.[1] The New York Times announced it with fanfare: "For the first time in the history of world's championship balkline billiards a heated table will be used ..."[1][11]

History of games

Louis XIV playing billiards (1694)

Straight rail

Straight rail, sometimes referred to as carom billiards, straight billiards, the three-ball game, the carambole game, and the free game in Europe, is thought to date to the 18th century, although no exact time of origin is known. It was known as French caroms, French billiards or the French game in early times, taking those bygone names from the French who popularized it. The object of straight rail is simple: one point, called a "count", is scored each time a player's cue ball makes contact with both object balls (the second cue ball and the third ball) on a single stroke. A win is achieved by reaching an agreed upon number of counts.[1]

A painting by Gauguin includes a depiction of French billiards.

At straight rail's inception there was no restriction on the manner of scoring. However, the technique of crotching, or freezing two balls into the corner where the rails meet—the crotch—vastly increasing counts, resulted in an 1862 rule which allowed only three counts before at least one ball had to be driven away. Techniques continued to develop which increased counts greatly despite the crotching prohibition, especially the development of a variety of "nurse" techniques. The most important of these, the rail nurse, involves the progressive nudging of the object balls down a rail, ideally moving them just a few centimeters on each count, keeping them close together and positioned at the end of each stroke in the same or near the same configuration such that the nurse can be replicated again and again.[1]

Straight rail is still popular in Europe, where it is considered a fine practice game for both balkline and three-cushion billiards. Additionally, Europe hosts professional competitions known as pentathlons after the ancient Greek Olympic competitions, in which straight rail is featured as one of five billiards disciplines at which players compete, the other four being 47.1 balkline, cushion caroms, 71.2 balkline and three-cushion billiards.[1]

Straight rail was played professionally in the US from 1873 to 1879, but is uncommon there today.

The champion's game

Historic print depicting Michael Phelan's Billiard Saloon located at the corner of 10th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, 1 January 1859

The new game appearing in 1879, called the champion's game or limited-rail, is considered an intermediary game between straight rail and balkline and was designed with the specific intent of frustrating the rail nurse.[1] The game employed diagonal lines—balklines—at the table's corners to regions where counts were restricted, thus "cutting off four triangular spaces in the four corners, [taking] away 711 mm (28 in) of the 'nursing' surface of the end rails and 1,422 mm (56 in) on the long rails."[12] Ultimately, however, despite its divergence from straight rail, the champion's game simply expanded the dimensions of the balk space defined under the existing crotch prohibition which was not sufficient to stop nursing.[1]


Balkline table with standard markings

Balkline succeeded the champion's game, adding more rules to curb nursing techniques. There are many variation of balkline but all divide the table into marked regions called balk spaces. Such balk spaces define areas of the table surface in which a player may only score up to a threshold number of points while the object balls are within that region.[1][13][14]

In the balkline games, rather than drawing balklines a few inches from the corners, the entire table is divided into rectangular balk spaces, by drawing balklines a certain distance lengthwise and widthwise across the length of the table a set number of inches parallel out from each rail. This divides the table into eight rectangular balkspaces. Additionally, rectangles are drawn where each balkline meets a rail, called anchor spaces, which developed to stop a number of nursing techniques that exploited the fact that if the object balls straddled a balkline, no count limit was in place.[1]

For the most part, the differences between one balkline game and another are defined by two measures: 1) the spacing of the balklines, and 2) the number of points that are allowed in each balk space before at least one ball must leave the region. Generally, balkline games, and their particular restrictions, are given numerical names indicating both of these characteristics; the first number indicated inches or centimeters depending on and the second, after a dot, indicates the count restriction which is always either one or two. For example, the name 18.2 balkline, one of the more prominent balkline games, indicates that balk lines are drawn 18 inches (457.2 mm) distant from each rail, and only two counts are allowed in a balkspace before a ball must leave.[1]

Over its history balkline has had many variations including: (see following table)[1][15]

Comparison table
Metric system
20/2 25/2 30/2
33/2 35/1
Imperial system 08.2 10.2 12.2
13.2 14.1

In its various incarnations, balkline was the predominate carom discipline from 1883 to the 1930s when it was overtaken by three-cushion billiards (and pocket billiards). Balkline is popular in Europe and the Far East.[1]

Cushion caroms

Jacob Schaefer, Sr. tobacco card, c. 1880s; Schaefer was a dominant billiards player during the 19th century.

Cushion caroms, sometimes called by its original name, the indirect game,[16] is traceable to 1820's Britain and is a descendant of the doublet game dating to at least 1807. The game is sometimes referred to as one-cushion or one-cushion billiards, which is the direct translation of its name into English from various other languages such as Spanish ("una banda") and German ("einband").[1]

The object of the game is to score cushion caroms, meaning a carom off of both object balls with at least one rail being struck before the hit on the second object ball. Cushions caroms was defunct for a number of years, but was revived in the late 1860s as another alternative to straight rail, for the same reasons that balkline developed, i.e., as an alternative to the tedium engendered by the use of the "rail nurse" (see above). Cushion caroms is still popular in Europe.[1][17]

Three-cushion billiards

In three-cushion billiards, sometimes called three-cushion carom,[18] or more common on the European continent simply Carambole. The object is to carom off both object balls with at least three rail cushions being contacted before the contact of the cue ball with the second object ball. Three-cushion is a very difficult game. Averaging one point per inning is professional-level play, and averaging 1.5 to 2 is world-class play. An average of one means that for every turn at the table, a player makes 1 point and misses once, thus making a point on 50% of his or her shots.

The origin of the game is not entirely known. It is undisputed that one Wayman Crow McCreery of St. Louis, Missouri popularized the game in the 1870s.[1][19][20] The first three-cushion billiards tournament took place January 14–31, 1878 in St. Louis, with McCreery a participant and New Yorker Leon Magnus the winner. The high run for the tournament was just 6 points, and the high average a 0.75.[21] The game was infrequently played, with many top carom players of the era voicing their dislike of it, until after the 1907 introduction of the Lambert Trophy.[1][22] By 1924, three-cushion had become so popular that two giants in other billiard disciplines agreed to take up the game especially for a challenge match. On September 22, 1924, Willie Hoppe, the world's balkline champion (who later took up three-cushion with a passion), and Ralph Greenleaf, the world's straight pool title holder, played a well advertised, multi-day, match to 600 points. Hoppe was the eventual winner with a final score in of 600–527.

Three-cushion billiards retains great popularity in parts of Europe, Asia, and Latin America,[1] and is the most popular carom billiards game played in the US today, where pool is far more widespread. The principal governing body of the sport is the Union Mondiale de Billard (UMB). It had been staging world three-cushion championships since the late 1920s.[23] The International Olympic Committee-recognized World Pool-Billiard Association (WPA) cooperates with the UMB to keep their rulesets synchronized.

Artistic billiards

A massé shot around a pin

In artistic billiards, sometimes called fantasy billiards or (in French) fantaisie classique, players compete at performing 76 preset shots of varying difficulty. Each set shot has a maximum point value assigned for perfect execution, ranging from a 4-point minimum for lowest level difficulty shots, and climbing to an 11-point maximum for shots deemed highest in difficulty level. There is a total of 500 points available to a player. The governing body of the sport is the Confédération Internationale de Billard Artistique (CIBA).[1][24]

Each shot in an artistic billiards match is played from a well-defined position (in some venues within an exacting two millimeter tolerance), and each shot must unfold in an established manner. Players are allowed three attempts at each shot. In general, the shots making up the game—even 4-point shots—require a high degree of skill, devoted practice and specialized knowledge to perform.[1][24]

World title competition first started in 1986 and required the use of ivory balls. However, this requirement was dropped in 1990. The highest score ever achieved in world competition was 374, by the Frenchman Jean Reverchon in 1992, while the highest score in competition overall is 427 set by Belgian Walter Bax on March 12, 2006 at a competition held in Deurne, Belgium, beating his own previous record of 425.[25] The game is played predominantly in western Europe, especially in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.[1][24]

Competition disciplines

  • Triathlon: Straight rail, Balkline and One-cushion or Balkline, One-cushion und Three-cushion (like the actually ANAG Billiard Cup).
  • Pentathlon: Straight rail, Balkline (47/2 & 71/2), One-cushion and Three-cushion.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa Shamos, Michael Ian (1993). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Billiards.  
  2. ^ Douglas Harper (2001). Carom - Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 30 December 2006.
  3. ^ Lexico Publishing Group, LLC (2006). Carom - Retrieved 30 December 2006.
  4. ^ Benbow, T. J. (ed.) (2007) [1997]. Oxford English Dictionary (Second Edition on CD-ROM, Version 3.1 ed.).  
  5. ^ Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2004). A Strategy for the Use of Light Emitting Diodes by Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (pdf) by Joseph R. Curran. Page 40. Retrieved 2 January 2007.
  6. ^ a b "World Rules of Carom Billiard" (PDF).   Officially but somewhat poorly translated version, from the French original. The cited document has a "cm" for "mm" typographical error.
  7. ^ "Applied Regulations Affecting the Billiard Cloth and the Balls" (PDF). World Organization Rules. Sint-Martens-Latem: Union Mondiale de Billard. 1989-01-01. Retrieved 2008-02-20. 
  8. ^ New York Times Company (16 September 1875). Explosive Teeth. Retrieved 2 January 2007.
  9. ^ Kilby, Ronald (May 23, 2009). "So What's a Carom Cue?".  
  10. ^  
  11. ^ New York Times Company (16 December 1927). To Heat Table for First Time In World Title Billiard Match. Retrieved 2 January 2007.
  12. ^ New York Times Company (10 November 1879). Billiards Under New Rules; A Tournament in Which Rail Play Will be Restricted-the Programme. Retrieved 27 December 2006.
  13. ^ Neil Cohen, ed. (1994). The Everything You Want to Know About Sport Encyclopedia.  
  14. ^ Grolier Inc., ed. (1998). The Encyclopedia Americana.  
  15. ^ New York Times Company (24 October 1919). Hoppe Adds Morningstar's Scalp to His Collection Made in Billiard Title Tourney. Retrieved 2 January 2007.
  16. ^ New York Times Company (28 October 1888). Drawbacks to Billiards; Personal Solicitude the Source of Nearly All. Lost Professional Pride and Pluck Both Evades Public Matches and Suppresses Them. Retrieved 2 January 2007.
  17. ^ Hoyle, Edmond (1907). Hoyle's Games - Autograph Edition.  
  18. ^ "Chicago Billiards Tourney".  
  19. ^ New York Times Company (September 21, 1902). Billiards Players Busy. Retrieved January 2, 2007.
  20. ^ US Passport Application for Wayman Crow McCreery dated May 30, 1895. Accessed through on May 29, 2009
  21. ^ Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company (1909). Modern Billiards. New York: Trow Directory. p. 333. Retrieved May 27, 2009. 
  22. ^ New York Times Company (January 6, 1911). Magnus Plays Poor Billiards. Retrieved January 2, 2007.
  23. ^ "List of UMB World 3-cushion Champions". 
  24. ^ a b c Martin Škrášek (2000). What's Artistic Billiard?. Retrieved 30 November 2006
  25. ^ "Walter Bax vestigt nieuw Wereldrecord ("Walter Bax establishes a New World Record")" (in Dutch). biljartteam TOERIST - ARO. Archived from the original on October 27, 2006. Retrieved 2008-11-07. 

External links

  • Union Mondiale de Billard — world tournament sanctioning body
  • Archival Billiard Resource
  • Animation showing the "rail nurse" with a description
  • BiliardoWeb - The first Italian Community and e-magazine (in Italian)
  • "Il Biliardo Universale", by Fabio Margutti - siteweb on the Margutti's system and theory of the multiple centers (in Italian)
  • USBA 3-Cushion Billiard Rules USBA 3-Cushion Billiard Rules
  • Billiard Diamond System Calculator simulates cue ball path on billiard table
  • Biljartsporten - The largest billiard games website from The Netherlands (in Dutch)
  • Billard Passion - Teaching aid and technical basis for carom.
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