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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, 5 by 10 feet (approximately 1.5 × 3 m) pocketless tables, which often feature heated slate beds. In its simplest form, the object of the game is to score or "counts" by one's own off both the opponent's cue ball and the 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.

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.


The word "carom", which simply means any strike and rebound, came into use in the 1860s and is a shortening of Spanish and Portuguese carambola and French carambole, which was earlier 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), 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.



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 . The green color of cloth was originally chosen to emulate the look of grass, and has been so colored since the 16th century. However, the color also serves a useful function, as humans have a higher light sensitivity to green than to any other color, allowing play for longer periods of time without eye strain.


Modern billiard balls are made from phenolic resin or other highly resilient plastics, are normally 61.5 mm (2716 in) in diameter, weigh between 205 and 220 grams (7.23 – 7.75 ounces; 7.5 is average), and are significantly larger and heavier than their pocket billiards counterparts. While UMB, the International Olympic Committeemarker-recognized world carom billiards authority, permits balls as small as 61.0 mm (approximately 238), no major manufacturer produces such balls any longer, and the de facto standard is 61.5 mm. 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. Both types of ball sets are permitted in tournament play.

Billiard balls have been made from many different materials since the start of the game, including clay, wood, ivory, plastics (including celluloid, Bakelite, crystalate, and phenolic resin) and even steel. The dominant material from 1627 until the early- to mid-twentieth 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 flammable, sometimes exploding during manufacture.


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 , a thicker and , a wooden joint (in high-end examples) and wood-to-wood joint (for a one-piece cue "feel"), a fast, conical , and a smaller diameter as compared with pool cues. Typical dimensions are in length, in weight (lighter for straight rail, heavier for three-cushion), with a 11–12 mm diameter tip. 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 (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 ( ) 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. The wood used in carom cues can vary widely, and most quality carom cues are hand made.

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 of England (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. 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 ..."

History of games

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 1700s, 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 . A win is achieved by reaching an agreed upon number of counts.

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 " " techniques. The most important of these, the , 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.

Professional straight rail in the US only had a six year run from 1873 to 1879. It was succeeded by a game specifically designed to curb the use of the rail nurse so that spectators would not be subject to its repetitiveness. Today, straight rail play is relatively uncommon in the U.S. but retains popularity 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.

The champion's game

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. 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 28 inches [711 mm] of the 'nursing' surface of the end rails and 56 inches [1422 mm] on the long rails." 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.


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 in which a player may only score up to a threshold number of points while the are within that region.

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.

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 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 balklines are drawn distant from each rail, and only 2 counts are allowed in a balkspace before a ball must leave.

Over its history balkline has had many variations including 8.2, 10.2, 12.2, 13.2, 12½.2, 14.1, 14.2, 18.1, 18.2, 28.2, 38.2, 39.2, 42.2, 45.1, 45.2, 47.1, 47.2, 57.2 and 71.2 balkline. 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 not very common in the U.S., but remains popular in Europe and the Far East.

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, is traceable to 1820's Britainmarker and is a descendant of the doublet game dating to at least 1807. The game is sometimes incorrectly 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").

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 rarely played in the U.S., but it still enjoys some popularity in Europe.

Three-cushion billiards

In three-cushion billiards, sometimes called three-cushion carom, three-cushion, three-cushions, three-rail, rails and the angle game, the object is to carom off both object balls with at least three being contacted before the contact of the cue ball with the second object ball. Arising sometime in the 1870s, the origin of three-cushion billiards is not entirely known. It is undisputed that the Internal Revenue Collector of the Port of St. Louismarker, one Wayman C. McCreery (full name, Wayman Crow McCreery, b. June 14, 1851 in St Louis, MO), popularized the game. At least one publication categorically states he invented the game as well.

The first three-cushion billiards tournament took place on January 14–31, 1878 in C. E. Mussey's Room in St. Louis, with McCreery a participant. The tourney was won by New Yorkermarker Leon Magnus. The high run for the tournament was just 6 points, and the high average a .75. The game was infrequently played prior to 1907, with many top carom players of the era voicing their dislike of it. However, in 1907 after the introduction of the Lambert Trophy, the game became increasingly popular both in the US and internationally.

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 22 September 1924 Willie Hoppe, the world's balkline champion (who later took up the game with a passion), and Ralph Greenleaf, the world's pocket billiards title holder, played a well-advertised, multiple day, 600 point match. Hoppe was the eventual winner with a final score turned in of 600–527. The game's decline in the US came about in 1952 when Hoppe, then 51-time billiards champion, announced his retirement.

Wayman C.
McCreery, popularizer and possible inventor of three-cushion billiards
Three-cushion billiards is a very difficult game. Averaging one point per 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 high run at three-cushion billiards for many years was 25, set by the American Willie Hoppe in 1918 during an exhibition. As of 2007, the high run record is 31 points, shared between Semih Saygıner of Turkeymarker and Hugo Patiño who is originally from Colombiamarker but resides in the US. The best game at the standard 50 points in a tournament is 9 innings by the Swede Torbjörn Blomdahl in 2000 and 4 innings ( : 19-11-9-11) by Korean and U.S. national champion, Sang Lee in September 1992 in a game at SL Billards in Queens, New York. The highest tournament average is 2.536 (345 caramboles) by Dick Jaspers from the Netherlands in 2002 at a tournament in Monaco. Raymond Ceulemans from Belgiummarker has won an unmatchable 21 three-cushion billiards world-championships.

Three-cushion billiards is the most popular carom billiards game played in the US today, where pocket billiards (pool) is far more widespread. Three-cushion retains great popularity in parts of Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

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. Decades later, the Billiards World Cup Association (BWA) competed with UMB, but faded in the late 1990s due to financial problems.. The International Olympic Committeemarker-recognized World Pool-Billiard Association (WPA) cooperates with the UMB to keep their rulesets synchronized.

Artistic billiards

A shot around a pin
In Artistic billiards, sometimes called fantasy billiards or 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 maximum 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).

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.

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 Belgianmarker Walter Bax on March 12, 2006 at a competition held in Deurne, Belgiummarker, beating his own previous record of 425. The game is played predominantly in western Europe, especially in France, Belgiummarker and the Netherlandsmarker.


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  2. Lexico Publishing Group, LLC (2006). Carom - Retrieved 30 December 2006.
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  14. New York Times Company (26 September 1924). Greenleaf Beaten by Hoppe, 600-527: Balkline Star Takes Final Block in 3-Cushion Match at the Strand, 50 to 44. Retrieved 21 February 2007.
  15. New York Times Company (17 October 1952). Hoppe, 65, Leave Cue Competition; Three-Cushion Ace Will Play Exhibitions -- Won 51 Titles During 46-Year Span. Retrieved 2 January 2007.
  16. (2005-2006). National Pool & 3-Cushion News: Hugo Patiño Makes a High Run of 31 Points. Retrieved 5 February 2007.
  17. (2000-2007). Men: World 3 Cushion Championship Retrieved 5 February 2007
  18. Martin Škrášek (2000). What's Artistic Billiard?. Retrieved 30 November 2006

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