Ground billiards

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Ground billiards
1480 ground billiards.jpg
Ground billiards in 15th-century France (1480 woodcut, based on the Saint-Lô Tapestry). This version uses a port (arch) and conical king pin, is bounded by a wicker railing, and appears to make use of one ball per player, with more than two players.
First played14th–15th century Europe
Team membersSingle opponents shown in illustrations; doubles or teams mentioned in 1674 indoor rules
Mixed genderYes
TypeOutdoor and possibly indoor
EquipmentBall, mallet/mace, hoop, king pin
VenueLawn or court

Ground billiards is a modern term for a family of European lawn games, the original names of which are mostly unknown, played with a long-handled mallet (the mace), wooden balls, a hoop (the pass), and an upright skittle or pin (the king).[1]:117 [2]:5 The game, which billiard historian Michael Ian Shamos calls "the original game of billiards",[1]:117 was the precursor of many later, more familiar outdoor and indoor games, including snooker, nine-ball, croquet, and hockey.[3]


Ground billiards in England, c. 1300s (1801 woodcut reproduction of 14th century image). This variant uses short, crude mallets, the port, and a round-bottomed king pin.

Dating back, in the form described above, to at least the 15th century,[1]:117 [2]:5 and in recognizable form to as early as the 14th,[3]:4 this proto-billiard game appears to have been ancestral to croquet (19th century), trucco (17th century; also known as trucks or lawn billiards), pall-mall (16th century), jeu de mail (15th century), and indoor cue sports (15th century if not earlier – what is usually meant by billiards today). The location of origin is obscure, with various scholars tracing it to medieval France, Italy, Spain, England, Germany, or more than one of these areas. More exotic and earlier origins have also been proposed.[4][5]

Engraving from Charles Cotton's 1674 book, The Compleat Gamester, showing the same game, including port and king, and finely-developed maces, being played on a 17th-century pocket billiards table

Even in the late 17th to early 18th centuries, indoor billiards was essentially exactly the same game, with smaller equipment and simply played on a bounded table, with or without pockets.[2]:3, 6, 7 [3]:57–67 Use of the king pin declined first in most areas, followed by the abandonment of the port arch, though many variants featured both as well as pockets,[3]:57–67 while the king survived and even multiplied in some cases, leading to such modern games as five-pins. Ground and table billiards were played contemporaneously,[3]:36 and the outdoor version remained known until at least the beginning of the 19th century;[2]:4 derived lawn games like croquet continue to the present day.

The game's relationships to bowling, golf, hockey and bat-and-ball games are not entirely certain. It is clear that bowling, in its ancestral form skittles, shares a common origin with ground billiards, as the two game types share both the basic objective, to direct a rolling ball towards a target, and equipment, aside from the mace.[3]:43 Some contemporary sources depict the same game being played both with the hand and with a mace, and show a distinctive teardrop-shaped king pin design,[3]:34, 43, 47 with a rounded bottom. This pin shape suggests that it may have been the origin of the modern bottom-heavy design of bowling pins and similar skittles of various sizes used in a wide variety of games. A conical king or jack, as well as round jacks or pallinos as used in modern bowls, boules, bocce, and pétanque, were employed in lawn bowling games at least as early as the thirteenth century in England, and with a similar goal (to get as close to the jack as possible with one's own ball).[4]

The Dutch game het kolven, a precursor of golf dating to at least the early 13th century, seems to be intermediate between ground billiards on the one hand, and both golf and ice hockey on the other. It was played in a wicker-bounded court during warm weather,[3]:43 and on ice in the winter, like bandy.[5] Players used maces (kolven) very similar to those shown in early ground billiards illustrations. At least one variant of it used holes in the ground, reminiscent of both golf holes and billiard pockets, instead of above-ground targets.[3]:43 The modern version, kolf or kolven, uses a tall, flat-bottomed king pin (paal, 'pole, stake') at each end of the court, and is played usually indoors.

Engravings dating back to c. 1300[3]:33 show a game being played that is an early variant of either ground billiards or one-on-one field hockey (assuming there was any significant difference other than game speed and vigour), sometimes within a bounded area. A similar game has survived to modern times, in the form of box hockey (which uses a flat puck in a confined space, and archways or "mouse holes" cut into wooden barriers, rather than stand-alone arches).[6]

An Ancient Greek game, similar to and possibly ancestral to ground billiards and field hockey (c. 600 BCE)[3]

There are hints that ground billiards may be far more ancient than the Late Medieval period.[2]:5 At least as early as 360 BCE, Romans played a somewhat golf-like game called paganica that could have degenerated to simpler, smaller-scale lawn games during the Dark Ages.[7][8] Second-century Ireland has also been proposed as a time and place of origin; the stick-and-ball game hurling (also called camogie, as a women's sport) dates to before 1272 BCE there. Third century BCE Greece has also been proposed.[4] Earlier still, a bas relief dating to c. 600 BCE depicts an ancient Greek ball game, a possible ancestor of both ground billiards and field hockey, which may have been called kerētízein or kerhtízein (κερητίζειν) because it was played with an implement shaped like a horn (kéras, κέρας).[9] It appears to be basically the same as the Mediaeval European activity of c. 1300 CE.[3]:2, 5, 27 An ancient Greek game said (in 1928) to be "analogous to billiards" was reported in contemporary Greek writings around 400 BCE.[4]

Billiard scholars Victor Stein and Paul Rubino conclude that there is an unbroken chain of game evolution from very widespread prehistoric stick-and-ball games and rituals, through the civilizations of classical antiquity, to modern lawn and cue sports in Europe and Asia.[3]:2–69 Even polo, a cavalry-training sport originating in Ancient Persia, is essentially the same core game, but played on horseback with a longer cue-mallet.[3]:35, 49 A set of gaming pieces, buried with a child dating to c. 3300 BCE in Egypt, features stone balls, skittles, and an arch (no cue/mace was included in the recovered artifacts).[3]:8

Stein and Rubino, among other researchers, believe that games such as early ball-and-stick activities, chess, and many others were brought into Europe from the Near East and Middle East by returning Crusaders from the 12th century onward, and that the pastimes were kept alive and evolving on that continent principally by the Christian clergy.[3]:2–69[4]

Games played with curved sticks and a ball have been found throughout history and the world. In Inner Mongolia in modern-day China, the Daur people have been playing beikou, a game similar to modern field hockey, for about 1,000 years.[10]

Game play and equipment[edit]

The exact rules of game play, and whether these rules were consistent from region to region, are unknown. English rules recorded in Charles Cotton's The Compleat Gamester (1674), for an indoor version played on a billiard table, indicate that the general offensive goal of the game is to use a club-like cue, called the mace or tack, to drive one's own ball through a hoop, called the pass, port, argolis, or ring, thus earning a chance to shoot at the upright king pin or sprigg, and to use defensive position play to thwart an opponent's ability to do likewise, e.g. by kissing an opposing ball to an unfavorable location.[11][12] Points were scored for touching the king pin with one's ball, without knocking the pin over (which would cost the loss of a point).[11] Games were played to a set number of points, such as 5 or 7, and could be between two (or sometimes more) individual competitors or doubles teams, each with one ball.[11] Object balls were not used, in Cotton's work or in any contemporary illustrations. Cotton's indoor version made use of pockets in the sides of the table as hazards, with additional scoring opportunities,[11] and some outdoor ground-billiards courts may have used golf-style holes for the same purpose.[6]

An outdoor form of the game that survived, sometimes without a king pin, until the early 20th century was trucco, among other names, with rules well-documented in works like the Victorian advice book Enquire Within upon Everything, which also called it simply "lawn billiards" (and which covered the related game croquet separately). Trucco, in this well-documented form, was played in a round area at least 8 yards (7.3 m) in diameter, by two players (or more, in two teams). The game used large, heavy balls and iron-headed maces like giant spoons which were used to toss rather than roll one's ball toward the port, by this stage a freely rotating metal ring mounted on a stake, and almost flush with the ground. Scoring shots included passing one's ball through the port, and striking an opponent's ball with one's own (a cannon or carom shot, in billiards terms, or in croquet called a roquet). Part of the strategy of this form of the game was using cannon shots to get close enough to the port for a shot at it to be easier (failing to go dead-center would likely result in not just a miss but rotation of the ring to an unpredictable position, or even in knocking the ring down, which was a foul with a penalty).[13] A prior form, illustrated in an early-17th-century English painting, shows a smaller and rectangular court, and only one ball between two players. Some continental forms did involve a king pin.

The balls, mace, and other equipment were probably most commonly made of wood. The Complete Gamester, covering only the indoor variant, favored by the well-to-do, recommended hardwood such as lignum vitae for maces, and expensive ivory for balls and other equipment,[11] but ivory's fragility would have made it impractical for the larger-scale and necessarily more forceful outdoor version of the game. Enquire Within suggested lignum vitae or boxwood for the balls. Some illustrations suggest port hoops made of decorative wrought iron, while others are clearly of wood, stone, or another carved substance, and later examples are thin and wiry, similar to modern croquet hoops (wickets). The nature of the mace appears to move from crude to elegant over time, with earlier illustrations showing simple hammer-like implements, with players stooping, while later woodcuts and tapestries show a long, thin device more like a golf club, and in basic form very similar to later, more delicate and ornate maces used for table billiards before leather-tipped straight cues became the norm in those games. Similarly, the nature of the playing court appears to evolve from any informal patch of ground to courts of turf or clay bounded by low (often wicker) barriers,[3]:4–47 though trucco, as an informal game played mostly at pubs and country houses, could be played anywhere the ground was relatively flat (the conventional Victorian rules simply called for at least 4 yards (3.7 m) from the outer edge of the playing area to the ring).[13]

Most woodcuts and other illustrations of the game show two players. A few show more, but it is unclear if these represent teams, doubles, or individual players.

Modern revival[edit]

A mid-20th-century version of ground billiards (aside from the aforementioned box hockey) has been played on a 30 by 60 ft (approximately 9 by 19 m) clay court.[1]:117 This may have been a croquet influence, as roque, an early-20th-century Olympic variant of croquet, used a court of the same dimensions.[14]

"King pin"[edit]

The term "king pin" or "kingpin", which today may refer to essential components of any system, from bosses of organized crime syndicates, to the main support bolt in the axle assemblies or "trucks" of skateboards, appears to derive from its usage as a key component of ground billiards, early skittle bowling, and related games.[15] There are some records that some of the early king pins in ground billiard games were made of bone.[16]


  1. ^ a b c d Shamos, Mike (1999). The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Billiards. New York: Lyons Press. ISBN 1-55821-797-5.
  2. ^ a b c d e Clare, Norman (1996) [1985]. Billiards and Snooker Bygones (amended ed.). Princes Risborough, England: Shire Publications. ISBN 978-0-85263-730-2.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Stein, Victor; Rubino, Paul (2008). The Billiard Encyclopedia (3rd ed.). New York: Balkline Press. ISBN 978-0-615-17092-3. (First ed. pubd. 1994.)
  4. ^ a b c d e Dorion, Leila C.; Shepherd, Julia A. (1928). History of Bowling and Billiards. Kansas City, Missouri: Constable-Hurd Printing Co. pp. 28, 65, 68.
  5. ^ a b Twardy, E. S. (May 1, 1937). "Divot-digging Crime to Scottish Ancients". The Lima News. Lima, Ohio. Associated Press. p. 9.
  6. ^ a b Littell, E. (1869). The Living Age. Boston. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  7. ^ "The Origins of Golf by Golf Information |". Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  8. ^ "Paganica | game". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  9. ^ Oikonomos, G. (1920–1921). "Κερητίζοντες". Archaiologikon Deltion. 6: 56–59. There are clear depictions of the game in period materials, but the identification of the game with the name κερητίζειν is disputed (English summary at
  10. ^ McGrath, Charles (August 22, 2008). "A Chinese Hinterland, Fertile with Field Hockey". The New York Times. Retrieved August 23, 2008.
  11. ^ a b c d e Cotton, Charles (1970) [1674]. The Compleat Gamester: Or, Instruction How to Play at All Manner of Usual and Most Genteel Games. London: Henry Brome [reprinted Barre, Massachusettes: Imprint Society]. pp. 25–33.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  12. ^ Shamos, Mike (1999). The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Billiards. New York: Lyons Press. p. 265. ISBN 1-55821-797-5.
  13. ^ a b Kemp Philp, Robert, ed. (1884). "2595. Troco or Lawn Billiards". Enquire Within upon Everything (69th ed.). London: Houlston and Sons. p. 365. Retrieved 8 March 2019 – via Internet Archive.. The rules of this and other outdoor games did not appear in editions much older than this.
  14. ^ McGowan, B. C.; et al. (2004) [1959]. "Official Rules and Regulations". Roque: The Game of the Century. Dallas, Texas: American Roque League. pp. "The Court and Its Fixtures" section. Retrieved June 2, 2009.
  15. ^ "kingpin | Origin and meaning of kingpin". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  16. ^ Strutt, Joseph (1801). The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England. Methuen & Company. Retrieved 4 March 2019.