Perks: Rack 'em up

The art of billiards has historically been a favourite with kings and princes.

Your local pool hall may not be the most refined joint, but the art of billiards has historically been a favourite with kings and princes. A billiard table was found in the inventory of King Louis XI of France's possessions in 1470; Louis XIV is shown in an engraving at the National Library in Paris actually playing the game on a table. (Originally it was a lawn game like croquet, which may explain why the cloth is usually green.) Today, a serious aficionado still needs a princely pocketbook, since a single cue may cost several thousand dollars, while a fine table can run well upwards of $30,000.

Snooker is usually played on what's officially known as an English snooker table, which measures 6-by-12 feet (5-by-10 for small rooms). Pool is generally played on an American pocket billiard table (4.5-by-9 feet, and with larger pockets). A carom table, with no pockets, measures 5-by-10 feet. Ideally, you should set any of these up with a minimum of five feet of unobstructed floor space on all sides.

Paul Potier is the founder and an instructor at Vancouver's Pool School in Paradise, an annual five-day dream camp where participants learn the fundamentals and the fine points of cue-ball control, strategy and specialty shots from international-level players. He recommends a pool-style table for the average home, because the larger pockets make for easier play and more fun for casual players.

One of Potier's favourite table makers is Diamond Billiard Products Inc. of Indiana. Diamond can custom-build tables from exotic woods like Honduras rosewood or ebony, with inlays of gold, silver or even diamonds. The Professional Model starts at US$5,000, but “US$25,000 to $US30,000 tables are not out of range,” says Diamond vice-president Chad Scharlow. (As of October 2005, Diamond has begun to issue a monthly one-of-a-kind table to tempt the wealthy.)

Somewhat less costly would be a new table from the California-based Olhausen Billiard Mfg. Inc., a brand recommended by Ontario-based billiard professional and international television commentator Jim Wych. Olhausen offers its ornately carved St. Leone pool table (boasting a lion's head on each leg) for US$16,125, not including cloth, accessories or special detailing.

“If you're looking for something unusual, you would definitely be looking at an antique billiard table,” says connoisseur Rick Williams, who owns the Toronto billiard mecca known as the Academy of Spherical Arts. “The price range on antique tables in good condition probably starts at $10,000 and goes up over $100,000.” Williams' Academy boasts an ornate cast-iron and gold-leaf Lion's Head table thought to be made around 1880 by renowned builder Samuel May. It has been said only five were ever crafted, and this is the only one still known to exist. “Similar tables manufactured by Brunswick are selling in New York for something in the order of US$80,000 to US$90,000,” says Williams.

Other venerable company names are Peter Vitalie of North Carolina and Gabriels, originally of Belgium. For snooker players, says Williams, “the Rolls-Royce of English pocket billiard tables is the Thurston.” Founded in 1799, the English company is the oldest in the world, and has supplied tables to the Duke of Wellington, Napoleon and Charles Dickens. Founder John Thurston was the first to add slate to the table bed and rubber to the rails; Thurston specifications were codified as the official standard for international play in 1892.

“We've supplied all the kings and queens, except the current lot, who don't play at all,” says Thurston sales director Peter Crail. The company sells a number of restored antique tables annually. “Generally speaking, for the more ornate, we would be talking £10,000 to £15,000 [about $20,500 to $30,800],” says Crail, “but if somebody was wanting to play at the highest level today, then they really would be better off buying a new table than a piece of antique furniture.”

The most expensive modern Thurston table is the Victorian, which Crail says is “a fairly ornate table, but not everybody's cup of tea.” He personally prefers Thurston's International range. The Victorian costs about £8,700 ($17,800), plus about £1,000 ($2,055) for shipping to Canada. The International line runs about £6,500 ($13,350), plus shipping.

There's no end to the potential upgrades. The best slate comes from Italy or Brazil, while England produces good rubber cushions. The cloth will be a blend of wool and nylon, with a nap, or raised pile, if it is to be used for snooker, and none for pool. Nylon speeds up the roll of the balls.

It may be worth replacing the cloth even on a brand-new table. “A lot of retailers or wholesalers will put a garbage cloth on a snooker table,” Potier warns. “Hainsworth cloth from England is great, great cloth for snooker. It's been used for decades now. And I like Gorina cloth from Spain for pool.” Wych estimates that “a match snooker cloth can be upward of $800, and a very smooth pool table cloth would probably be about $300.”

Antique billiard balls of wood or ivory have given way to artificial composite material, allowing for the closest possible approximation of a perfectly matched set of spheres. (Never mind that just one set used to require the deaths of several elephants!) The very best come from Saluc in Callenelle, Belgium, under the brand name Aramith. Ranging from $40 to $250 a set, they maintain their shape well.

With or without a home table, it would be a good idea to have your own cue, says Potier. “There are a lot of nice ones in the $1,000 to $3,000 range,” he notes. “I definitely recommend that you try a cue out before you buy it. If they tell you no, just walk away.”

A cue, says Wych, “is also a work of art, so there are dozens of people who are cue collectors; but sometimes those great-looking cues don't play all that well.” With its abundant hardwood, Canada produces some excellent cues, including Wych's favourite brand, Falcon. Based in Mississauga, Ont., Falcon cues are used by many pros. By collectors' standards, they are relatively inexpensive, starting at about $300 and moving up into the $3,000 neighbourhood for “limited edition cues with turquoise and silver inlay,” according to Wych.

Potier's personal choice is De Roo Cues of Langley, B.C. Artisan Kevin De Roo makes the shafts of maple and ash, inlaid with exotic hardwoods according to client requests: animals, Celtic tracery, geometric patterns. “Basically anything you draw, I can cut it,” he says. “That's really where most of the money is spent.”

The standard snooker cue is 57 inches long, and the standard pool cue is 58 inches, but “the proper way to go,” says Deroo, “is to play with the shortest cue you can stand playing with; it makes for a more compact stroke.” If it's never mistreated (by being exposed to extreme temperature changes, especially), a good cue will last a lifetime.

Although Deroo's nominal base price is about $600, “the average customer of mine is probably spending close to $1,000,” he says. “Then I get the odd customer who has something specific in mind with colour and inlay work, who would spend probably a couple of thousand dollars without thinking too much about it, because it's something they've dreamed about for a long time. I've gone as high as about $9,600.”

There's no shame in foregoing a home table, perhaps splurging on a personal cue and playing in pubs and clubs. Plenty of elegant tables are still found in private institutions, such as the Granite Club in Toronto, the Terminal City Club in Vancouver and the Manitoba Club in Winnipeg (not to mention fine public establishments like the Academy of Spherical Arts). But for those thinking about installing a home billiards room, there's no point in doing things by half measures. “When you're buying a pool table, don't skimp,” says Wych, “because a pool table will outlive you.”