Snooker has been around since 1875, or thereabouts, but like so many other games that are now staple sports on our bookies’ A-Z of markets, pinning it down 100% is quite difficult.
Many of our favourite sports naturally evolved over time, so there is no single point at which we can say it was ‘invented’, and snooker is among them.
The widely accepted story is that one Neville Chamberlain was the official inventor of modern day snooker, a rumour that circulated for many years before he finally commented on it confirming its accuracy.
However, while the Chamberlain you are probably thinking of was infamously happy to take a man at his word, the word of the Chamberlain we are talking about isn’t enough for some others, and there are still those who think Chamberlain gets more credit for the game than he deserves.
After all, there were many other games played on green felt tables with cues and balls before snooker came along, so at what point did one of these become the game we play today, and was it really all down to one man?
Who was Neville Chamberlain?
The relevance of this article only makes sense if you know who Neville Chamberlain was, so without delving too deeply into the history of the man, we will quickly sum up his life and his achievements.
First though, there is something very important to clear up.
As you may have already deduced from the intro, this is not the same Neville Chamberlain that came back from a meeting with Hitler in 1938, waving a letter signed by the swastika wearing tyrant, and declaring “peace in our time”.
Many many people make this mistake though – including this writer – so if you did the same you are in good company!
Our chap was born Neville Francis Fitzgerald Chamberlain in 1856, and served in the British Indian Army from 1873 to 1901.
This meant he was out of the country for many years of his life, either in India or on active duty in countries like Afghanistan, where he was wounded, Burma, or South Africa. This was a key factor in snooker’s invention.
He was made the Inspector General of the Royal Irish Constabulary and was also knighted, so he was, in the words of Ron Burgundy, kind of a big deal.
But he wasn’t the same Neville Chamberlain who was Prime Minister between 1937 and 1940. That’s really important to remember.
How was Snooker Invented?
Games using cues and balls such as billiards and black pool were very popular in the mid to late 1800s, especially amongst the officer class in the British Indian Army.
This is back when the class system was much more of a thing than it is now, so officers really did live a far more privileged life than the common soldier. They were often plucked from the families of Dukes and Viscounts etc., so their standard of living was always the best available.
This meant that the officer’s quarters were always very nice indeed, and in the 1870’s in Jabalpur, India (then called Jubbulpore), the officer’s quarters included a billiards room.
If you didn’t know, there is a rainy season in India, and during this period the officers would spend much of their time in the billiards room, since it wasn’t possible to get much done outside.
It was during this time of year, in 1875, that a 19 year old Lieutenant Chamberlain picked up his cue and began to think.
Billiards is a very creative game with many different ways to score points, but it only uses 3 balls. The table it was played on was huge though, in order to give the players plenty of space to tactically play their shots.
People would use these large billiards table to play other games too, to keep things interesting and adapt to their mood.
Gambling was often an activity that went alongside these games, and some even had gambling woven into the rules, so snooker really is a gambler’s sport and always has been.
Back to the table then, and it is remarkably similar to how it was back then.
Since snooker was developed using a billiards table the playing surface already existed, and the game was created to fit it, so very little had to be changed as time went on.
A few dots were later included for positioning of the additional coloured balls, but otherwise, snooker’s playing surface pre-existed the game itself.
One of the games played on the billiards table at the time was ‘Pyramid’, so called because of the shape the balls were set in at the start of the game.
The red balls would be laid out in a pyramid shape and a single cue ball would be used to hit them. The first player would play until they failed to pot one, at which point the other player would take over until they failed to pot one.
For each ball potted the other player would have to pay a forfeit, with the amount being agreed before the game, and if the cue ball was potted or no red wall was hit a forfeit would be paid and a red ball would be added back onto the table.
Another popular game at the time was ‘Black Pool’, in which the objective was to pot the other player’s cue ball before having a go at the black ball.
This game was often played with more than two players, with each player taking a different coloured cue ball.
If you could use your cue ball to pot another player’s cue ball, they would have to pay you a stake. You could then try to pot the black ball directly afterwards, and if you manged it, every player at the table had to cough up a stake too.
Each player’s turn position was decided by the colour of their cue ball.
By combining the major elements of these two games, Chamberlain came up with a very early form of snooker.
You can clearly see where the main elements of the game came from.
So where does the name ‘Snooker’ come into all of this?
Well back in Woolwich Military Academy, new recruits were often called ‘snookers’ by the more experienced personnel there.
It was a mildly offensive term, along the same lines as calling someone a rookie or a newbie – designed to make them feel a bit ‘less than’ but not to really hurt their feelings.
Anyway, Chamberlain heard this term, and shortly after was playing with an opponent who missed a particularly easy shot, so he called the man “a regular snooker”.
The opponent didn’t take it that well so Chamberlain lessened the jibe by going on to declare that they were all snookers at this game (since it was brand new).
This is how he put it in his own words:
“The term was a new one for me, but I soon had the opportunity of exploiting it when one of our party failed to hole a colour ball which was close to the corner pocket. I called out to him “Why you’re a regular snooker”. I had to explain to the company the definition of the word, and to soothe the feelings of the culprit, I added that we were all, so to speak, snookers at the game. So it would be very appropriate to call the game snooker.”
From this point on people began referring to the game as snooker, probably as a bit of fun, and it stuck.
How Snooker Became Popular
The game spread naturally through the British Indian Army, with Chamberlain himself being posted to many different places and introducing the game to new people each time.
Between 1881 and 1885 Chamberlain was stationed in Madras, and this is where he finally made a copy of the rules, which had been tweaked over the years. He had them written up and posted them on the wall in the Ootacamund Club billiards room, where they can still be seen today – the old colonial club is still members only, a relic of the Raj.
Snooker was soon one of the most popular games played among officers in India, but it took a visit from a national Billiards champion to get it back to England.
John Roberts was the champion in question, who tracked Chamberlain down to learn the rules from him – and they probably had a few games together too, let’s be realistic – before using his status to introduce the game to England.
Chamberlain’s association with the game ends here. It was never his focus and he held many important positions in the military and the police which would have needed his full attention.
However, others became the face of snooker and propelled it to new heights. Joe Davis, for example, was the game’s first big star in the 1920s, and his popularity helped the game to flourish to the point where billiards was hardly played at all anymore and snooker was the number one table game played in the UK.
Crowds of thousands would turn out to watch him play, sustaining the game until colour TV was invented at which point professional matches could be broadcast, advertising money kicked in, and the game’s modern era began.
We cover the sport’s general history in more depth on our Snooker page.
As for Neville Chamberlain, he died in 1944. Not in the war though, he was 88 by this point, that would be insane.
The truth of snooker’s origins had been a topic of debate as Chamberlain grew older, after all there was no internet or anything like that to look things up on, and he had failed to confirm or deny the truth of the matter.
Then in 1938, 6 years before his death, Chamberlain saw an article exploring the game’s origins in The Field, a monthly countryside magazine, and wrote back in response confirming that he had invented the game in India in 1875.
It must have been quite a shock for the magazine’s editor.
As for those who question the degree to which Chamberlain is responsible for the game’s invention, well it is difficult to find anyone else who provably had anywhere near as much to do with it as him, so as far as we are concerned, if anyone deserves the credit, it’s Neville Chamberlain.
But not the Neville Chamberlain who was Prime Minister between 1937 and 1940.