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The game of billiards dates back to the 15th century but snooker is a more recent invention. In the late 19th century billiards games were popular among British army officers stationed in India, and players used to experiment with variations on the game. Due to the fact that billiards was a two-player game, multi-player variations such as life pool (where different coloured balls were used as cue and/or object balls, depending on the situation or number of players) and pyramid pool (fifteen red balls racked in a triangle where each player received a point per ball potted) became popular. Black pool was a form of pyramid pool that took the black ball from a life pool set so a player could pot a red then the black for more points. The most commonly accepted story is that, at the officers' mess in Jabalpur some time in 1875, a Colonel Sir Neville Francis Fitzgerald Chamberlain suggested adding coloured balls to black pool so that the variation featured fifteen reds, a yellow, green, pink and black (blue and brown were added some years later). The word 'snooker' (of unknown origin) was army slang for a first-year cadet. During a game a cadet missed a shot and Chamberlain said to him: "Why you're a regular snooker!" After explaining the meaning to his fellow peers, Chamberlain added that they were perhaps all snookers at this game. The term was adopted for the new variation and has been in use ever since. British billiards champion John Roberts travelled to India in 1885, where he met Chamberlain. Chamberlain explained the new game to him, and Roberts subsequently introduced it to England. Nowadays the term "snookered", meaning "thwarted", is a common expression in English.

Snooker championships date back to 1916. In 1927, Joe Davis helped establish the first professional world championship, and won its prize of £6.10s (£6.50, equivalent to about £200 in 2006 funds). He went on to win every subsequent world championship until 1946, when he retired from tournament play. The trophy he donated all those years ago is still awarded to the world champion.

A dispute between the professionals and the Billiards Association & Control Council (BA&CC, the game's then-governing body) meant that there were only two entrants for the 'official' world championship – Horace Lindrum (Australia) beat Clark McConachy (New Zealand). However, the professionals organised their own 'world championship' (termed the Professional Match-Play Championship) between 1952 and 1957, and the winners of this version are generally accepted as the World Champion. Nevertheless, it is Lindrum's name that is engraved on the familiar trophy.

Snooker suffered a decline in the 1950s and 1960s, so much so that no tournament was held from 1958 to 1963. In 1969, the BBC, in order to demonstrate their new colour broadcasts, launched a new snooker tournament, called Pot Black. The multi-coloured game, many of whose players were just as colourful, caught the public interest, and the programme's success wildly exceeded expectations. Ted Lowe, the commentator famous for his whispering delivery, was the driving-force behind Pot Black, which survived until well into the 1980s.

In the early 1970s, the World Championship received little TV coverage. However, in 1976 it was featured for the first time and very quickly became a mainstream professional sport. World rankings were introduced in 1977. Money poured into the game, and a new breed of player, typified by Steve Davis, young, serious and dedicated, started to emerge. The first maximum break of 147 in a televised tournament was made by Steve against John Spencer in the Lada Classic, Oldham, in 1982. The first 147 at the World Championships (Crucible, Sheffield) was by a Canadian, Cliff Thorburn. The top players became millionaires. There was even a comic snooker song in the pop charts: Snooker Loopy by Chas and Dave, featuring contributions from a host of players including Steve Davis and Willie Thorne.

Perhaps the peak of this golden age was the World Championship of 1985, when 18.5 million people (around one third of the population of the UK) watching BBC2 saw Dennis Taylor emerge victorious against Davis after a mammoth struggle. Play had started with the first session on Saturday afternoon, finishing with the potting of the last possible ball (with the exception of a re-spotted black) at 00:20 on Monday morning at the end of a gruelling final Sunday night session. To this day, polls rank the 1985 World Snooker Championship final amongst British television's most memorable all-time moments. With seven World Championship wins in the modern era, along with many other ranking tournament victories, Stephen Hendry is often considered the most successful player ever.

Snooker remains immensely popular in the United Kingdom, second only to football amongst television viewers. For highly ranked players professional snooker is a very lucrative occupation. Stephen Hendry leads the career prize money chart, with winnings of over £7.8 million as of 2005. The majority of top snooker players have always originated from the United Kingdom and Ireland. In the 1970s and 1980s some top players came from Australia, Canada and South Africa, but few successful players now come from those countries. However, there have been examples of prominent players from Malta, Hong Kong and Thailand, and since 2000 snooker has gained popularity in mainland China. In 2005 Ding Junhui became the first Chinese player to win a ranking event.

In the United States, snooker can also refer to a sort of miniaturized version of shuffleboard played with weighted, sliding disks, on a long table with a polished wooden surface. Though uncommon, this pastime is occasionally found in bars and pubs.

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