Michael Phelan Pool Master

Michael Phelan Pool Master

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of PBA Galleries.

The name Michael Phelan may not mean much to you, but among pool devotees Michael is considered the daddy of American billiards. He played in and won the first major stakes match in April 1859 at Fireman’s Hall in Detroit. 

Phelan had a flawless reputation.  Every tournament he played in drew crowds.  The pool champ wrote “Billiards Without a Master” (1850), the first American book on the subject. 

The successful Irish manufacturing tycoon pitted his talents against John Seereiter, the local billiard buff.  The Four Ball match, to 2,000 points carried with it a $15,000 purse.  It was an unbelievable amount of money in those days.  Just to sit and watch the match cost $5.

And the price didn’t seem to matter to fans.  More than 400 packed the sold out hall.  Thousands more stood outside waiting for updates.

After four days Phelan topped his opponent 2,000- 1,904.  Local magazines, daily newspapers and the sporting world gave the event lots of attention. 

Phelan had a flawless reputation.  Every tournament he played in drew crowds.  The pool champ wrote Billiards Without a Master (1850), the first American book on the subject.  It covered everything from billiard science to rules and etiquette.  He also set the trend for extravagant billiard rooms through his New York room located on Broadway.

His Phelan-Collender Billiard Table Company started in 1840, dominated the billiard scene in America for years.  He developed a number of unique table designs.  Phelan is also credited with being the first manufacturer to put ivory “diamonds” on the rails.

Americans loved the game from the start.

“Within the writer’s memory, the number of (billiard) rooms in New York did not exceed seven or eight (originally), and perhaps not more than 16 tables in all, now there are 50 or 60 rooms,” Phelan reported in 1850.   By the 1920s between 40,000 and 45,000 poolrooms sprouted up across America.  Numbers didn’t drop during the Depression either.

Even George Washington was a billiard aficionado who kept close count of the money he won at the tables.  He wrote about his fondness for the game in his diaries.   His Mount Vernon home wasn’t big enough for a billiard table so he visited the homes of friends who did have tables. 

Washington recorded his wins and losses.  The most he lost in one day was one pound, ten shillings.  His biggest take was about $1.75.

On June 4, 1748 Washington wrote, “To cash won at billiards: one shilling, three pence.”  The “pigeon” (victim) he went on to say was the Hon. Thomas Turner, Clerk of the Virginia House of Burgesses.

The industry still winces today when it hears the word pool.  They prefer the term pocket billiards. It’s less smoky bars and late nights and more family fun and world championship clashes. 

On Feb. 7, PBA Galleries, San Francisco, featured a selection of vintage billiard books in its Angling—Sports & Pastimes Natural History sale.  Included in the auction was the text mentioned above by Michael Phelan,  Billiards Without a Master. 

The book sold for $960.  


Michael Phelan and Claudius Berger; The Illustrated Handbook of Billiards; New York:  Dick & Fitzgerald; 1862;  $420.

Edward Russell Mardon; Billiards:  Game 500 Up.  Played at Brighton; on the 18th of January 1844; first edition; Brighton W. Leppard; 1844;  $600.

An Amateur; A Philosophical Essay of the Game of Billiards…; Bath:  Printed by W. Meyler; 1806; a rare scientific treatise on the game of billiards;  $1,560. 

Francois Mounsier Mingaud; The Noble Game of Billiards; first English edition; London:  John Thurston, 1830; Mingaud is credited with inventing the modern rounded leather cue tip;   $1,800.                    


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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