Chinese Billiards.

I was recently reading Turgenev’s charming one-act comedy Где тонко, там и рвется (It breaks where it is weakest, translated in 1909 as One May Spin a Thread Too Finely), and hit a crux before a line was spoken: the stage directions, in describing the furniture of the stage (the hall of a landowner’s house), include китайский бильярд ‘Chinese billiards.’ What did that refer to in 1847 Russia? (The translation just says “a small billiard table.”) I found this piquant anecdote from Gilyarovsky’s memoir Москва и москвичи (Moscow and the Muscovites):

The billiard room kept its old character, described by L. N. Tolstoy. Even on my last visit to the club in 1912 I saw there a Chinese billiard table in memory of L. N. Tolstoy. On this billiard table in 1862 Lev Nikolaevich lost a thousand rubles to an officer passing through and experienced an unpleasant minute: he had no money to pay his debt, and the club rules were strict — he could have been blackboarded [banned from attending until the debt was paid]. There’s no knowing how it might have ended if Mikhail Katkov, the editor of the Russian Messenger and the Moscow News, hadn’t been in the club; when he learned what was going on, he rescued Tolstoy, giving him a loan of a thousand rubles to cover his loss. And in the next issue of the Russian Messenger appeared Tolstoy’s The Cossacks.

(You can read the original Russian here; scroll down to “Бильярдная хранила старый характер.”) But that doesn’t help. If anyone knows what kind of game this was, I will be glad to learn.


  1. SFReader says

    Бикс (Bückspiel), или Китайский бильярд с наклонной доской, небольших размеров. Верхняя доска (скат) утыкана паралелльно-косыми рядами шпилек. Небольшие шарики катятся киями по одному из двух желобков, расположенных по обеим сторонам Б.; после удара шар, сбегая обратно, попадает в расположенные по скату лунки, которые нумерованы (верхняя 100, а др. в 50, 30, 25 и 15 очков). Внизу ската — 13 отделений, отгороженных станками, образуют род ящичков с открытой передней стороной. С каждой стороны бикса имеются для счета две выдвижные дощечки, одна — гладкая, для записывания, другая — с цифрами, дырками и втулками. Шар, попавший в лунку через “ворота” и потревоживший звонок, выбивает двойное число очков против того, что бы стоил без звонка. Осечка считается за 2 очка, “перекат” (на другую сторону) — 5 очков, “затор” (когда шарик застрянет на шпильке) — 1 очко. Игра идет до 200, 300, 400, 500, 1000 и более очков. Б. весьма распространен в Китае. Игра мало подчиняется расчету, и выигрыш исключительно дело удачи.

  2. Just when I wanted to mention that it is a predecessor to pinball ( and that it has been banned in 1876 as a game of chance), SFReader got ahead 🙂
    It has been known as Bagatelle in France and its XIX c. versions with metal pins were also known as Russian or Japanese billiards

  3. Paul (other Paul) says

    It first says one thousand pounds and later one thousand rubles – were they equivalent then ?

  4. Paul: I don’t think they were. For instance, the historic table I found at states that the exchange rate was 6.25 rub. for £1 nearly throughout the 19th century (they don’t state where their data come from though). That means that 1000 rubles would only amount to smth like £150 – which should also be quite a lot in 1862.

    Anyway, I believe the translator just understood it to mean “one hell of a lot of money” rather than an exact amount.

  5. SFReader says

    In 1862, Russian rouble was traded in London between 33.5 pence to 34.5 pence.

    Pound sterling back then had 240 pence, so 1000 roubles was worth between 139.6 and 143.75 pounds.

  6. It first says one thousand pounds and later one thousand rubles

    It’s a translation mistake actually. In the Russian text Gilyarovsky says 1000 rubles in both places. His chapter describes Moscow’s venerable and exclusive English Club, originally modeled after the British Gentlemen’s Clubs with their democratic rules and upper-crust membership, walking the reader through its famous Tverskaya Street mansion, hall after hall, meeting its most eccentric members, and explaining its habits (including outsize bets on silly games).

  7. BTW “blackboarding” which threatened Tolstoy shouldn’t be confused with “blackballing”. He wouldn’t be voted out; but he would be temporarily banned from attending until the debt is paid, and his name would be entered on the Black Board in a special room peculiarly named The Lythostrotus (lit. stone-paved, a Greek calque from a Hebrew word meaning “the place of judgement or public sentencing” which was an elevated, flagstone-paved platform)

  8. It first says one thousand pounds and later one thousand rubles – were they equivalent then ?

    My bad — I have no idea why I looked at рублей and typed “pounds.” Fixed now, thanks! But at least my mistake led to us learning the exchange rate, thanks to SFReader.

    BTW “blackboarding” which threatened Tolstoy shouldn’t be confused with “blackballing”. He wouldn’t be voted out; but he would be temporarily banned from attending until the debt is paid

    Thanks, I’ll fix that too.

  9. J. W. Brewer says

    I’m loving the serendipitous tidbit that “billlard japonais” was named semi-randomly (presumably to sound “exotic”?) w/o any actual Japanese connection (this being the period of near-total Tokugawa isolation), but was nonetheless the ancestor of pachinko.

  10. The pachinko connection is uncanny…

    Thanks, I’ll fix that too

    (The problem with being listed on the Black Board of debtors [despite being generally solvent] was probably more about public humiliation than about any temporary membership suspensions? )

  11. J. W. Brewer says

    Yes, re “Black Board” it at least used to be the case at Mory’s, the private student/alum/faculty club next to the Yale campus, that a member who was sufficiently delinquent in paying his bill not only got his charging privileges suspended but got “posted,” i.e. had his name put on a frequently-revised list of delinquents posted in some prominent location near the front door that at least some other members would regularly inspect in hopes of enjoying some schadenfreude. I imagine similar institutions are not uncommon in the private-club world . . . Although I as an undergraduate at one point got so delinquent on my bill at the old Yale Co-Op (a private entity, now defunct) that I lost my charging privileges (which were really the only incident of membership that mattered, since non-members could and did walk in off the street and buy things as long as they paid cash) but w/o any formal public shaming that I can recall.

  12. Some rejahs also act as regulators of morals; they investigate those who are caught canoodling in unsuitable locales, and post their names on the Disgraceful List on the public bulletin-board. In some cases, an Honorable List is maintained as well, for those who over a period of years demonstrate their decorum. Urban rejahs do not usually do either of these things, except in highly conservative Old Thungerbarg.

  13. The Los Angeles Science Fiction Society bars members from voting at meetings if their dues are unpaid, but does not automatically remove them from the rolls for that or any other reason. (Resignation is possible, but deliberate removal requires a two-phase process, either member-initiated with board approval, or board-initiated with membership approval.) Hence Standing Rule #0 of the Society, “Death will not release you”, to which has been informally added, “even if you die”.

  14. So I’m still a member, even though I haven’t been to a meeting or paid dues in well over forty years. Interesting. (I used to sit next to Larry Niven.)

  15. I thought you might be! And indeed, the D page of the membership list contains the entry “Dodson, Stephen 02/12/1970”.

    The oldest datable member of LASFS (I got the name wrong above, it is “Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society”) is Len Moffatt from 1946, but there are over 300 members (out of 3000+) whose membership dates are unknown, such as Forry Ackerman, Dan Alderson, Greg Benford, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Robert Heinlein, Charles Hornig, L. Ron Hubbard, E. Mayne Hull, Henry Kuttner, Fritz Leiber, Ib Melchior, Morojo, and Jack Williamson, to mention only those whose names I immediately recognize. Also the mysterious “Who Else”. Death has not released them.

  16. David Marjanović says

    Also the mysterious “Who Else”.

    Probably a doctor.

  17. You mean Who is his given name???? Who knew!

  18. I thought you might be! And indeed, the D page of the membership list contains the entry “Dodson, Stephen 02/12/1970”.

    My fiftieth membership anniversary was a week and a half ago! You’d think they could have sent me a plaque.

  19. If only you hadn’t given up the stuff and moved out of L.A., you’d be eligible for First Fandom now.

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