While the phrase “sport of kings” is historically ascribed to hunting and horse racing, it is not a stretch to attach it to billiards. Centuries before we came to know it as “pool,” an early iteration of the billiard table was recorded as a prized possession of King Louis XI of France around 1470. It was described this way: “A bed of stone, a cloth covering and a hole in the middle of the playing field, into which balls could be driven.”
The game over time trickled down from royalty to every level of society. In the middle of the 20th Century, it became a pop cultural phenomenon, making its way to Hollywood, most notably in 1961’s “The Hustler,” starring Paul Newman and 1986 sequel “The Color of Money.” As Paul Newman’s fictional “Fast Eddie” Felson and real-life pool icons Willie Mosconi and Minnesota Fats demonstrated, there is an art to the game.
A half-century after billiards’ heyday, 11 Ravens founder Michael Zaretsky and designer Bernard Semerdijan are endeavoring to redefine pool table artistry beyond the finesse of the players. As the premier manufacturing company of game tables in the U.S., the pool tables are not just an investment for enthusiasts, but also dazzling works of art in their own right, whether an owner takes advantage of an existing design or works with the team to create a custom design.
Zaretsky began his career as a professional ping pong player in Belarus, and parlayed that into coaching when he moved to the U.S. 30 years ago. He opened the Gilbert Table Tennis Center in Los Angeles in 2003. In addition to offering ping pong group and private lessons, the club sold ping pong tables. About nine years ago, a chance meeting with fellow ping pong player—Semerdijan—led to their having a back-and-forth that resulted in the inspired idea of creating modern, luxury ping pong tables. A broader vision of the concept took off from there.
“Clients began inquiring about getting other game tables to complement their ping pong tables, so we expanded into pool tables, then shuffleboards, poker, blackjack, air hockey, football and mahjong,” Zaretsky details. “Blurring the lines between the function and aesthetics is at the heart of what we do, and it’s both the most fun and challenging aspect of what we do.”
“Blurring the lines between the function and aesthetics is at the heart of what we do, and it’s both the most fun and challenging aspect of what we do.”
One of Semerdijan’s designs was an original ping pong table inspired by a prospective partnership with Lamborghini. It evolved into the “Avettore,” a big seller with a dramatic playing surface and legs mixing wood and acrylic. The engineering component was very difficult, especially when he had to figure out how to combine materials like wood and acrylic that are not commonly mixed. When a client requested that same design as a pool table, things got interesting.
“As first glance, no problem, but when we dug in, there were endless challenges,” continues Semerdijan. “Pool tables have internal mechanics that aren’t present in ping pong tables, and making them functional with an acrylic leg work was very complicated. We also had to work with the fact that pool tables have 450 pounds of slate in the table top, so the legs have to be able to hold up about 650 pounds. What makes the story inspirational is that once our team figured it out, the final table exceeded our expectations.
“As we continue to push design boundaries and encourage our customers to dream bigger, I expect the struggle balancing design and functionality will be ever-present. Our fearlessness and ambition to create the unimaginable, however, makes us who we are.”
According to Zaretsky, the time is always right to bring beautiful new things to the world, even if some people associate the pool heyday with the mid-to-late 20th Century. 11 Ravens custom tables, therefore, need to transcend function and become timeless. And to do that, working with customers to create the perfect masterpiece from the ground up truly separates them from other manufacturers.
“Our pool tables are about legacy, especially as most of our pieces are solid wood and meant to last a lifetime,” he affirms “They are a physical projection of the soul. We strive for our pieces to not only be unequaled works of art, but a reflection of the personal identity of each owner. Of course, from a practical point of view, they provide an opportunity for friends and family to come together in an active and fun way. We recommend treating it like any other expensive piece of furniture or a work of art, enjoy it but treat it with respect.”
Zaretsky observes that most of the company’s clients are “married men with exceptional style and ambition,” and while they take the lead on determining what tables to commission, the women in their lives also influence their decisions on various details of the final product. However, he also acknowledges that the typical customer in the pool table market is also evolving. While they find that male clients tend to gravitate towards the more classic finishes, women are interested in exploring more unique and creative finishes, and bringing in more color and non-traditional materials like acrylic into the construction.
“Our pool tables are about legacy, especially as most of our pieces are solid wood and meant to last a lifetime,” he affirms “They are a physical projection of the soul."
The process from inception to fulfillment takes nine to 14 weeks, as every table is made to order and handcrafted under a team of skilled artists working under Semerdijan’s direction. Elements are individually forged, sanded, polished and fitted into the final statement piece.
What makes the table all the more beautiful is that a part of the proceeds from the purchase is donated to the Sport and Art Educational Foundation (saefusa.org), an organization dedicated to benefiting Alzheimer’s Disease—whose symptoms can be alleviated by playing table tennis and ping-pong.
Given that pool tables and other game tables involve an investment of space as well as money, Zaretsky and Semerdijan offer the following tips of how to commission a pool table that fits your decor scheme as well as your love of the game.
START BY LOOKING AT YOUR SPACE
According to Zaretsky, the “best design” or “best finishes” are those that will best fit the space inside your home. As 11 Ravens specializes in tables that are devised holistically to fit the specific decor of a client’s home and qualities of the room where it will be placed, it is important to realistically assess the room size, color scheme, furniture style and overall interior design of where it will stand permanently.
EXPAND VERSATILITY WITH CONVERSION TOPS
If budget or space constraints are of concern, consider investing in conversion tops, which will allow you to use one table in up to five different ways, not just as a pool table, but also a ping pong table, a poker table, a craps table and even a dining table. This will expand your options not only in terms of what you play, but how you can entertain guests like a champ.
HIRE A DESIGNER
Zaretsky says more than half of his clients come to the table with their own designer, which makes his job easier and more enjoyable. While clients often struggle picking out which table fits their life and personality, their designers can do it decisively. It’s the same with selecting the right finish or finishes, as for the untrained eye, the number of options can be overwhelming. Designers are able to narrow down to a few options almost instantly, as they can readily envision the tables as part of the whole room’s look and functionality.