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Pool - the Game

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Chalk for a pool cue

A game self-evidently derived from billiards, pool is in fact older than its more learned cousin, snooker, having evolved in Northern America during the first half of the 19th Century. The most obvious thing that sets pool apart is the size of the table, between 7ft x 3.5ft ('Pub Size') and 9ft x 4.5ft ('Tournament Size'), compared to the much larger 12ft x 6ft snooker tables. In addition, pool table cushions tend to be softer and less responsive, and the pockets bigger than on snooker tables. Along with the fact that pool balls are standardised at a diameter of 2¼ inches, half as large again as snooker balls, this makes the major skill element in all pool games a question of positioning, rather than potting accuracy.

The Balls

All pool games can be played with a standard set of 15 balls, plus of course a white cue-ball. Eight of the 15 balls are 'solids' or 'spots', being primarily of a single colour, with two diametrically opposite white spots containing the ball number. The remaining seven are 'stripes', being white with a thick band of colour, each band again containing the white spots and ball numbers. The balls are numbered and coloured as follows:

  1. Yellow solid
  2. Blue solid
  3. Red solid
  4. Purple solid
  5. Orange solid
  6. Green solid
  7. Burgundy solid1
  8. Black solid
  9. Yellow stripe
  10. Blue stripe
  11. Red stripe
  12. Purple stripe
  13. Orange stripe
  14. Green stripe
  15. Burgundy stripe

The Games

NB: The basics of stance, ball-striking, potting and positional play are outlined in the snooker entry.

The fascination of pool games, and the reason they are so difficult to enumerate, is that the game has gradually evolved over 150 years or so, and until very recently has never been standardised. Even today, rules from governing bodies, such as those from the World Eight Ball Pool Federation2 are vague enough to permit some leeway in their interpretation. Hence, what follows is by no means intended to be the definitive rules for any game, more a broad indication of how the games are played. All games are for two players, but can be played equally well 'doubles'.

8-Ball Pool

The best known form of pool, certainly in Europe, this is played with a standard set of 15 pool balls; the first seven 'solid' balls and the seven 'stripe' balls constitute two different sets, with the black as a final goal.

The game can be divided into two broad variants, English3 and American, although both have assorted variants, depending on which part of the country they are played4.

Both games start similarly - the 15 balls are racked up according to a set pattern, and are split from the break with the cue (white) ball. The break, as in snooker, happens from behind a baulk line5 (approximately one quarter of the table's length from the top cushion) although, confusingly, pool enthusiasts refer to baulk as the top of the table, whereas snooker players call it the bottom. If a ball is potted from the break, then the player who broke is assigned to the appropriate set of balls and his opponent, by default, to the other set. If no ball is potted, then play alternates until one of the non-black balls is potted; this then determines which player is assigned to which set of balls. If one or more balls from both sets are potted from the break, the breaking player remains at the table and is free to nominate which set of ball he would like to play.

Once a ball has been potted, the object ball6 is defined as any ball of the player's set, and the object ball must always be struck first by the cue ball. Under the English rules, a player is awarded another shot if they pot any ball of their colour; under the American rules, another turn is granted if the player pots any ball other than the black ball or the cue ball. Once a player has potted all balls of their set, then the black ball become the object ball, and the first player to pot the black wins.

A foul shot is called when:

  • A player, on the break, fails to pot a ball and two balls other than the cue ball do not strike a cushion.
  • The cue ball strikes a ball other than the object ball first, or does not strike another ball.
  • Any balls are knocked off the table (balls off the table are deemed to be potted, and are not replaced).
  • In English pool, a player pots a ball of the opponent's set.
  • In American pool, a ball is not potted and any ball does not strike a cushion after the contact between the cue ball and the object ball.

In English 8-ball, the standard penalty for any foul shot is two visits to the table. In other words, the offending player forfeits his next turn. If the white ball is potted, it is replace behind the baulk line.

In American 8-ball, the penalty is a 'ball in hand'. The opponent of the offending player can pick up the cue ball and replace it anywhere on the table to his advantage. Play then proceeds as normal.

If a foul is committed whereby the black ball is potted prior to it becoming the object ball, or a foul is committed and the black ball (as the object ball) is potted, then the offending player forfeits the game. The exception to this is when the black is potted from the break. Rules vary on this point, but it is generally considered that the balls should be re-racked and the game started over.

9-Ball Pool

The game favoured by the professionals, and requiring a high skill level if it is to be played competitively, 9-Ball has gained fans the world over due to being more television-friendly than 8-ball. World-quality players have emerged from as far afield as Thailand, Brazil, Finland and Australia. The game was popularised by the legendary Mike Massey, today regarded as one of the best players the game has ever seen.

The game is played with the first nine balls of the standard set, which are racked in a semi-random diamond arrangement, which always has the 1-ball at the top of the diamond, and the 9-ball in the centre. The object ball is always the lowest-numbered ball on the table.

Play alternates between the two players. If a player pots any ball after contacting the object ball, they are awarded another turn. The first player to pot the 9-ball wins, even from the break, which makes it subject to a lot of plants (hitting the object ball onto the 9-ball in order to pot the latter) and cannons (ricocheting the cue ball from the object ball in order to pot the 9-ball). As there is only one object ball at any given time, the reliance on good safety shots and positioning becomes paramount.

Fouls are the same as those in 8-ball, without the English interpretation of a foul. Fouls are rewarded by 'ball in hand'. If a player commits three successive fouls, he forfeits the game.

Rotation

The game of Rotation attempts to apply the skill element of 9-ball to the full set of 15 balls, but suffers somewhat as a consequence, the table being exceedingly crowded with 15 balls on it.

The balls are racked again in semi-random order in a triangle, the common features being the 1-ball at the top of the triangle, and the 2-ball and 3-ball at the other two corners. As with 9-ball, the object ball is always the lowest-numbered ball remaining on the table.

Players score the number of points on the balls that they legally pocket - hence scores tend to rocket towards the end of each rack of balls, and the winning score is consequently anything higher than 61 (one greater than half of the total points on the table). Fouls are the same as in 9-ball and are, again, punished by 'ball in hand'.

Because in Rotation, it was often hard to hit the 1-ball directly on the shot after the break, the game gave birth to the 'Push-out' rule, which later became applied to 9-ball also. The Push-out shot can be thought of as a dare; it may only be played on the shot immediately after the break (by the breaking player if a ball is potted, by his opponent if not) and there are no restrictions on the ball that may be hit first - indeed the cue ball does not even have to strike another ball. The opponent of the player 'pushing out', may then either accept the table position, or return the 'pusher' to the table. In either case normal rules apply. The objective of the Push-out, therefore is to move the cue ball into a safe position, but one from which you think you could play a better shot than your opponent.

Straight Pool (14.1 Pool)

Probably the first game to use the 15-ball standard set, this is still popular in the Midwest and South of the USA. The balls are racked up at random in the 15-ball triangle, and the object ball is defined as any ball (other than the cue ball on the table).

Each player, before taking his shot (including the break), must nominate both a ball to be potted and the pocket in which this is to be achieved. Correctly nominated and potted balls score one point, irrespective of their colour. After a successful shot, a player may again nominate and shoot.

The game can be played to any point limit, but is generally the first player to 150 points is the winner. Obviously there are insufficient balls on the table to achieve this with one rack, so once 14 balls from each rack have been potted, they are re-racked (with the central ball 'missing') before the player shoots at the 15th ball. The objective then is to pot the 15th ball in such a way to open the 'pack' and provide a clear pot for your next nomination. If the 15th ball lies within the triangle area, then it is moved to the head of the pack. This situation makes nomination and potting difficult, so should be avoided at all costs.

A foul shot is called if:

  • A player pots any ball (including the white) in any pocket other than that nominated.
  • A player knocks any ball off the table.
  • A ball is not potted and no ball strikes a cushion after the contact between the cue ball and the object ball.

Fouls are punished by the deduction of one point, after which the opposing player plays from the current position. If the white ball is potted, then it can be replaced anywhere behind the baulk line. The third consecutive foul from either player is punished by the deduction of 15 points.

One-Pocket

This is believed to be the original pool game; the fact that it does not require a numbered set of balls implies that it was originally played on a billiard table (perhaps with two sets of billiard balls - the number of balls is not particularly important in this game).

The 15 balls are racked up at random in a triangle. The player who is to break 'owns' the bottom-right pocket (viewing from the top of the table); the other player owns the bottom-left pocket. All other pockets are declared null and void, and any balls potted in them (other than the white) are replaced on the central axis of the table, from a point 2/3 of the way from the top cushion to the bottom, continuing downwards. The replacement does not take place until just prior to the opponent taking the table.

Alternating turns, players attempt to pot any ball (other than the white) in their pocket, scoring one for each ball they pot correctly, and gaining another shot. Any balls potted in an opponents pocket are counted for the opponent, even if the shot was a foul. The first player to pot eight (more than half) balls in their pocket wins.

A foul is committed if the white is potted, no balls are contacted or any ball fails to make contact with a cushion after the initial cue ball-object ball contact. This is penalised by ball in hand. If the white is potted, then it can be replaced anywhere behind the baulk line, but must be played towards the table's bottom cushion, rather than 'backwards' behind the baulk line. It is this latter rule that leads us to believe that the game is directly descended from billiards.

One-Pocket's reliance on 'doubles' (bouncing the ball off a cushion into a pocket) almost certainly led to the smaller tables and more forgiving cushions of modern pool.

A Growing Game

As has been hinted, there are many, many pool variants, but the above five games are the most widely played, and local variants often transpose certain rules between the games (penalties for fouls being the most common).

Pool in general first hit the American consciousness in the 1960s, not least through the 1961 Paul Newman film, The Hustler. Newman played pool shark 'Fast' Eddie Felson, a role he was later to reprise opposite Tom Cruise in The Color of Money.

8-ball was an American bar staple from the 1950s onwards, and supplanted Bar Billiards as a standard English pub game in the 1980s, although most of the latter's terminology was adopted from snooker, causing trans-Atlantic confusion between such terms as:

English TermAmerican Term
CushionRail
DoubleBank
Spin (on Cue Ball)English
TopspinFollow
BackspinDraw
SwerveMassé

9-Ball became a genuine commercial sport through the 1990s, attracting snooker players with its high-prizes. To the surprise of many snooker players, although they felt - with some justification - that snooker was the harder game, they were unable to compete with experienced 9-Ball professionals. The reasons for this were two-fold:

  1. Snooker players insisted on using their own cues, which typically had a much smaller tip than the average pool cue (8mm compared to <13mm). As a consequence, they were unable to impart sufficient spin onto the large cue ball in order to keep perfect control and position.
  2. Snooker players lacked the break-off power of 9-ball players. A professional is expected to pocket at least one ball from the break, and snooker players found themselves unable to do this with regularity.

Consequently, 9-ball remained an American-dominated sport. Until, that is, the advent of a new wave of exciting, highly precise players from the Far East. Inspired by the great Efren Reyes, they began to turn the tide, and turn competitive pool into a truly global game.

1After pool started to be televised, it was realised that some of these colours were hard to distinguish between, so for televised matches Purple and Burgundy were changed to Pink (4 and 12) and Brown (7 and 15).2Pool's origins as a social game are still very evident, even in these sanitised rules, as epitomised by rule K-9(a) "[A foul is called as] Touching the table while having a cigarette (lit or unlit) in hand or mouth."3English pool tables often have 7 yellow balls, 7 red balls and a black ball (all un-numbered), instead of solids and stripes.4A word of advice: If you pick up a cue in a strange pub/bar, check the local rules before you start to play. And never play for money unless you are 100% comfortable with the local rules - they have a habit of changing unexpectedly.5Americans call the baulk line the 'headstring'.6The 'object ball' is the ball(s) which the rules state must be aimed for and struck first by the cue ball.

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