The game of billiards has changed drastically over the years. Thought to have originated from an outdoors game resembling croquet in the 15th century, billiards has been played by everyone from powdered wig royalty to slick haired hustlers. What we now refer to as the game of pool has seen many variations as it evolved from a nobleman’s game into the popular past time we see today. A more in-depth history can be read here if desired. The games of 8 ball and 9 ball were developed in the early 1900’s and have remained the two most popular versions of billiards to date. Pool players can shoot competitively or recreationally; either way, it takes skill and a lot of practice to become a great pool player.
The object of the game is to use your cue stick to propel the cue ball into the object ball so that it falls into the desired pocket. Sounds simple, right? It’s not. When shooting pool, you are required to use geometry and angles, a good sense of depth and momentum, a knowledge of a vast set of rules, and a very steady hand. In pool halls, all of this is usually combined with a ton of background noise and the feel of many eyes watching your every move.
In order to shoot pool, you must first have the required equipment. A pool table is the largest item necessary for a game. Standard pool table sizes measure 9′ x 4.5′ or 8′ x 4′. You may not think that’s a drastic difference in size, but it’s actually a HUGE difference if you’ve learned to play on an 8′ x 4′ and then are suddenly on a 9′ x 4.5′. These are the two sizes of tables that are approved for tournament play, but pool tables can essentially be any size. The only thing that must stay consistent is it’s 2:1 side ratio.
Modern pool tables have 6 pockets; one at every corner and one in the middle of each of the long sides. Pockets can either be actual pockets into which the balls fall and must be removed at a later point or they can be connected to a ball return. This detects the difference between the cue ball and the 15 numbered balls; for the most part, the chute recognizes either the slight difference in size or the magnet in the cue ball. The object balls are directed to a chamber where they remain until unlocked again and the cue ball is returned to be put back into play.
On that note, one cue ball and either 1-15 numbered balls or 1-9 numbered balls are required to play either 8 ball or 9 ball. There are many variations of different games to shoot, but these are the two most popular and the ones I will explain in more detail. Also needed is a cue stick, averaging 19 ounces and 57 inches in length. These are typically made of wood and taper down to a tip made of leather. Items not absolutely required for play but that will be greatly beneficial are chalk, a bridge, and a tip shaper. Chalk is used on the cue tip to increase friction between the tip and the cue ball. Bridges are used to help shoot balls that are farther than your reach or when it’s necessary to shoot over another ball. A tip shaper isn’t something that you will need for every game; this is used to reshape your tip so that it remains rounded and an effective point of contact.
There are a ton of rules. I’m not even going to attempt to lay them all out, but will give you the most commonly accepted and most frequently cited rules. If you’re interested in learning them all, the WPA site is an incredible reference. Also worth noting are the differences between WPA or APA rules and what are commonly known as “bar rules.” To avoid disagreements, it’s best to decide with your opponent which set of rules to use before the start of the game.
Without a working knowledge of what a pool table looks like, a lot of these directions aren’t going to make much sense. To get a better visual, this page offers a very basic diagram, which can be referred to if needed. Games are typically started by two players lagging for the break. What this means is that the players stand at the head of the table with their ball behind the second diamond line (head string) on the table and shoot down to the other end of the table. The ball that hits the end rail and ends its run closest to the head of the table determines the winner of the lag. The winner can then either choose to break the rack or give the break to their opponent.
Racking pool balls must be done in a particular way and in a particular spot. Balls are racked using a triangle, which is exactly what it sounds like: a triangle figure that shapes the balls. In 8 ball, the balls are racked in a triangle shape at the foot string with the apex ball resting on the foot spot. The foot spot on most tables is marked with a small circle on the felt. The 8 ball is placed in the center of the rack and the lower two corners should have one stripe and one solid. The remaining balls do not have to be in numerical order, but do have to follow the stripe, solid, stripe, solid pattern. For 9 ball, the balls 1-9 are placed in a diamond shape. The 9 ball takes the center spot with the 1 ball at the apex, still resting on the foot spot. The remaining balls are then typically racked in numerical order. Whatever rack is used, the balls should be pushed together so that there is no space between any of them. A tighter rack will make for a cleaner break.
8 ball and 9 ball are both played with two opponents and there is no time limit except in tournament play. The player who breaks the rack must do so from the kitchen, which is the area behind the head string. In 8 ball, the point of contact with the rack can be the apex ball or either of the front sides. If the first player makes a ball on the break, they remain in control of the table. Whether they made a stripe (high balls) or a solid (low balls), the table is open to them and they can shoot for either. If they do not make a ball on the break, the table is given over to their opponent, who then can choose to shoot for either stripes or solids. The table remains open at this point until a player makes a shot, determining if they will be highs or lows. If a player manages to sink the 8 on the break, they are the winner and the game is over.
The goal for each player is to sink their particular set of balls, either 1-7 or 9-15 and then the 8 ball last. During play, the cue ball must strike the shooter’s ball before their opponent’s ball for the play to be legal. If the opponent’s ball is hit first, it counts as a foul and the other player receives ball in hand. Ball in hand means that the cue ball can be placed anywhere on the table for the next shot. The 8 ball can be hit first in a combo for either player, but this is dangerous territory. If the 8 ball is sunk before the other balls, it counts as an automatic loss. Another way to get ball in hand is if your opponent scratches. To scratch is to drop the cue ball into a pocket or have it come off the table. If a player scratches on the 8 ball, this also counts as an automatic loss.
9 ball is played by pocketing the balls in numerical order. The winner can either be the player who sinks the 9 ball or the player who reaches a predetermined number of points. Each ball that is made counts as 1 point except the 9 ball, which counts as 2 points. At any time during play, the lowest ball on the table can be shot into the 9 ball; if this results in the 9 ball being made, the shooter has won the game. If a player scratches on the 9 ball, it is not a loss like it is in 8 ball. The 9 ball would then be spotted (placed on foot spot) and the opposing player would be given ball in hand.
There are many, many (MANY) rules in pool: so much so that it’s almost impossible to know them all by heart. Examples of some pretty common fouls are shooting without having at least one foot on the ground, intentionally jumping the cue ball, touching the table during your opponent’s shot, asking for advice (unless you are allotted an official time out), or having neither the cue ball nor your target ball hit a rail. Fouls tend to be enforced much less often per bar rules, but it’s a good idea to clarify what’s what before the first rack is broken.
The mechanics of shooting pool are so involved that it usually takes people years of practice to become a good player. From proper handling of the cue stick to learning how to do trick shots, there is much to be learned. Hitting the cue ball on either side (using English) will change the angle in which the ball is directed. Hitting the cue ball on the top or bottom will result in the ball going faster or slower, or even rolling backward after hitting the object ball (drawing the cue) to get in good shape for your next shot. Learning how to use the diamonds on the table to bank, learning how to cut a ball into a side pocket and learning to follow through with your stroke are just a few of the basics. If you’re interested in shooting in a league, check out the APA page to find a group. There’s no doubt that learning to shoot pool is a process that takes a while, but it’s incredibly rewarding when you get the hang of it.