Pool seems like an easy, fun game. You just lean over the pool table and hit the ball with a wooden stick (aka pool cue).
The only problem is you don’t know how to play pool.
Hang on, that’s nothing to be embarrassed about. There are thousands of people in the same boat as you.
In this article, I’ll cover everything you need to know about playing pool, including essential pool equipment, common pool terminology, anatomy of a pool table, different types of pool, basic rules of the game, and tips to improve your shots.
By the time you finish reading, I’m sure you’ll have enough confidence to start playing like a pro (ok, at least a seasoned hobbyist).
Let’s get into it.
Basic Pool Equipment
In order to play pool, you’re going to need access to the right equipment. So I’ll briefly list some of the basic items.
Pool tables have six pockets, one in each corner and two midway between the length of the table. They are covered with a soft fabric called felt and surrounded by cushioned rails.
Manufacturers usually use different types of materials depending on the table’s use. For example, woolen felt cloth covers are suitable for public pool tables because they’re more affordable. On the other hand, worsted wool covers are a better option for high-quality pool tournament tables.
Pool tables are available in different sizes, including 7, 8, and 9 feet long. The choice of a pool table can vary depending upon the size of the room. So a smaller table is ideal for pool halls and rec centers inside homes, while the standard 9 foot table is the norm in professional pool tournaments.
Though people often use the terms billiard balls and pool balls interchangeably, they are not the same. The main difference between them is that there are only three billiard balls (white, yellow, and red). Conversely, a complete set of pool balls consists of 16 balls, one white cue ball and 15 object balls.
The cue ball is the white ball. It’s the only ball that is struck with the pool cue to drive object balls into the pockets (also known as sinking, pocketing, or potting a ball).
Pool is played with numbered balls that are either striped or solid colored. Object balls 1 through 8 are solids, while balls 9 through 15 are striped.
A pool cue is the long, wooden stick players use to strike the cue ball. They’re available in varying weights, lengths, and materials. Professional players often own several pool cues. For example, a breaking cue stick has a reinforced tip to add extra power to the opening shot (break shot), and a shorter jump cue stick helps with the jump shot.
Today, many professionals prefer high-quality cue sticks made of carbon fiber, although they’re more expensive.
Racking is the process of organizing the object balls before playing pool. To rack quickly and efficiently, players use a pool rack, a piece of equipment that helps create a nice tight rack and ensures the balls are touching each other.
Pool racks typically come in two shapes: triangle and diamond. The rack you use depends upon the pool game you want to play. For example, you’ll need a triangular rack to rack for the popular pool game 8 ball. On the other hand, you’ll need a diamond-shaped rack for 9 ball pool.
Anatomy of a Pool Table
Before I start this topic, take a moment to look carefully at the diagram below. This will help familiarize you with different parts of a pool table and understand what to do while playing.
Notice the equally-spaced diamonds that line the perimeter of the table. These are reference points between the pockets.
The Head of a pool table is part of the table where you will play the opening shot. The head string is the imaginary horizontal line between the second diamonds lining the two long rails nearest to the head of the table. The area behind the head string is called the kitchen. Players always place the cue ball in the kitchen at the start of the game.
The opposite end of the table is the Foot. The foot string is the imaginary horizontal line between the second diamonds lining the two long rails closest to the foot of the table. The balls are racked behind the foot string.
The top-most part of the rack (known as the apex) is placed on the foot spot, the spot that marks the midpoint of the foot string. The foot spot is usually marked on most pool tables.
There are dozens more terms that I could mention, but I don’t think that they would benefit your game at the moment. However, once the positions mentioned above are clear in your mind, you’ll be able to play pool with more confidence.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by these new words and are thinking of throwing in the towel, hang in there. The fun part is about to start.
How to Hold Your Pool Cue
Did you know the way you hold your cue stick can improve the accuracy and steadiness of your shot – and ultimately, your game? So it only makes sense to perfect this before learning the rules of the game.
If you’re right-handed, use your right hand to grip the bottom of your cue stick (the pool butt) and place your left hand (the non-dominant hand) on the table to create a bridge. If you’re left-handed, simply switch the positions around.
I’ll divide this topic into two important sections to help you understand how to hold your pool stick properly.
Grasping the pool butt properly helps balance your shots. A tight, tense grip can make your movements jerky and constricted. So maintaining a loose and comfortable grip gives you more control over your shots and stick.
The position of your wrist when finishing a stroke also matters. Ideally, your wrist should stay relaxed and straight after swinging. Besides this, you need to make sure that only your elbow and shoulder move and that your hands remain still.
The hand on which your pool stick rests creates a bridge. It offers a stable base on which you can move the cue stick backward and forwards.
There are several ways to form bridges for pool, depending on how a player wants to position the cue stick on their hand. For instance, a closed bridge is formed when your finger curls over the stick.
Likewise, an open bridge is formed when the stick rests on top of your hand. Players can position the cue stick either between the thumb and forefinger or between the index and middle fingers.
Finding the right way to place the cue can take time. A bad bridge can lead to inconsistent hits and ruin your game. But it’s nothing a little practice can’t help solve.
How to Take a Pool Shot
Sure, your hand position is crucial when playing pool. But the next thing you need to do is learn how to strike the ball correctly.
When striking a ball, hit the cue ball as if you are shooting through the ball, not jabbing it. The goal is to apply just enough force so that the cue ball strikes an object ball without the cue ball going into the pocket. Again, this is something you can perfect with practice.
So how can you set yourself up for the perfect shot?
When lining up for a shot, begin by putting your non-dominant hand on the pool table, nearly 7 to 9 inches behind the cue ball, and grip the cue stick with the other. Make sure to hold your cue stick at a slight angle so that it’s almost parallel to the pool table.
Now hit the cue ball in one swift motion and follow through with the swing.
Seems easy enough, right?
Okay, so does it matter where you hit the cue ball?
Yes, of course. You can control the movement of the cue ball depending on where you strike.
This may sound complicated, but cue ball control is actually not that difficult. All it takes is – you guessed it – practice!
That means it’s time to start playing pool!
Different Types of Pool Games
Pool is a general term that describes a variety of cue sports. In fact, dozens of variations of the game have developed over the years, such as 8 ball, 9 ball, 10 ball, cutthroat pool, straight pool, bumper pool, etc. But it’ll be impossible to describe each type today.
So I’ll discuss the most popular game, 8 ball pool, in more detail. This will enable you to learn many techniques and tips you can apply to the other pool games.
How to Play 8 Ball Pool
Object of 8 Ball
Eight ball pool is a two-player game in which one player sinks the solid balls numbered 1 through 7, while the other player sinks the striped balls numbered 9 through 15.
The object of the game is to pocket all the balls of your group, pocket the black eight ball last, and win the game.
Since there is no scoring, the first player to finish the game wins the frame. Players typically play several games in succession before declaring a winner.
How to Rack 8 Ball Pool Balls
With the right racking skills, you can get a good break and scatter the balls across the table.
Conversely, a loose rack won’t break properly, potentially creating easy shots for the other player. So the secret to your success begins with racking the balls properly.
So let’s learn the correct way to rack for 8 ball.
Position the triangular rack in such a way so that the base is parallel to the foot rail. The apex of the triangle should rest on the foot spot.
Some players put the number 1 ball as the apex ball (the object ball at the top of the triangle), but that isn’t necessary. However, you must put one solid ball and one stripe ball in each rack corner. Even more important is the placement of the black ball. You should place it right in the middle of the triangle, which is the center of the third row.
Finally, randomly place all the other balls in the triangle. To help spread out the balls and prevent clustering, try not to place the striped and solid balls next to each other in the same row.
Once you’re done setting up the balls inside the rack, slide it forward and backward to lock the balls in their places. Just remember, the apex ball must rest on top of the foot spot.
Basic 8 Ball Rules
To help you learn all the rules, I’ll describe the rules you need to be aware of while playing the game. So first on the list is how to start playing.
Making the Break
The game starts by placing the cue ball anywhere in the kitchen and positioning the apex ball on the foot spot. The first shot is called the break. As the name suggests, the purpose of this shot is to break up the triangle of fifteen pool balls and spread them over the table.
So how do you decide who gets to make the break?
If it is the first game, simply toss a coin to decide who will make the break. However, for subsequent matches, the winner of the previous game gets to do it.
Here’s the catch.
The breaking player needs to make a legal break. That means they either pocket an object ball (except for the eight ball) or make at least four balls hit the cushions. If these conditions are met, the player keeps playing his turn.
The first ball to be pocketed determines the player’s group – stripes or solids. For instance, if you pocket a solid ball, all other balls you pocket must be from the same group, which in your case is solids. A person can keep playing until he fails to pocket an object ball. It means their turn is over, and the other player can now come to the table.
I bet you have a dozen questions to ask right now, so before I go any further, let me answer them one at a time.
What if …
- The breaking player doesn’t pocket a ball, or the player fails to make four balls touch the cushion?
In this case, it’s an illegal break. The opposing player comes to the table. He can either continue playing, re-rack and break himself, or ask the other player to re-break.
- Both a stripe and a solid ball are pocketed?
At this point, the table is open. That means the player can choose the group they want, either stripes or solids.
- The starting player pockets a cue ball on the first shot?
A scratch occurs when a cue ball is pocketed, or the cue ball fails to connect with any ball or two sides of the pool table.
If a player scratches on the break, the other player can re-rack and start a new game, or they can take the cue ball in hand, place it behind the head string, and continue playing the game. However, the player can only hit balls that lie outside the kitchen.
- A player pockets the eight ball on the break?
The player loses their turn, and the other player can either place the eight ball on the foot spot and continue playing the same game or re-rack and start a new game.
- If a ball jumps off the pool table?
If it’s the eight ball, it’s put back on the table. However, if it’s any other ball, the object ball stays out of play.
When playing 8 ball, players must call out every shot after the break shot, before striking the cue ball. This means you need to tell your opponent two things before taking a shot:
- The ball you intend to sink
- The pocket in which the called ball will get knocked into
However, you don’t always need to play this way since the rules of the game can vary when playing informal 8 ball. So if you’re playing a game with your buddies, you can simply pot the balls of your group without calling the shots.
But no matter which variation of 8 ball you play, one rule remains the same for all versions: you cannot sink the eight ball until all the other balls of your group have been pocketed.
Furthermore, you cannot pocket the black eight ball with a combination shot. That means you can only pocket the eight ball by striking it with the cue ball, not by pocketing the last ball of your group in succession with the eight ball in a single shot. Nor can you pocket the eight ball by striking it with another ball.
Yes, I know, it’s time to answer a few more of your questions.
What if …
- The player commits a scratch during play?
The player loses his turn and the opponent gets the ball in hand. That means they can place the cue ball anywhere on the table.
- You pocket your opponent’s ball?
You lose your turn. The opponent’s ball stays in the pocket and the play continues.
- The called ball did not go into the designated pocket?
When this occurs, it’s considered an illegal shot, and the player loses their turn. The illegally pocketed ball will remain in the pocket.
- A player scratches on the eight ball shot?
A player does not lose the game if he scratches when trying to sink the eight ball. They just lose their turn. However, you lose the game if the cue ball is pocketed along with the eight ball.
- I hit my opponent’s ball without hitting my ball first?
The official rules state that when you shoot the cue ball, you should hit an object ball from your own group before it touches any of the opponent’s balls. Again, there are many versions of 8 ball, so you do not have to follow this rule when playing an informal game with your friends.
What Causes a Foul
No, a foul does not mean you’ve lost the game. It merely means you lose your turn, and the opposing player gets to play. In 8 ball, a foul means that one of the rules of the game has been broken.
The next obvious question is, “What is a foul in 8 ball?”
A foul in 8 ball is when:
- The cue ball is pocketed
- Any ball jumps off the table
- The cue ball fails to touch another ball
- The player fails to hit a ball from their group
- Pocketing the opponent’s ball (the fouled object ball will remain in the pocket)
- The eight ball or an object ball from the opposing player’s group is hit first while balls from your group are still on the table
- While making a shot, the cue ball is touched more than once
- Any ball on the table is touched or disturbed from its place
- A shot is played while an object ball is still moving on the table
- The player’s feet aren’t touching the ground while making a shot
How to Win 8 in 8 Ball
The only ways to win a game of 8 ball are if:
- you legally pocket all the balls in your group and finally sink the eight ball into the called pocket without scratching
- the other player knocks the eight ball off the pool table or sinks it before pocketing all the object balls of their group.
Ways You Could Lose in 8 Ball
A player can lose a game of 8 ball if they:
- drive the eight ball off the pool table.
- pocket the eight ball before pocketing the rest of the balls.
- pocket the eight ball in a pocket other than the designated one
- scratch and foul while also potting the eight ball
- pocket the eight ball with the same stroke they use to pocket the last object ball of their group
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