The Ultimate Guide to Understanding the Different Rules of Pool

rules of pool

Everyone knows how to play pool. Right? You hit the balls assigned to you into the correct pockets until there are no more left. Easy. But does everyone know the rules of pool?

Some of them? Probably. All of them? Definitely not.

As we all know, pool is a game that’s often played in the wee hours, in smoky bars, sometimes right up to closing time and beyond. Put your quarters on the table and wait for the next game!

At those moments, you're likely skipping past some of the fundamental rules of pool.

But not purposely. You probably were just never taught what to do. Some of the rules can be arcane and probably aren’t worth remembering when the clock strikes 2 a.m.

However, if you’re a stickler for doing the right thing and have always wondered what the rules say about accidentally sinking the cue ball, then help is on the way.

While we can’t say the rules of pool that we’ve pulled together will make you as knowledgeable as the famed Minnesota Fats, we are confident that with these basics you can keep your buddies honest.

Ready to break?

Brief History of Pool

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Before we dive into the details, how about a little history first?

Pool as a game traces its origins back to the 15th century. According to the Billiards Congress of America, the country of origin was probably France. But at various times, the game has been attributed to England, Spain, Italy, and China.

The most common thought is that billiards was modeled after a lawn game that looked a lot like croquet -- where players launched balls at targets of different types.

It’s unclear when and how billiards first emigrated to America. But historians are sure the game grew in popularity in the mid-1700s. Legend has it that even George Washington would pick up a cue from time to time.

But it was an Irish immigrant named Michael Phelan who helped establish the game in a way that captured the curiosity of the mass market, according to the Billiards Congress. Phelan devised the initial set of organized rules and codes of conduct and started a supply company that served the game until the 1950s.

It was during that decade that the game ran into cultural headwinds. Soldiers returning from World War II wanted to settle down, and participation waned. Over time, the game of pool has cycled through various peaks and valleys. More recently, the Billiards Congress notes the development of new pool halls with a more upscale feel.

Take a Cue

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So, what do you need to play the game? If you’re just a weekend warrior and enjoying a night out with friends, you don’t need to invest in anything. Just bring your quarters! The establishment where you play will have all the equipment and supplies.

But if you’re thinking of getting serious about the game, here’s a quick rundown of what you’ll want to acquire.

First and foremost, of course, is a good cue stick. If you are just starting out, we'd recommend a "medium" tip -- not too hard, not too soft, but just right. Cue sticks come in a standard length, but you can have one made to fit your circumstances. The shaft will be fiberglass, graphite, or wood.

Looking to play at home? Remember to measure -- multiple times. Pool tables come in various sizes. You want to make sure you know your space. Otherwise, you could end up like Frank Costanza and Kramer from Seinfeld:

You also have to have is a set of pool balls, ball racks, and some chalk to keep your tip in good shape. Beyond that, you can acquire lots of different accessories, from gloves to light fixtures to racks and cases.

Once everything is acquired, then all you need to do is brush up on the rules of pool. Once you do, you’ll be able to sharpen your game to take on the best of them.

Rules of Pool

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If you have even a passing familiarity with pool, you know the most popular games: 8-ball, 9-ball, and 10-ball, just to name a few.

Each of these games has its objectives. Understanding the game’s objective is the first step toward success in pool.

But also, there are some basic rules of pool that are common to all the various games that you must know.

You've probably heard terms such as "the break" or "scratch" -- and maybe you've always wondered what, precisely, is behind those words.

Keeping these rules of pool in mind will help you enjoy the game, as well as prevent disagreements down the road.

Lagging

The first order of business in the rules of pool: Determine who goes first. Sure, you could flip a coin, but how fun is that?

The rules of pool call for using a “lag shot” to determine the order of play. Here’s how it works.

Place one ball on each side near the head of the table. The players shoot at each of the balls simultaneously, intending to bounce the ball off the opposite cushion.

The goal is to get your ball to return closer to the head of the table than your opponent. The closest person gets to go first or determine the order.

You’re disqualified from winning the lag shot in certain circumstances, such as if you accidentally pocket a ball. You might also have to repeat the lag if you can’t tell who is closest.

Break it up!

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You get to break things in pool? Cool! Not really, though -- just the nicely racked collection of balls at the end of the table to start your game. Depending on the game you’re playing, the balls are configured in different shapes. But the objective of the break is the same.

The shooter places the cue ball at the head of the table and aims toward the rack of the balls. In this instance, you’re not aiming for any particular ball to go in -- just to disperse the balls to let the game proceed.

If you sink a ball on the break shot, the table is yours. You continue to play until you commit a foul. Your objectives will vary depending on what game you are playing.

Some games have particular rules on the break. In 8-ball, on the break, the rules of pool require at least four balls to connect with one of the rails. If that doesn’t happen, your opponent has the right to re-rack and break again.

Or you can play on!

Finding your tribe

Next, players must figure out what balls to shoot at. This will vary depending on what game you’re playing.

Before that happens, the table is wide open. You can shoot at and claim any group of balls. Before you do, though, you have to “call” your shot – in other words, state out loud which ball you're shooting at.

If the shot is successful, that group of balls belongs to the player. In 8-ball, players will either be shooting at solids or stripes. (But steer clear of the 8-ball!) In other games, the objectives will be different.

Calling your shot

Depending on the game you are playing, the rules of pool require players to call their shots on every turn following the break.

There's a protocol to this. Players must identify the specific ball and the pocket they are aiming at (if it's not apparent.)

Despite what some may argue, you do not have to describe further shot details, such as which rails you’ll hit on the way to the intended pocket.

If you miss your intended pocket or sink a ball other than the one you intended, play shifts to the other competitor.

However, as long as you live up to your promises, you keep your turn -- even if you run the table entirely.

Most foul!

You can lose your turn in ways other than making the wrong call. The rules of pool include 16 different fouls that will push you to the sideline.

Some of the most common ones are:

  • Pocketing the cue ball or driving it off the table
  • Hitting the wrong ball first with the cue ball.
  • Lifting both feet off the ground when you shoot
  • Touching a ball with your hand
  • Double-hitting the cue ball on your turn
  • Shooting while other balls are still moving
  • Playing out of turn
  • Laying your cue stick on the table to align a shot

Sinking the Shot

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Applying the rules of pool will take on different forms depending on the game and its objective. In 8-ball, you want to sink all your chosen balls first, and then the 8-ball.

The goal of 9-ball is to sink the balls in ascending order to become the first person to sink the 9-ball. The rules for 10-ball are similar -- sink shots from the lowest number to the highest number, then pocket the 10-ball.

Learning the basic rules of pool as we described will help further your enjoyment of billiards, no matter which game is your favorite, or whether you play in your basement rec room or a fancy billiards parlor all in your hometown.

And the goal is to have fun, right! Now off the break with you!

Do you have any pool tips or tricks? Any important rules of pool we forgot? Sound off in the comments below.

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