OK, this is a short guide designed to teach some basic 8 ball rules, a system of how to play pool for beginners. If you have no idea how to play pool, of where to start, this guide should help get you going. It is focused on clarifying the more important rules of 8 ball pool, as played in leagues or tournaments. Any new player working to pool better pool should really strive to utilize these standard rules as opposed to the dumbed-down house rules they’re often exposed to by friends and family.
I’ll be discussing the head-spot and foot-spot, and their uses; the rack, and how to organize the 15 balls properly; what a table scratch really is, as well as a foul, and the penalties that go with them; what a called shot is; what a legal shot is; and how you might win, or lose, when the 8 ball drops into a pocket.
Head-spot & head-string
OK, the head-spot is marked 1/3 of the way along the table on the centerline that runs lengthwise between the head-rail of the table and the foot-rail. This is spot most people place the cue ball before breaking the rack. What a lot of beginner players don’t realize is that it isn’t necessary to break from exactly that spot. A player can choose to break from anywhere at all behind the head-string, which is the line running through the head-spot from side-rail to side-rail.
The most common misuse of the head-string is when someone enforces ‘house rules’ for a scratch in a pocket, at which time the next player to shoot is forced to put the cue ball somewhere behind the head-string and shoot out-and-away from that side of the table. This is a poor rule that actually benefits the player who scratched more than the player who gets to shoot, and will be discussed later. The truth is that the only time a player needs to place the cue ball somewhere behind the head-string is during his own break, or when he is coming to the table after the opponent has committed a foul while breaking.
Foot-spot & foot-string
The foot-spot is marked opposite the head-spot, 1/3 of the way from the end of the table, on the centerline running down the middle of the length of the table. The foot-spot is used to mark where the first ball of the rack must be placed when racking the balls before the next game begins.
The foot-string has no rules attached to it, but it still exists as a delineation of space on the pool table. Its line runs from side-rail to side-rail, perpendicular to the centerline just like the head-string, through the center of the foot-spot.
The term “rack” refers to both the triangle used to contain the 15 billiard balls when racking-up for the next game, as well as the 15 balls themselves after being assembled before the break. When learning how to rack pool balls, standard pool table rules require the 8 ball to be in the center, a solid as the first ball, and that there is one of each suit on the corners. Everything else can be randomly organized. An important note here is that a “good” rack is a tight rack. That means that every ball must touch the balls neighboring it, so that everything is frozen together. When the balls are racked loosely, the break will go poorly, and the balls will not scatter very much around the table. If you are un-trusting that your opponent has given you a tight rack, you have the option to re-rack the balls yourself before continuing with your break.
Something else to mention in regards to the break, here: a legal break requires at least 4 balls (besides the cue ball) to touch a rail after the hit. If 4 or more balls do not touch a rail, it is considered foul in which the balls must be re-racked and the opponent receives the break.
The break, and determining your suit
A player must sink a ball on the break in order to remain at the table. Most standard rules declare the table “open” after the break. An open table means that the shooting player can elect to shoot at any ball, of any suit, on the table. If the player makes a called shot, then the suit of that ball now becomes the player’s suit, and he or she is then relegated to shooting in only those balls of similar suit until they are all gone, at which point the 8 ball becomes their final shot. An “open table” is the only time when a player may hit ANY ball first, including the 8 ball, and have it still be considered a legal hit. Once a ball is legally pocketed from an open table, the suite of that ball determines what each player will be shooting at for the remainder of the game.
The scratch, and the foul
I mention “scratch” because it is the term most everyone is familiar with in regards to making an error, or foul, at the table. A scratch involves sinking the cue ball into a pocket. When a player scratches, standard rules state that the opponent now receives the cue-ball-in-hand, otherwise known as a ball-in-hand foul. The rules for ball-in-hand state that a player may place the cue ball anywhere on the table that he or she desires, as long as it does not touch another ball, and then commence shooting.
Common, yet misguided, house-rules usually demand that the shooter place the cue-ball somewhere behind the head-string, and then shoot towards the foot of the table. But this is an injustice, since it can prevent a player from shooting at otherwise makeable balls that just happen to lie behind the head-string. The player who fouled should be penalized, and his opponent rewarded, which is why standard 8 ball rules allow for the cue to be placed anywhere at all on the table.
There are other ways to foul besides scratching the cue ball into a pocket. Double-hitting the cue ball, or pushing it (discussed in other articles here), are both fouls, as is driving any ball off the table. Disturbing balls in any manner by hitting them with your arm or stick, or even your hanging shirt are all considered fouls as well. Any of these fouls are penalized by giving the opponent ball-in-hand, to do as he or she chooses.
Making a legal shot
Another important foul to be aware of falls under the category of making a “legal shot”. A shot can only be considered legal (and thus NOT a foul) if a player cleanly hits the cue ball into one of his or her own object balls FIRST, and then the continued action on the shot either pockets a ball or drives a ball (any ball at all) to a rail.
If a player hits the cue ball but does not contact one of his or her object balls FIRST, and instead the cue ball hits one of the opponent’s balls or the 8 ball, then a foul is declared. If a player DOES successfully hit the correct suit first, but after that fails to drive some ball (any ball) to a rail or into a pocket, that also is declared a foul.
These are rules put into place to avoid very cheap and unskilled tactics from being used to try and win the game. Players may attempt to play ‘safe’ shots to make things difficult for their opponent, but they must do so according to these rules regarding a legal shot.
The final important rule is in regards to a called shot. This one is sort of split down the middle, even in amateur leagues. Some leagues allowed a player to keep shooting even if they pocket one of their balls accidentally, without being called. Other leagues require that each shot must have a pocket called for the intended object ball, such as “5 ball, side pocket”. If the 5 ball drops in the corner instead, then the shooting player cannot continue.
All leagues, tournaments, and house rules, though, seem to agree that the 8 ball must be called at all times. If the 8 ball drops into a uncalled pocket, the shooting player loses.
Regarding the 8 ball
On a final note, I’ll discuss winning and losing with the 8 ball. As I mentioned above, once you’ve shot all your other balls in, the 8 ball is the only one remaining for you. In order to win the game, you must legally shoot the 8 ball into the pocket you call for it. If you shoot the 8 ball into a pocket you did not call, you lose. If you only miss, then your opponent gets another turn at the table.
Most systems state that if you foul in any way while shooting at the 8 ball, you lose the game as well. But some only reward ball-in-hand to the opponent. Also, when you still have balls of your own suit on the table, if you sink the 8 ball into a pocket, or
drive it off the table, you will incur a loss of game for this as well.
These rules for how to play pool for beginners are the ones most prevalent in today’s pool halls, especially in most 8 ball leagues and tournaments. To learn how to play pool and really utilize these rules will actually go a long way to improving your overall skill as a pool player.
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