A staple of seedy bars, college campuses, youth centers and arcades all over the United States, the game of Pool is easy to learn but quite hard to master. While this guide will not lead one to playing in the championships on ESPN anytime soon, it will at least outline the rules of one of the most widely played versions of Pool, and share a few tips for beginners.
Pool is played on a large rectangular table, the top of which is covered with felt. There are six holes, referred to as “pockets”, one at each corner, plus one in the middle of each of the longer sides of the table. One plays the game by using a pool stick or pool cue, a white cue ball (used as a medium between the player with the pool cue, and the pool balls themselves), and finally, a number of colored and numbered balls. The objective is generally to sink the numbered balls into one of the pockets by way of the cue ball, at which point the inner workings of the pool table transport the ball (or balls) which fell into the pocket to either a storage space inside the table, or a storage space near one end of the table with a windowed opening.
The pool cue is tapered; one end is significantly thinner than the other. The thin tip of the cue is what is used to hit the cue ball; it is usually white with a rounded head. This head is coated in pool chalk (often an easily identifiable blue) before and during a game, so as to avoid damaging the cue ball and to make sure that the cue hits accurately. An entire book could likely be written on different techniques for more accurate shooting, but the basic idea is to use your non-dominant hand to make a “bridge” on the table, cradle the front end of the stick in this bridge, gently grip the butt-end of the pool cue with your dominant hand, and use your arm to glide the stick towards the cue ball. Of course, you will want to line up a shot first, keeping in mind what angles will likely produce what result. One tip that might feel awkward at first, but will in the long-run help your aiming is to keep your dominant eye above the stick, and use it to aim; even if you are right-handed and your left eye is the dominant. Using the wrong eye can trick your mind to thinking an off-center shot is in fact lined up correctly.
Two rules that tend to hold throughout many games of pool involve “scratching” and calling shots. If a player shoots the cue ball into a pocket on his shot, it is considered a “scratch”. The cue ball is taken out of the hold, and given to the opposing player who now has “ball in hand” rights; he may place the cue ball anywhere he chooses, so long as it is behind the 2nd dot from the head of the table. Other shots which are considered foul may also result in giving a player ball in hand, though it depends on what rules the players decide to play with before hand. One of these rules in the called shot rule, which states that a player must “call” any shots which are not obvious; in other words, the player must state what the cue ball is going to hit, what balls will be pocketed as a result of it, and in which pocket. An opponent always has the option of requesting a shot call, though on normal shots the player does not have to state them. If a player makes a shot that is different from what is called, the balls that were sunk remain in the pocket, but the opposing player gets ball and hand privileges, and takes their turn.
Eight-ball is one of the most popular and well-known ways to play Pool, and many people these days refer to it as just “Pool”. Eight-ball is played with all 15 numbered balls, which are divided into two types: stripes and solids. The black eight ball is considered neither, the point of which will be made clearer soon. The balls are grouped together using a triangular rack, with its point facing the head of the table, where the first player to shoot will be standing. The top of the triangle is made up by the one ball, the eight ball is placed in the center, and the back corners must be a stripe and a solid. The rack is removed, and a player then takes the first shot, referred to as the break shot. If a player fails to sink a ball or disperse the balls enough, a re-rack can be called, and the other player then attempts to break. Also, if the player breaking sinks the eight ball on their shot, the eight ball is either placed back on the table, or a re-rack is called. If the first player sank a ball on their break and did not scratch, they shoot again, aiming to sink any ball they can, except the eight ball. If the player shooting then sinks a ball, if it was a stripe then they must now pocket the rest of the stripes, and then the eight ball to win the game. The same situation holds if it was a solid, and the opponent must sink all the opposing balls, then the eight ball instead. If any player sinks the eight ball on accident before they have cleared the table of their stripes or solids, then they lose the game automatically. Play continues in this way, with players trying to knock in all their balls, shooting again if they make one, and forfeiting play to the other if they miss or scratch, until a player wins or knocks in the eight ball on accident. A player must always call their final shot at the eight ball. Also, it should be noted that if a player attempting to sink the eight ball after their other balls scratches, or sinks the eight ball into a pocket other than the one they designate, they lose automatically.
The most important tip you can learn just by reading about playing Pool is just to practice, practice, and practice some more. The game can be very frustrating for beginners when they are trying to learn to shoot better, but it is impossible to get significantly better if you don’t practice the skills involved often enough.
While there are many more variants on how to play Pool, and certainly ones that are older than Eight-ball, in most places you go, people who want to play Pool want to play Eight-ball, unless they otherwise specify. It may seem like a lot to learn and keep in mind while playing, but if you just give it a try, it will soon start to come naturally, or at least the rules will. Shooting pool well is not easy, but with enough practice, anybody can become quite decent at the game.