There are many sizes and styles of pool and billiard tables. Generally, tables are rectangles twice as long as they are wide. Most pool tables are known as 7-, 8-, or 9-footers, referring to the length of the table’s long side. Full-size snooker and English billiard tables are 12 feet (3.7 m) long on the longest side. Pool halls tend to have 9-foot (2.7 m) tables and cater to the serious pool player. Pubs will typically use 7-foot (2.1 m) tables which are often coin-operated. Formerly, 10-foot (3 m) tables were common, but such tables are now considered antique collectors items; a few, usually from the late 1800s, can be found in pool halls from time to time. Ten-foot tables remain the standard size for carom billiard games. The slates on modern carom tables are usually heated to stave off moisture and provide a consistent playing surface.
The length of the pool table will typically be a function of space, with many homeowners purchasing an 8-foot (2.4 m) table as a compromise. High quality tables are mostly 4.5 by 9 ft (2.7 m). (interior dimensions), with a bed made of three pieces of thick slate to prevent warping and changes due to humidity. Smaller bar tables are most commonly made with a single piece of slate. Pocket billiards tables normally have six pockets, three on each side (four corner pockets, and two side pockets).
Main article: Baize
Women playing on an elaborately decorated green-covered table in an early 1880s advertising poster.All types of tables are covered with billiard cloth (often called “felt”, but actually a woven wool or wool/nylon blend called baize). Cloth has been used to cover billiards tables since the 15th century. In fact, the predecessor company of the most famous maker of billiard cloth, Iwan Simonis, was formed in 1453.
Bar or tavern tables, which get a lot of play, use “slower”, more durable cloth. The cloth used in upscale pool (and snooker) halls and home billiard rooms is “faster” (i.e. provides less friction, allowing the balls to roll farther across the table bed), and competition-quality pool cloth is made from 100 % worsted wool. Snooker cloth traditionally has a nap (consistent fiber directionality) and balls behave differently when rolling against versus along with the nap.
The cloth of the billiard table has traditionally been green, reflecting its origin (originally the grass of ancestral lawn games), and has been so colored since the 16th century.
Main article: Rack (billiards)
A rack is the name given to a frame (usually wood or plastic) used to organize billiard balls at the beginning of a game. This is traditionally triangular in shape, but varies with the type of billiards played. There are two main types of racks; the more common triangular shape which is used for eight-ball and straight pool and the diamond shaped rack used for nine-ball.
Main article: Cue stick
Billiards games are mostly played with a stick known as a cue. A cue is usually either a one piece tapered stick or a two piece stick divided in the middle by a joint of metal or phenolic resin. High quality cues are generally two pieces and are made of a hardwood, generally maple for billiards and ash for snooker.
The butt end of the cue is of larger circumference and is intended to be gripped by a player’s hand. The shaft of the cue is of smaller circumference, usually tapering to an 0.4 to 0.55 inch (11–14 mm) terminus called a ferrule (usually made of fiberglass or brass in better cues), where a rounded leather tip is affixed, flush with the ferrule, to make final contact with balls. The tip, in conjunction with chalk, can be used to impart spin to the cue ball when it is not hit in its center.
Cheap cues are generally made of pine, low-grade maple (and formerly often of ramin, which is now endangered), or other low-quality wood, with inferior plastic ferrules. A quality cue can be expensive and may be made of exotic woods and other expensive materials which are artfully inlaid in decorative patterns. Many modern cues are also made, like golf clubs, with high-tech materials such as woven graphite. Skilled players may use more than one cue during a game, including a separate generally lighter cue for the opening break shot (because of cue speed gained from a lighter stick) and another, shorter cue with a special tip for jump shots.
The mechanical bridge, sometimes called a “rake”, “bridge stick” or simply “bridge”, and “rest” in the UK, is used to extend a player’s reach on a shot where the cue ball is too far away for normal hand bridging. It consists of a stick with a grooved metal or plastic head which the cue slides on. Many amateurs refuse to use the mechanical bridge based on the perception that to do so is unmanly. However, many aficionados and most professionals employ the bridge whenever the intended shot so requires. Some players, especially current or former snooker players, use a screw-on cue butt extension instead of or in addition to the mechanical bridge. Bridge head design is varied, and not all designs (especially those with cue shaft-enclosing rings, or wheels on the bottom of the head), are broadly tournament-approved. In Italy a longer, thicker cue is typically available for this kind of tricky shot. Commonly in snooker they are available in three forms depending on how the player is hampered; the standard rest has a simple cross, the ‘spider’ has a raised arch around 12cm with three grooves to rest the cue in and for the most awkward of shots, the ‘giraffe’ which has a raised arch much like the ‘spider’ but with a slender arm reaching out around 15cm with the groove.
Billiard chalk is applied to the tip of the cue.Chalk is applied to the tip of the cue stick, ideally before every shot, to increase the tip’s friction coefficient so that when it impacts the cue ball on a non-center hit, no miscue (unintentional slippage between the cue tip and the struck ball) occurs. Cue tip chalk is not actually the substance typically referred to as “chalk” (generally calcium carbonate, also known as calcite or carbonate of lime), but any of several proprietary compounds, with a silicate base. “Chalk” may also refer to a cone of fine, white hand chalk; like talc (talcum powder) it can be used to reduce friction between the cue and bridge hand during shooting, for a smoother stroke. Some brands of hand chalk actually are made of compressed talc. (Tip chalk is not used for this purpose because it is abrasive, hand-staining and difficult to apply.) Many players prefer a slick pool glove over hand chalk or talc because of the messiness of these powders; buildup of particles on the cloth will affect ball behavior and necessitate more-frequent cloth cleaning.
Cue tip chalk (invented in its modern form by straight rail billiard pro William A. Spinks and chemist William Hoskins in 1897) is made by crushing silica and the abrasive substance corundum or aloxite (aluminum oxide), into a powder. It is combined with dye (originally and most commonly green or blue-green, like traditional billiard cloth, but available today, like the cloth, in many colors) and a binder (glue). Each manufacturer’s brand has different qualities, which can significantly affect play. High humidity can also impair the effectiveness of chalk. Harder, drier compounds are generally considered superior by most players.
Major games (carom and pocket)
Carom billiards table in a Parisian café.Main articles: Carom billiards and Pocket billiards
There are two main varieties of billiard games: carom and pocket. The main carom billiards games are straight billiards, balkline and three cushion billiards. All are played on a pocketless table with three balls; two cue balls and one object ball. In all, players shoot a cue ball so that it makes contact with the opponent’s cue ball as well as the object ball.
The most popular of the large variety of pocket games are eight-ball, nine-ball, one-pocket, bank pool, snooker and, among the old guard, straight pool. In eight-ball and nine-ball the object is to sink object balls until one can legally pocket the winning eponymous “money ball”. Well-known but waning in popularity is straight pool, in which players seek to continue sinking balls, rack after rack if they can, to reach a pre-determined winning score (typically 150). Related to nine-ball, another well-known game is rotation, where the lowest-numbered object ball on the table must be struck first, although any object ball may be pocketed (i.e., combination shot). Each pocketed ball is worth its number, and the player with the highest score at the end of the rack is the winner. Since there are only 120 points available (1 + 2 + 3 ⋯ + 15 = 120), scoring 61 points leaves no opportunity for the opponent to catch up. In both one-pocket and bank pool, the players must sink a set number of balls; respectively, all in a particular pocket, or all by bank shots. In snooker, players score points by alternately potting red balls and various special “colour balls”.
Man playing billiards with a cue and a woman with mace, from an illustration appearing in Michael Phelan’s 1859 book, The Game of Billiards.
Straight rail or straight billiards
Main article: Balkline and straight rail
In straight rail, a player scores a point and may continue shooting each time his cue ball makes contact with both other balls.
Although a difficult and subtle game, some of the best players of straight billiards developed the skill to gather the balls in a corner or along the same rail for the purpose of playing a series of nurse shots to score a seemingly limitless number of points.
The first straight rail professional tournament was held in 1879 where Jacob Schaefer, Sr. scored 690 points in a single turn (that is, 690 separate strokes without a miss). With the balls repetitively hit and barely moving in endless “nursing”, there was little for the fans to watch.
Main article: Balkline and straight rail
In light of these phenomenal skill developments in straight rail, the game of balkline soon developed to make it impossible for a player to keep the balls gathered in one part of the table for long, greatly limiting the effectiveness of nurse shots. A balkline (not to be confused with baulk line, which pertains to the game of English billiards) is a line parallel to one end of a billiards table. In the games of balkline – 18.1 and 18.2 (pronounced “eighteen-point-two”) balkline, among other more obscure variations – the players have to drive at least one object ball past a balkline set at 18 inches from each rail, after one or two points have been scored, respectively.
Main article: Carom billiards#Three-cushion billiards
A more elegant solution was three-cushion billiards, which requires a player to make contact with the other two balls on the table and contact three rail cushions in the process. This is difficult enough that even the best players can only manage to average one to two points per turn.
Main article: English billiards
Dating to approximately 1800, English billiards is a hybrid of carom and pocket billiards played on a 6-foot (1.8 m) by 12-foot (3.7 m) table. Like most carom games, it requires two cue balls and a red object ball. The object of the game is to score either a fixed number of points, or score the most points within a set time frame, determined at the start of the game.
Points are awarded for:
Two-ball Cannons: striking both the object ball and the other (opponent’s) cue ball on the same shot (2 points)
Winning hazards: potting the red ball (3 points); potting the other cue ball (2 points)
Losing hazards (or “in-offs”): potting one’s cue ball by cannoning off another ball (3 points if the red ball was hit first; 2 points if the other cue ball was hit first, or if the red and other cue ball were “split”, i.e. hit simultaneously).
Main article: Snooker
A pocket billiards game originated by British officers stationed in India during the 19th century. The name of the game became generalized to also describe one of its prime strategies: to “snooker” the opposing player by causing that player to foul or leave an opening to be exploited.
In the United Kingdom, snooker is by far the most popular cue sport at the competitive level. It is played in many other countries as well. Snooker is far rarer in the U.S., where pool games such as eight-ball and nine-ball dominate. The first International Snooker Championship was held in 1927, and it has been held annually since then with few exceptions. The World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA) was established in 1968 to regulate the professional game, while the International Billiards and Snooker Federation (IBSF) regulates the amateur games(see Wikipedia, ‘Snooker’).
Main article: Eight-ball
Eight-ball rackIn the United States, the most commonly-played game is eight-ball. The goal of eight-ball, which is played with a full rack of fifteen balls and the cue ball, is to claim a suit (commonly stripes or solids in the US, and reds or yellows in the UK), pocket all of them, then legally pocket the 8 ball, while denying one’s opponent opportunities to do the same with their suit, and without sinking the 8 ball early by accident. On the professional scene, eight-ball players on the International Pool Tour (IPT) were the highest paid players in the world as of 2006 (the IPT nearly folded in 2007, and as of 2008 is attempting a comeback). In the United Kingdom the game is commonly played in pubs, and it is competitively played in leagues on both sides of the Atlantic. The most prestigious tournaments including the World Open are sponsored and sanctioned by the International Pool Tour. Rules vary widely from place to place (and between continents to such an extent that British-style eight-ball pool/blackball is properly regarded as a separate game in its own right). Pool halls in North America are increasingly settling upon the World Pool-Billiard Association International Standardised Rules. But tavern eight-ball (also known as “bar pool”), typically played on smaller, coin-operated tables and in a “winner keeps the table” manner, can differ significantly even between two venues in the same city. The growth of local, regional and national amateur leagues may alleviate this confusion eventually.
Main article: Nine-ball
Nine-ball uses only the 1 through 9 balls and cue ball. It is a rotation game: The player at the table must make legal contact with the lowest numbered ball on the table or a foul is called. The game is won by legally pocketing the nine ball. Nine-ball is the predominant professional game, though as of 2006–2008 there have been some suggestions that this may change, in favor of ten-ball.[clarification needed] There are many local and regional tours and tournaments that are contested with nine-ball. The World Pool-Billiard Association (WPA), and it American affiliate the Billiard Congress of America (BCA), publish the World Standardized Rules. The European professional circuit has instituted rules changes, especially to make it more difficult to achieve a legal break shot. The largest nine-ball tournaments are the independent US Open Nine-ball Championship and the WPA World Nine-ball Championship for men and women. Male professionals have a rather fragmented schedule of professional nine-ball tournaments. The United States Professional Pool Players Association (UPA) has been the most dominant association of the 1990s and 2000s. A hotly contested event is the annual Mosconi Cup, which pits invitational European and US teams against each other in one-on-one and scotch doubles nine-ball matches over a period of several days. The Mosconi Cup games are played under the more stringent European rules, as of 2007.
Main article: Three-ball
A variant using only three balls, generally played such that the player at turn continues shooting until all the balls are pocketed, and the player to do so in the fewest shots wins. The game can be played by two or more players. Dispenses with some fouls common to both nine- and eight-ball.
Main article: One-pocket
One-pocket is a strategic game for two players. Each player is assigned one of the corner pockets on the table. This is the only pocket into which he can legally pocket balls. The first player to pocket the majority of the balls (8) in his pocket wins the game. The game requires far more defensive strategy than offensive strategy, much unlike eight-ball, nine-ball, or straight pool. It has been said[weasel words] that if eight-ball is checkers, one-pocket is chess. This statement can be verified by watching a game of one pocket. Most times, accomplished players choose to position balls near their pocket instead of trying to actually pocket them. This allows them to control the game by forcing their opponent to be on defense instead of taking a low percentage shot that could result in a loss of game. These low percentage shots are known as “flyers” by one pocket aficionados.
Main article: Bank pool
Bank pool has been gaining popularity in recent years. Bank pool can be played with a full rack (can be a long game), but is more typically played with nine balls (frequently called “nine-ball bank”). The balls are racked in nine-ball formation, but in no particular order. The object of the game is simple: to be the first player to bank five balls in any order (eight balls when played with a full rack). Penalties and fouls are similar to one pocket in that the player committing the foul must spot a ball for each foul. This must be done before the incoming player shoots.