Pool is by far the most popular game played in bars in the United States. You can find a pool table and a jukebox in most "dive bars" across America, whether you're in a big city or a rural honky-tonk. There's a largely unwritten ritual and etiquette to joining and playing games. In this post, I'm going to break down this ritual for the game of "eight ball", the standard pool game played in bars.
First, some notes on etiquette. Some people, especially drunk people, can get really worked up over certain aspects of the game. Knowing the basic etiquette will help you avoid problems.
Bar rules vary depending on what bar you're playing at and the skill level of your opponent. Most bars do not post rules on the wall. Since it's impractical to go through every rule point at the start of each game, you will be playing with ambiguous rules.
My experience is that the better a player is, the more likely they are to play with the rules I've outlined below. In the past when I've had an opponent disagree on certain rules, it usually indicates that the other player isn't that skilled. For that reason I usually will just concede whatever rule point is under contention, since a contended rules means I'm playing with someone who isn't that strong. This is especially true if you're the challenging player, since the challenger is supposed to clarify rules before the game starts.
When your opponent is shooting, the correct place to be standing is to the side, in their peripheral vision. This lets them see that you're watching the shot, but puts you in a spot where you're not distracting them. It is extremely rude to stand directly in the line of their shot. The best thing to do after your turn ends is to walk a few steps away from the table, since it ensures you won't be obstructing your opponents' access to the cue ball.
When you're the challenging player and you play a stranger, minimize talking during the game. It's fine to make some small talk, but this is not the time to learn your opponents' life history. If you want to talk to them, you can do so after the game. You can relax this rule a bit if you know your opponent, if you're on your second or third game with them, or if they start talking to you.
Don't hog the chalk. Most experienced players have a habit of rechalking after every shot. Sometimes at a bar there will only be one chalk cube. If you're not paying attention you might inadvertently rechalk out of habit after your turn ends, and keep holding onto the chalk. Try not do this. If you get called on this, apologize and try not to do it again.
Pay attention to the game, and know when it's your turn to play.
Do not put a drink down on the table, ever. This includes the rails.
Joining A Game
Most bar pool tables in America are 7' coin operated tables, typically requiring four quarters to play. Most bars will have a chalkboard somewhere on the wall near each table. If two other people are playing a game, and you'd like to use the table, here's what you do:
- If you can find the chalkboard, write your name on the board.
- If you don't see a chalkboard, put a quarter on one of the rail cushions. Sometimes people will also place the quarter tucked under one of the rails, although this is less common.
Whether you use a chalkboard, or place a quarter on the table, it's your responsibility as the challenger to make sure that the other players see you waiting. This means you want to make eye contact with one or both players when signing up or placing down a quarter. It's also your job to be present and ready when the game ends. If the game ends and you're not around, your turn can be skipped.
Starting The Game, And Racking The Balls
When your turn comes up, you will be playing the winner of the previous game. To start the game:
- Introduce yourself to the other player. You should give them your name, find out their name, and shake their hand.
- Ask your opponent what rules you're playing with. They'll pretty much always say "bar rules". More on what "bar rules" mean later. If there are particular rules you want clarified, ask now.
- If earlier you put your name on the chalkboard, cross off your name now. If you put a quarter down, get your quarter now.
- As the challenger, you must pay for the game, and you are expected to already have gotten quarters. Feed the table, and then rack the balls.
To rack the balls:
- Locate the racking triangle, on the same side that the balls come out from, which is the opposite side from where the cue ball comes out.
- There's a spot marked on the table where the racked balls go. This spot is used to indicate where the apex ball should go.
- The eight ball should be in the center of the rack.
- One corner should have a solid ball, and the other corner should have a striped ball.
- It's not necessary to put the one ball at the apex, or any other arrangement of the ball. The only rules to the arrangement are that the eight ball should be in the center, and one of the rear corners of the triangle should be striped and the other should be solid.
Once you've racked the balls, while the triangle is still sitting on the table, protecting the racked balls:
- Select a pool cue (more on how to select a pool cue in a moment).
- Once you have your cue, it's time to lift the racking triangle. Make sure the balls are as tight as possible in the rack, pushed all the way forward. If lifting the triangle causes any of the balls to move around, put the triangle back down and try again. You may need to redo this multiple times, as it's common for the balls to shift when lifting the racking triangle. It is essential that the balls at all three of the corners of the triangle are snug with the rest of the cluster. If any of the balls are loose (especially the apex ball) it will cause the break to be bad, which is extremely bad etiquette.
- After all of this is done your opponent will break the balls. Do not stand opposite your opponent while they break. You should be out of your opponent's line of sight. Standing in the wrong place is not only distracting to the other player, but by standing in the wrong place you put yourself at risk if the other player miscues and hops the ball off the table.
Selecting A Cue
Cue tips come in two sizes: "dime" sized, and "nickel" sized. This refers to the amount of curvature on the tip, where the "dime" tips are more pointy/curved, and the "nickel" tips are flatter and less curved. Which to use is simply a matter of preference: some people prefer a more curved tip, some people prefer a less curved tip.
You want to figure out if you prefer dime tips or nickel tips, and then always use that size. I play with nickel tips, but again that's a personal preference.
The most important thing when selecting a cue is picking one with a good tip. Things to avoid:
- Avoid any cue without a tip (yes, this happens).
- If the tip looks flat, avoid it.
- If the tip is "mushrooming", pick another cue. Mushrooming happens when the sides of the tip aren't flush with the cue, and instead are bulging over.
Of secondary importance is picking a cue that isn't too warped. You can check how warped the cue is by rolling the cue on the surface of the table. If the cue is warped, it will wobble as it rolls. This is why you should leave the racking triangle over the balls before selecting a cue: you want to make sure that when you're grabbing your cue, your opponent doesn't get over eager and break the balls, since this would prevent you from rolling the cue on the table.
For bar play, if the cue is slightly warped it usually is not a huge deal. If the cue is significantly warped and you have no other options, then just make sure you know what direction it's warped in. If you align the warp direction vertically when you hold the cue, it will cause your shots to have a tiny bit of extra back or top spin, which won't significantly affect your accuracy. If the warp direction is horizontal, then it will cause the tip to hit the ball with English (side spin), and that will affect your accuracy and can even cause you to miscue. So if the cue has significant warping, try to align the warp direction vertically.
It is much harder to play with a cue with a bad tip than it is to play with a cue that is slightly warped.
The person who is holding the table (i.e. who won the last game) always breaks. If this is you, there are a few tips that will significantly increase your power and accuracy when breaking.
Before preparing to break, visually check the racked balls to ensure that the triangle is tight and aligned straight. If anything is to your dissatisfaction you can ask to have the balls re-racked.
Normally when you shoot, you have one hand on the table forming a "bridge", and the other hand holds the cue. On a normal shot, your bridge hand will be placed very close to the cue ball. This is because a short distance between your bridge hand and the cue ball makes it easier to hit the cue ball accurately. However, you want to do the opposite when breaking: for the break you want your bridge hand as far from the cue ball as you can reasonably shoot with. The further back you have your bridge hand, the longer your stoke will be, which means that you can hit with more power. The flip side of this is that the further back you have your bridge hand, the less accurately you'll shoot. There's a balance to strike here, so don't go too crazy.
On the break you want a lot of follow-through, since that is how you get power. You cannot follow-through too much: if your breaks are weak, you need to follow-through more.
One of the most common mistakes beginners make when breaking with a lot of power, is not keeping the cue level while shooting. You want the cue to be nearly parallel with the ground. When shooting, especially with power, there's a natural tendency to lift the back of the cue stick up, and then push down while striking. This is bad, because when you do this the cue tip moves around vertically during the shot. You want to hit the cue ball dead center on the break, and if the back of the cue is moving down during the shot it will cause you to hit the cue ball either too high, or too low. This will cause you to either miscue (where the cue bounces off the cue ball) or to hop the ball. If either of these happen you will be lucky to hit any balls in the rack at all, and if you do hit the rack it will be with very little power.
If the break is bad, it will make the game really miserable. It will take many wasted turns to get the balls sufficiently spread out over the table. Even if you hit subsequent shots into the main grouping with a lot of power, since the balls aren't packed together they won't spread much. For this reason, if you have a bad break, consider asking your opponent if you can re-break. You'll look like a huge noob, but c'est la vie.
Understanding "Bar Rules"
The "official" rules for eight ball are called tournament rules. Tournament rules are literally what you'd play with at a tournament. They're also the rules you'd play with in a pool hall, which has full size tables (8' or 9') that aren't coin operated. These official rules are fairly different from bar rules.
Calling Stripes or Solids
During the game you will be either stripes or solids. This is known as your group. The game starts out with the table "open", meaning that no group has been assigned to either player. After the break, the table is still considered open, even if a ball is pocketed. This is frequently a point of confusion, where people will call stripes or solids after sinking a ball on the break. The correct way to play is that if you pocket a ball on the break, you get to shoot again, and it's only after the first ball sunk following the break that players call stripes or solids. This is how you would play with tournament rules, and is also usually the case in bar rules. If your opponent sinks a ball on the break, clarify with them if the table is still "open" or not. If they want to call stripes/solids after sinking a ball on the break, it's up to you if you want to argue this rule point with them or not.
A regular scratch happens when the cue ball goes into one of the pockets following a shot.
The most important difference between bar rules and tournament rules is what happens on these scratches. Tournament rules are "ball in hand", which means that if you scratch the ball your opponent can place the cue ball anywhere on the table, without any restrictions. By contrast, bar rules require you to put the cue ball in the "kitchen", which is the area behind the head spot where you break. Additionally the ball has to leave the "kitchen" before striking an object ball. (An object ball is one that you're aiming the cue ball at on your shot).
The bar rules are really stupid. Shooting from the kitchen is frequently difficult. Therefore it's not uncommon when playing with bar rules that you have worse shooting position after a scratch than if your opponent had not scratched. In fact, in theory you could purposely scratch for precisely this reason (although it would be considered extremely rude).
If you play in pool halls or tournaments, you will learn to really hate this aspect of bar rules.
A table scratch happens when you hit the cue ball or object balls in a way that isn't legal, but don't actually pocket the cue ball. This is sometimes called a "foul". These are the rules for a legal shot:
- The cue can strike the cue ball only once.
- After being struck, the cue ball has to hit a ball from your group (stripes or solids) before hitting any other balls.
- After the cue ball hits the object ball, one of the following three things must happen: the cue ball must strike a rail, an object ball must strike a rail, or an object ball from your group must be pocketed.
If the rules above are violated, then the turn is considered to be a table scratch. Here are concrete examples of situations that would be table scratches:
- If the cue ball doesn't hit any balls.
- If the cue ball first hits one of your opponents balls (or the eight ball while you still have balls from your grouping on the table).
- If the shot is too soft, and neither the cue ball nor the object ball strike the rail (or are pocketed) following the shot.
- Double tapping the cue ball. This usually happens when the cue ball is very close to the object ball you want to hit, e.g. less than an inch away. If you know what to look for, you can tell whether the cue ball was double tapped based on how the cue ball ricochets off the object ball in this situation. I'm not going to explain how to tell here (it's much more easily shown visually), but if you get called on this by your opponent and you don't know the rules, accept it.
Tournament rules for a table scratch are ball in hand. Most bars instead play where you simply end your turn on a table scratch, but otherwise leave the cue ball where it is. Once again, bar rules are stupid: the only downside to a table scratch in bar play is that if you pocket a ball on a table scratch, you don't get to continue with another turn. By the letter of the rules, you could purposely foul for this reason, although I would not recommend doing this in practice.
If your opponent pockets a ball due to a table scratch, do not let them play another turn. Describe to them which rule they violated (e.g. "that was a table scratch because you hit my ball first").
You must call every shot. If you don't call a shot, and sink a ball, it can be considered "slop" which causes you to forfeit your turn.
Most of the time when you're shooting, it's obvious what ball your trying to sink and in which pocket. If it is obvious, you don't need to go through the formality of calling the shot.
In tournament rules it's sufficient to declare what ball you're trying to pocket, and which pocket you want to sink it in. Usually the way I do this is to say the number of the ball I want to pocket, and then I point to the pocket I'm aiming for. In tournament rules you don't need to explicitly call bank shots, carom shots, billiard shots, etc.: describing the object ball and the desired pocket is sufficient.
In bars some people might be really picky about shot calling, and they might consider a shot to be slop if you pocket a ball on a bank shot or carom shot without having first made your intention clear. Therefore you should err on the side of caution, and be extra explicit about shot calling if you're going to try to do make a shot that's out of the ordinary.
It is fine to sink additional balls, including your opponents balls. However, if the only balls you pocket are ones that you didn't call, that would be slop.
The level of formality people have with shot calling and slop differs. Don't be shy about calling slop though. It's each players' responsibility to call their shots, and if your opponent sinks a ball that you think was slop, you should call them out on it.
Ending The Game
After you sink all balls from your group (solids or stripes), you win the game by sinking the eight ball. When you get to this point of the game, absolutely call the corner you're going for on every shot, even if you haven't been strict about calling your other shots.
A regular scratch (sinking the cue ball) at this point in the game causes you to immediately lose. A table scratch does not cause you to lose, you play it as you would any other table scratch, where your turn simply ends.
If you sink the eight ball at any other time you immediately lose. Don't do this, it is the most embarassing way to lose a game. If you accidentally sink the eight ball early, it's probably because you have a habit of striking the cue ball too hard.
There's an obscure rule about what happens if the eight ball is sunk on the break. I've played and watched a lot of pool, and I've never seen this happen in eight ball. In bar play, sinking the eight ball on the break should be considered an instant win, but honestly this is so unlikely that it's never going to come up.
Basic Strategy and Technique
Understanding basic strategy and technique will signficantly affect your chances of winning. I'm going to go over the most important aspects of strategy and technique for new players.
The number one thing inexperienced players can do to shoot more accurately, is to get lower to the table while shooting. The closer your eyes are to the surface of the table, the more accurately you can line up your shots. Try getting really low. Ideally your chin will just be a few inches off the felt.
After you shoot, don't immediately stand up: stay low and watch where the cue ball goes and how it bounces off the object ball. When your eyes are close to the felt you can see the shooting angles much better, so by staying low you can tell what mistakes you are making. Doing this will significantly increase your learning rate. After every shot, think about what you could have done better. Did you hit the cue ball to much to the left? Too much to the right? With too much, or too little power? Spending just a couple of seconds to focus on what mistakes you're making after each shot will help you identify patterns in your mistakes.
Most beginners hit the cue ball way too hard. Really good players sometimes strike the ball hard on certain shots, but they are usually applying a lot of back spin spin to control the shot. When you're beginning you won't have a good grasp of back spin, and therefore you don't want to hit the ball hard. Even if you do understand the mechanics of back spin, striking really hard is usually not desirable, since the cue ball will still have a lot of speed if the shot isn't sufficiently straight.
There are two advantages to shooting softly. The first is that it's way easier to shoot accurately when you're not hitting with a ton of power. The second is that if you do miss the shot, if you've hit the ball softly it's more likely to end up near the pocket you were originally aiming for. That's a good thing, because it makes subsequent shots on that ball easier.
When you're starting, try to hit the cue ball dead center on each shot. As you get better you can start experimenting a bit with top spin and bottom spin, but don't rush into learning this. Eventually you'll learn how to use English (side spin) and other advanced techniques, but in the beginning that will just overcomplicate things.
A safety is a shot where instead of trying to sink a ball, you try to give your opponent a bad leave. In this case "leave" refers to the placement of the cue ball after the shot.
It is usually much easier to shoot a safety than it is to shoot a regular shot. This is because you usually don't have to be as precise to shoot a safety. The better your opponent is compared to you, the more you should be playing safety shots. That means if you're a beginner, you should be playing safeties often.
You don't explicitly declare you're playing a safety, you just take it as you would any other turn. Since you're not trying to pocket a ball, you don't have to call your shot on a safety.
The most common way to shoot a safety is to try to leave the cue ball behind a cluster of your own balls. This obstructs your opponents' next shot. Ideally you would both obstruct the shot, and leave the cue ball at the "wrong end" of the table for their next shot. Since safety shots are all about placement, shooting softly is of extra importance here.
Do be aware that safety shots are really annoying to the other player, and playing a lot of safeties can be considered rude. Some bar players could object to you making safety shots entirely. Normally in eight ball you don't need to play safety shots at the beginning of the game, since you will have a lot of possible shots on every turn. Therefore what you want to do in a bar is to experiment with shots that are plausibly not safety shots in the mid-game to see how your opponent reacts. If they're fine with you playing these shots, or if they play a lot of safeties themselves, then you can start being more aggressive. If they get upset by you playing safeties you should probably stop.
As you get more confident shooting you want to pay more and more attention to how you "leave" the table after each shot. At the higher levels of pool and billiards you will be focusing more and more on this, until it becomes the dominant strategy factor.
The idea is that sinking a single ball is OK, but what you really want to do is run the table. This means having turns where you sink multiple balls.
For a beginning player all I will say about ball placement is that you should be very conscious about how much speed you give the cue ball on each shot. This affects how much the cue ball rolls after each shot. Just by understanding how the balls ricochet and how much speed you give the cue ball can give you a decent amount of control on ball placement, even without using any kind of spin or English. The more confident you are you can make a shot, the more you can experiment with cue speed (and later spin).
Getting To The Next Level
I can attest that being good at pool is a lot of fun. Games are really cheap, and cheaper still if you can hold a table. You will meet a lot of interesting people playing pool. Pool is also somewhat unique in that pool tables are pretty common, so if you're good you will get regular opportunities to impress your friends or coworkers.
The best way to improve is to play in pool halls. Pool halls have larger tables, better players, and the equipment is better maintained. It's also more socially acceptable to play in a pool hall without drinking than in a bar. Typically the way a pool hall works is you go in and rent a table. You pay for the table by the hour. During the day it's common to see people alone in pool halls practicing drills. If you want you can ask one of those players to play a game against you. If they accept, consider giving them a few bucks afterwards, since they're the one paying for time at the table.
The strategy when playing with tournament rules on full-sized tables is a little different from the strategy used in bar pool, but not significantly. Generally tournament rules (which is what you'll be playing with in a pool hall) are stricter and force you to have better technique. If you play in pool halls, switching to a bar table will feel really weird due to how much smaller bar tables are. Due to the smaller table size, you'll usually find yourself playing at a higher skill level in a bar than in a pool hall.
The availability of pool halls depends a lot on what part of the country you live in. For example, in most of the Bay Area there aren't too many of them, and a number of them have closed down (e.g. my go-to used to be Thalassa in Berkeley, which has since closed). There are a lot more pool halls in the South Bay than there are in the North Bay or East Bay. When I lived in Los Angeles, I noticed that there were a lot more pool halls down in Southern California than there were in Northern California. Recently I traveled to Chile, and I was surprised to see pool halls relatively frequently there.
There is a huge gamut of types of pool halls. Some of them are super nice and clean. Some of them are seedy, with open-air gambling on games. The atmosphere and clientele vary considerably. If you're lucky enough to live in an area with different options, I would suggest checking out different pool halls to try to find one that suits what you're looking for.