8-Ball Rules And Strategy

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The Most Popular Game

Black ball with the number 8 on it, shot on green pool table. Studio shot, close up, horizontal frame.
Maria Toutoudaki / Photodisc / Getty Images

8-Ball pool (also called "Hi-Low Pool" or "Stripes and Solids") is the most popular pool game, chief pursuit of 30 million American players and millions more in Europe and Asia (where red and yellow colored balls often replace stripes and solids).

8-Ball is arguably the single most played table game in the world. 8-Ball leagues nationwide host millions of players, and giant open tournaments take on thousands or tens of thousands of entrants for a single event.

The rules are simple, the game colorful. Bust the rack apart with a powerful open break unless you want to break safely instead, choose solids or stripes and fire away, pocketing the 8-ball last for the win.

The outer simplicity of 8-Ball, however, belies its sublime strategy. Top 8-Ball demands more creative thinking than a rotation game such as 9-Ball, plus cleverer shot sequencing with precise control of the cue ball, too. You have up to seven enemy balls blocking your paths once you choose hi- or low-balls.

Next, we'll look at combining 8-Ball rules with correct breaking and superior billiards strategy that you can master in minutes. Go get 'em!

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8-Ball Rules, Simplified

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8-Ball Rules Made Simple--You're Welcome!. Photo (c) Matt Sherman 2007, licensed to About.com, Inc.

Your objective as expanded upon in "official" 8-Ball rules, (whichever league, tournament or local rules are used) is to pocket your set of object balls numbered 1 through 7 ("lows" or "solids") or 9 through 15 ("highs" or "stripes") before pocketing the 8-ball on a call shot.

**A lot of arguments are created over sinking the 8-ball on the break. Do you lose or win if it is pocketed on the break? Some local "rule books" say it's a loss but many disagree with this mess.

In many places the eight on the break is a win. And it should be a win--it means you risked breaking the balls hard enough to scatter the 8-ball also.

But where your local rules state sinking the eight is a loss, make sure your opponent racks tightly. The opponent should always rack tightly in all games, but a tight rack helps ensure that the 8-ball wouldn't move much on the snap. Referees who have many 8- or 9-balls sink in those games will come under scrutiny for improper racking!**

Calling pockets for individual billiards shots where local 8-Ball rules allow adds flexibility--whether a ball goes straight into the pocket, zooms around before sinking or flies through the air to the hole like a basketball to the hoop, you retain your turn.

To begin the game, make an open break, smashing the balls apart. Although it is debatable whether breaking 8-Ball hard (or breaking at all!) is a wise idea. Your turn continues if a ball is pocketed on the break, if not, your opponent starts their turn.

The fairest way to proceed is to have an open table despite what has been pocketed. Even if you've sunk three solids and no stripes, you must make a call shot after the break to ensure solids.

Once your set is determined, you must "play clean" hitting an object ball, one of the balls from your set of stripes or solids, first on any subsequent stroke. Failure to strike your set first (or striking one cleanly followed by subsequent failure to drive at least one ball into a pocket or rail) yields ball-in-hand to your opponent.

Ball-in-hand is awarded following any cue scratch. With ball-in-hand one measure designed to speed play, a second is that object balls illegally pocketed stay down and are not returned to the table. Technically a player could use their turn to push an opponent's ball straight into a pocket!

BCA rules, which pave the way for enjoyable play, stipulate that a scratch on the 8-ball is not a loss of game unless the 8-ball pockets on the same shot. (This unusual rule was set to end long defensive struggles where players were afraid to disturb an 8-ball close to a pocket.)

Pocketing the 8-ball in the wrong pocket (different than the called pocket) or on any stroke before your set is cleared is an immediate loss of game.

Consider classic 8-Ball rules as they apply to open table strategy on the next page, since few of your opponents will!

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Watch For The Enemy On Your 8-Ball Break

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The 8-Ball Break and Enemy Balls. Photo (c) Matt Sherman 2007, licensed to About.com, Inc.

More complicated in strategy than 9-Ball, as many as seven enemy balls await each powerful open 8-Ball break. All your opponent's set may create hazards on the table. Consider Figure 1.

The player with stripes is "ready" to shoot the 8-ball and win, having cleared all their set from the cloth. But the obvious pocket "A" is utterly blocked by the 2- and 7-balls. Solids has played smart or gotten lucky. The stripes shooter ought to have cleared the two and seven long ago or else played the cue ball to another spot to pocket the 8-ball elsewhere.

Immediately from the open break, these two solids should have been keenly considered by both players. Foolish players fail to act before they are forced to consider trouble balls.

8-Ball provides eight friends and seven enemies on each table of 15 object balls. In this case from our 8-Ball break files, "keeping your friends close and enemies closer" was the wrong thing to do!

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Guard The Key Ball At All Costs!

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Key Ball Principle in 8-Ball Pool. Photo (c) Matt Sherman 2007, licensed to About.com, Inc.

Figure 2 illustrates the key ball principle in 8-Ball pool. Again, the 8-ball will fit easily in Pocket A, but which ball will be the last solid played?

The 4-ball in this diagram offers the best fit, and once the cue ball comes to rest where the four now sits, probably taken with a stop shot rolling the four into one of the other three pockets shown, all is well and straight onto the eight for Pocket A. Game over.

The 1-ball will of course need to come off soon, sometime long before the four to clear the path intented for the game-winning 8-ball. But the 4-ball is the key to the win and saved for next-to-last as this game's key ball.

Is it okay to hit an opponent's ball first to play safe and end your inning? Is this "dirty pool" or a smart move when the opponent is not awarded ball-in-hand?

The answer is it's a smart move, and often even when the opponent takes ball-in-hand. Players don't like it played against them, but they also don't like when others win!

Just a few weeks ago, I did the same thing in a match, separating two nearby together stripes and breaking up their possible run for the win as I waited my next turn at the solids...**

Watch for upcoming articles on other fascinating aspects of 8-Ball. I've taught 8-Ball pool for many years and am still learning, too. Earth's most popular pool game also offers some of its deepest strategies.