In recent years, nine-ball has become the game of choice in championship tournament matches in the United States, basically because a series of games (the "match") proceeds quickly, lends itself well to the time constraints of television coverage, and tends to keep the audience engaged. The sports network ESPN has been, for several years, a major catalyst for the popularity of nine-ball and a major sponsor of championship play.
Another Euro-Tour innovation is a new requirement that the break shot be taken from a "", not unlike break shot zone used in snooker and blackball, consisting of the middle 50% of the . This change defeats the common break-from-the-side-rail technique for pocketing the 9 ball on the break and winning the game instantly. While 9 ball breaks are still possible, they are much more difficult under the new rule. This requirement was recently added to the Europe vs. US all-star team event, the Mosconi Cup, but has not otherwise been seen much by North Americans.
Yet a third EPBF change, used on the Euro-Tour for several years, is the "" rule, a stringent requirement that in order for a break shot to be legal, at least three object balls must either be pocketed or come up-table and cross the . Failure to do so constitutes a loss-of-turn (but not ) foul – even if two object balls are pocketed, a potential major windfall for the non-breaking player under these rules. More stringently yet, the requirements are independent – if a ball crosses the head string and is then pocketed, it counts as a pocketed ball but not a head string-crossing ball. This alteration (from WPA's requirement that one object ball be pocketed or four driven to cushions) requires a powerful break shot, and was instituted to thwart a different form of break manipulation, the recently developed "nine-ball soft break", in which a languid break performed correctly, and given a tight rack (such as that produced by EPBF template-trained racking), is almost guaranteed to pocket a in a , perhaps even both wing balls, meanwhile the remaining balls stay mostly or entirely on the foot end of the table, giving the breaker an easy of short shots. By effectively banning the soft break, wins "on a silver platter" are much less likely. One problem with this "three above the line" break requirement is that very careful attention must be paid to whether or not particular balls cross the head string, such that even professional referees have had to resort to video playback, as happened several times at the Mosconi Cup, when this rule, too, was introduced in 2007 by the MC's organizers, Matchroom Sport, in an effort to make the event more competitive and interesting to audiences, and more even (the US has mostly dominated the annual event since its inception, and they did in fact lose the 2007 match).
Another Mosconi Cup rule change in 2007 called for racking such that the 9 ball rather than the 1 ball is on the (i.e. the racker rolls the balls forward farther; the balls remain in the same position in the rack), which further thwarts pocketing a wing ball easily.
In nine-ball, on all shots, a player must cause the cue ball to contact the lowest numerical ball on the table first before the cue ball strikes any other ball and subsequently contact a rail with either the cue ball, the object ball, or any balls contacted by the two (except when a push-out has been invoked; see "The push-out", below); otherwise a has been committed. This does not mean that object balls have to be pocketed in order; any ball may be pocketed at any time during the game, so long as the lowest numerical ball is contacted first. Because nine-ball is not a game, the 9 ball itself can also be pocketed in this manner for a win (which necessarily means that legally pocketing the 9 on the break shot immediately wins the game).
Players alternate at the table, meaning play continues by one player until he or she misses, commits a foul, or pockets the 9 ball for the win. The penalty for a foul is that the player's inning ends and the opponent comes to the table with , able to place the cue ball anywhere on the table prior to shooting.
Nine-ball is a relatively fast-paced game and is rarely played by the rack. Instead, players normally play a match (or ) to a set number of games, often five, seven or nine. The first player to win that set number of games wins the match.
The ideal push-out shot is one that the opponent will believe likely to be makeable, and will accept, but fail to actually make, giving control of the table back to the pusher-out, and which the pusher-out is confident to make if forced to do so. Thus, nine-ball players aim for a push-out that has about a 50/50 chance of being accepted or returned.
Six-ball is essentially identical to nine-ball but with three fewer balls, and racked in a three-row triangle, with the 6 ball (or more often the 15 ball; see below) as the , placed in the center of the back row. According to Rudolph "Minnesota Fats" Wanderone, the game arose in early 20th century billiard halls that charged by the rack instead of by the hour, as nine-ball players had already paid for the 10–15 balls and did not want to waste them. This explanation of the game's origin may be particularly plausible because six-ball remains popular today as a diversion or practice round among nine-ball-playing players, using coin-operated tables that deliver a full set of fifteen balls.
Ten-ball is a more stringent variant of the game, using ten balls (racked in a triangle with the 10 ball, the in this case, in the center), and in which the money ball cannot be pocketed early for an early win. Due to its more challenging nature, and the fact that there is no publicly known technique for reliably pocketing specific object balls on the break shot, there have been suggestions among the professional circuit that ten-ball should replace nine-ball as the pro game of choice, especially since the rise of the nine-ball soft break, which is still legal in most international and non-European competition. Regardless of the future of the nine-ball versus ten-ball debate, there are already hotly contested professional ten-ball tournaments.
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