is a contemporary pocket billiards
(pool) game, with historical beginnings rooted in the United States
and traceable to the 1920s. The game may be played in social and recreational settings by any number of players (generally one-on-one) and subject to whatever rules are agreed upon beforehand, or in league and tournament
settings in which the number of players and the rules are set by the sponsors. During much of its history, nine-ball has been known as a "money game
" in both professional and recreational settings; but today, in major tournament settings, it is respected and remains the dominant game.
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.
Rules and governing bodies
The general rules the game is played under are fairly consistent and usually do not stray too far from the format set forth in the Billiard Congress of America
(BCA) BCA World Standardized Rules for Nine Ball
, which have merged with those of the World Pool-Billiard Association
(WPA), to form the World Standardised Rules, although amateur league play may be governed by similar but slightly different rules promulgated by the American Poolplayers Association
(APA) and other organizations.
The rise of "Texas express" rules
For much of its history nine-ball rules allowed participants to "" multiple times during a game (see "The push-out", below, for the modern push-out rules)
, meaning any player could call a "push-out", and then hit the cue ball to any area on the table without being penalized by normal rules, such as failure to contact the lowest-numbered ball on the table. However, once a push-out was called and executed, the incoming player had the right to shoot or give the inning back to the opponent. If the player shooting the resulting shot fouled, the other player would have ball-in-hand; hence this manner of play was called the "two-foul" version. "One-foul" became popular in the 1970s, as play turned more aggressive for the early televised matches. This newer version of nine-ball awarded ball-in-hand on any cue ball foul. A now-standard rule variant, which started to sweep the sport of nine-ball in the mid-1980s, restricted the push-out option to once per game and only to the inning immediately following the break. This change profoundly affected the way the game was played. By about 1990 this new push-out rule had become ubiquitous and it and any additional rules appended to it were collectively referred to as "" rules, so called because of the supposed US state of origin and the speeding up of the game. Today, Texas express push-out rules dominate the way nine-ball is played and is the variant incorporated into the official rules maintained by the WPA and its affiliates like the BCA.
As of the 2000s, the rules have been somewhat in flux in certain contexts, especially in Europe. The European Pocket Billiard Federation
(EPBF), BCA's WPA-affiliate counterpart in Europe, has done away with standardized racking techniques, and instead relies upon in the cloth to position the balls, with no physical ball rack
required; these indentations are carefully created using a "", such that the divots are slightly closer together than they would be expected to be, thus creating ball-on-ball pressure as the balls settle partially
into the divot pattern, into which they cannot quite fit. This results in an especially tight rack, without any possibility of cheating by carefully manipulating the ball positions while racking. This innovative racking technique is now the official rack of the EPBF Euro-Tour.
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.
The game is played on a pocket billiards table
with six pockets
and with ten balls. The , which is usually a solid shade of white (but may be spotted in some tournaments), is struck to hit one or more of the other nine balls (often referred to as ), each of which is distinctly colored and numbered 1 through 9. The object of the game is to pocket the 9 ball in a legal manner, subject to the rules in effect at the time.
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 object balls are placed in a diamond-shaped configuration, with the 1 ball positioned at the front (toward the position of the breaking player), and the 9 ball placed in the center. The physical rack
used to position the balls is typically triangle-shaped and capable of holding all fifteen object balls, although diamond-shaped racks that hold only nine balls are sometimes used. The placement of the remaining balls is generally considered to be random. However, in some tournaments, the ball being to the lesser player must be one of the two balls placed behind the 1 ball at the apex of the rack. The placement of balls is expected to be precise, especially in league and tournament play; if any ball in the rack does not touch each adjacent ball, or if the rack is not "straight", or if the 1 ball is not resting precisely on the , the player assigned the break may demand a re-rack. (See also "European alterations", above, for a recently devised "template-trained" racking system.)
One person is chosen to shoot first, by the rack. Usually this is determined by flipping a coin, or by , especially in professional tournaments in the case of the latter, or it may be ruled by the authority in charge or the sponsor or the players themselves that the winner or loser of the previous game will always shoot first in the next rack. If the player who breaks fails to make a legal break, the opponent can either demand a re-rack and become the breaker, or continue to play as if it had been an ordinary foul, depending upon the rules of the event. If the breaker pockets a ball and commits no foul, it remains the breaker's turn. If the breaker pockets the 9 ball on the break (without fouling), this is an instant win. (See also "European alterations", above, for recent moves to change the breaking rules.)
Immediately after the break shot (regardless of its results) the player at the table may call a "", and may then shoot the cue ball to any location on the table (i.e. not into a pocket in which case the player must continue shooting, nor off the table which would be a foul), without incurring a foul for failure to hit the lowest-numbered ball on the table, and then control of the table passes to the other player. The incoming player has the choice of accepting the table as it lies, or forcing the pushing-out player to take the next shot. Only one push-out is allowed per game, and it must
be immediately after the break. (See also "The rise of 'Texas express' rules", above, for the historical multi-push-out rule variation.)
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.
A player wins in nine-ball by pocketing the 9 ball at any time in the game in a legal manner, either by hitting it in with the cue ball or with a lower numbered ball in a combination shot. A player can also win by default if the opponent commits three successive fouls. However in most formats, including under BCA rules, the opponent must be told that he or she is "on two fouls" in order to lose by committing a third foul.
While the modern folk game of three-ball
bears no resemblance to nine-ball, the earliest-known version of three-ball
was essentially nine-ball played with only three balls, racked in a triangle, in which the 3 ball was the . A quick game, and (due to the comparatively very high possibility of pocketing the 3 ball on the break) one with a more significant luck
component than nine-ball and most other pool games.
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.
is a similar game, the primary differences being there are only seven object balls, racked in a hexagon, and the game is won by pocketing the 7 ball. Seven-ball is with the 1 ball at the apex on the and the 7 ball (the ) in the center of the hexagon. This game is not particularly common, and is primarily known because of ESPN
's Sudden Death Seven-ball
which aired in the early 2000s. Though hardly necessary, specialized equipment for the game can be purchased, including a unique black-striped seven ball and a hexagonal rack.
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.