The trouble with everything

Thursday, April 20, 2006

How to be a billiards snob

Don't play American pool; the tables are too small and the balls too large.

Don't play snooker—all the scoring comes from potting balls (potting can be boring; every time I play I end up with an aching neck).

Do play English pocket billiards, arguably the most interesting and elegant of all billiard games.

In Europe and the States, they play variations of two- and three-cushion billiards without pockets, which Europeans call karambole.

In the Orient, they sometimes play a type of cushion billiards with two large red and two large white balls.

But nothing beats English billiards, or pocket billiards as it's sometimes known. The game has everything: potting, cannons, and winning and losing 'hazards'.

It's played on a full-size (6' x 12') snooker table, so there's lots of challenge in it. It's hard to make a foul shot, and if you do, the point penalties are small -- just two points. In fact, when we play, we normally just sacrifice our turn on a foul stroke and forget about the points, unless the foul leaves the other player at a significant disadvantage.

Let the game begin!

Here, roughly, is how you play English billiards: There is one red ball (the object ball) and two white cue balls (one plain, one with a spot). The game begins with one of the cue balls in hand (the D), the other cue ball on the centre spot, and the red (object) ball on the top spot.

Basic scoring is easy:

  • Pot the object ball - 3 points (also called a winning hazard)
  • Pot your opponent's cue ball - 2 points
  • Hit the object ball and your opponent's cue ball on the same stroke (order doesn't matter) - 2 points (this score is called a cannon)
  • Hit the red ball and then go into a pocket - 3 points (this is called a losing hazard, or loser)
  • Hit your opponent's cue ball then go into a pocket - 2 points (a different losing hazard)

NOTE: When the object (red) ball is pocketed, it is put back on the spot at the top of the table. When you pocket your opponent's cue ball, it stays down until you miss a shot. Most of the time, it's not a good idea to pocket a cue ball, since your play afterwards is restricted to pots and losers.

When a cue ball returns to the table, it is played "from hand," i.e., from the 'D' at the bottom of the table. All shots from hand must be aimed ahead of the balk line (that is, up the table).

Of course, you may combine scoring shots:


Hit the white, then hit the red, then enter a pocket to score
2 + 2 = 4 (cannon + loser)

Hit the red, then pocket the other cue ball
2 + 2 = 4 (cannon + 2-point pot)

Hit the red, pocket it, and then hit the other cue ball
3 + 2 = 5 (3-point pot + cannon)

Hit the red, then hit the white, then have your ball enter a pocket
2 + 3 = 5 (cannon + 3-point loser; you hit red first)

Hit the white, pocket it, then hit the red and then enter a pocket
2 + 2 + 2 = 6

Hit the red, pocket it, then hit the white and pocket it
3 + 2 + 2 = 7 (2 pots + cannon)

Hit the red, pocket it, then hit the white and then enter a pocket
3 + 2 + 3 = 8 (pot + cannon + 3-point loser)

Hit the white, pocket it, then hit the red, pocket it, then enter a pocket
2 + 2 + 3 + 2 = 9 (2-point pot + cannon + 3-point pot + 2-point loser)

Hit the red, pocket it, hit the white, pocket it, then enter a pocket
3 + 2 + 2 + 3 = 10
(3-point pot + cannon + 2-point pot + 3-point loser)

As you can see, when combining scores, the ball you hit first controls the subsequent score you receive for pocketing your cue ball.

Now, here are two of my favourite shots:

This first, we call "The Morrison" because my billiards partner, Gordon, was practising it one evening as I came to meet him with another friend called Rob Morrison, visiting from the land of Oz.

As we entered, Gordon announced his 10th consecutive success with the shot and promptly named it in Rob's honour. This shot is a "loser" or losing hazard, because it is your cue ball that enters the pocket, not the object ball.

The shot is made as a plain 'half-ball' stroke. That is, you aim the very centre of your cue ball at the very outside edge of the object ball, and shoot with a smooth, follow-through stroke, being careful to hit your cueball slightly above centre, but with absolutely no side.

You can find a complete description of this shot in Useful Strokes for Billiard Players by Wallace Ritchie (if you can find this long out of print gem).

This second one we call "That Shot."

I sprang it successfully on Gordon during one of our regular competitions for the Billiards Championship of the Civilized Universe, If Any.

After I made the shot, Gordon exclaimed: "How did you make that shot?" The rest is billiards history, not that any really good players anywhere took note.

To make this shot, a cannon, you aim half-ball (see above) at the object ball, but stroke your cueball sharply, well below centre, with your cue as parallel to the table as is practical.

Again, you'll find details in "Useful Strokes..."

We've since gone on to whimsically name a number of other shots: The Ustinov, The Berton, and the Rodney -- each name in honour of departed favourites: Peter Ustinov, Pierre Berton and Rodney Dangerfield.

The Berton happens when you pot the other cue ball and follow it into the pocket. Why the name?
Pierre wrote extensively about Canada's North, where there is lots of white.

The Rodney is a shot that gets "no respect". It can happen for ill or good. Say, for instance, you are about to make a loser and one of the other balls trickles by and nudges it out of its intended trajectory -- you've been Rodneyed! Or the same in reverse: Your shot is about to fail when another ball intervenes and saves the score.

The Ustinov deserves diagramming (eventually). It is a loser into one of the side pockets that sends the object ball up (or down) the table, leaving it pretty much where it was, but on the opposite side of the table. Where you can make another Ustinov from hand (the "D").

We like to say the shot works only if you put "yoost enough" stuff on the ball (our apologies to any Scandinavians reading this).

We may add the Charlton, once Heston finally dies: You shoot at anything that moves -- which is illegal, since, of course, you may not shoot until all balls have come to rest.


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