The beginner's guide to the greatest pastimes: Pool

Pro tips on how to get into this gratifying game — and get better at it every time you play.

Pro tips on how to get into this gratifying game — and get better at it every time you play

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

According to Hollywood, pool is mostly played by shady characters in smoky backrooms. Frank Kakouros of the Canadian Billiards and Snooker Association says this is no longer true. "It's no longer played in dens of inequity. Smoke-filled pool halls don't even exist in North America anymore," and pool is much more about recreation than gambling. Another misconception is that it's a game for men. According to Kakouros, pool is friendly to all genders and size and strength don't even provide an advantage. Today, he estimates about 40% of pool players are women.

Kakouros says pool is addictive because the game gives immediate gratification when you make a shot and it's easy to improve steadily every time you play. Moreover, it's popular. There are opportunities to play in pool rooms, bars, and home rec rooms across the country, so even if you aren't training for the world championships it's worth knowing how to handle a cue. But if you are, you won't be the first. The first Canadian world champion was Cliff "The Grinder" Thorburn, who won the World Snooker Championship in 1980. The second was Alex Pagaluyan, the 2004 world 9-ball champion who was nicknamed "the killer pixie" by Thorburn. Kakouros, who's run pool rooms all over Ontario explained how we could get started in the game.


Originally, billiards was an indoor adaptation of games like croquet. The first known indoor billiard table belonged to Louis XIV of France, then it spread throughout the French nobility and across Europe. By the early 18th century, the game had spread from the Palace of Versailles to the Parisian cafés, where it could be enjoyed by the masses.

Early on, balls were pushed with the blunt side of the stick (or "mace") and the thin end was used only for special shots. Yet as the striking method became more popular, the game evolved, and the modern cue (designed specifically to strike balls with a thin end) was developed at the beginning of the 19th century. Similarly, "pockets" weren't an original feature. Early versions of the game used other obstacles and targets on the table such as a hoop (as in croquet) or skittle. Pockets originated as hazards but eventually became targets. It was only in the 19th century when the familiar 6-pocket pool table rose to dominance. The familiar version of pool with 15 "solid" and "striped" balls arranged in a triangle was born in the late 19th century and is the main form of billiards in North America. There are several games that can be played on a six-pocketed table with this set of balls, and the word "pool" encompasses them all. However, in Europe and Asia, other forms of billiards, including pocket-less variations, are still popular.

What you need to know to get started

There are two sets of things you need to know. The actions required to play the game and the rules of the game.

How to hit a pool ball: In very basic terms, you want to slide the cue across the top of one hand and strike the cue ball (white one) with the thin end of the stick. The key is to have a steady consistent stroke that allows you to hit the ball in a straight line. There are plenty of helpful tutorials on pool fundamentals. Stand slightly to the side of the ball. Bend over so your chin is directly over the cue and look at the cue ball while you are striking it.

There are several different games that can be played on a pool table, the most popular being 8-ball. However, rules vary depending on where and with whom you're playing. There's no single "real" set of rules, so make sure you agree on the ones you're following before you begin.

8-ball: This is the most popular form of pool in North America. It's normally a two-player game but can be played in teams as well. Players take turns trying to sink their balls — either "solids" (numbers 1-7) or "stripes" (9-15). When they've sunk all of their balls, they must sink the 8-ball to win. Rules vary so decide ahead of time how you'll follow these concise rules for 8-ball.

Cuthroat: This game is great for three (or more) players. The basic idea is that each player is assigned a set of balls. For three players, this means 1-5, 6-10, or 11-15. The object of the game is to sink the balls belonging to the other players while leaving one's own on the table. When all of a player's balls are sunk, that player is eliminated from play. The game continues until only one player still has balls on the table. The first player to sink a ball may choose which set to take. The second player who sinks a ball can choose one of the two remaining sets and the last player takes the remaining set. 

What you need to have to get started

If you're in a place with a pool table they'll have everything you need, which is a pool table, a cue, a set of balls, chalk, and a triangle to rack the balls. Kakouros says that most cues in pool rooms are in top shape, but that it's still worth checking that it's straight by looking down the length of the cue and checking to make sure the tip is in good repair. If you decide to buy a cue, Kakouros told us that a cheap cue will perform as well as a very expensive one and that money spent on lessons would result in more improvement than on equipment. If you have a choice of tables, smaller tables with angled pockets are easier to play on. Rounded pockets and a larger surface area will make it more challenging.

What you need to do to get started

Decide what game you're playing and decide who'll go first, either randomly (coin toss) or by skill. Rack the balls by putting all the balls save the cue ball in the triangle (or "rack") with the 8-ball in the centre position and one stripe and one solid in the back two corners. Move the entire triangle of balls so the front ball rests on the "foot spot" which is indicated by a black dot on the table. Remove the triangle. Then the player who will begin should "break" by hitting the cue ball from behind the line at the top of the table ("head string") at the triangle of balls to disperse them.

Top tips: 

  • Develop a steady consistent stroke. Grip the cue more loosely than you think you have to. Kakouros says this engages fewer muscles and that can keep the stroke simpler. Don't squeeze it.

  • Aim first, but keep your eye on the cue ball while shooting. Do not look up mid-shot.

  • For the break, use a tighter grip and get make sure you have solid footing. The break requires more power than other shots, so you need to transfer power from your legs.

  • Focus on making one ball. More advanced players usually plan several balls ahead and think about where they'll attempt to place the cue ball after making a shot. Kakouros says that beginners usually do better if they just focus on sinking one ball at a time.

  • Chalk your cue. A slight application of chalk to cue will ensure you get the right contact. An unchalked cue is more likely to slide off the ball and spoil the shot.

Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.


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