American Pocket Billiards: Who makes the rules and why?

Alex Pagulayan 2011 US Open One Pocket, Las Vegas NV Photographer:Robert Ross. Courtesy Mary Kenniston

In case this is your first visit, It might be important to point out that I am a pool player and fan, and I believe that it is a travesty that the sport has not yet reached the level of professional presentation and coverage that other sports take for granted. Most of these articles deal with subjects I believe are related to this. Whether you agree with my opinions or disagree, I hope reading them will spark discussion that leads to the rise of pool in the American sports culture.

Before anyone can discuss the viability of professional or amateur pool, we have to have a discussion about rules. Rules provide the foundation under which all competition from a friendly game of tag on the playground to the biggest sports world championships that are competed at in front of millions of viewers.

For our purposes, we are going to discuss pool rules and I am going to share some opinions that will certainly run into disagreement.

There are many circumstances under which rules have to be chosen. Some of them don’t really need to be discussed here. If two guys match up at John’s Bar and grill on Main Street in Whoknowswhere Kansas, and decide that you have to call everything an object ball touches on its way to the pocket, or that the shooter will be allowed a two fingered spacing when the cue ball is against a rail, they get to do that, and who are we to tell them they are wrong?

Likewise, if a $10 entry fee tournament director at a bar or pool room decides you can’t shoot an off suit combo with an open table, that also is his prerogative, and if we enter his tournament, we have to play by the rules he puts forth.

Anything larger than that, and we have to look at the motivations of the organizer in writing and enforcing rules. What are the different motivations of directors and promoters? Let’s look at some.

Amateur pool in the U.S. takes place on many scales from local cash leagues that rarely grow bigger than a few local rooms or bars, to national and even international organizations involving thousands of players. The organizers are made up of a veritable vegetable soup of sanctioning bodies calling themselves by acronyms like APA, TAP, BCA, ABA, ACA, ACS, AEBF, BAA, BAPTO…… well, you get the picture.

Each of these organizations makes its own set of rules based on its own set of priorities, and they are all different. So how do we get them all to agree on one set of rules so it’s less confusing? We don’t, and here’s why.

Each of them has different motivations regarding who they would like to serve and what they are trying to accomplish, whether that be handicapping to level the playing field and bring in more lower level players and grow their membership, to providing a more competitive landscape for higher level players. And some are in it to maximize profits, which incidentally is not an evil thing, and some are trying to provide a platform for higher competition, while still others exist just to give their proprietor something to do in their spare time. Each provides a different experience, and if you’re going to compete in amateur pool, I suggest you find one that provides the experience you’re looking for, and be happy if the operator is making a little money for providing it so they can keep doing it.

The other upside to the amateur league operators is that they keep bringing more people into the sphere of pool fans and enthusiasts.

It’s been said that amateur leagues in bars are killing the pro game, but that’s wrong. In order for the pro pool game to thrive, you need more than pro pool players watching and paying attention, and amateur leagues and operators are growing that market segment, but that’s a discussion for another day.

The amateur game is fragmented when it comes to rules by the very nature that there are different reasons for people to play.

However, the professional ranks are also fragmented by rules, and for the pro tournament promoters and players, this has a negative effect. To bring more fans and viewers to the game, it is important to maintain some consistency in the games being played so that the average Joe can understand what he is watching and the broadcaster, If there is one, doesn't have to reeducate the viewer every time they tune in to a new tournament.

The goal of professional pool tournament promoters, players, and the media that cover them, should always be to raise awareness and understanding of the game and to grow viewership.

Much like the amateur competitions, the professional promoters are all providing different rules for their operations. To be sure, some of it is because there are so many game variations. 8-ball and 9-ball and 1 pocket are all very different games, and the rules that separate them are pretty consistently applied. But even tournaments where the same game is played, like say 9-ball, the US Open plays by different rules than the DCC or the Cole Dixon Memorial. Other professional sports like golf and tennis maintain a fairly consistent set of rules.

Pool has been fractured by a lack of organization amongst professional pool promoters. Different promoters have responded differently over the years to complaints, primarily from the players, and come up with different solutions to try to draw the biggest turn outs. And why are player entrees so important to promoters?

Professional promoters of pool tournaments in the United States have still not figured out who their “customer” is. All Professional competitive sports have to learn who their audience is. The audience is what drives advertising and ultimately provides the professional competitor with his income through advertising dollars.

That’s a long winded way of saying that all professional pool organizers and promoters should share a common goal of driving interest and viewership in order to sell advertising and grow income streams to provide income for the promoter, the players, the organizations, and the advertisers. Game and conduct rules are a part of the entertainment package that makes the whole thing work.

So, here are my opinions about rules that should be adopted by professional pool and agreed upon by a yet to be formed association of professional pool tournament promoters, who I hope in the future, will work together to grow the game into a legitimate profession,

[if !supportLists]1. [endif]Dress code: Of all sports to look at as a model, the PGA probably shares most closely the need of the professional player. It is informal enough to allow for flexibility and player tastes, it allows for a reasonable amount of space for endorsement ads that are visible and not gaudy, and it is consistent enough to identify the players as competitors.

[if !supportLists]2. [endif]Break shot: No rule has been altered and abused more than break shot rules. Any time someone finds a way to break that gives him an advantage, the rules change again. The break rules should provide everyone with equal opportunity to succeed, but not prevent players from developing successful techniques. Here is a set of thoughts on the break shot for 8-ball and rotation game variations.

[if !supportLists]· [endif]The breaker should be able to break from anywhere behind the head string. Yes, some guys are going to be better at this and have an advantage. So be it. A successful break is a big part of developing a well rounded game, and if you’re good at it, there should be an advantage. If a golfer is good with his driver, they don’t make him hit without a tee or change the position of the tee box.

[if !supportLists]· [endif]Racks must be addressed. No matter what anyone says about template racks, they have two primary problems. Balls do their roll when they run over them, and removing them can change the lay of balls slightly. Personally, I would like to see a return to wooden racks, but I know I am in the minority in that opinion. Whatever is decided, it is vital that all professional tournaments agree on one method, and stick with it. Wood triangles were good enough for over a hundred years, and I believe they are good enough now

[if !supportLists]· [endif]If using a non-template rack, no one should ever be allowed to touch the balls after the rack is lifted. If you have a question about why, stop gambling at pool until you find out why. The rack can be loaded even with a template, but it’s much more difficult to rack without adjusting, particularly if they have seen some use.

[if !supportLists]· [endif]Take a deep breath, and don’t send hate mail: 8-balls, 9-balls, and 10-balls in their respective games should count as game wins when pocketed on the break.

Many, if not most players believe the “snap” is a purely luck shot. To be sure, there is a large element of luck involved, but some players get more of them than others, so there is clearly some skill involved.

However, my main reason for bringing this back is the fan. Golf has the hole in one, boxing has knock outs, baseball has home runs, and no one has ever suggested eliminating them because they involve chance or because they change games. In fact, fans love them primarily because they change games. They are big plays that are exciting and they should be part of the game.

On top of all these reasons, they greatly diminish if not totally eliminate the soft break. Even if the soft break continues to be used occasionally, it makes a more variable game and adds an element of surprise.

[if !supportLists]· [endif]The recent rule variation of reracking after a made ball on the break in one pocket is ridiculous and should never be discussed again. Check the rack and get over it. “Shit happens”.

[if !supportLists]3. [endif] 8-ball should remain a call pocket game. 9-ball should remain an any-pocket game. 10-ball should remain a call pocket game as a combination of rotation and call pocket. Call safe should be reserved for gambling only purposes. I could go on for days about my reasons here, but I think most people would agree that these three variations provide enough for anyone.

[if !supportLists]4. [endif]Touching a cue ball after a foul: A rolling cue ball should never be touched after a foul. We could argue all day about what’s obvious and what’s not. What cannot be argued is that once the cue ball comes to a stop, it can no longer hit another ball. The penalty for grabbing a moving ball after a foul should be loss of game. Yes, sometimes APA gets it right.

[if !supportLists]5. [endif]There should never be a conceded ball or rack: There are no “gimmes” on the PGA tour for a reason. We have all seen touring golf pros miss 3 foot puts and we’ve seen pro pool players miss straight in, 4 inch jawed balls. The penalty for conceding a rack or ball should be the conceded rack, and forfeiture of the next. If conceding a ball cost you two racks, I don’t think we will see it too often any more.

[if !supportLists]6. [endif]Winner breaks: This is more a format issue than a rule, but pool has always been about running balls and racks. Forcing a player away from the table after a win is unnatural. Professional pools roots are in straight pool, and we should allow players to keep shooting until they miss. A player stringing racks together is pool at its highest skill level. We should allow it in all pro tournaments.

It should be noted that using alternate breaks in a pro-am setting as a way to bring in more “semi-pro” players and amateurs is a viable alternative format. The winner breaks format I am discussing here is primarily for the purposes of championship play or invitational’s.

This is a brief list of some of the things I think about current professional pool rules. Please feel free to comment whether you agree or disagree.

I think it’s most important to start the conversation. I would very much like to see the independent tournament promoters work together and share their experience and resources. I believe a rules conversation could start that process.