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Three-ball (or "3-ball", colloquially) is a folk game of pool played with any three standard pool object balls and cue ball . The game is frequently gambled upon (typically for a twenty dollars (or equivalent) ante per round). The goal is to pocket ( pot ) the three object balls in as few shots as possible. [1] [2] [3] [4] Theoretically, any number of players can participate, in rotation, [1] [3] but more than five can become unwieldy. The game involves a somewhat more significant amount of luck than either nine-ball or eight-ball, because of the disproportionate value of pocketing balls on the break shot and increased difficulty of doing so. In some areas and subcultures, such as the Asian-American youth-dominated pool hall scene of San Francisco, California, three-ball is a popular local tournament game.[ citation needed ]


Racking a game of three-ball with the standard fifteen-ball triangle rack. [taller view] Three-ball rack in std triangle 1a.jpg
Racking a game of three-ball with the standard fifteen-ball triangle rack. [ taller view ]


There are no widespread official or standardized rules for three-ball, [5] [6] though local tournaments promulgate rulesets that have some sway over area player populations even outside the context of the tournaments. Below are listed the most common, widely accepted rules.

The game is played on any pocket billiard table. Under tournament conditions, a single round usually consists of three [4] or five [3] games ( innings ) per player (with each player's individual inning scores added to calculate their final score for the round), and a match may consist of several multi-inning rounds, back-to-back or spread out over a period of time (even weeks). [3] In a gambling context, three-ball (like the group pool games killer and cutthroat, and the card game poker) is typically played in multiple games (each played out until someone wins the betting pool, then after new antes are placed, play begins again), sometimes for many hours, with players able to enter and leave as suits their finances and risk-aversion.


The object of the game is to sink all of the object balls in as few strokes as possible, with points being added to the player's score for each stroke and for specific fouls. [1] [3] [4] Unlike in eight-ball and nine-ball, the player at turn remains at turn until all object balls are pocketed, [1] [3] [4] or the player concedes or reaches the maximum point limit (see below). All strokes count as one point each, whether they pocketed no balls, one ball or more than one ball. [1] [3] [4] ( Fouls incur additional penalty points; see below.)

There is a predetermined cut-off score of a certain number of points, after which the player must turn the table over to the next player (or conclude the game/round if the player was the last in the lineup). [3] Among casual players this is typically five or six points, while among skilled players it is most commonly four, and sometimes even as low as three. It is also considered sportsmanlike to simply concede defeat before reaching this number if victory or a tie is clearly impossible; when conceding, one is scored at the cut-off number, not the number one conceded at (e.g. if one is playing a game where the cut-off is five, there is already a tie for three, and one cannot get "out" in under four, one would concede and take a five.)


Once a player's inning is over, the next player starts over with a fresh rack. [1] [3] [4] After all players have finished, the player with the lowest score is declared to be the winner. [1] [3] [4] In a tournament context, the winner of the event may be the player with the lowest total score over many rounds of play (strict scoring), or the highest number of won rounds (loose scoring). In case of a tie, a playoff round is played between the tied players (and repeated if another tie results, etc.) [1] [4] (However, see the "all tie" variant, below.)

The rack

Three object balls (conventionally the 1, 2 and 3 balls [2] [3] [4] [7] ) are racked either in a triangle usually aluminum, wooden or plastic, like a miniature eight-ball or snooker rack with the apex ball on the foot spot , [1] [2] [3] [4] [7] or in a straight line, again with the lead ball on the foot spot, and the other balls behind it, lined up toward the center of the foot rail .

A three-ball straight rack, using the side of the nine-ball diamond rack to align the balls with the head and foot spots. [wider view] Three-ball straight rack in diamond 1a.jpg
A three-ball straight rack, using the side of the nine-ball diamond rack to align the balls with the head and foot spots. [ wider view ]

No particular arrangement is necessary, as there is no specific order in which the balls must be pocketed, nor do any of them have specific point values. [4] Racking is often simply done by hand, though there have been at least two manufacturers of triangular three-ball racks, and many also simply use the front of the eight-ball/straight pool triangle (or the straight side of the nine-ball diamond) to rack for three-ball. Players usually are not permitted to rack their own balls that they are about to break, because of known techniques for occasionally sinking all three object balls on the break in a predictable manner (which can be maximized by making particular, minute adjustments to the rack angle, position and tightness i.e., cheating.) If straight rather than triangular racking is required, the rule against self-racking may or may not be dropped; as of February 2012, there are no publicized techniques for predictably sinking all the balls from a straight rack. As in other games, the player at turn may demand a re-rack if not satisfied with the correct formation or position of the racked balls.

The break

Players' turn order is decided at random at the beginning of the game or match, as in other several-player pool games. The cue ball is placed anywhere behind the head string ("in the kitchen ") [4] and a typical hard break (as in nine-ball or eight-ball) is performed. The break is the first stroke of a player's game, and thus counts toward his or her score. [1] [3] [4] Any balls pocketed on the break are considered to be legally pocketed and the player now only has to sink the remaining balls.

Very good players can sink all three object balls on the break with surprising frequency, resulting in the perfect (but still tieable) score of one point, especially if the balls are triangle-racked; this feat is achieved using an adaptation of the instant-win break technique from eight-ball and nine-ball; the straight rack was introduced to make this more difficult, as it does not provide the contact point and angles that the well-known technique requires.


Every shot costs one point, and a foul of any kind costs the player an additional one-point penalty. [1] [3] [4] Fouls consist of: pocketing the cue ball; [1] [2] [3] [4] knocking the cue ball off the table; [1] [2] [3] [4] a double hit on the cue ball with the cue stick (including illegal "scoop-under" jump shots ); [1] [8] push shots ; [1] [8] and (possibly, depending on how serious the game is) accidentally (or otherwise) moving a ball with a hand, the butt of the cue, etc. [1] A shot in which the player pocketed one or more object balls but also fouled incur a one-point penalty a foul always results in a penalty of 1 point. [1] [3] [4] Thus, a break shot that sank all three object balls plus the cue ball is a score of two (one for the actual shot, plus one for the foul), unless the "instant loss" rule (see below) is in effect.

Shots after a cue ball scratch (into a pocket or off the table, or in strict play after accidentally moving the cue ball) must, similarly to the break shot, be taken from on or behind the head string and must go forward across/from the head string, as in typical American barroom eight-ball , rather than taken ball-in-hand anywhere on the table. [4] (However some do play the game using ball-in-hand rules adapted from nine-ball. [2] If this rule variant is to be used it should be agreed upon clearly beforehand, as many players feel that it makes the game too easy, and observe that ball-in-hand after fouls in nine-ball is a punishment for the fouler and a reward for the opponent, which effectively cancel each other out in three-ball because the fouler illogically receives both punishment and reward.)

Object balls knocked off the table are spotted on (or behind, as near as possible) the foot spot, [2] [4] and do not count as fouls (since the mistake already punishes the shooter by requiring at least one more shot to get out.) [2]

Kisses , caroms , kicks , banks , combinations [2] and non-scoop-under jump shots [1] [8] are legal. No shots, including combinations, banks, etc., have to be called as to object ball, pocket, or any other details; [4] " slop " shots are legal.

It is not a foul to do a weak break that fails to drive balls to cushions or into pockets. [1] [4] Similarly, it is not a foul to make a weak shot that does not pocket a ball or contact a cushion, [1] [4] since, again, these mistakes are effectively self-punishing, by costing the player a stroke.


Keeping score

Like the otherwise dissimilar (one shot per turn) several-player pool game killer (also known as "elimination"), three-ball is scored on a chalk board or piece of paper to keep track of who has how many points. Because of three-ball's "backwards" scoring (compared to other games, which typically have the more-points-are-better scoring that most people are used to), it is customary to help keep score accurately by one or more players intoning the score-so-far after each shot, in the form "that's [x], shooting [x+1]" (e.g. "that's three, shooting four"; note the absence of "for" after "shooting", since it is a potentially confusing homophone of "four"), or something similar.[ citation needed ] In the absence of this mechanism or an official scorekeeper, one would have to write down the score-so-far after every shot, which is disruptive of flow and concentration for the shooter, if required to do it, or onerous for other players to be responsible for. Verbal calling also eliminates score cheating.)

All tie

The popular "all tie" or "everyone ties" rule (sometimes also called "a push", "[if] two tie, all tie", or even the illogical "one tie, all tie") is a common money game variation, in which if two (or more) players among several tie for lowest (best) score than all players, regardless of having conceded or getting poor scores, remain in the game/round if they are willing to ante again to continue. Play then resumes, often yielding another tie and an even larger pot, and so on. [4]


The game can optionally be played in called-pocket (e.g. "7 ball in that corner pocket") manner, as per many league variants of eight-ball, or in a fully called-shot (e.g. "kick off that rail to the 7-to-4 ball combo into this side pocket"), as per typical North American barroom eight-ball played on coin-operated tables. Balls illegally pocketed are not considered fouls, but are spotted (if playing on a non-coin-operated table, otherwise they must logically remain pocketed and incur a one-point foul penalty). [4]


The game can be played as a team game in two ways. First, players can be divided into even teams, with each player on each team shooting a full game per round, and the scores within each team being combined to yield the final score. [4] Secondly, the game can be played in Scotch doubles format, with players alternating shots, and each team only playing a single game per round, as if there were only two players.


Instant loss

An uncommonly required but "serious consequences" variant is that if one sinks all three object balls on the break but also scratches or otherwise fouls, this is an instant loss instead of a score of two, taking the form of the player receiving the maximum allowed score (see above),[ citation needed ] which is technically still tieable, so not truly an instant loss. This rule is an adaptation from nine-ball and common North American eight-ball, in which sinking the game-winning target ball is an instant win unless one also fouls, yielding a (true) instant loss.

Money pocket

In another variant, the pocket into which all wagers have been placed holds a special strategic value to the game: if the final ball is sunk into this "money pocket", one point is deducted from (thereby improving) that player's score. If a foul also occurred, or multiple balls were pocketed on this shot and the final ball to be pocketed did not fall into the money pocket, the point reward does not apply. In this version of the game the best possible score is zero rather than one.[ citation needed ]


Other rules may vary from locale to locale (even to the point of introducing new fouls: some table owners ban, and punish with a 1-point penalty, any jump or massé shots due to [not necessarily reasonable] fear of damage to the billiard cloth by enthusiastic but insufficiently skilled players).

One variant is that scratching on the last stroke results in all balls pocketed on that shot being spotted and the 1-point penalty stroke being assessed. [2] [3] (This rule is effectively unusable on coin-operated tables.) Another, from nine-ball, is that it is a foul to fail to either drive at least one object ball into a pocket, or contact an object ball then have at least one ball contact a rail. [2] [3] (See "Fouls", above, for arguments against the logic of this rule.)

Online computer gaming variants may lean more toward nine-ball rules (perhaps due to the limitations of their software, which in most cases would have been written first and foremost to emulate nine-ball and perhaps also eight-ball). Some such variants include: the two variant rules immediately above; ball-in-hand after fouls; it is a foul to not drive some number of balls to a rail or into a pocket after the break; and a rule that object balls knocked off the table are counted as pocketed (unless it is the last ball, in which case it is spotted and must be shot again). [3] As noted, some of these online rules are questionably logical under the conditions and nature of three-ball.

A rare variant is adapted in part from both tournament eight-ball and nine-ball, in which players do not continue shooting if they miss or foul, and the winner is the player that pockets the 3 ball (the other two balls being the 1 and 2, and shot in ascending order). The incoming player receives ball-in-hand if the preceding opponent fouled. [2] [7] The lowest numbered ball must be struck first, but the 3 ball cannot be pocketed earlier than last with a combination, kiss or carom shot the way the 9 ball can in nine-ball. [7] I.e., the game called "three-ball" in this case is really nothing but a shortened form of nine-ball with a single rule change.

Another optional rule is that if the initial break attempt completely misses the racked balls, the subsequent break attempt(s) must be taken from where the cue ball comes to rest; the cue ball cannot be re-placed behind the head string. [4]


Players skilled at carom and kiss shots are at a marginal advantage in three-ball, because sometimes the only way to win is to sink two balls with one shot; [1] average players lacking expertise in multi-ball shots succeed at this only a truly negligible percentage of the time, while expert players can make them a still quite small, but statistically meaningful, percent of the time. Otherwise, players skilled at eight-ball, nine-ball, one-pocket and/or straight pool are well-equipped to excel at three-ball.

Because of the value of pocketing multiple (especially all) object balls on the break, a strong break (and a skilled one, if the balls are triangularly racked) is an important technique. [2]


The modern game of three-ball appears to have originated from an earlier game of the same name, played as a rotation game with the 1 through 3 balls, and the same rules as nine-ball, but with the 3 taking the place of the 9. [2] [8] Its evolution over the last few decades into a turn-based game with rules more akin to those of straight pool can be traced back to 1984, in the Chicago suburbs, where JC Lee came up with three ball as a quick and fun way practice pool. He soon realized that several players, with varied billiard skill, could be involved in one, turn-based game. The "one tie, all tie" rule, with re-ante betting rounds became an instant catalyst for the popularity of the game. [9]

As practice for other games

Using the 8, 9 and 6 balls for practice, in a special three-ball rack. (Side view.) Three-ball rack in mini-triangle.jpg
Using the 8, 9 and 6 balls for practice, in a special three-ball rack. (Side view.)

Some players use repetitive playing of solo three-ball as a form of practice, especially using the 8 ball and 9 ball (because they are the "money" balls in their namesake games and thus the most likely to be " choked " on), along with the 6 ball (or whatever ball is closest to the color of the cloth, if not playing on a green table) since it is the hardest to see clearly. This form of practice is used as a drill to hone position play in "closing the deal" (the all-important last three shots common to both major games - run-out setup, money-shot setup and money shot). A nine-ball-inspired variant is to use the 9 and two other 1-8 balls and shoot them in ascending order, like the end of a real nine-ball game. [2] An eight-ball practice variant is to use two solids or two stripes and the 8 ball, and shoot the 8 ball last. Other practice variants can adapt rules from one-pocket, bank pool, the bank-the-8 variant of eight-ball, and other games.

Related Research Articles

Cue sports Table games using cues and billiard balls

Cue sports are a wide variety of games of skill played with a cue, which is used to strike billiard balls and thereby cause them to move around a cloth-covered table bounded by elastic bumpers known as cushions.

Eight-ball Pool game popular in much of the world

Eight-ball is a pool billiards played on a billiard table with six pockets, cue sticks, and sixteen billiard balls: a cue ball and fifteen object balls. The object balls include seven solid-colored balls numbered 1 through 7, seven striped balls numbered 9 through 15, and the black 8 ball. After the balls are scattered with a break shot, a player is assigned either the group of solid or striped balls once they have legally pocketed a ball from that group. The object of the game is to legally pocket the 8-ball in a "called" pocket, which can only be done after all of the balls from a player's assigned group have been cleared from the table.

Nine-ball Type of cue sport

Nine-ball is a discipline of the cue sport pool. The game's origins are traceable to the 1920s in the United States. It is played on a rectangular billiard table with pockets at each of the four corners and in the middle of each long side. Using a cue stick, players must strike the white cue ball to pocket nine colored billiard balls, hitting them in ascending numerical order. An individual game is won by the player pocketing the 9-ball. Matches are usually played as a race to a set number of racks, with the player who reaches the set number winning the match.

Straight pool Cue sport

Straight pool, which is also called 14.1 continuous and 14.1 rack, is a cue sport in which two competing players attempt to pot as many billiard balls as possible without playing a foul. The game was the primary version of pool played in professional competition until it was superseded by faster-playing games like nine-ball and eight-ball in the 1970s.


One-pocket is a pool game. Unlike other games played on a pool table where any pocket can be used to score object balls, only one pocket for each player is used in this game. The object of the game is to score points. A point is made when a player pockets any object ball into their designated pocket. The winner is the first to score an agreed-upon number of points.

Golf billiards is a pocket billiards game usually played for money. Unlike the majority of such games, it allows more than two people to play without compromises or rule changes. The game borrows from the outdoor game of golf, which is historically related to the cue sports. It is usually played on 10-foot or 12-foot snooker tables as their size and structure are more appropriate.

Cutthroat or cut-throat, also sometimes referred to as three-man-screw, is a typically three-player or team pocket billiards game, played on a pool table, with a full standard set of pool balls ; the game cannot be played with three or more players with an unnumbered reds-and-yellows ball set, as used in blackball. Each player is commonly assigned a set of five consecutively numbered object balls, though the number of balls will vary by number of players. The object of the game is to be the last player with at least one ball of their group remaining on the table.

Russian pyramid Form of pocket billiards popular in Eastern Europe

Russian pyramid, also known as Russian billiards, is a form of billiards played on a large billiard table with narrow pockets. It is popular across Eastern Europe as well as countries of the former Soviet Union/Eastern Bloc. In Western countries, the game is known as pyramid billiards, or simply pyramid within professional circles.

Pool (cue sports) Family of cue sports

Pool is a classification of cue sports played on a table with six pockets along the rails, into which balls are deposited. Each specific pool game has its own name; some of the better-known include eight-ball, blackball, nine-ball, ten-ball, seven-ball, straight pool, one-pocket, and bank pool.

Bank pool is a pool game that has as its most fundamental requirement that all scoring shots in the game must be made by banking a called ball off a cushion and into a called pocket. While the game has multiple variations, the predominant version through much of its history was played with a full fifteen-ball rack, of which the winning player was required to legally pocket eight balls. A shortened version of the game using nine balls of which the players must legally pocket five for the win, often called "nine-ball banks," gained popularity in the 1990s and 2000s and is the subject of international professional competition and televised matches.


Ten-ball is a rotation pool game similar to nine-ball, but using 10 balls instead of nine, and with the 10 ball instead of the nine as the "money ball".

The following is a glossary of traditional English-language terms used in the three overarching cue sports disciplines: carom billiards referring to the various carom games played on a billiard table without pockets; pool, which denotes a host of games played on a table with six pockets; and snooker, played on a large pocket table, and which has a sport culture unto itself distinct from pool. There are also games such as English billiards that include aspects of multiple disciplines.

Rotation (pool)

Rotation, sometimes called rotation pool or 61, is a pool game, played with a pocketed billiards table, cue ball, and triangular rack of fifteen billiard balls, in which the lowest-numbered object ball on the table must be always struck by the cue ball first, to attempt to pocket numbered balls for points.

Honolulu, also known as banks, kisses, and combinations or indirect, is a pocket billiards game. Players must pocket all shots in an indirect fashion to reach a set number of points. According to the Billiard Congress of America, the governing body for billiards in the United States, Honolulu presents players with "an unending kaleidoscope of strategic and shot-making challenges."

Baseball pocket billiards

Baseball pocket billiards or baseball pool is a pocket billiards (pool) game suitable for multiple players that borrows phraseology and even some aspects of form from the game of baseball. For instance, although baseball pool is played on a standard pool table, the 9 ball is known as the "pitcher", the table's foot spot where balls are racked is known as "home plate", and each team or player is afforded "nine innings" to score as many "runs" as possible.

Bottle pool Game

Bottle pool, also known as bottle-billiards and bottle pocket billiards, is a hybrid billiards game combining aspects of both carom billiards and pocket billiards. Played on a standard pool table, the game uses just two object balls, a cue ball, and a 6¾ inch (171 mm) tall, narrow-necked bottle called a shake bottle or tally bottle, traditionally made from leather, that is placed on the table and used as a target for caroms. Those unfamiliar with the game sometimes mistakenly use its name as a synonym for the very different game of kelly pool. Bottle pool has been described as combining "elements of billiards, straight pool and chess under a set of rules that lavishly rewards strategic shot making and punishes mistakes with Sisyphean point reversals."

Cribbage (pool)

Cribbage, sometimes called cribbage pool, fifteen points and pair pool, is a two-player pool game that, like its namesake card game, has a scoring system which awards points for pairing groups of balls that total 15. Played on a standard pool table, participants who pocket a ball of a particular number are required to immediately pocket the companion ball that tallies to 15 when added to the prior ball's number. Each pair so pocketed counts as a cribbage; there are seven such pairs, and the 15 ball counts as an eighth by itself after all of the others have been pocketed. The first player to score five cribbages wins the game.

Blackball (pool) Pool game

Blackball pool, also known as English pool, English eight-ball or simply reds and yellows, is a pool game originating in the United Kingdom and popularized across Europe and The Commonwealth, such as Australia and South Africa. In the UK and Ireland it is usually called simply "pool". The game is played with sixteen balls on a small pool table with six pockets.

Carom billiards and pool are two types of cue sports or billiards-family games, which as a general class are played with a stick called a cue which is used to strike billiard balls, moving them around a cloth-covered billiard table bounded by rubber cushions attached to the confining rails of the table.

Fifteen-ball pool

Fifteen-ball pool, also known as sixty-one pool, is a pocket billiards game developed in America in the nineteenth century from pyramid pool. Created by members of the Bassford's Billiard & Chess Rooms in Manhattan during the late 1830s or 1840s, it is the ancestor to many American pool games.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 PoolSharp's "Three-Ball Rules". Note: This ruleset contradicts itself, in saying that the break is taken from the kitchen, which is an area, but also saying that it must be taken from the head spot. It also suggests that "anything goes", i.e. that there are no fouls at all in three-ball, a contention not supported by any other source, but then also contradicts itself again, saying that fouls cost one point. This almost certainly was intended to me that scratches count as a 1-point loss, but other fouls do not apply, though this still does not agree with other rule sets. Archived November 14, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 "Three-ball Rules". BillYard Club. Oregon, US: TerraGames Group. ca. 2006 [undated]. Archived from the original on 2016-01-16. Retrieved 2012-02-10.{{cite web}}: Check date values in: |year= (help) Note: These rules seem to have been hastily assembled, and have several apparent mistakes (e.g. impossible instructions to rack three balls "in a diamond shape... numbered consecutively from one through nine"; etc.) It appears that the author simply adapted a simplified set of nine-ball rules to three-ball, a game in which several nine-ball rules are nonsensical. Further, these rules seem to be confused about whether it is a "shoot until you're done" game (as per VPHQ and PoolSharp), or a "lose your turn on a miss or foul" game (as per SuperPool).
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 "Virtual Pool Game Rules: Three Ball Rules".'s Virtual Pool Headquarters. San Francisco, CA, US: IGN Entertainment. 2003. Archived from the original on 2012-02-04. Retrieved 2012-02-10. Note: This ruleset is strongly bent toward nine-ball rules, including several that make no sense in the context of three-ball.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 "3 Ball Pool Game Rules & Tournament Instructions". Lake View, NY, US: Tallenproducts. 2009. Archived from the original on 2010-07-09. Retrieved 2012-02-10. Note: These rules are produced by an equipment manufacturer and are somewhat vague on several points, as well as adopting nine-ball rules that are useless in three-ball, and are written in a self-contradictory manner with regard to handling of fouls.
  5. Billiard Congress of America's World Standardized Rules - no mention of three-ball.
  6. World Pool-Billiard Association's Standardized Rules - no mention of three-ball.
  7. 1 2 3 4 "Reviews: SuperPool". Damascus, Syria and Dubai, UAE: ZGroup Mobile. 2005. Archived from the original on 2012-02-06. Retrieved 2012-02-10. Note: This mobile device pool simulator game's ruleset has some of the flaws of the BillYard rules, though in this case the rules seem to be derived from eight-ball. Also, it says that the game is played like nine-ball rather than shoot-until-you-sink-them-all.
  8. 1 2 3 4 Shamos, Mike (1999). The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Billiards. New York: Lyons Press. ISBN   1-55821-797-5.. Entries "Three-ball", "Push", "Double-hit", "Foul" and related. Does not address the current popular game of three-ball, only the historical nine-ball derivative of the same name. States that double-hits and push shots are general fouls in all billiard games. I.e. they are covered by the General Rules of Pocket Billiards as established by the World Standardized Rules promulgated by the WPA/BCA, et al., and based on centuries of certain fouls being universal to all cue sports.
  9. T. Larsen