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. Theoretically, any number of players can participate, in rotation, 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.
There are no widespread official or standardized rules for three-ball, 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 or five 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). 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. Unlike in eight-ball and nine-ball, the player at turn remains at turn until all object balls are pocketed, 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. (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). 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. After all players have finished, the player with the lowest score is declared to be the winner. 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.) (However, see the "all tie" variant, below.)
Three object balls (conventionally the 1, 2 and 3 balls) 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, 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.
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. 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[update], 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.
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") 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. 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. Fouls consist of: pocketing the cue ball; knocking the cue ball off the table; a double hit on the cue ball with the cue stick (including illegal "scoop-under" jump shots); push shots; and (possibly, depending on how serious the game is) accidentally (or otherwise) moving a ball with a hand, the butt of the cue, etc. 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. 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. (However some do play the game using ball-in-hand rules adapted from nine-ball. 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, and do not count as fouls (since the mistake already punishes the shooter by requiring at least one more shot to get out.)
Kisses, caroms, kicks, banks, combinations and non-scoop-under jump shots are legal. No shots, including combinations, banks, etc., have to be called as to object ball, pocket, or any other details; "slop" shots are legal.
It is not a foul to do a weak break that fails to drive balls to cushions or into pockets. Similarly, it is not a foul to make a weak shot that does not pocket a ball or contact a cushion, since, again, these mistakes are effectively self-punishing, by costing the player a stroke.
Customs and variations
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. 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.)
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.
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).
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. 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.
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), 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.
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.
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. (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. (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). 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. 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. 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.
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; 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.
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. Its evolution over the last few decades into a turn-based game with rules more akin to those of straight pool is possibly by way of the influence of other multi-shot-per-turn pastimes such as darts and golf putting, though there is a lack of documentary evidence as of February 2012[update].
As practice for other games
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. 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.
- PoolSharp's "Three-Ball Rules".[dead link] 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.
- "Three-ball Rules". BillYard Club. Oregon, US: TerraGames Group. ca. 2006 [undated]. Archived from the original on 2012-02-10. Retrieved 2012-02-10. 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).
- "Virtual Pool Game Rules: Three Ball Rules". SportPlanet.com's Virtual Pool Headquarters. San Francisco, CA, US: IGN Entertainment. 2003. Archived from the original on 2012-02-10. 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.
- "3 Ball Pool Game Rules & Tournament Instructions". 3BallRack.com. Lake View, NY, US: Tallenproducts. 2009. Archived from the original on 2010-06-09. 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.
- Billiard Congress of America's World Standardized Rules - no mention of three-ball.
- World Pool-Billiard Association's Standardized Rules - no mention of three-ball.
- "Reviews: SuperPool". ZGroup-Mobile.com. Damascus, Syria and Dubai, UAE: ZGroup Mobile. 2005. Archived from the original on 2012-02-10. 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.
- Shamos, Mike (1999). The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Billiards. New York City, NY, US: 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.