A Woman's Guide to Eight-ball at a Billiards Bar
So you want to be a pool shark? Maybe you’ve seen movies like The Hustler or The Color of Money and thought to yourself, “Hey, what if I could be an amazing pool player, too!” However, as a female, it can be difficult to break into the male-dominated billiards scene.
Let’s say a girl walks into a bar and there are four pool tables, like at the bar pictured below. Most of the time, the tables will be swarmed with college-aged men in small groups. Sure, there might be a guy playing with his girlfriend, or maybe a pair of couples playing doubles, but the vast majority of pool players are male. So how are you going to assess the tables when you first enter?
Getting the Lay of the Land
When you first arrive at a billiards bar, there are two elements involved in evaluating the tables. First, the number of quarters down at each of the tables and second, the quality of the players at those tables. Therefore, it’s essential to find what I call a “lurking spot” in order to fully assess the tables. The “lurking spot” needs to be somewhere inconspicuous, where you can see all of the active players and all of the quarters.
Many bars have a "quarter down" system. This means that in order to indicate your interest in playing, you have to place a quarter inside of the table, nestled in the cushion at the foot string. That means directly underneath the second diamond at the end where the balls are racked. The number of quarters lined up indicates the number of people who are in line to play at that table.
The average bar patron is relatively unfamiliar with pool etiquette and may look confused if you put a quarter down on their table. On occasion, players will stack many quarters (more than 5) on the table to deter strangers from putting their quarter down or “challenging” for the table. This is usually done by a small group of skilled players who wish to keep the table for themselves and discourage less skilled players from attempting to challenge, or by a group of friends who simply wish to play for a certain period of time without interruption from challengers.
Some bars operate on different systems of claiming "next game". I've seen bars with chalkboards and whiteboards where you write your name on a list, and the winner of each game stays on the table.
Determining Skill Level
Next, you must determine the skill level of the players. There are several important aspects you must evaluate in your assessment of skill, including stance, stroke, bridge, grip, and strategy. You can assume right off the bat that anyone who comes with their own pool cue is off-limits if you want to win a table. Here's how you can discern inexperienced players from your lurking spot.
Stance is listed first because it is one of the primary visual indicators of a player’s skill level. Players who stand with their legs together, or who don’t bend low enough when aiming their shots, stand less of a chance of actually making their shots than those who have a practical stance which aligns their body properly with the table.
In the photo above, you can see I'm getting down low to align my eyes with the cue ball. My grip is solid, not too low or too high on the cue. The bridge doesn't appear to be very strong, but this is mainly because my hand is on the rail, not the table.
A player’s bridge can be an instant indicator of skill level. Unskilled players are unsure of what to do with their bridge (usually left) hand. Advanced players use an open or closed bridge, or a combination of both, depending on the type of shot they are making.
A second important indication of skill is the player’s connection to the cue itself. Novice players often don’t know how to grip the cue and either hold it too close to the shaft or right on the bumper. Both of these novice errors affect the player’s ability to aim and increase the odds of a miscue.
Watching a player shoot is an essential component of assessing their skill level. This integrates the aforementioned concepts of stance, stroke, grip, and bridge in the culminating movement of making a shot. You want to look at their aim and follow-through.
What about their strategy? Novice players only think about making the next ball. Skilled players think about running out (clearing all of their balls off the table) and then making the 8-ball. A shark can usually sense good prey using the previously mentioned visual clues, but there are plenty of players who have a decent stroke, grip, bridge, and stance who lack the strategy necessary to win against a superior strategist.
Do they use english (putting sidespin on the cue ball), or attempt to position the cue ball to set up their next shot after pocketing a ball? This may be difficult to determine from your lurking spot, but a player with a solid run (making several balls in a row) is a good indication of a skilled player. Can he use draw, perform a tricky combo shot, or even jump the ball? These are all red flags of a skilled player.
A good player has a strong break and has good follow-through, staying down for the duration of the shot.
Which Tables to Challenge or Avoid
Tables to Challenge
Tables to Avoid
A small group of men
A group of women
Two male friends playing together
A "mixed group" of men and women
A man playing solo
A large group of men
You don't want to mess with a player who can make a shot like this.
You might be wondering why I'm suggesting that you only challenge male players. The reason for this is because, as a woman, other women can be catty, particularly if they are with their significant others at the bar. While they are typically less skilled than their male counterparts, the hostile atmosphere that may develop over the course of the game makes the experience less worthwhile.
A large group is also tricky to approach, as they may just be there to play among themselves and are more likely than a small group to be unfriendly to an outsider.
Bar Rules vs. Tournament Rules
There are several different rule sets pool players use, the most common of which are bar rules and tournament rules. Most of the time, novice players will play by bar rules, but it's best to clarify which rules you'll be playing by before the game begins. Below are the most important aspects of each.
- If you make a solid on the break, you are solids.
- If the cue ball is pocketed, it must be placed "in the kitchen" or behind the head string. Due to this, moving the eight-ball after a table scratch may not be desirable, depending on the position of your balls.
- If you scratch on the eight ball, it is an automatic loss.
- A ball must be made after the break to determine whether you are stripes or solids, even if one is pocketed on the break.
- Any scratch results in "ball in hand", where the cue ball may be placed anywhere on the table and shot in any direction.
- If you scratch on the eight ball, it is not a loss unless both the eight ball and the cue ball are pocketed. It is ball in hand for your opponent.
Strategies and Safeties
If the table is open after the break, it's important to go after whichever balls appear to be easiest to make. Is there a huge cluster of stripes in the center of the table, surrounding the eight ball, but the solids are more spread out? Then go for solids. It may not always be so straightforward, but always try to go for the most strategic set of object balls.
If you are playing doubles, try to think about setting up shots for your partner, if you are unable to pocket a ball during your turn. Also, think about your opponents' skill levels. If one of your opponents is better than the other, it may be a good idea to play safe (i.e. leaving the cue ball in a place where it will be difficult for him to make a shot) when you know his turn is after yours.
Safety shots can win the game. Many inexperienced players would rather attempt a daring shot that they are unlikely to make than to "play safe" and block their opponent.
Do you prefer to play bar rules or tournament rules?
It can be challenging to be taken seriously as a female pool player, especially when your opponents are intoxicated. I've had experiences where men didn't want to play with me, maybe because they thought I wasn't a good enough player, or maybe because they didn't want to lose to a girl in front of their friends.
The key to dealing with these types of individuals is to be polite and courteous. As long as you are kind, you will appear to be the bigger person whether you win or lose. Of course, it's better to win, and if you have followed the advice in this article, you have probably selected a table where you can win.
Try to ignore any sexist or rude comments, and don't let them distract you from your game.
This guide doesn't go over eight-ball strategy, but there are plenty of resources that can be found in bookstores and online. Once the game is over, it's important to finish with a handshake. Usually, the winner initiates the handshake but either player can.
Hopefully, you have won the game and are ready for the next challenger. If no one else has put a quarter down, you can do a rematch with your previous opponent.
It’s essential to spend a significant amount of time practicing, outside of the public eye. I typically spend “practice” nights in the same bar where I spend “performance” nights, but you may want to find a pool hall that’s more private, so you can really hone in on your skills.
I have found it quite difficult to gain respect as a female pool player. The only real way to do so is to prove, over and over, that you are an excellent player.