The Game of Three Ball

by: Bob Jewett

Bob Jewett

San Francisco Billiard Academy is a BCA Certified Master Academy. 

The academy offers: 

Private Instruction 

Basics Clinic 

Eight Ball Clinic 

Nine Ball Clinic 

Introduction to Billiard Instruction 

BCA Recognized Instructor Course 

BCA Certified Instructor Course



Three ball is a great game for group play. It is
fast action, pure offense, and suitable for small
stakes among players who are not perfectly
matched. Everyone has a chance to win even
if the better player will edge ahead in the long
run. The basic idea is for each player to break
and run three balls off the table in as few shots
as possible in any order and in any pocket. The
player who takes the fewest shots wins the pot.
If there is a tie for lowest score between any two
players, everyone antes again and gets another
turn until there is an untied best score in a
round. Any number may play, but four or more
is best. I’ve heard of 15 in a game.
There are many regional variations in the
detailed rules; I’ll try to cover the ones that
seem the most common. The standard rack
for the break is in a triangle as shown. Among
experienced players this rack is sometimes
considered too easy as the two back balls often
go along the route shown for the four ball —
four cushions around the table and back to its
home corner. I think this break is fine as long
as the players in the game rarely score a “two”
which would be like an eagle at golf, with four
strokes being par. Placing the three balls in line
for the “pro” break removes any really standard
Order is decided by any standard method, such
a pulling peas from a shake bottle. Since the
order is important towards the end of a round,
I favor having whoever shoots last in a round
shoot first in the next round. If you foul, it
is a one-stroke penalty, and any ball made on
the foul shot spots back up. That pretty much
guarantees you won’t win that round.
The recommended break is hard, nearly straight
at the head ball and from the center of the table.
Try to control the cue ball to bring it back to
the middle. This break gives the best chance to
make the two four-railers on the corner balls.
An alternative suggested in an on-line forum
looks a lot like a one-pocket break: shoot softly
from the side and just clip the head ball. That
repositions the farthest ball a little which is then
struck by the third ball and it is redirected to the
pocket. Even if the ball doesn’t go in, you should
have at least one good shot after the break.
If a player has no chance to tie — he has already
taken 4 strokes with 2 balls still up and a 4 has
already been scored — he should concede and
the next player will start. This helps a lot on
coin-op tables where balls in play are precious.
If you shoot last in the round, modify your
strategy accordingly. For example, if the best
score so far is a tie at four strokes, you have to
go all-out for a three, even if that means playing
a fourcushion carom or a 5-foot combination. If
you don’t get all the balls moving on your third
shot, there is no way to score a 3. On the other
hand, if there is a single score of four leading
and you shoot last, the other players are likely
to expect you to take a “conservative” four to tie
and get everyone into the next round.
For other variations, check out the article in
Wikipedia, which includes a 3-ball tourney

Spinning the Wagon Wheel

by Bob Jewett

Bob Jewett

In my column last month, I described the basics of the Wagon Wheel position system. The idea was to use just follow or draw to take the cue ball the right distance in the right direction to just touch a target ball for position. (You’re not actually getting position on the other object balls; they are just providing a goal for position. If you prefer, just place a coin where you want the cue ball  to go.)

Spinning Wagon Wheel

This time I’m going to ask you to perfect your side spin to achieve the same sort of result using a cushion. In the top shot in the diagram, the object ball is by the middle of the end cushion about one ball’s width off the rail for each shot. The target object balls are placed on each diamond. The cue ball is placed so that when shooting the shot, your stick passes over the 11 ball.

For your first shot, pocket the 15 and use right English to send the cue ball towards the 1 ball. Adjust your spin and speed so the cue ball just reaches the 1. This will probably take your best side spin. Consider your control on the shot good enough when you can leave the cue ball within a ball diameter of the position target, and go on to the next shot. For the 2 ball, you will need less right side spin, but you probably can’t get the angle off the cushion with just follow. By the time you get to the 4 or 5 ball, just follow with no side spin should be sufficient.

To get to the 6, you have a choice. You could play with no side spin and hit the cue ball below center so it arrives at the 15 ball without follow or draw. Then the cue ball will simply bounce off the cushion more or less straight to the 6 ball. An alternative is to let the cue ball roll with follow and correct the angle off the cushion by adding a little left English. The two effects will fight against each other and the result can be the path you want depending on how much side spin you have added. This technique of cancellation is useful when you don’t want the follow to bend the ball forward but if you hit the ball hard enough to keep its draw it will also have too much speed. Try both ways and see which works best for you.

As you move on to the 7 and 8, you will need to use both draw and left English at some point and by the time you are sending the cue ball to the 11, you will need your best side and draw simultaneously.

Table conditions can have a large effect on how both draw and side spin work. With sticky cloth, any draw will quickly turn into follow but the side spin will generally take more, especially if you are at maximum RPMs. With slippery cloth, the spin may not take completely on the cushion, but draw shots will be easier. If possible, try this drill on a variety of tables — you could use it as a warmup in competitions.

In the lower part of the diagram the cue ball has been moved to a harder cut shot. This will make it difficult or impossible to reach the spots nearest the corner pockets. Can you achieve the cue ball angles indicated? Experiment with your mixture of draw/follow/side to see which combination makes each shot easiest.
Remember to shoot the shot in the other direction also, or you’ll get lop-sided