The Game of Three Ball

by: Bob Jewett

Bob Jewett

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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