Pool Table Games

Billiards vs Pool vs Snooker: What’s The Difference?

woman playing pool

The terms billiards, pool and snooker are often used interchangeably, but save for a few similar characteristics the games are actually quite different from one another. To the unknowing observer, the games billiards, pool and snooker may seem very similar, and this is not exactly wrong from a broad point of view. After all, all three of these games are played on a felted table, and all three of the games involve a cue stick that is used to strike a cue ball (or 2 of them in certain variations of billiards) in a direction that intersects with the object balls. Additionally, the tables on which these games are played demonstrate quite a few homogenous characteristics, despite the absence of pockets on the carom-type billiards tables.

In spite of the similarities with regard to the core game model, the games billiards, pool and snooker are actually quite unique. From the rules of each game, to the type of equipment used to play them—from the cues to the balls to the table —these three games each have a character all their own.

To illustrate this point, below we will describe, in great detail, the rules, equipment and style of play associated with billiards, pool and snooker—guides that will ultimately illustrate the many differences between these three cue-based sports.

About the Game of Billiards

The game of carom billiards is the foundation from which both the game of pool and the several variations of snooker is based. With historical mention of the sport dating back to the 15th century, billiards is the oldest of the three games and is actually based on the lawn game croquet. Billiards was popular among many important historical figures, including Abraham Lincoln and the author Mark Twain, among others, and continues to be popular today in many areas of the world. So how exactly is the game played and what is used to play it?

What You’ll Need

Billiards Table

First, an official (European) billiards table measures 9.3 feet by 4.7 feet, although the American version of the billiards table usually measures 10 feet by 5 feet. It must also be noted that a billiards table does not have any pockets. That’s because the goal of this game has nothing to do with pocketing the object balls, and the table is used in a completely different fashion than it is for pool or snooker.

Billiards Cue Sticks

The cue sticks used in billiards are shorter than your average pool or snooker cue sticks, if only by a few inches. Most professional billiards cue sticks have inlaid markings and leather tips. They can be manufactured in one solid piece or in two-pieces. The diameter of the billiards cue stick’s shaft, the narrow top-end piece of the cue that is also known as the “ferrule,” is usually about 13.5-14.5 millimeters, slightly less than your standard pool cue. The butt to shaft ratio for pool and billiards cues is roughly the same (about half to half), although the same cannot be said of snooker cues, which have a shaft to butt-end ratio of 2/3 to 1/3.

Billiards Balls

The diameter of billiards balls is usually 2-7/6 inches; and each ball weighs between 7.23 and 7.75 ounces. In billiards, there is a cue ball and three object balls on the table. Obviously, no rack is needed in billiards due to the nature of the game.

How to Play Billiards

Billiards is played between two individuals or two teams of two players each. The goal of each player is to reach a predetermined number of points by “striking one of the three object balls present on the table with the cue ball and, after a minimum of three railings has been hit, the other object ball. This variation of billiards is known as three-cushion billiards and is by far the most well-known variation. Nevertheless, there are many different cue games that can be played on a pocket-less billiards table, such as:

  • Straight Rail Billiards. Straight rail billiards is a simplified version of three-cushion billiards. In this game, only a single rail has to be struck between contact of the two object balls, rather than the three rails on the more well-known version of the game.
  • Four-Ball. Four-Ball can be played as either the three-cushion or straight rail variety of billiards. The only difference is that there are four object balls on the table instead of three.

About the Game of Pool

References to the game of pool, at least as we know it today can be traced back to the 1800s. Many experts believe that the game was invented as a simplified version of snooker, and the presence of pockets on a standard pool table tend to lend credence to that viewpoint.

What You’ll Need

The Pool Table

Pool tables, which have six pockets—one in each corner and one on each side of the table—are available in many different sizes. The shorter, 7-foot tables, also known as “bar tables” were invented as a way to make room for a pool table in a small space, and the 8-foot table, also known as a home or recreational table, is the size usually preferred by individuals and families. However, if you plan to play pool professionally you will have to get comfortable playing on a table that measures 9 feet by 4.5 feet, as this is the “official” size table for regulation pool.

Pool Cues

The standard pool cue stick typically measures between 52 and 58 inches in length, although shorter cues for youth and children are available. Pool cues are generally available in weights ranging from 16 ounces to 21 ounces. Some cues even offer half-inch increments (19.5 ounces, etc.). Like billiards cues, they are manufactured as both single-piece and two-piece varieties, and the shaft to butt-end ratio is about half to half.

Pool Balls

Those who wish to play pool will need to buy a pool balls set. This set includes:

  • 8 solid color balls, numbered 1-8
  • 7-striped balls, numbered 9-15
  • 1 cue ball (all white)

Regulation pool balls are manufactured with a diameter of 2-1/4 inches and are made to weigh between 5.5 and 6 ounces. If you are buying pool balls to play a different type of table game, however, the dimensions of the balls may vary from this. For instance, the balls for snooker have a diameter that is slightly smaller—2-1/15 inches to 2-1/8 inches—and they weigh in at about 4.9 ounces. And if rail or carom billiards is your game, you’ll need balls that measure 2-1/2 inches in diameter, with a weight of 7-1/5 ounces.

Rack

In pool, balls are arranged in a triangular-shaped rack prior to the game. It is in this position that the first player to shoot will break or scatter the balls.

How to Play Pool

By far, the most popular form of pool is the game known as 8-ball. Other variations of the game of pool include 9-ball and cut-throat, the latter involving three players or 3 teams of 2 players each. For the purposes of this article we will explain and define the game of 8-ball, which is the game usually played at the professional ranks.

In 8-ball, the balls are racked and “broke” by the first player shooting. If a ball is sunk into one of the pockets on the break—say the striped 10-ball—that breaking player will continue his turn. Because a striped ball was the first ball sunk, player one will continue shooting, aiming only at the striped balls (9-15). Once player one misses a shot, player two begins to shoot, aiming at only at the solid colored balls (1-7).

The object of 8-ball is to hit all of “your balls” into one of the six pockets, followed by the 8-ball, before the other player does the same. If a player accidentally knocks the 8-ball into a pocket before he/she has cleared all of their striped or solid-colored balls, that player will automatically lose. In other words, the 8-ball is ALWAYS the last ball to be played.

About the Game of Snooker

Snooker was the first table game to gain popularity after the invention of billiards, and whether the game of snooker actually derived from billiards or the lawn game croquet is still a matter of debate among game historians. Nonetheless, mention of the game of snooker can be traced back to the mid 16th century.

What You’ll Need

The Table

The size of a snooker table varies depending on where you are. In the United States, snooker tables typically measure about 10 feet by 5 feet; while in Europe the tables are a bit wider, about 10 feet by 6 feet. Like pool tables, snooker tables are felted and have six pockets.

The Cue Sticks

The cue sticks in snooker are shaped very much like a billiards or pool cue. The difference, however, is the ratio of the shaft or ferrule to the butt-end of the stick. While pool and billiard cues have a half-to-half ratio in terms of these two ends of the sticks, the shaft or ferrule end of the snooker cue stick is twice the size of the butt end.

Balls

The diameter of snooker balls is approximately 2-1/15 inches to 2-1/8 inches—and they weigh in at about 4.9 ounces. The game of snooker utilizes 22 balls in total, which includes the cue ball. Out of the other 21 balls, 15 are colored red and lack any numbers whatsoever. The remaining six balls, which are commonly referred to as the object balls, have six different colors, including balls that are colored yellow, brown, blue, pink, black and green.

How to Play Snooker

The main objective of snooker consists of scoring more points than one’s opponent by pocketing all of the red balls followed by the object balls. Once all of the red balls have been cleared from the table, the snooker player can proceed to pocketing the object balls in a predetermined order. If that player is unable to legally hit the next ball in order—called the “ball-on”—or first strikes any other ball besides the ball-on, a foul or fault shot is called, giving the next player to shoot a great advantage.

In the end, the winner of a game of snooker is decided on the number of points scored: for each red ball pocketed, a player receives 1 point, then he begins to shoot the colored object balls in a predefined order—from the least valued ball to the most prized ball. At the end, those points are totaled up and the player with the greater number of points wins.

Like with billiards and pool, there are many different variations of snooker, each with slightly different rules and varied formats.

Last Word

As you can see, the commonalities between billiards, pool and snooker are far fewer than their many dissimilarities. Each of these games, despite all being played on a felted table using cue sticks and weighted balls, has its own set of rules, strategies and dynamics–features that make playing them a real treat all to their own.

About the author

Sam Frazier

As a child of the 80's, my fondest gaming memories are playing Pitfall, Frogger, Kaboom! and Chopper Command on our old Atari 8600. These days I've been rocking the Nintendo Classic and learning some new card and board games with the family.

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