Guide to the Rules of Snooker
- Basics of the Game
- The Table
- Rules and Scoring
- Fouls and Penalties
- Other Rules
- Further Reading
A game requiring immense precision, skill and concentration if not much in the way of athletic prowess, snooker is the king of cue sports. Great players need not only the technical prowess to play incredibly difficult shots, but also the ingenuity to plan several moves ahead. Here we give you an overview of the game, it’s rules and how it is played.
Basics of the Game
The game is played on a special table, covered in a green surface known as ‘the baize’. Players use their cues to strike the white ball (also known as the ‘cue ball’) into other coloured balls with the intention of deflecting them into the ‘pockets’ (holes placed at even intervals around the edge of the table). When a ball is successfully ‘potted’ points are scored according to its colour.
Players take it in turn to play shots. If they do manage to pot a ball they stay at the table. Their opponent takes over as soon as they play a shot that fails to score. The balls have to be potted in a certain order. Once this order has been run through and the balls are all potted, the ‘frame’ is over and whoever has the most points at this point is the winner. The overall game is won after a player has taken a certain number of frames. In a professional best of 19 game, for example, it’s the first to ten frames.
As there are only a finite amount of points that can be scored from potting the balls, often the conclusion of a frame will be reached once the gap in the scores becomes insurmountable given the balls left on the table. However, there are other ways to score that don’t involve potting, so a player that is a long way behind can hang on to the bitter end if they wish too. As the game only ends once all the balls are potted or one of the player concedes defeat, games can go on for varying lengths of time.
Before looking at the rules in any more detail it will probably helpful to take a closer look at the table, to give a clearer idea of how the game is actually played.
Below you can see a picture of a snooker table as it is set out at the start of play.
As you can see the pockets are placed in each corner and at the centre point of each side of its length. What you can’t see clearly from the picture is that the edge of the table is raised above the level of the baize. The sides of the table are called the cushion, and as long as the ball isn’t launched into the air, these cushions keep the ball on the table. It’s perfectly fine for the ball to bounce around off the cushions, and players often use the cushion to play the ball into areas of the table they couldn’t reach directly.
You’ll see a D shaped semi circular area marked out at one end of the table. This is simply called ‘the D’ and the end of the table where you find the D is known as ‘the baulk end’. The line that runs across the table and forms the straight edge of the D is called the baulk line.
The other end of the table is the ‘top end’ (hence the orientation of the picture). This can be slightly confusing as, if you’ve ever seen snooker played on TV, you’ll notice that ‘top’ end of the table is shown at the bottom of the screen. As most of the action takes place at this end, it makes for a better picture this way round. To add the confusion, although commentators will talk about the top end and baulk end of the table in a way which is upside down to the viewer, they will talk about the left and the right pockets as they appear on screen. This makes me things easier to follow, but isn’t logically consistent – but since when was sport (or TV for the matter) ever logical?
A professional table is 12ft by 6ft, but, as this is really quite large, most tables sold to the public or to publicans are scaled down. By contrast, the balls that come with smaller tables are usually disproportionately large compared to professional measurements. This makes them easier to hit accurately.
As mentioned earlier, the green felt like surface is called the baize. This covers a smooth slab of slate. The balls are hard, solid and weighty. They are made of phenolic resin and they travel across the table smoothly in true, straight lines.
Rules and Scoring
The game starts with a ‘break off’, which just refers to the first shot of the match, so named because it breaks up the triangle of reds at the top of the table. For this shot, the white ball can be placed anywhere in the D, but usually players will place it on the baulk line between the brown and yellow (though left handed players might find it more comfortable to play from between the green and yellow).
The white ball is struck with the cue towards the reds. It can hit any of the red balls, but if it fails to hit a red or hits another colour first, or goes into the pocket at any point, or if a different coloured ball ends up potted, then it is a foul and the other player comes to the table. This is because at this stage in the game only the reds are ‘on’, meaning they are the only balls that can be played and potted without penalty. (We’ll look at penalties in more detail in a moment.)
If a red is successfully potted then, the player must choose a different colour to attempt to play next. (This can be any colour other than red). This ball is then ‘on’. If they, successfully pot this ball, then all the remaining reds again become on. Game play continues in this manner until all the red balls are gone. As stated earlier, control of the table switches each time that there is a foul or a player fails to pot.
Whilst there are still reds on the table, any time a colour is potted it is placed back at the point where it was at the start of the frame (refer to the diagram above). When a red is potted it says off the table for the rest of the frame.
Once all the reds have been potted, things change. From now on, whenever a colour is potted it also stays off the table. Unlike before where a player could choose which ball they wanted to play having potted a red, they know have to be potted in the following order; yellow, green, brown, blue, pink, black. As mentioned earlier, potting the black ends the frame.
When you successfully pot the ball that is ‘on’, you score points according to it’s worth. The balls are valued as follows.
These scores apply at all points in the game (though, obviously, you are not rewarded if the ball you pot is not on – quite the opposite).
A ‘break’ is the term given to a stay at the table. Very often a frame will be decided by a single high scoring break. As you can see from the way the game is played and scored, it’s highly important for players not just to pull off the shot that they are attempting, but to leave themselves in a good position for the next shot that they will want to play. For instance, each time you pot a red, the most valuable next move you can make is to pot the black. You therefore need to leave the white in a position that will make that possible with each pot you make. That is really the key skill of the sport.
The highest single break you can make is 147 (though you can score more if your opponent commits some fouls). This is achieved by potting the following sequence without error:
To navigate this sequence takes careful planning and an ability to adapt as things unfold. Of course, it’s easier to appreciate when you see it happen. So, here’s an exceptionally quick perfect break from Ronnie O’Sullivan.
Fouls and Penalties
You can also amass points if your opponent fouls. These fouls include;
Potting the White Ball: Even if you play a legal shot (i.e. hit the ‘on’ ball first) if the white ball ends up in the pocket, you surrender the table and your opponent gets points. They will be able to play their shot from anywhere in the D, but will have to play forward of the baulk line.
Potting the Wrong Ball: When reds are on, you can pot or play any red you like (you can even pot a different red than the one you initially play) but you cannot pot any of the colours. Likewise if you pot a red or any other colour than the one you nominated when playing a colour, that’s a foul.
Knocking a Ball Off the Table: If a ball is knocked out of play, or if the white ball leaves the baize (though you might have seen it in trick shots) the break ends and penalty points apply.
Failing to Hit the On Ball: If you fail to hit the on ball, that’s a foul. The same is true if you hit a different ball first.
Touching the Balls with your Hands: You can touch the white ball with the tip of the cue, but that’s it.
How many points are attached to a penalty varies. It can either be the value of the ‘on’ ball at the time of the foul, the value of the ‘foul’ ball or 4 points. The highest value will always apply. We’ll clarify this with a few examples.
If you potted the white, whilst reds were on, your opponent would get four points, as this is higher than the value of the on ball (which is one in this case). If you accidently hit the blue first whilst reds were on, you’d gift your opponent five points. This is because the ‘foul ball’ (the one that is the subject of the infringement) is worth more than four and is worth more than the on ball. If you were going for the black, but accidentally potted the blue you’d lose seven points. This is because the on ball in this case is worth more than four and worth more than the foul ball.
If multiple fouls occur as the result of a single shot the highest penalty applies. So, say you accidentally pot the white and the black when reds were on, your opponent gets seven points.
Many of the remaining rules of the game are designed to deal with the specifics of ‘snookering’…
As you can see, if you are playing a tightly contested frame and your opponent is leading by a number of points slightly higher than the value of the balls left on the table, you will need you opponent to commit a foul to have any chance of winning. Obviously, good players don’t often make mistakes that can be penalised unless they are put in a difficult position.
This is where ‘snookering’ comes in. Snookering is the art of playing a legal shot that leaves your opponent in a position where it will be very hard for them to do likewise. Obviously, to force them into a foul you need to surrender the table, so your snookering shot shouldn’t pot the on ball, but needs to touch it to avoid a penalty. The most important thing is to leave the white ball in a position where your opponent is going to have no clear line of sight to the ball they need to play. Again, looking at an example will help illustrate this.
Here’s Ronny O’Sullivan (again) with a very skilful shot. As you’ll see he manages to avoid potting the on ball (the last red in this case) which forces his opponent to come to the table. The white ends up behind the black, blocking the path to the red. It’s a great shot because, as well as the direct path being blocked, there’s also no easy way for the other player to use the cushions to bounce the white ball onto the red. A player in this situation would said to be ‘snookered’ or ‘in snooker’.
Of course, seeing as a foul rotates the play, you may ask why not simply give the white ball a tiny nudge leaving it where it is. In the case above as the red was on, the penalty for missing the on ball would only be four points. O’Sullivan would then have to come back and deal with the difficult position.
To avoid the patently ridiculous loop this would create, if a player is coming to the table following a foul shot, should they decide the position of the white is unattractive, they can force their opponent to play again from that position. So, in our example, they would still be snookered only this time they’d have done it to themselves. Even if they did try and make an honest attempt to reach the red ball. If it left Ronnie in a position where he didn’t think he could play a good shot, he could force his opponent to go from there, hopefully forcing another foul.
Alternatively, Ronnie could make use of the ‘free ball’ rule. This means that if you are left in snooker by a foul shot, you can come to the table and nominate any ball on the table (other than the white) to be the on ball instead. So if Ronnie’s opponent had a crack at getting to the red, missed, left the cue ball blocked off from the red but perfectly lined up to pot the blue, Ronnie could come to the table, nominate the blue as the on ball, pot it and set up a break. (Note he would only get one point for potting the blue in this case, as it is acting as a substitute red.)
The very cunning amongst you might have realised another dishonest way Ronnie’s opponent can get out of snooker cheaply. He might knock the white into the bottom right pocket. He’ll only lose four points and then Ronnie will have a very hard shot to make as the red is in the top right corner and he will have to play his next shot from the D, and strike it forward of the baulk line. This means he needs a long straight bouncing pot the length of the table – very tricky.
Fortunately, this isn’t allowed. If the referee decides that the player was not making a genuine attempt to hit the on ball it is ‘a foul and a miss’. Not only will the offender get the penalty of four points, he will have to take the shot again, with all the balls replaced as they were before. Any shot were a player tries to create an advantage for themselves by fouling can be called a miss. Likewise, if the referee believed they were not going for the most easy escape route out of snooker, if they fail, it is a miss.
As taking the easiest escape route could set their opponent up for a break, most professionals don’t do it. For this reason, in most professional games a referee will be quietly likely to deem any but the most straightforward attempt to escape snooker as a miss that has to be retaken.
This combination of rules mean it is only possible to escape snooker by leaving your opponent with the advantage they need or by playing a great escape shot.
The rules we’ve been discussing above are perfectly demonstrated in this clip of Stephen Maguire getting himself out of snooker against (that man again) Ronnie O’Sullivan. The green is on, but is blocked by the pink. As you’ll notice, even the commentators can’t guess at his way out, but Stephen comes up with an imaginative shot. Unluckily he fails the first time. The shot is deemed a miss by referee as, though it was a genuine attempt, it wasn’t the simplest way out (the two cushion option highlighted in the video would have been easier, but would have been more likely to set up Ronnie for a break.) On the second attempt he pulls it off. He lost four points and surrendered the table, but the position he leaves Ronnie in isn’t that great (he fails to pot) and he’s still ahead by almost as many points as the balls left.
- At least one foot must be on the ground when a shot is taken.
- If the black is the only ball left a foul ends the frame. The offender still wins if they were leading by more than seven.
- Though reds stay off the table when potted, even if the shot is penalised (for example, if the white also goes in) colours are always re-spotted if potted as part of a foul. You do not get the points for a colour if you foul.
- If the referee decides too long is being taken in the build up for a shot, the frame can be forfeited. As there’s a lot to think about, players are given a fair bit of time to weigh up their options. You might expect a warning to come after the best part of two minutes or so.
- If the white is touching another ball at the start of a players turn and the ball it’s touching is on, or could be on, the player must ‘play away’ from it (meaning they play the cue ball in a different direction without disturbing the touching ball). In a ‘ball touching’ situation, you do not need to hit another ball to avoid fouling. You can however nominate to hit a different ball. In this case you need to hit it. (Say you are touching blue but want to play pink and think you can do so whilst ‘playing away’ you are free to do so, but will be penalised if you fail.
- ‘Ball touching’ situations only apply to balls that are on or could be on if nominated. If, say reds were on and you were touching the black, you need to play away and hit a red without disturbing the black at all. If you disturb it or fail to hit a red, it’s a foul.
Here’s a few fun facts to round things off.
- The longest ever professional frame lasted a mammoth 93 minutes.
- Stephen Hendry has the record for the most century breaks (breaks that score over one hundred). He’s got more than 700 under his belt.
- The fastest ever perfect break was by Ronnie ‘The Rocket’ O’Sullivan. If you’ve been paying attention to this article, you’ve already seen it!
- Steve Davis, a highly quotable serial champion, once said: “I think it's a great idea to talk during sex, as long as it's about snooker.”
- Davis is a great snooker name. As well as Steve, there have been other great champions bearing the name. The brothers Joe and Fred dominated the 1930’s and 40’s. Joe won the World Championship 15 times in the row, and Fred got 3 after his streak was ended.
- Snooker attracts a fair bit of action at the bookies. If you fancy a punt check out our sports betting section and read our guide to betting on snooker where you'll learn about the types of bet available and in-play betting.
- Seeing as he’s shown us a perfect break and not one but two great shots into snooker, it’s only fair we go read up on Ronnie O’Sullivan.
- If you want to get an even tighter handle on the rules, you can read the rule book in full here.
- One of the biggest tournaments in the snooker calendar is The Masters.