Snooker, perhaps the only sport played in a bowtie and waistcoat, can seem confusing at first. Is it the same as pool? Why is the table so big? Why does the referee keep putting balls back onto the table?
So, how does snooker work, you ask? Let me show you.
Snooker is a cue sport where players win by accumulating more points than their opponent. Unlike in pool—where the winner of a frame is the player who clears all of his or her balls from the table first—in snooker, the winner of a frame is the player who scores the most points, awarded for potting balls with different point values.
In addition to the cue ball, there are two types of balls on a snooker table: “reds” and “colors.” There are 15 reds, each worth one point, and six colors: yellow (two points), green (three), brown (four), blue (five), pink (six), and black (seven). At the beginning of a frame, the balls are arranged with the colors “on their spots,” and the reds bunched in a triangle just below the pink ball:
Snooker operates subject to two core, defining rules. First, every time a red is potted (or sunk, or pocketed), the player must target a color with the next shot, and continue to pot balls in the sequence red-color-red-color. Secondly, every time a red is potted, it remains removed from the table, but when a color is potted, it is picked up by hand and placed back on the table on its original spot, which is pre-marked on the table cloth by a white mark. This rule holds while there are reds still on the table. After the 15th red is potted (plus an accompanying colored ball), the colors must be potted in ascending order (yellow to black), and are not re-placed on the table. After the final black is potted, only the cue ball remains, and the player with the most points wins the frame.
A ball that may be legally potted on a given turn is referred to as being “on.” To begin, all 15 reds are “on,” and any of them may legally be potted; and if a red is potted, for the next shot the colored balls are “on,” and the reds are not.
If a player legally pots a ball and does not commit a foul, he or she takes the next shot. If a player does not pot a ball and/or commits a foul, he or she relinquishes the table to the opponent (although, as below, a player committing a foul may be compelled to re-take the shot).
A frame starts with one of the players “breaking off” by hitting the cue ball from the “baulk line” at the top end of the table (when viewed from the regular angle shown on TV), into the reds. Unlike in pool, the aim is not to hit the pack as hard as possible to scatter the reds all over the table. That would likely knock the high-value colored balls into unpottable positions, and since a color must be targeted after each red, this would create an interminably difficult and frustrating frame for the players and fans. (It would be like watching two basketball teams employ Hack-A-Shaq on each other right from the first whistle). Instead, the aim is generally to glance the cue ball into the corner of the reds, and have it carom off the cushions back down the far end of the table, leaving the opponent with a long and difficult shot.
A player may also score through fouls committed by his or her opponent, as detailed below.
So, a frame may proceed as follows. Player A gets in a few good shots, potting a red, followed by a black, followed by red, brown, red, and then misses the next shot at a color. Player A is awarded 1 + 7 + 1 + 4 + 1 = 14 points. (After each shot, the referee announces the number of points that Player A has scored so far in that sequence: “One,” “Eight,” “Nine,” “Fourteen,” and concludes by announcing “Player A: Fourteen.”)
Let’s say that Player B now steps up and pots red, black, red, yellow, and then commits a six-point foul on the pink ball. (Note that after Player A missed a color, Player B is nevertheless obliged to aim for a red ball on his or her next visit.) Player B is awarded 1 + 7 + 1 + 2 = 11 points, and Player A is awarded an additional six points. (The referee will have announced “One,” “Eight,” “Nine,” “Eleven,” and then will announce “Player B: Eleven; Player A: Six.”) At this stage, Player A is leading 20 points to 11, with 10 reds and the six colors remaining on the table.
Let’s say that the frame continues along to the point that Player A is in the lead 90 points to 11, with only the final blue, pink, and black left on the table. These final 18 points (5 + 6 + 7) are not nearly enough for Player B to make up the difference, and so if Player A misses a shot at this stage, Player B would concede the frame, dispensing with the need for the players to pot the final few balls, and they would begin a new frame.
If, however, Player B was behind by only 20 points with those 18 points “left on the table,” he or she could attempt to win the frame by coercing Player A into committing a foul—awarding points to Player B and bringing the deficit to less than 18 points—and then cleaning up the remaining colors.
If the scores are tied after all of the balls have been cleared, the frame is decided by re-spotting the black ball only, with the player who pots the black winning (or a player committing a foul automatically losing).
The main ways a player can commit a foul are generally quite intuitive, and are as follows:
- If the cue ball does not strike any ball on a shot, or first strikes a ball which is not “on.”
- If the cue ball or a ball which is not “on” is potted.
- When colors are “on,” if a colored ball other than the one being targeted is struck first or potted. Note that the reverse rule is not true for reds: A player may strike any red first, or pot any red, even one not aimed for. Also note in all cases that the object ball may be potted in any of the six pockets, and can be fluked into a pocket not originally intended.
- Playing a shot without at least one foot touching the ground.
- Making a ball land off of the table, or “jumping” the cue ball.
- Striking a ball before all balls have come to rest from the previous shot or have been re-spotted by the referee.
Fouls carry a penalty of four points. However, if a foul “involves” a higher-value color (blue, pink, or black), the foul carries a penalty equal to the value of that ball (five, six, or seven points, respectively). So, if a player pots the blue ball when it is not “on,” the penalty is five points. If the player is aiming to pot the pink but misses everything with the cue ball, the penalty is six. And if the player touches the black with their hand, it’s seven points.
If Player A commits a foul (for example, by missing everything with the white ball), and Player B ends up “snookered”—meaning he or she does not have any direct linear path between the white ball and any ball “on” (i.e., a red)—Player B is awarded a “free ball.” This means that Player B can target any ball with his or her next shot, and that ball will count as a one-point red. Player B would then pot a color to accompany the “red,” and then continue the frame as normal. (The rationale behind this rule is that Player A should not benefit from having snookered Player B when having committed a foul).
When attempting to escape a snooker, it is not uncommon for a player to forgo playing the easiest possible shot—because it may leave his or her opponent with an advantageous position—for a more difficult shot. For example, they might aim for a soft kiss on the reds—which risks committing a foul by missing them altogether—but if executed properly would leave a difficult position for the opponent. The player might therefore commit one or more fouls in a row while attempting the more difficult shot, figuring that giving up a few points in fouls is better than giving up a lot of points by allowing the opponent the opportunity to make a large break.
In the case of a foul in this situation, the referee will call a “foul and a miss,” giving the opponent penalty points, plus the right to request that the balls are returned to the position they were in prior to the shot, thus making the player take the exact same shot again. (This rule was introduced in the mid-1990s and is hated by many fans, who see the penalty points as compensation enough.) One further wrinkle: if a player is not snookered, but anyway misses everything with the white while trying to play a difficult shot instead of an easy one three times in a row, he/she automatically loses the frame.
Snooker tables are big. They measure 11 feet 8½ inches by 5 feet 10 inches, much larger than a pool table, and it takes a few good strides to walk along each side of the table. The six pockets (in the same location as on a pool table) are also narrower than on pool tables.
The table is covered in green cloth material called “baize,” which is very thin and allows the balls to run and run and run.
In a delightful example of “I’ll fix it up later” attitude, the rules of snooker state that a cue shall be no less than three feet long, and “shall show no substantial departure from the traditional and generally accepted shape and form.” When the white ball is positioned so that a player cannot reach it down the extremely long table to play a normal shot, they may use an extension on their cue, and/or a “rest” or “spider” to bridge the cue with.
Broadly speaking, there are two phases of a frame of snooker: break-building and safety battles.
Break-building is simply when one player is at the table, accumulating points by potting balls, not giving their opponent any chance of reply. The number of points scored in one visit is the size of the break: a player may score a “break of 63,” or a “century break” for those over 100.
High-scoring, free-flowing break-building is the main draw to the sport of snooker. Using a variety of pace; back-, top-, and side-spin; and “stun” (“dead-spin”?); players attempt to maneuver the white ball into favorable positions to set up the current shot and the shot or shots after that. The best breaks look easy, because they are indeed made up of simple shots, made possible by precise positional play.
Usually, a break will begin with only a few reds shaken loose from the original triangle of 15. The loose reds will hopefully be available for potting, while the remaining reds will likely be covering each other and therefore are not presently able to be potted (without simply hitting and hoping, not a recommended strategy). A player will typically build a break by picking up the first few loose reds, aiming to couple those with the high-value colors blue, pink, and (most desirable) black. The choice of each red and each color will largely depend on the positioning of the white ball.
Since the black is worth the most number of points, it is the favored choice of color when multiple set-up options are available. (Just as a dunk or wide-open corner three is the preferred option on a given basketball possession, teams will nevertheless settle for long twos if better shots are not available before the shot clock expires, and a snooker player will aim to set up a shot on the pink or blue if a set-up for the black is difficult or impossible). Still, taking a low-value yellow in order to keep a break alive is preferable to attempting a difficult pink or black and missing the pot, thereby allowing your opponent back to the table.
A player may come to a point in a break where all of the remaining reds are bunched together, covering each other so none are easily pottable. Simply slamming the white ball into the pack in the hope that one will fluke into a pocket isn’t a wise strategy. Instead, the player needs to set up the white so that when potting a ball (usually a color), the white will ricochet off of that color and into the pack of reds, splitting them open so that one or more lands in a pottable position, allowing the player to continue the break.
This “splitting the reds” is usually done while potting the blue or black. Imagining that all colors are on their spots, a player may aim to set him or herself up on the blue ball by playing the white ball to a few inches “above” the blue (that is, higher than halfway up the table, when looking down the table lengthwise). The player can then rocket the blue into the side pocket, and use the angle and speed to run the white ball directly from the blue into the pack of reds. Ideally, the reds will split, and the balls will come to rest with one or more reds in pottable position. (Seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry is widely credited with first using the blue as a weapon for opening up the bunched reds while break-building). Equally common is to cannon the cue ball into the reds off of the black, leaving it “low” on the black—roughly in a line with the black parallel to the top cushion—and then slamming the black into the corner pocket with deep backspin (“screw”), sending the cue ball into the reds.
A maximum break in snooker is where a player pots all 15 reds with 15 blacks, and then clears up the colors for a total of 147 points. A “one-four-seven” maximum break is a rare and special achievement, at the time of writing having occurred a total of 131 times in official competition since the 1980s. While mentioning the prospect of a perfect game in baseball is sacrilege, mentioning a potential 147 is not subject to the same embargo: Commentators will often note when a player has taken (for example) five reds with five blacks, although that is not always the case.
Owing to the possibility of scoring points through a free ball, it is possible for a player to end up with a score greater than 147 in a frame. This has been achieved once in competition, when Jamie Burnett made a break of 148 in the UK Championship qualifying in 2004.
The other phase of a snooker frame is a safety battle. If a player does not think that he or she has a good opportunity to pot any “on” ball on the table, or if that player needs to make their opponent commit a foul so as to score points, he or she will play a “safety” shot: not intending to pot any ball, but intending to legally play the white ball into a difficult position, normally to finish far away from any “on” balls, obstructed by balls which are not “on.” The most successful safety shots will leave an opponent snookered, with no choice but to play a difficult escape off multiple cushions, running the risk of fouling (by not hitting the object ball first or at all), and of leaving the cue ball in an easy potting position for the opponent. A shot is more difficult if a player cannot put their bridging hand on the table, and is even more difficult if the cue ball is nestled against the cushion, leaving only the top 25 percent or so of the white available for striking with the cue.
Snooker is a game with genteel traditions: The players wear bowties and waistcoats, the referees are dressed formally with white Mickey Mouse gloves, and the crowd is mainly hushed and silent.
Professionally, snooker is largely focused in the British Isles, in that most top players hail from that region, and the highest-money tournaments are held there. The big exception to that general rule is China, which has two of the top 12 and 13 of the top 100 players, and holds two big-money ranking tournaments every year. The 2016 World Championship final between Leicester’s Mark Selby and China’s Ding Jun Hui gathered a TV audience in China of 45 million people. The world tour has visited India, Latvia, Australia, Brazil, and Thailand in the past few years. Just two players from outside the British Isles have won the World Championship—Canadian Cliff Thorburn in 1980 and Australian Neil Robertson in 2010.*
Snooker players play on a tour similar to that in tennis and golf—traveling all over the snooker world to compete in tournaments in different cities to accumulate ranking points and compete for prize money and trophies. Each yearlong season begins in May, with more and larger tournaments held toward the end of the season. The three most prestigious annual tournaments—snooker’s Triple Crown—are the UK Championship, the Masters, and the World Championship to round out the season. Most tournaments are played in knockout format with a seeded draw as in tennis, with each match being won by the player who is first to win a determined number of frames. (The UK Championship and Masters finals are best-of-19, while the World Championship final is a marathon best-of-35.)
Here’s a short compilation of “exhibition shots”—trick shots performed long after the frame has been decided, in order to please the crowd—from the 2016 World Championship:
Here’s my vote for the greatest single shot of all time, by convicted match-fixer Stephen Lee in the first round of the 2011 China Open. Note the scores: he’s behind in the frame, so this is no exhibition shot. How he even conceived of this path to landing on the red is beyond me.
And here’s a collection of great snooker shots. Note that just like in every other sport, by internet law, all compilation videos must feature terrible motivational music in the background. Enjoy!
Ben is a Deadspin reader who likes snooker. He previously wrote The Complete Guide To Understanding Cricket.