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Breaking Bad

By Dr. Dave Alciatore

Increased knowledge and questionable ethics regarding the rack have stretched 9-ball to the breaking point. What do we know and how does the game move forward?

One on the spot. Nine on the spot. Rack your own. Opponent racks. Referee racks. Standard rack. Magic rack. Break from anywhere behind the headstring. Break from a break box.

The racking and breaking debate in 9-ball has been raging for years, but seems to have reached a level that threatens the very future of the discipline. Combine the game's inherent luck factor with the ability of one player to control the rack and it is a wonder that top players want to bother with the game at all.

The debate over racking policies reached a head at the annual Derby City Classic in January, with reigning BD Player of the Year Jayson Shaw conceding in mid-match against Shane Van Boening, arguing that Van Boening, who held a 7-2 lead in the race-to-nine match, was manipulating the rack. (Derby City rules called for rack your own, 1 on the spot, winner breaks, cue ball anywhere behind the headstring.) Shaw went so far as to take a photo of one of Van Boening's racks and posted it on Facebook, where spirited debate ensued.

Regardless of where someone stands on the issue, however, the point is that players at the top level of the game have gained incredible knowledge about how racked balls react and are altering their own game to gain an advantage.

But what about the average player? The league player? Do you have strategies when racking and breaking in 9-ball? Do you know what to do when you cannot get a tight rack? Do you know how to determine if an opponent is attempting to gain an unfair advantage through rack manipulation?

No? Not to worry. This is your lucky day!

What follows is a comprehensive overview of racking and breaking in 9-ball, illustrating the effects of gaps in different parts of the rack and how to take advantage of those gaps. This article will also offer break strategies for different rules and conditions using a racking template, racking with the 9 on the spot, breaking from a box, etc.


Let's begin with the break strategy. Assuming the rack of balls is aligned properly and tight, with all the balls touching, the best strategy is to attempt to pocket the wing ball (the 4 ball in Diagram One). Breaking from the side, with the cue ball close to the long rail, use a square hit on the 1 ball. It is the most reliable approach. Break speed has little or no effect on wing ball direction, nor does the hit on the 1. You should also always strive to part the cue ball close to the center of the table after the break.

Obviously, in addition to pocketing a ball on the break, you would also like to have an open shot after the break. As shown in Diagram One, with a square hit from the side, the 1 ball tends to head above the side pocket. With slow speed, you can get a look at the 1 in the side; and with medium speed, you can get a look at the 1 in the top left corner. Faster speed is also a good option, especially if the three-point break rule is in effect, where you need to pocket and/or drive at least three object balls above the head string. With fast speed, you have a fairly good margin for error to get a look at the 1 ball in the bottom left corner, assuming you hold control of the cue ball.

Since the side break can be "too effective," some tournaments require that you break from a limited-size box in the kitchen (behind the headstring). Sometimes the box is a centered two-diamond square; but, more often, it is only 18 inches wide, as shown in Diagram Two. To pocket the wing ball on the break from the "box," you need to use a cut break, where you hit the 1 off center (on the wing ball side) instead of square. You basically aim to hit the 1 in the same spot you target with a square hit using a side break. With a cut break, there is a limit to how much power you can use, because the cue ball can easily bounce off the table with too much speed. When a three-point break rule is in affect, the cut break can be a little risky because you might not drive enough object balls to the headstring.

With a cut break, the 1 also tends to head toward the side pocket with the right amount of cut. If you hit the 1 close to square from the break box, it will typically go above the side and the wing ball will typically go above the corner. And if you cut the 1 too much, it heads below the side. The back ball, in this case the 2, usually heads up table for a shot after the break if you pocket the 1. Sometimes, it can even go into the bottom left corner. As we will see later, it is possible to pocket the 9 on the break (called a "golden break") if there is a gap in the rack behind the 9. Diagram Three shows a more legitimate way to do it with a tight and unmanipulated rack. Using a cut break, the cue ball can be bounced off the side rail and into the 9, which would still be in place since it doesn't move during the break with a tight rack. It is difficult to be precise with the exact cue ball direction off the rail, but the 9 has a chance to go in four different pockets with different hits on the 9. You need to be lucky with this approach, but if it works you, win the game on the break without needing to hit another shot. And if you are not lucky, hopefully you still pocket the wing ball or the 1 to continue shooting.

Because it is so easy to pocket the wing ball with a good rack, either from the side or from the box, some tournaments also require racking with the 9 (instead of the 1) on the foot spot, as shown in Diagram Four. Because the rack is shifted up table, the wing ball will go above the corner with a square hit, making it more difficult to pocket a ball on the break. With the 9 on the spot, a square hit will usually send the 1 fairly close to the side. In fact, pocketing the 1 in the side is one approach for defeating the 9-on-the-spot countermeasure. However, the 1 ball direction can be very sensitive to the squareness of the hit, and whether or not there are any gaps in the rack. Another option is to use a cut break to send the wing ball farther down table to the corner. Sometimes, you can also get the 1 to bank into the bottom left corner.


Of course, all of the information shared above presumes a proper rack! Sometimes conditions can make it difficult to achieve a proper rack, and sometimes people cheat by purposely manipulating the rack to their advantage. There are several ways to cheat. One way is to simply tilt the rack alignment to one side, as shown in Diagram Five. As previously noted, a square hit on a tight rack will send the wing ball high. Diagram Five shows that by tilting the rack even slightly, the wing ball can be pocketed on one side, with the other wing ball going even higher above the opposite corner pocket.

One advantage of breaking from a break box with a square hit is that the 1 ball will head up table toward the corner pocket. If you maintain control of the cue ball, you should have a good look at the 1.

In the end, though, cheating the rack alignment is the most obvious cheat and is easily spotted, particularly if there are racking lines or marks on the table. Another takeaway here is to be very careful with alignment when you are racking, otherwise you will get inconsistent results.


Now, let's look at what happens when the rack is not tight, with gaps between some of the balls. This can occur on a worn table with old balls, where a tight rack might be impossible, even by "training" the table or using a racking template. However, it can also occur when the person racking intentionally manipulates the rack to create those gaps in specific places. This practice is illegal and unethical, but regardless of whether the gaps are intentionally created or can't be avoided, it is helpful to understand the effects gaps create.

Diagram Six shows an important example. If the rack is solid through the 1-3-9-6 path, and if there are gaps anywhere around the 4, the energy of the hit will move the 6 forward some before the 4 moves, allowing the 4 to go more forward than would occur with a tight rack. In this example, there are gaps between the 2-3, 2-9, 2-4, 4-9 and 4-6. These gaps make it easy to pocket the wing 4 ball. Also, as mentioned above, breaking from the box and hitting the 1 with a square hit will usually result in an easy look at the 1 in the corner after the break. (The rack photo to the left was taken by Jayson Shaw during his Derby City Classic match with Shane Van Boening, where Shane was benefitting from the gap effect just described, with the 3 ball being the wing ball.)

Diagram Seven shows another common rack manipulation cheat, where the back ball (the 8) is feathered away from the rack. Here, the gap is between the 6-8. Just as with the wing ball cheat, the back ball cheat allows the wing ball (4) to go more forward since there is less mass on the 6-8 side of the 4, providing less resistance as the 2 drives the 4 forward. And, once again, a square hit from the break box should allow for an easy shot on the 1 in the corner after the break.

Diagram Eight shows another particularly sinister 9-ball racking cheat that increases the chances of making the 9 on the break. When there are no gaps in the rack, the 9 ball does not move from the rack area unless it is kissed by a moving ball. However, with gaps in the rack, that is no longer true. With a gap between the 6-9, the 9 has room to kiss off the 7 towards the corner. Breaking from the same side of the table as the gap offers the best chance to pocket the 9. The cue ball will send energy through the 1 and 3 into the 9 so that it can kiss off the 7. The gap between the 6-9 gives the 6 just enough time to clear. The ideal cue ball direction will depend on the gap size and other gaps in the rack; but in general, try shooting from the box along a line just past the first diamond, as shown. The 9 will not go every time, but your chances of winning the game on the break are dramatically increased.


Again, some gaps can't be helped. Even if a referee is racking for you, the rack and table conditions may make gaps sometimes unavoidable. (Or, you may have an unscrupulous opponent who intentionally creates unfavorable gaps when racking for you.) In those instances, the knowledge presented here (as well as in books and videos from racking expert Joe Tucker) can help you choose the best cue ball position and type of hit to turn those gaps to your advantage. That's simply called "reading the rack." If allowed, you should always inspect the rack before breaking.


So, what's the answer to the 9-ball break debate?

Obviously, you cannot let the players rack for themselves or for each other. From many past examples of abuse, some (if not many) players cannot be trusted to rack honestly and fairly. There must be one or more neutral people (e.g., trusted referees or volunteers) who circulate among the tournament tables racking for all games, especially in the later rounds of a tournament. If neutral rackers are not available, it should be made perfectly clear in the pre-tournament players' meeting that pattern racking and rack manipulation are not allowed, will not be tolerated, and will result in severe penalties (for example, disqualification from the tournament).

Perhaps the best solution for most 9-ball tournaments is to use a combination of all of the measures developed to "fix" the 9-ball break. First of all, racking templates should be used or the tables should be trained, and a trusted neutral person should rack so everybody gets a fair and legal rack in every game. If using templates, make sure the racking area is marked making proper alignment easy. Also require a break box with the 9 on the spot, and enforce the three-point break rule. All of these measures will help ensure that the best and most well-rounded players go deep in the tournament.

Alternatively, we could propose something totally different like "shoot after the break" (even if you do not pocket a ball), "opponent shoot after the break," or "push out after the break." An alternating break format could also be used to prevent multiple-game runs due to any breaking advantage (due to skill or luck). However, it would be a shame to lose a tournament's historical continuity and miss out on the fun and excitement of watching players string racks together with perfect break and runs.

What cannot continue, however, is abuse of the rules. It is time for the cheating to stop.

Below is a pertinent entry from the official rules of pool (The WPA World Standardized Rules). The key phrases pertaining to both rack manipulation and pattern racking are bolded. It is clear that it is illegal to manipulate rack gaps or ball patterns.

2.2 Nine-Ball Rack

The object balls are racked as tightly as possible in a diamond shape, with the one ball at the apex of the diamond and on the foot spot and the nine ball in the middle of the diamond. The other balls will be placed in the diamond without purposeful or intentional pattern.

The Rack Whisperer

Rhode Island's Joe Tucker is a coach, instructor and promoter (American Rotation). Above all, however, he is a student of the game. And no one in the United States, and perhaps the world, knows more about racking in 9-ball than Tucker.

Surprisingly, Tucker has been preaching about the 9-ball rack since the late 1980's, when curiosity got the better of the then-aspiring player.

"I remember watching Accu-Stats videos, and Grady Mathews and Billy Incardonna were always talking about 'the corner ball,'" said Tucker recently. Occasionally, Grady would make statements about ball reaction that I just knew weren't true."

Tucker started studying the break shot, trying to understand how a ball at the back of the rack seemingly moved before the ball in front of it.

"I started playing around with spaces between certain balls," Tucker said. "And I started to see patterns of how the balls reacted."

Tucker published "Racking Secrets" in 1999 ("I wanted to call it, "Reading the Rack," Tucker said), and followed up with "Racking Secrets II." He has published a number of instructional books and videos, and over the years has given free lessons to referees, officials and numerous pro players on how to rack and how to "read the rack" to make sure they weren't setting themselves up for failure. (For more information on Joe Tucker's studies on racking and more, go to JoeTucker.info.)

"I had players who were given themselves 'slug' racks and didn't even know it," he said. "I never teach with the intention of showing someone how to cheat. I believe intentionally creating a space in the rack, whether racking for yourself or your opponent, is cheating.

"On the other hand, most of the time it is impossible to freeze a rack entirely, so there are going to be spaces. That is when the breaking player should look at the rack and read it to determine where he should break from. As long as I know I didn't intentionally manipulate the rack, I can sleep at night." Not surprisingly, Tucker has opinions on the current 9-ball racking controversy.

"For starters," he said, "a template should be used because that's the best way to ensure both players are getting the same rack. "As for the 9 on the spot or 1 on the spot," Tucker continued, "there are several ways to look at it. The 1 on the spot gives a more predictable outcome, but making the wing ball and getting shape on the 1 are still based on skill.

"I think racking with the 9 on the spot actually adds more luck factor into the game because the result is more random. Why shouldn't power breakers like Shane [Van Boening] and Jayson [Shaw] get rewarded for having a big break and maintaining control of the cue ball and 1 ball? They work hard on their break and deserve an advantage. It's like a tennis player having a big serve." Tucker's solution?

"I like the 1 on the spot with a template," he said. "Break from anywhere behind the headstring and alternate breaks. Let the pros have a run-out contest with less luck, less arguing and, I believe, a lot more pressure-packed matches."

What the Pros Say

Shane Van Boening

The promoters don't pay attention nowadays. At Derby City they don't care about the format. It's rack your own with a wooden rack and no other rules. There is no rule against what I do best. Other tournaments let your opponents rack and cheat the rack so that you don't make a ball on the break. You cannot have a referee or your opponent rack for you. You can only really trust your own racking. The fairest way to prevent drama is rack your own, 9 on the spot, Magic Rack, with a break box and three-point rule past the headstring. The opponent should be able to check the rack to make sure everything is frozen. It is a simple format in which the rack can't be manipulated. The break and run out will always be tough, too.

John Morra

We need to stick to one set of rules with racking, whether we're racking with the 1 on the spot or the 9 on the spot. I was happy in events with the 9 on the spot, even though it takes the power break out of the game. The problem is that it seems like we are going back and forth with rules and that's no way to have structure in this sport. Honestly, I'm fine with the either the 1 on the spot or the 9 on the spot. I think I prefer the 9 being on the spot because there is more play in the game, more safety and tougher run outs. And I also prefer we use a racking template as opposed to a standard triangle.

Darren Appleton

Honestly, this problem is an American thing. The foreigners don't know about manipulation of the rack. Plus, we use Magic Rack, a racking template, or the balls are tapped into place. And we play with the 9 on the spot. All of the big international events have referees. Promoters here want the 1 on the spot because of the power break. With the 9 on the spot most players use a cut break and it is less exciting. Still, it is harder to control the balls and you end up with more random patterns after the break. Also, too many promoters allow players to touch the balls after the rack is in place. Now every rack is questioned and there are bad feelings between players. Everyone feels like they need to gain an advantage because everyone else is doing it. Things will only get worst unless it's stopped immediately. In a perfect world all tournaments would have qualified referees, but that's a huge expense. Still, a neutral racker is the only way to play with the 1 on the spot, but you would still need a break box so that you still need power on the break. Without referees, 9-ball should be played with the 9 on the spot, a break box and with the 2 ball at the back of the rack to stop pattern racking.

Jayson Shaw

Problem is that different tournaments have different rules. None of this stuff happens on the Euro Tour. All of the balls are tapped in, no Magic Rack. You roll the balls into position and away you go. Here, there are too many players doing the same stuff at every tournament and it's not even pool anymore. They make the same ball and get the same position on the 1 every time. It's not fun. It's not sport. And it's not ethical. People here like the 1 on the spot. It's old school. Now if you used a Magic Rack and racked the balls with the 1 on the spot and made people break from dead center, the wing ball would never go. With the 9 on the spot and using a template or Magic Rack, you still have to break hard. You can't count on the 1 in the side. I think we could keep the 1 on the spot with the Magic Rack and make a box like the U.S. Open 9-Ball Championship. Then there is no argument over the rack. Everyone gets the same rack. It needs to be addressed now or it's going to be terrible in the next few years.

Accompanying Video

Video demonstrations on racking and the break can be found online at billiards.colostate.edu, NV J.2.

Video demonstrations of the rack-tilt cheat can be seen online at billiards.colostate.edu, NV J.2 and NV J.3.

Video demonstrations of the two gap cheats described in this article can be seen online at billiards.colostate.edu, NV J.3.

Video footage of the Derby City Classic controversy can be found in the links in the YouTube video descriptions for NV J.2 and NV J.3

Video demonstrations of the 9-ball soft break and pattern racking can be found at billiards.colostate.edu, NV I.2.

Video demonstrations of how to train a pool table for accurate and consistent ball racking can be found at billiards.colostate.edu, NV I.3.