The Informal Norms of Bar Pool

I’ve long been a big fan of bars and a big fan of pool. Putting them together is a great combination. Since I first became aware of them, I’ve also admired the informal norms that govern bar pool among strangers. The spontaneous order that results is what makes playing with strangers possible. People only tend to be sticklers about the rules to the extent that it doesn’t make the game uncomfortable. It’s supposed to be fun, right? These norms keep play moving without requiring too much formality. What’s more, they work in almost all situations. From a situation where both players know many people to one where the only people there are the two strangers playing, you generally find that people stick to them. While occasionally violence can result from breaking these rules—and I think there’s usually alcohol involved as well—it typically doesn’t come to that. People can be shamed or shunned, and usually this threat keeps them honest.

First, the person who racks makes an honest attempt to rack the balls as tightly as possible. This is essential for a good break. Though it’s the challenger and not last game’s winner who racks, and thus does not get the full benefit of a good rack, this always happens. Occasionally the rack is not tight due to a low-quality table, but in general you can count on it.

Second, while all shots are supposed to be called, in practice doing so slows the game down. Often the other player is not around or not paying attention, and anyway it’s usually obvious which pocket the player is aiming at. The honor system usually works. In the event that a player makes a different shot than the one he intended, he will usually (honestly) end his turn. On the lower end of the talent spectrum people sometimes don’t do this, but in that case it typically doesn’t ruin the game and is not worth policing. I’ve seen many players make impressive shots only to immediately explain that they were not the ones intended and let their opponents shoot.

The eight ball, of course, is the most important to call, and if the other player is not around a player usually calls it to a third party. Even if this third party is that player’s friend, he impartially observes the shot and does not help the shooter cheat. Many times in many places I’ve seen a person call a shot to his friend, lose the game in some way or another, and then go find the other player to report the facts.

Another feature of bar pool that can imbalance play is the quality of pool cues. In a lot of bars there are few good cues, and if this is the case players typically share a cue. At the very least, there will be some discussion of the deficiencies of the cues at hand, and the players try to find a solution that does not unduly handicap one player.

Concentration is important to the game, and players will get out of the extended line of the shot their opponent is taking, or at least stand back and stand still. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but it generally happens. Of course, if somebody violates this norm his opponent will make sure he does not violate it twice. (Penalties range from a brief suggestion to the threat of an ass-whooping for especially flagrant violations.)

Most games do not involve bets, but when there are bets, people tend to abide by the terms. It doesn’t have to be money; it can be drinks or something else. There are plenty of people who try to weasel out of paying up on lost bets, but again, it’s the small minority of cases.

Perhaps more remarkable than all of these is the fact that people not involved in the game will move out of the way for people who are. Even people who don’t play pool recognize that the temporary property right of the pool table trumps their claims to the spots they’re standing in. The influence of alcohol and loud music makes this the most commonly violated norm, but it still holds almost all the time. People will even apologize profusely for unknowingly getting in a player’s way.

As I said at the beginning, these norms hold in almost all situations. Whether the two players are regular players surrounded by their friends or two strangers in a one-off situation who will never see each other again and have nobody else around to detect cheating, these are the unwritten rules that they play by. Of course, they develop and people learn them in repeated-interaction scenarios, but they are quickly internalized. I’ve played many games with strangers in towns I’ve never been to before or since, and I still find that I can reliably predict the things they will not do.

Many situations in life are governed by informal norms. This particular example may not seem important per se, and in the grand scheme of things probably isn’t. But people who are capable of this kind of spontaneous order are capable of many others as well. One of our tasks as students of human action is to discover and explain them.


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