Basic Rules Of Snooker (Explained For Beginners)

Whether you’re trying to play the game or just watching it on TV, understanding the basic rules of snooker is vital if you are to properly understand and enjoy this wonderful game.

A Quick History Of Snooker

Originating from British army barracks in India during the latter part of the 19th century, snooker is actually a combination of two pool games at the time, pyramid pool and black pool.

All three games have similarities to billiards, which was very popular at that time.

However, it was snooker that was to go on to have the most success, gradually adapted over the early part of the 1900’s it gained in popularity.

Though, it wasn’t until the 1970’s when the game really took off, thanks in part to the rise of the colour television set!

Today, the top players can expect to make millions in prize money and sponsorship deals as the sport attracts an increasingly international audience.

Basic Snooker Rules – A Quick Overview

There’s no denying it. A beginner might look on their first game of snooker with complete confusion and trouble grasping just how difficult the game is to play!

However, the basic rules of snooker are not difficult to grasp and once you understand them, it’s a very enjoyable game even if it is very difficult to master!

Here’s a quick overview of how a game of snooker works:

  • A typical match of snooker will consist of multiple ‘frames’, with the first player to win a specified number of ‘frames’ declared the winner.
  • To win a frame, a player must outscore his or her opponent to the degree that their opponent decides they can no longer win the frame and concedes defeat.
  • A frame is started by a player ‘breaking off’, this is done by placing the white ‘cue ball’ within the semicircle that’s marked on one end of the table, and hitting the white ball so that it makes contact with the triangle of reds further down the table.
  • To score points, a player must knock coloured balls (by striking the white ‘cue ball’ with their cue so that it hits a coloured ball) into any one of the 6 holes (aka pockets) around the edge of the table.
  • There are 15 red balls on the table, and 6 ‘coloured’ balls (yellow, green, brown, blue, pink, and black).
  • Each red is worth 1 point and the ‘coloured’ balls are worth multiple points (yellow = 2, green = 3, brown = 4, blue = 5, pink =6 , and black = 7)
  • For scores to be valid, the player must first knock a red ball into a pocket, this scores 1 point and is called ‘potting’. Then, to score further points, a ‘coloured’ ball must enter the pocket (aka be potted) on the very next shot.
  • ‘Coloured’ balls can be potted in any order the player wishes, but must always be preceded by potting a red ball. Therefore, a player have to play to pot a red, then a colour, then a red, then a colour, and so on. 
  • Red balls that have been successfully played into the pocket remain there until the end of the frame. However, ‘coloured’ balls shall be replaced in their original position after each successful ‘pot’ until the point that no red balls remain. They shall then be potted in the order of their points value, from lowest (yellow) to highest (black).
  • A player should keep playing shots until their either do not pot a ball, or they commit a ‘foul’ (see below). When this occurs, their opponent gets to play a shot. This continues until all balls are potted or one player has ‘conceded’ the frame.

Naturally, this is a very simplified overview of how snooker is played. In the official rules of snooker, there are many minor rules that do not need to be understood by the average club player or someone just watching the professionals play.

The rest of this guide to the basic rules of snooker will go into more detail on the laws of the game, however, it is only intended as a ‘beginners’ guide to help you get more enjoyment of the game.

It is not intended to be a fully comprehensive guide to the rules that the professional game must stick to. If this is what you are looking for, I’d recommend downloading the official rulebook, here.

How To Set Up A Snooker Table

Ho To Set Up Snooker Balls

The first thing to realise is that if you’ve never seen a full size snooker table in person before, it’s much bigger than you probably thing (which is why the game is so difficult to master!).

A full size snooker table measures 11 feet 8.5 inches by 5 ft 10 in (3569 mm by 1778 mm).

Given that a pool table in a typical British pub is about half the length and half the width, you would need 4 pool tables to create the same playing surface as a snooker table!

To put it another way, a regulation sized snooker table is about two Johnny Depps long and one Bill Gates wide!

A snooker table is lined with a green felt-like material and will have a line drawn across the width (called the ‘baulk’ line) around 31 inches from one end. This line will have a semicircle drawn in the middle of it (usually referred to as ‘the D’).

Along the baulk line there will be 3 small spots, as well as 3 spots running down the length of the table in a straight line from the middle of the ‘D’. 

These spots are where the ‘coloured’ balls are placed.

To set up a snooker table correctly, stand at the end where the baulk line is closest to the cushion and look down the table. Place the yellow ball on the spot to your right, where the balk line and semicircle meet.

Then, place the brown ball on the spot in the middle of the baulk line, and the green ball on the spot to your left, where the baulk line and semicircle meet again.

Then, in the very middle of the table you’ll find the spot for the blue ball. A bi further down the spot for the pink ball, then finally, close to the cushion on the far side, the black spot.

Once the colours are in place, you’ll also need to put the 15 red balls in the correct position. This requires placing the reds inside a ‘triangle’ (usually made of wood or plastic), and then carefully positioning them so the top of the triangle is just below the pink ball.

The white cue ball is then placed inside the ‘D’ at the baulk end, ready for the break off shot. 

Congratulations, if you’ve followed these instructions correctly, you’ve just set up the balls on a snooker table!

Starting The Game (Breaking Off)

Placing snooker ball in the D

To start the game, a player must be selected to take the first shot (the break off). Typically, which player breaks off first will be decided with the flip of a coin. 

In subsequent frames, the break off shot will alternate between the two players, ensuring that neither player breaks off first in more than one frame in a row.

To complete a successful break off shot, the cue ball must be positioned within the ‘D’ at the baulk end of the table.

Using just one shot, the player must strike the cue ball so that it hits a red ball first. 

And that’s it! There are no other special rules to consider, providing the player does not commit any other type of foul, play continues as normal.

If a red happens to be potted during a break-off shot, this is deemed as a valid point-scoring pot, and the player who played the shot moves on to a coloured ball as normal.

If any ball other than a red is potted on a break off shot, this is considered a ‘foul’ and play switches to the opponent.

Gameplay & Scoring

Following the break off shot, players must then take it turn to try and score points.

Since the player with most points at the end of a frame will always win the frame, scoring points is the primary aim of all snooker players!

Break Building

Snooker Scoreboard

As a player always gains a subsequent shot after legally potting a valid ball, it is possible to build up high totals of points by stringing multiple pots together. This is called ‘break building’ and scoring a high break is one of the joys of playing snooker!

For a break to be valid, a red ball must be potted first (if multiple red balls are potted in the same shot, a point is scored for each red ball and the break continues as normal), followed by any ‘coloured’ ball, though the player must state which colour they are going for before playing their shot.

If a player pots a red ball, followed by their nominated coloured ball on their next shot, they then must pot another red to keep the break going. A break ends when a shot is played that does not result in a valid ball being potted or if a foul is made.

The cycle of potting a red ball, followed by a coloured ball, then another red, and so on is continued until all red balls have been potted. At this point, the player is able to nominate a coloured ball to pot. If they successfully pot their nominated colour after the final red, they must then proceed to pot the remaining colours in the order of yellow, green, brown, blue, pink, and black.

By following these rules, the maximum break that is possible is 147 points.

To give you an idea of how difficult snooker is, in the whole history of the World Championship tournament (which started in 1927), there have only been 12 maximum breaks (correct as of May 2022).

The first World Championship maximum break wasn’t made until 1983 and so it’s very much something even the professionals are only just beginning to master. The average club player might be happy with a high break of 40 or 50!

It should be noted that it is actually possible to score 155 as a maximum break, should your opponent commit a black ball foul on the shot immediately prior to your break. However, since this is an extremely rare event (though it has been done before!), 147 is generally accepted in all circles as the maximum break.

Respotting Balls

Any red balls that go into a pocket shall remain in that pocket until the end of the frame. This is regardless of whether the red ball was potted legally or not.

Coloured balls are treated differently, however. Each of the colours (yellow, green, brown, blue, pink, and black) are ‘respotted’ (that is, put back on the spot where they started the frame) after they have been potted. 

The only time a colour is not respotted is at the end of the game when all reds have been potted and the coloured ball is not being potted in the shot immediately following potting the final red.

It should be noted that, unlike reds, committing a foul while potting a coloured ball will always result in that coloured ball being respotted.

Missed Shots & Fouls

Most fouls result in 4 points being awarded to your opponent.

However, in cases where a colour is involved, such as if a colour is potted instead of a red, you hit a colour first instead of a red, or if you potted or hit first a colour other than your nominated colour, your opponent can receive as many as 7 points.

The number of points is decided by the colour of the ball involved. Fouls on red, yellow, green and brown all incur 4 points, blue incurs 5 points, pink 6 points, and black 7 points.

If a foul occurs while potting a red ball. The player committing the foul does not get any points for potting the red, however, the red still remains in the pocket and his or her opponent is awarded at least 4 points for the foul.

Common fouls in snooker include:

  • The cue ball not hitting any other ball on the table
  • The cue ball entering any pocket, at any time
  • The cue ball hitting the wrong ball first (i.e. not a red or the nominated colour)
  • Any colour of ball being potted other than one the same as the colour you are going for (i.e. potting 2 reds in the same shot is OK if you were meant to pot a red, but potting a red and a yellow on the same shot is always a foul)
  • Touching any ball with any part of your body or clothing at any time (other than for the purpose of respotting or replacing balls)
  • Pushing the cue ball with your cue, rather than striking it
  • Any shot that results in a ball leaving the table and coming to a rest away from the table or a pocket
  • The playing not keeping at least one foot on the floor while playing their shot

This is not an exhaustive list. But, it covers some of the most common fouls.

In most cases, following a foul your opponent will continue to play from where the balls lay. However, they could choose to ask you to play the next shot if they feel they have not gained an advantage.

Should the cue ball end up in a pocket, a foul is declared and your opponent can place the ball anywhere within the ‘D’ and play from there.

What Is The Miss Rule In Snooker?

Snookered On Reds

A lot is made of the miss rule in snooker and, indeed, it is very important in the professional game.

This miss rule comes into play when a player does not hit the target ball before any other balls (or misses altogether). The rule dictates that the appropriate penalty points are awarded, and the player who did not foul can choose to have the balls replaced and the shot replayed (while keeping the penalty points they just recieved).

The purpose of this is to prevent players fouling deliberately in order to gain an advantage, even at the cost of penalty points.

In professional play, it is used a lot as the players are deemed good enough to be able to hit the correct ball first every time, no matter what position they are in. This may seem harsh, but it’s often true, since players will often deliberately play much harder shots because if they succeed, they are less likely to leave their opponent ‘on’ for making a frame-winning break.

However, if you are playing for fun, you may choose to omit this rule, especially if you do not deem yourself good enough to be able to hit the correct ball in any circumstances.

In this case, you would still use the normal ‘foul’ rule but wouldn’t declare a ‘miss’ and therefore your opponent couldn’t ask for the balls to be replaced and the shot replayed.

Note that if you do use the miss rule, it is only in play for as long as either player can freely score enough points to win the frame. As soon as there are no longer enough points available for one player to catch another (without the help of penalty points), a miss can no longer be called.

What Is A Free Ball In Snooker?

Should a player commit a foul that results in the player being ‘snookered’ from hitting both sides of the target ball, a free ball is declared.

In this case, the opponent can nominate any colour ball to act as a red ball. If it is potted successfully, they receive one point and go on to pot a coloured ball as normal (the ball that acted as a red is replaced on it’s starting spot and resumes play as its original colour).

Note – Being ‘snookered’ means you cannot hit the target ball with a straight line shot unless you play off a cushion first.

Winning The Game

To successful win a match of snooker, you must be the first the win a specified number of ‘frames’.

Each frame can be won by outscoring your opponent to the point where they either cannot continue (because all balls have been potted), or that they deem it not worth coming back to the table (because they are unlikely to be able to score enough points to win) and so they concede the frame.

This latter scenario is often called the ‘snookers required’ stage, though in reality, penalty points do not always come from players being snookered and so it is a little misleading.

Typically, once a player requires more than a few, 4-point penalty awards, they will concede the frame. Thus, a player trailing by 12+ points more than what is left on the table will often concede.

That concludes our run-through of the basic rules of snooker. However, there are a few more common questions that come up so we’ll deal with them one by one…

Frequently Asked Questions

Questions About Playing Snooker

Why Is It Called Snooker?

The name ‘snooker’ is credited to Sir Neville Chamberlain, a former British army office and Inspector-General in the police force who is commonly credited as having invented the game.

At the time ‘snooker’ was a slang term for a first year army cadet. In referring to a player who had missed a shot, Chamberlain called him “a real snooker”, implying that he missed due to his lack of experience.

Somehow, the name stuck, and the game became known as snooker.

Note that Sir Neville Chamberlain should not be confused with the Neville Chamberlain who was the British Prime Minister during the early months of World War II.

How Many Points Is A Snooker?

Putting your opponent in a ‘snooker’ does not automatically mean you receive any points.

However, it does make it more likely your opponent will commit a foul, in which case you will typically receive 4 points.

However, you can receive more if your opponent fouls when hitting a high value colour before their target ball, when potting a high value colour instead of their target ball, or when they commit any other foul while trying to hit or pot their nominated colour.

In this case, the number of points awarded depends on which high value colour is involved. If it’s the blue ball, it’s 5 points, if it’s pink its 6 points, while the black ball awards 7 points.

A fould on ant other ball will result in 4 points being awarded.

What Happens If You Sink 2 Red Balls In Snooker?

Assuming you were meant to pot a red ball, you will receive 2 points and move on to pot a coloured ball next under the same rules as if you had only potted one red.

Should you commit a foul while also sinking 2 red balls, you will not receive any points. Instead, your opponent would be awarded a minimum of 4 points.

What Happens If You Sink The White Ball In Snooker?

If you sink the white ball at any time in snooker, it is classed as a foul and your opponent will receive penalty points. They then also get to play the next shot and can place the ball anywhere in the ‘D’ before resuming play.

They would also choose to put you back in and make you play from the D instead.

The number of points awarded to your opponent will be between 4 points and 7 points depending on the type of foul committed and the colour of the ball involved.

Does A Ball Have To Hit The Cushion In Snooker?

No. There are no shots in snooker that require you to hit a cushion with any balls (though, of course, you may find it helpful to do so!).

Similarly, there are no rules to stop you playing a shot ‘backwards’ as is found in pool.

Do You Have To Call Your Shots In Snooker?

Unless you are playing a red (and therefore, hitting any other colour wouldn’t be legal), you do technically have to declare which coloured ball you are playing from every time.

However, there is a certain level of common sense applied to this rule in that if it is obvious which ball is being played, players are not usually asked to nominate.

Therefore, you only need to call out the ball you are playing if there is any doubt, or if the referee (or your opponent) requests you to.

Should you strike first or pot a ball other than your nominated colour, this is considered a foul.

Is There A Shot Time Limit In Snooker?

Unless previously agreed (such as in the rules of a specific tournament) there is no official shot time limit in snooker.

In fact, some players have been known to take 5 or 6 minutes to play a single shot (though this is, thankfully, rare).

In the professional game, the referee will occasionally step in and ask the player to hurry it up if they feel they are taking more time over a shot than is reasonable.