There's no better place to start learning the rules than the opening of the game. The very first thing you may need to do before a pool game is what is known as “lagging for the break.” This is one of a few different ways to choose who breaks first or with some games, who gets the right to choose to break or not to break first.

You read about lagging earlier in the book, but now you're going to put it into action. Not everyone starts the game this way, and there's no rule that says you have to. Sometimes you'll just use a coin flip, but lagging is a standard game opener, especially by the pros, and one that you may see used now and again.

What's in the Lag?

To lag for the break, each player takes a ball-in-hand and shoots it down the length of the table. They should be balls of equal size and weight. The official rules say that you should use two cue balls, but if two cue balls are not available, it's okay to use two solid-colored object balls.

The players stand at the head rail, one on the left side of the table and the other on the right. With the balls placed on the head string, the players shoot their balls to the end of the table simultaneously. The balls must bounce off the foot rail (the far rail) and come back to the head rail. The player with the ball that stops closest to him or her at the head rail will break first. The ball can either bounce off the head rail or just come to a halt after the bounce off the foot rail — it doesn't matter. All that matters is how close the ball stops in relation to the head rail. The player who shot the ball that stops closest, wins the lag. The winner may then choose to break first or to have his or her opponent break first.

In some games, it's not always advantageous to break first — as in 14.1 continuous — so winning the lag may mean choosing not to break first.

For subsequent breaks, you can set the rules before you play. You can play that the winner breaks first, loser breaks first, or that you alternate breaks. If the winner breaks first and the winner is the more skilled player, he or she will always have the breaking advantage. If the loser breaks first, it may be a good way to equalize an otherwise unevenly matched game. One way or another, you should make this decision in advance, so that there are no misunderstandings later on.

Losing the Lag

There are few ways to automatically lose the lag — or forfeit the choice of who breaks first to your opponent: If the ball does not travel straight down the table and winds up returning to your opponent's side of the table, interfering with the path of her or his returning ball, or if the ball hits the side rail on its way down the table. Sounds unlikely? It is, but it could happen. Another way to lose the lag is for the ball to fall into a pocket, so make sure you are hitting it in a straight line up and down the table.

It is a good idea to appoint an objective party as referee. This person can watch for fouls and keep score if necessary.

You also automatically lose the lag if the ball doesn't strike the foot rail on the other side of the table or if the ball flies off the table. If the lag is tied, both players try again.

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