Photo by superde1uxe.
Photo by superde1uxe.

Here’s a proposal. Next time you play pool, ignore the rule that scratching on the eight-ball makes you lose. Hold on, that’s madness: That’s like the main rule in pool.

In my small experience, a frustrating majority of games of amateur eight ball end in someone scratching on the eight ball or hitting it in out of turn. One time I sat down to write out these very thoughts in Holder kitchen and some strangers played two consecutive games to that end. So this curse isn’t unique to me. This rule is a particular bugbear for amateur pool because it means the player who was doing better loses just because he got to the eight-ball sooner. The better player is punished for failing in a way the other player likely would have failed too, if given the chance. This ending brings a malaise, and both players feel like their performance did not match the outcome. The loser is smarting and the winner unsatisfied.

Another reason to drop the rule is that I already do not play with the full rules of eight-ball. I am not good enough for them. If my opponent strikes one of my balls before his own, I don’t call it a fault. If I count a table scratch at all, I don’t treat it any differently than a regular scratch. And I think I’m not unusual. Though we use professional standard equipment as often as not, the way we play pool does not begin to resemble the way a pro does it. I am incapable of weighing where my cue ball will finish; I can’t put meaningful spin on my shots; I bank poorly.

Dumbing down a sport to your level is not unique to billiards. We play pickup basketball or soccer with rules simplified beyond those necessary to compensate for a lack of referees. So if you already aren’t playing real pool, why hold the eight-ball as so sacred?

Before you float the accusation that I am some wanton iconoclast, let it be known that I love rules. My friends enjoy playing games with me less because of it. Anything I play, be it Frisbee, poker, charades, I play with an outspoken faith in rules. But it is a good faculty of humans that we can—and will—adapt what we inherit if it becomes boring to us. Unless you’re trying to work up to a higher standard of gameplay, as long as a set of rules reflects the most exciting arrangement of the sport for the people playing it, then it is the right one.

I played ultimate Frisbee for six years, which is in some ways still an emergent sport. As I played, I saw rule developments, changes, and arguments. Yet the clearest example of the adaptive nature of the rules of a sport have come from trying to reinvent the game. A friend of mine named TJ invented a game called ultimate torpedo, which is ultimate Frisbee played with a pool torpedo. The rules began simply: two teams and one torpedo in a pool. When you are holding the torpedo, you can’t swim, and you try to hit the opposite wall of the pool with the torpedo.

It was a good idea for a game and we took to it straightaway. Because it was the summer, we could play every day and pretty much did. Six played at a time of a group of about ten guys. We were a small group running a lot of trials of the game, so it is unsurprising that it evolved. We made rules and conventions for the “kickoff.” When encroachment became excessive, we reinforced them. The asymmetry of our pool was an immediate problem, as it was easier to score on the deep end. So the scoring team always had to start from the harder side, regardless of where they had started. Eventually, we began only to count scores on the shallow end, deep end scores being only for possession.

We went through a couple trials in trying to enforce a time limit to holding the Frisbee. The shot clocks of basketball were impossible underwater, as was the out-loud stall counting of ultimate frisbee. We decided three breaths with the torpedo before you had to pass it was reasonable. Then we cut it to two. I proposed we try it with zero breaths. None of us had a particularly strong lung capacity. This seemed like it would make the game impossible, but it didn’t. It made it quicker and more impulsive. It forced players to swim around constantly, looking for a way to move the torpedo. The game became exhilarating and exhausting.

We devised penalties for breathing with the torpedo, excessive contact, and other infractions. We never wrote down the rules, we could explain them easily to any newcomers. We resolved disagreements about the rules democratically.

Like any authority, and especially any abstract one, a rule has meaning when you believe in it. When you understand why the rule exists, what kind of unsatisfying gameplay will result without it, its restrictions do not chafe. And if it is a rule you not only witnessed develop but saw the lack of and proposed, it will have a special resonance for you.

Why, you may ask, would you put any limitations on fun? The reason is to define a world. While getting a strike in bowling is impressive, it would be meaningless without a fault line, or a limit to the size of the ball. And no one would play if you were allowed to use your hands to knock down all ten pins. The materials of fun are endless; something needs to bound your sport to prevent it from turning into chaos. But it’s worth remembering that you can play with the rules just as you can play within them.