Cowboy pool uses only four balls, the cue ball and three numbered balls, the 1, 3, and 5. The balls have a set opening placement: The 1 ball is placed on the head spot; the 3 ball on the foot spot; and the 5 ball on the center spot. As in the game of snooker, pocketed balls are immediately respotted to their starting position. Beginning with cue ball in-hand from the kitchen —the area behind a pool table’s head string —the incoming player must contact the 3 ball first. If the player fails to do so, the opponent may either force the player to repeat the break shot, or elect to break him or herself.
For the first 90 points of the 101 needed to win the game, points are scored in three ways: 1 point for caroming the cue ball into any two object balls; 2 points for caroming into all three object balls; and a player scores the face value of any ball pocketed, i.e., if the 3 ball is pocketed, the player scores 3 points. Thus, the maximum score possible on any single shot is 11 points, achieved by caroming off and pocketing all three balls. The failure to score in one of the delineated manners on any shot ends the player’s inning at the table. All fouls in Cowboy pool result in the player losing all points scored during the inning (not just those on the fouled stroke), and the opposing player comes to the table with cue ball in position except in the case of a scratch, which results in ball-in-hand from the kitchen.
The 90th point in cowboy pool must be reached exactly and the failure to do so is a foul resulting in a loss of turn. For example, this means that a player with 89 points, who then scores 2 points rather than exactly 1, has committed a foul. Once the 90 point benchmark is reached, all points up to the penultimate 100 must be made by caroms. The pocketing of balls during this phase of the game garners no points. The final point necessary to reach 101 and the win must be made by a losing hazard – an intentional scratch made by caroming the cue ball off one of the three object balls.
The parent game of cowboy pool, English billiards, is itself a hybrid of three predecessor billiards games – the winning game, the losing game and the carambole game (an early form of straight rail) – and dates to approximately 1800 in England. There are a number of pocket billiard games directly descended from English billiards, including bull dog, scratch pool, thirty-one pool and thirty-eight. Thirty-eight is the intermediary game from which cowboy is directly derived. This precursor game was first reported on in The New York Times on January 21, 1885: ‘there is a new billiards game called “thirty-eight.” It appears to have met with special favor among the many devotees of pool.’
Cowboy is very similar to thirty-eight, with the major difference being that thirty-eight requires the use of two cue balls and is played to just 38 points, thus its name. It is unknown how thirty-eight transitioned to the modified ruleset mandated by cowboy pool, nor the derivation of its name. What is known is that its first mention is in a 1908 rule book, published about the same time the well-known game eight-ball (under a prior name) was first gaining popularity. Although popular enough that its rules remain listed in authoritative rule books alongside just a handful of other games, apart from a small sanctioned tournament held in 1914, cowboy pool is strictly an amateur game.
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