The rules for the free ball in snooker can quickly become quite complicated. But hopefully at the end of this article, you’ll have a good understanding of the free ball rule. You may even have a better understanding of the rule than some professionals!
It took me quite a bit of research to produce this article as I tried to cover every situation, whilst making it as easy to understand as possible. Read on to found out everything you need to know about the free ball rule in snooker!
In snooker, a free ball is awarded to a player when their opponent has committed a foul but left them unable to hit both sides of the “ball on”. The player with the free ball may now nominate any ball on the table as the “ball on”.
Let’s look at an example with the diagram below. There’s one red ball left on the table (as well as the colours) and your opponent plays a foul (but the red stays up). When you come to the table, you are unable to hit both sides of the red. In this case, you are awarded a free ball and you can nominate any colour as a red.
Let’s say you nominate the blue, and pot it. You only score 1 point (not 5 points) as the blue effectively became a red (the ball on). The blue now gets respotted and you are on a colour next – the break carries on as normal. For example, assuming you potted the blue again, this time you would score the 5 points as normal (for the blue) and the next ball on would then be the final red.
One of the most commonly misunderstood aspects of the free ball is the exact way in which it is awarded. Many people incorrectly assume that you are only awarded a free ball when you are snookered (after a foul). And I have read many resources online which claim this to be the case. But technically, this is wrong – let me explain.
A free ball is awarded (after a foul by the opponent) when the player cannot hit both sides of a ball on. So, yes you would receive a free ball if you were snookered, but you don’t have to be in a snooker. Anytime you cannot hit both sides of a ball on (following a foul by your opponent) you are awarded a free ball.
In the case where there are multiple reds left on the table, you receive a free ball any time where you are notable to hit sides of one of the reds.
In the example below, there are 2 reds left on the table and your opponent has committed a foul. It wouldn’t matter that you could hit one side of one red and the other side of the other red. If you cannot both sides of one of the reds, a free ball is awarded.
Let’s say there’s 10 reds on the table and your opponent fouls. It wouldn’t matter that you’re snookered on 9 of the 10 reds, if you can hit both sides of just 1 red then a free ball cannot be called.
However, if there were only 1 red left, or you were on the colours, then you would only need to take into account that 1 ball (the ball on). If you are unable to hit both sides of the ball on, you are awarded a free ball. Usually this type of free ball is very easy to spot. But when there are several reds on the table, it can take some careful consideration to see if the free ball applies or not. You must check to see whether there is a red that you can hit both sides of or not.
You may be wondering why the free ball rule exists. Does it not make the game more complicated? Well, it may make the game slightly more complicated but it makes a lot of sense and it does work well. In my view, there are at least 2 key ways in which the free ball rule improves the game.
Firstly, in my view the free ball rule helps to keep the game open and flowing. It punishes the player that has played the foul, and gives the player at the table more opportunities to pot, making it more likely that they can make a break (score several points).
If the free ball rule didn’t exist, the player at the table would have to either try to play out of a tricky situation themselves (unlikely), or make the opponent play from where the balls lie (or have the balls replaced if the miss rule applies). Not only would this scenario not be as favourable from a spectator’s point of view, but in my opinion it would not be as enjoyable from a player’s point of view either. The free ball rule encourages break building.
Secondly, the free ball makes it less likely for a player to play a “deliberate” foul. For example, let’s say there’s one red left on the table and your opponent is snookered on it in a way that is difficult to escape and leave it safe (ie not leave you able to pot the red).
In this instance, they may attempt to play off a cushion with pace, trying to produce distance between the red and white, leaving you with a difficult shot. This is effectively a “hit and hope shot”.
But without the free ball rule, they wouldn’t have to worry much about where the white finishes if they foul (ie fail to hit the red). They know that the balls will likely get replaced (assuming the miss rule applies). They can therefore keep attempting the same shot, trying to get closer each time and learning from the previous shot.
Of course, they still give away the foul points but this will usually only be 4 points at a time. That’s in contrast to the amount of points they could give away if they escape the snooker but leave you on the red. In that case, you could potentially pot all the balls on the table and score 35 points. In other words, without the free ball rule, players are effectively insentivised to play more “hit and hope” shots.
And if the miss rule doesn’t apply (in the case where you need a snooker) then they wouldn’t have to worry about playing the shot again since replacing the balls wouldn’t be an option.
You may still see professional snooker players attemptimg this type of shot, but they have to be much more careful. Any time they play that type of shot with pace, there’s usually a good chance of leaving a free ball if they miss. And once the free ball is awarded, the results are often loss of frame. As a result of the free ball rule, you will usually see professionals play this type of shot with less pace, and a full understanding of the risks they are taking.
Yes, you can get a free ball on the colours in snooker. The rule works in much the same way as if you were on the reds.
As an example, let’s say you and your opponent are on the yellow and your opponent fouls, leaving you unable to hit both sides of the yellow. In this case, you are awarded a free ball and can nominate any colour on the table as the yellow.
So let’s say you nominate the brown and pot it. You score 2 points (not 4) since the brown counts as the yellow. The brown then gets respotted and the next ball on is the yellow.
Also notice that the free ball has effectively allowed you to score more points. If your opponent had fouled but not left a free ball, you would only be able to score 27 points (after the foul points). But with a free ball, you effectively have another yellow to pot, since the free ball gets respotted, allowing you to score 29 points, rather than 27.
It is particularly important to bear this in mind if one player needs snookers. If the player needing snookers is awarded a free ball, it may mean that they no longer need snookers to win the frame.
For example, let’s say that you are 32 points behind with all the colours left on the table (27 points remaining). Your opponent fouls, giving away 4 points, and also leaves a free ball. You are now just 28 points behind but without the free ball, there would only be a maximum of 27 points remaining (all the colours) so you would still require a snooker. But with the free ball, you can now nominate any colour as a yellow, allowing you to score a maximum of 29 points, giving you a chance to win the frame at your visit.
In fact, it’s possible that you can be awarded a free ball whilst you can still pot the ball on. In the example above, if you cannot hit both sides of the yellow, you would still be awarded a free ball, even if the yellow were pottable.
So, even if potting the yellow were the easiest shot available, your best option would probably be to nominate a different colour as a free ball in order to take advantage of the additional points on offer.
This can be even more important when a free ball is awarded when the ball on is a red. In this case, you could score an additional 8 points since you could pot a colour as a red for 1 point (and then it gets respotted), and then you could pot the black for 7 points (and then it gets respotted). The free ball has effectively created an additional red on the table.
This also means that the highest break possible in snooker is 155, not 147! If your opponent fouls and leaves a free ball before a red is potted, you can elect a colour as a red and pot the black for a maximum of an additional 8 points. Assuming you went on to pot all the balls, and potted every red with a black, you could actually score 147 + 8 points for a 155 break! And yes, it has been done in competition! In 2021, Thepchaiya Un-Nooh became the first player to make a televised 155 break!
A common misconception many amateurs have is that you can snooker behind a free ball but this is not the case. Many players assume that you can slowly roll up to the nominated free ball, leaving your opponent in a snooker. But in fact this would not be a legal shot. Snookering behind the free ball is a foul.
If a player were allowed to snooker behind the ball nominated, it would largely negate the positive effects of the free ball rule. Rather than keeping the game open and flowing, it would give the player at the table excellent opportunities to lay very difficult snookers, leading to slow games in which lots of fouls are made.
Preventing this sort of snooker also makes sense logically since the nominated ball effectively becomes the ball on. I’ll try to explain this point with an example.
Let’s say you and your opponent are on the final red when they foul and leave you a free ball. Your plan is to nominate the yellow and slowly roll behind it, leaving your opponent snookered. But once the yellow has been nominated, it effectively becomes another red. So how could you snooker your opponent behind a red? It wouldn’t make sense, right?
There would be nothing stopping you hitting the yellow and snookering behind the green though. You just cannot snooker behind the nominated ball, even if it were by accident. Let’s say in the same example, you nominate the yellow and attempt to pot it. You miss the pot and the yellow finishes between the white and the last red, snookering your opponent. That would be a foul and a free ball would then be awarded to your opponent.
There can be some confustion though when there is another ball closer to the white that is also snookering your opponent on the red. For example, let’s say you nominate the yellow and play a snooker behind the green but the yellow also lines up between the green and the red. In this case, it is irrelevant that the yellow (the nominated ball) is blocking the path to the red since the green is also blocking the path and is closer to the white. When determining which ball is causing a snooker (if there are multiple), it is the ball that is closest to the white that is deemed to be the snookering ball.
I know that may sound a bit confusing but hopefully it makes sense. Don’t worry if you have to read through these examples a few times to understand them, it will click eventually, I promise!
There is in fact just one situation in which which you can snooker behind the ball nominated as the free ball. This is when there is just the pink ball and black ball remaining on the table (the last two balls). Under no other circumstance can you snooker behind a free ball.
When only the pink and black are remaining (and you are awarded a free ball), you are permitted to nominate the black and snooker your opponent on the pink. This would not result in foul shot, as in every other circumstance in snooker.
The reason this is allowed is because the black is the only ball on the table that you can use for snookering and it’s also the only ball you can nominate as a free ball. In every other situation, you would be able to nominate a ball and snooker behind another.
For example, let’s say there’s just the blue, pink, and black left (last 3 balls) and you have been awarded a free ball. In this case, if you wanted to lay a snooker, you could either nominate the pink and snooker behind the black, or you could nominate the black, and snooker behind the pink.
In contrast, with just 2 balls left (pink and black), the only way you could lay a snooker otherwise, would be to play the pink and snooker behind the black, which would negate the whole point of the free ball (which is that you don’t have to play the ball on).
This rule doesn’t come into effect when there is just the black left, of course, since no snooker is available with just 1 ball on the table. In this case, the free ball rule doesn’t apply at all. This brings me onto the next point which is what happens when your opponent fouls and leaves you angled?
Many people assume that you would be awarded a free ball if your opponent fouls and leaves you “angled” but this is in fact, not the case. Let me first explain what being angled is, and then I’ll explain why the free ball rule doesn’t apply.
Being angled occurs when the white comes to rest against the angle of the pocket (often referred to as the “jaws of the pocket”), preventing you from being able to hit the ball on. But technically, this doesn’t count as a snooker since a snooker requires another ball (not the ball on) to cause the obstruction (to the ball on).
So when your opponent fouls and leaves you angled, the free ball rule doesn’t apply since you are not technically snookered. However, the situation may not be as bad as it seems because don’t forget that since your opponent has played a foul, you can make them play the shot from the angled position. (Or you could have the balls replaced and make them play the shot again if the miss rule applies.)
Another instance of the free ball rule which often causes confusion is where there is a plant involved (hitting one ball onto another). But usually this just takes some careful logical thought to determine if it is legal or not. I’ll briefly explain what a plant is and then I’ll go over the different scenarios.
Firstly, a plant in snooker is where one object ball is played onto another object ball, causing the second ball to be potted. Let me provide an example of a legal plant. You are at the table and you are on reds, and there are two reds remaining. You play one of the reds onto the other red, potting the second red. This would be a legal shot (and a good shot!).
Now let’s say you are awarded a free ball, are you able to play a plant? Well, in short, yes you are allowed to play a plant from a free ball, but it depends on the exact situation.
For example, there is one red left on the table when your opponent fouls, and leaves you unable to hit both sides of the red. You are awarded a free ball, and what’s more, the red has finished over the pocket. In this case, you could nominate any colour as the free ball and play it onto the red, potting the red. You nominate the yellow and play it onto the red, potting the red. This would score you 1 point and the break would continue as normL with a colour being the next ball on.
This is because it is essentially the same as the previous example I provided (without the free ball). The yellow effectively became a red, so there’s nothing wrong with playing one red onto another to make a pot. Also, it would be fine if the yellow were potted at the same time as the red. In this case you would score 2 points and the break would continue (with the next ball on being any colour). The yellow would be respotted and everything would return to normal. This is because even without a free ball, you are allowed to pot more than 1 red at a time, assuming you are on reds.
Let’s try another example. Only the pink and black remain. Your opponent plays a foul, leaving you unable to hit both sides of the pink (the black is causing the obstruction), and the pink is over the corner pocket. A free ball is declared. You decide to nominate the black and play the plant onto the pink, potting the pink. The black stays over the pocket and you then pot the black to win the frame.
This play is perfectly legal. Since the black was nomitated as the ball on, it effectively becomes another pink, so potting either ball is fine. The pink doesn’t get respotted as it was the ball on, so you are then able to play the black as normal. The one caveat is that you must make contact with the nominated ball first. Making contact with any other ball first would be a foul.
But what happens if the black follows the pink into the pocket? This is still a legal shot, since 2 pinks (the ball on) have effectively been potted. But you don’t score double points, since you cannot pot more than 1 colour at a time in snooker. So in this case, you would score 6 points and the black would be respotted. You could then continue your break and pot the black to win the frame.
The final example to go over is when there are more than 2 balls involved in the plant (this is very rare). Let’s say you’re on the final red and your opponent fouls, leaving you unable to hit both sides of the red, and the red is over the corner pocket. You are awarded a free ball and decide to nominate the yellow to play it into the blue, in order to pot the red with the blue (3 ball plant). Providing you hit the yellow first (the nominated ball), the yellow or the red can go into the pocket (or both) and this would be a legal shot (since these are both the ball on). However, if the blue is potted in any way the shot is a foul. This is because the blue is not the ball on, and potting it is therefore a foul, according to the rules of snooker.
This one is quite a confusing example but it’s very rare for it to occur (I’ve never seen it). But if you think about it carefully and logically, it does make sense.
Whilst the free ball rule does complicate the game somewhat, I think it improves the game in some important ways. Essentially, it encourages more break building instead of snookering, which I believe is better for the enjoyment of both spectators and players.
I think the most important thing to remember is that the nominated free ball effectively becomes a clone of the “ball on”. If you then think logically about what makes sense, you can generally come to the correct decision.
But whatever happens, don’t forget that once a ball is nominated as the free ball, that ball must be struck first. Striking any other ball first would result in a foul.
A final important consideration is what should happen during a match if you find yourself involved in a free ball dispute (or any rule dispute for that matter). I think the best advice is to try to come to an agreement with your opponent as soon as possible, before anyone plays another shot. That way you can both move on from the incident in a fair way.
Hopefully this article has helped you to understand the free ball rule better and should help you enjoy spectating the game more, as well as playing it. Although it can be tedious, I feel that taking time to understand the rules helps you to get the most out of the game, and even to use them to your advantage when playing.
Also, don’t forget that the highest break in snooker is actually 155, thanks to the free ball rule. Not a lot of people know that!
Phew, that’s it for this one! Over and out!
P.S. If you think I’ve missed anything out or have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment below.
My name is Tom Rothwell and I’m a bit obsessed with cuesports! I’ve been playing pool and snooker since I was about 8 years old. I find American pool and English pool to be the most enjoyable with friends but I also enjoy the challenge of playing snooker.
As well as playing many different cuesports, I also enjoy watching the professionals. With this blog, I’m sharing as much of my knowledge as I can. Hopefully I can help some people out and maybe introduce some new players into the incredible games that are cuesports.