Cowboy Pool – Game of the Month for January Pockets and Caroms and Billiards, Oh My

With this post, I’m introducing a new feature to Pool Student’s blog called Game of the Month. Each month I’ll introduce you to a new game, explain briefly how to play it, provide a link to the rules, talk a little about strategy and point out why you might find the game interesting. This month it’s Cowboy Pool. Many of these games will be new to you, but the games themselves are not new, they’ve all been around quite awhile.

The main idea behind playing multiple different games is to broaden your pool horizons, exercise new areas of your pool brain, and tax different skills. By going out of your comfort zone you’ll benefit in many ways, and have fun doing it. Don’t worry, I’m not trying to trick you. These are not solo games or practice drills modified to make a game.

This month’s game, Cowboy or Cowboy Pool, has been around for a hundred years and combines aspects of pool, caroms and English billiards. You use only 3 object balls, the 1, 3 and 5 Balls, along with the cue ball. The balls each have a starting place, as in the diagram, and at the end of every shot, any balls pocketed are replaced on their starting spots. If that spot is occupied, the ball stays off the table until the spot is clear.

To win you must score 101 points before your opponent. The scoring is done in three separate phases, 0 – 90 points, the pocketing phase; 91-100 points, the carom phase; and the 101st point, the in-off phase. You continue to shoot until you miss, foul or win the game.

On all fouls, you lose all points in that turn at the table, so scratching after you have scored 78 points in your 1st inning takes you back to zero. If you start the inning with 20 and score 55 and foul, you go back to 20. This means that you’ll need to keep score of your inning separately from your total, to avoid scoring problems if you a foul. The 3 foul rule in Cowboy is also more severe than in other games: If you foul in 3 consecutive innings (not consecutive shots) you lose.

Cowboy Pool Starting Position
Cowboy Pool Starting Position

In the 1st phase, you score mainly by pocketing balls, but also by caroming the cue ball into multiple object balls. Pocketed balls score based on the ball’s number; 1 point for the 1 Ball, 3 points for the 3 Ball, etc. Caroms score 1 point for hitting two different balls with the cue ball, 2 points for hitting all three. You score all points earned on each shot. Pocketing the 5 and caroming into the 3 scores 6, five for making the 5 and one for the carom. Theoretically, you could score a maximum of 11 points in one shot by sinking all balls after caroming the cue ball into each of them.

You must reach 90 exactly or it’s a foul. That is, if you have 88 and sink the three ball, you have fouled.

From 91 to 100 you can only score by caroming. You get 1 point for hitting the 2nd ball and 2 points if you hit all three. During this phase, if any ball is pocketed it is a foul. Failure to reach 100 exactly is also a foul.

To score the winning 101st point, you must pocket the cue ball by hitting it off the 1 Ball, like a scratch. Pocketing any object ball is a foul. Not hitting the 1 Ball is a foul.

You’ll want to read all the rules for Cowboy before you play.

Beginning Strategy Tips

Remember, fouls are very costly; don’t foul.

Keep a close eye on the score, since you have to hit 90 & 100 exactly or foul.

During the 1st phase, you can make the most points, the most easily, by pocketing high-value balls, especially the 5 Ball. Since the object balls are placed back on their spots after being pocketed, the best strategy to amass a lot of points in phase 1 is to pocket the 5 Ball in such a way as to leave another shot on the 5 Ball as your next shot. Doing this over and over can get you to 90 very quickly.

Don’t fool with caroms during phase 1. The points are low and it’s harder to control where the cue ball is going to go.

In the carom phase, it’s easier to score if the object balls are close together or near rails. Pay attention to this on every shot. If your opponent is on caroms and you are still pocketing balls, leaving one or more balls near a pocket makes his job much riskier. You also don’t want to leave the object balls close together or close to a rail.

Remember your tangent rule. You can use it to aim your cue ball precisely, and you can modify with a touch of draw or follow to adjust for a wide range of angles.

Using draw or follow with speed on cut shots is very hard to control because the cue ball will curve.

Why Play Cowboy?

First off, it’s fun. The pocketing phase, what with balls coming back onto the table after every shot, and being of significantly differing values, really pushes you to see patterns differently, expanding your creativity. The high penalty for fouling helps keep you sharp about avoiding stupid mistakes. The requirement to score exactly 90 keeps you focused on the goal.

The carom and in-off phases are great opportunities to hone your cue ball targeting skill. It comes up in every other game, but here you focus on it a little more directly. Since you cannot pocket a ball, caroms are more like safeties than like your typical shots. You’ll learn to focus also on the distance and direction for all balls if you want to make more than 1 or 2 points in a row.

You’ll be surprised at how much better your position play gets for your preferred games after you play Cowboy for a while. Because it’s so different, it’s a great game to play when you’re getting bored, or can’t seem to stay focused.

Try this and tell us what you thought of it. Did you like it? Was it harder than you thought it would be? How did it affect your approach to pool, and to your favorite game?

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