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Defense & Safety Play

Updated: Mar 1, 2023


There is more to pool than pocketing balls and running racks. I’ve played matches against great players, had a handful of chances at the table, and still lost, feeling like I never made a single mistake. This is the power of a great offense when combined with a great defense. You are still in control even when your opponent gets a chance at the table.

If you want to witness the power of a solid defensive game, watch this quarterfinals match of the 2013 World Pool Masters 9-Ball between Mika Immonen and Niels Feijen. The only semi-offensive shots Mika had throughout the match were the opening break in Game 1 and a jump shot to bank a ball in the side pocket in Game 4. Mika doesn't miss a single ball the entire match and loses to Niels 8 to 0. Niels could have been playing anybody and would have won that match.

If you can maintain control of the table between your runs with good defensive play, you can theoretically beat any player in the world.

When to Play Safe | Knowing Your Limits

Ideally, you would never give your opponent a chance at the table, but even world-class professionals are unlikely to break and run an entire set. Approximately 30% of games are a break and run at the professional level. This means the other 70% of games are won from a mistake or safety battle. As Niels Feijen puts it, "A lot of players can run racks; the key is winning the battle for the first shot."

When you approach the table, ask yourself these three questions.

  • What are your chances of making your current shot?

  • What are your chances of getting position on the next shot?

  • What obstacles are on the table, and what are your chances of successfully dealing with them to get out of the rack?

If your chances are too low, consider shooting a defensive shot. This doesn't mean that a defense is always the right choice, just that it's worth considering.

If you have a defensive and offensive option, you should only go defensive if it increases your chances of winning. A defensive shot should never decrease your chances of winning. It is better to go for the offensive option when the odds are even. Going offense allows you to shoot a potentially game-winning shot, avoids your opponent fluking a ball in on a kick shot, or you missing the safe and handing a free game to your opponent.

There are also situations where the only shot available is a defense. When these come up, try to get creative with the shot and find a way to free up the table. If you end up with an open shot, you can run out. If the table is too tied up and you can play a lock-up safe, consider leaving the object ball in a place where the combo on the game-winning ball is available.

Cue Ball & Object Ball Control

As pool players, most of our shots aim to pocket the object ball and control the cue ball. Because of this, we are much less adept at controlling the object ball. The object ball's speed is much less critical on a regular shot. If it has enough speed to reach the pocket, we have done our job. When playing defense, we must successfully control both the object ball and cue ball's speed and location. This is a skill that you will need to dedicate time to training.

One way to simplify controlling both balls is to recognize when the guaranteed control of just one ball ensures the safe. This allows us to focus on controlling just one ball, increasing our chances of getting back to the table. We can break cue ball and object ball control down into three categories.

Guaranteed Hook/Snooker: Cue ball movement is minimal and/or very easy to execute in these shots. A typical example of this type of shot is a stop shot safe, where the cue ball is stopped next to another object ball. Another example may be if there is a large wall of balls you can roll the cue ball towards. When cue ball control is guaranteed, the safe area for the object ball is typically so large that it requires minimal focus to leave it within that large area. Focusing solely on controlling the cue ball guarantees the safe. You must be mindful enough that the object ball stops within the safe zone. A common error is to hit a stop shot so hard that the object ball comes back around the table and into view of the cue ball. Another common error occurs when playing roll-up safes. Players sometimes forget to contact a rail resulting in a ball-in-hand for the opponent.

Containing Safe: If cue ball control isn't guaranteed, the object ball should be the primary focus. If you guarantee control of the object ball, you at least ensure your opponent will be left with a challenging shot. They'll be forced to shoot a problematic cut shot or bank if they wish to play offensively. This might not get you ball in hand, but it gives you a good chance of returning to the table. Occasionally, your opponent might get lucky and pocket the difficult shot, but remember that you are playing the percentages. Typically, the ideal place to put the object ball is in the middle of a rail, 1 to 3 diamonds from both pockets. This makes the safe area for the cue ball large enough that it requires minimal focus. Focusing solely on controlling the object ball guarantees the safe. Be mindful of the cue ball's speed and direction to ensure it stops within the safe area.

Guaranteed Containing Safe with Attempted Hook/Snooker: Object ball control is easy to execute on these shots and leaves an angle that could send the cue ball behind a potential blocker. The key with these shots is always to prioritize the guaranteed containing safe. Amateur players focus too much on cue ball control and lose control of the object ball. It is only natural for us as pool players to heavily emphasize cue ball control. We must fight this tendency when playing these shots. Hiding the cue ball on these shots should be viewed as the cherry on top of an already well-executed containing safe. If you lose control of the object ball in an attempt to get pinpoint position with the cue ball, you risk losing the game entirely.

The Safety Tier List

  1. Lock Up Safe: Your opponent is frozen or nearly frozen to another object ball. They have no clear view of any object balls they need to hit. Frozen to another object ball, many kicking routes are eliminated, and cueing is hindered for others. This also stops any potential jump shots. You are likely to come back to the table with ball in hand.

  2. Hidden Object Ball: Your opponent has no view of any object ball they need to hit. There is enough space between the blocker and the cue ball, so they can still jump over it. There is at least one kick shot available. Even with good execution from your opponent, you will likely return to the table with a good shot. When hiding the cue ball on these shots, take care of the object ball. With modern jump cues, even amateur players are a threat to pocket an easy object ball.

  3. Partially Hidden Object Ball: Your opponent can only see a small portion of the object ball. The piece of the ball they can see offers no easy cut shots. Their small opening to the object ball severely limits their offensive and defensive options. You are likely to come back to the table with a decent shot.

  4. No Shot Safe: Your opponent can see the entire object ball but has no viable offensive options. They could attempt a very thin cut or bank shot, but it will be very low percentage, less than 10%. They have defensive options but are unlikely to result in a Tier 1, Tier 2, or Tier 3 safety. They are forced to play safe or risk throwing the game with a very low percentage offensive shot. You have a >90% chance of returning to the table with a decent shot.

  5. Challenge Shot: Your opponent is left with a difficult shot on the object ball that is tempting to go for. The shot is makeable, but your opponent risks losing the game if they go for it and miss. Ideally, the shot will be low percentage, less than 50% shot. You have a greater than 50% chance of returning to the table.

  6. Failed Safety: Your opponent is left with a high-percentage offensive or defensive option that will likely result in you losing the game. This includes easy kick and jump shots with the object ball close to the pocket. You either won't return to the table or will be left with a Tier 1 or Tier 2 safety.

Containing Safes

Let's dive deeper into all the tools we have at our disposal to "contain" our opponent. The primary goal of a containing safe is to ensure that we get another chance at the table. Even if we can't hide the cue ball, we want to leave our opponent with a tier 4 or 5 safe. We have several tools at our disposal that we can use to increase the difficulty of any shot our opponent tries to execute.


If you've played pool for longer than 5 minutes, you know that distance increases the difficulty of any shot. The farther the cue ball is away from the object ball, the harder it is to strike it accurately. Slight errors in a stroke are amplified the further the cue ball has to travel. This reduction in accuracy will affect both cue ball control and object ball control. Distance also limits access to draw and stun. Your opponent will have to batter the object ball from a full table away, reducing accuracy and control.


Rails are a handy tool to limit access to the cue ball. Get close to a rail, and your opponent can no longer access 90% of the cue ball. This severely limits cue ball control options. If your opponent elevates to reach lower on the cue ball, their accuracy dramatically decreases. Even slight mishits off the vertical axis result in exaggerated, masse-like squirt and swerve.

Using obstructions around the table is a more unorthodox approach to rail safety shots. There tend to be a lot of obstacles around tables in amateur settings. Getting close to the rail on a particular part of the table can further impact your opponent. They may have to play with a shortened stroke, elevate or use the "short stick.

Object Balls:

Shooting over an object ball is more difficult than shooting off a rail. If the object ball is near the cue ball and under the shot line, your opponent will be forced to elevate, use a less stable bridge, and only have access to the very top of the cue ball. Any slight mistake is likely to result in a foul. A well-placed object ball will reduce both accuracy and cue ball control. The effectiveness of an object ball on the shot line diminishes the further away it is from the cue ball. While not as effective, even an object ball a foot away from the cue ball can still cause trouble with bridge placement and cue elevation.


Many of the above tools limit our opponent's cue ball control. One of the more interesting strategies is to leave your opponent a shot that offers no position on the next ball.

Opposite Rails

The golden standard containing safe is to leave the cue ball frozen in the middle of the short rail and the object ball frozen in the middle of the opposite short rail. The cue ball's proximity to the rail limits cue ball control. The object ball's proximity to the rail makes it challenging to avoid the double kiss unless you clip it. The distance between the two balls hinders accuracy. Even playing safe from this position is extremely difficult. Later in this lesson, I will show how to deal with being left this shot.

Another similar containing safe is to leave the cue ball and object ball in the middle of one of the long rails. There isn't as much distance between the balls, but it's still a decent containing safe that usually gives you a chance at hiding the cue ball. There tends to be at least one ball left where the rack is placed. If the rack/break wasn't good, you typically have a wall of balls. When practicing this containing safe, it is good to leave a ball out and try to leave it between the cue ball and the object ball. This ball also serves as a blocker on the golden standard short rail containing safe but isn't as replicable.

Know Your Opponent

Playing defensively is one of the few times in pool that we get to prey on our opponent's weaknesses. If your opponent doesn't own a jump cue, you can use that to your advantage. If your opponent is an overzealous offensive player, you can tempt them into shooting at a lower percentage shot. Knowing your opponent's skill level may also allow you to play more offensively early on in a rack if you know they are unlikely to run out even if they get an open shot. While I don't do this, if your opponent is sensitive to defensive shots, you can shoot unnecessary defensive shots to get under their skin and throw them off their game.

Two-Way Shots

Some shots present the opportunity to play defensively and offensively simultaneously. This is what is known as a two-way shot. This is a powerful strategy when used at the right time. This allows you to go for a lower percentage offensive shot with the peace of mind of knowing that you are at no risk of giving up a free game to your opponent. In the above example, I am playing the bank on the 5-ball and stopping the cue ball behind the 9-ball. If I make the ball, I get to continue my run. If I miss, my opponent is left with a difficult kick shot.

I find that some players overuse this strategy to their detriment. A great example is when players over-complicate shooting the final 8-ball to play safe against their opponent in case they miss. Some players do this even when the 8-ball is a reasonably easy shot. If the 8-ball is hard to pocket, this makes sense. If it is easy, we are adding undue difficulty to the shot that could cause us to miss what should be an easy win. Another common mistake is to go for the two-way shot but not plan to make the ball. If you play the two-way, you must be prepared with a follow-up shot to continue your run. Always play position on the next ball in your run if you are going to go for the two-way. If you can't get position, it is better to focus all your efforts on getting safe. Don't give up an easy offensive or defensive option to play a higher-difficulty, lower-percentage two-way shot.

Intentional Fouls

Occasionally you come across a situation where the best shot you have is to give your opponent ball in hand intentionally. Instead of attempting a low-percentage kick shot, you tie up other balls in the rack. The goal is to increase the difficulty of the runout, hoping that your opponent will be forced to give you at least one more chance at the table. This is a risky, last-ditch strategy as your opponent will have ball in hand, making it much easier to deal with whatever problems there are in the rack.

In games like 9-ball and 10-ball, you must also mind the three-foul rule. Doing this on your second foul can be extremely dangerous. With ball in hand, your opponent is likely to find an easy to execute lock up safe, leaving you with a low-percentage kick for the game.

In a 2006 WPC match, one of the most renowned safety battles ever occurred between Luong Chi Dong and Vilmos Foldes—an insane series of shots where the players committed four intentional fouls back to back. The safety battle ended with Luong successfully jumping and landing the cue ball on top of the 1-ball, which was surrounded by a pack of balls to avoid being three fouled. Rollie Williams does a nice breakdown of the battle in this video.

Common Safety Shots

Spend a bit of time practicing each of these common safety shots. Experiment with similar, but slightly varying, cue ball and object placement. As the positions vary, you must adjust the cue ball's angle, speed, and spin to get the same results.

  • Stop Shot

  • Roll Up

  • Standard Split Safety

  • Trading Places

  • The Thin Hit

  • Kick and Stick

Specialty Safety Shots

  • Rail First thin hit 2 to 3 rails to the opposite side of the table object ball long to short

  • One Pocket object ball frozen to the rail double hit slightly off center hit split safety

  • Straight Full Double Hit

9-Ball Defensive Ghost Drill

9-Ball Defensive Ghost:

This is a great drill to practice your defense and kicking. To start, break a rack of 9-ball. From there, every shot is the same. If you can see the lowest-numbered ball on the table, play safe. The ghost gets a point if you leave an open shot or easy-to-pocket kick or bank after playing safe. If you leave the lowest-numbered ball in the open but cannot pocket it, you both break even. If you hide the cue ball, you get a point. After hiding the cue ball, kick at the lowest numbered ball to practice kicking until you can see it again. If you successfully execute a planned kick safe, give yourself another point. Play a race to 3 games, with every game being a race to 5 points.


Great defensive play is just as important as aiming and cue ball control. Being the better defensive player allows you to maintain control of the table. Most games come down to who can get the first open shot on an open table. Developing a great defense will take a combination of knowledge and practice. Reading through this lesson, you already have most of the necessary knowledge. Now, you need to practice and refine your skills. Combine your defensive and offensive skills to control the table, win more games and matches, and place in more events.

Completion Requirements

  • Read and comprehend this entire lesson.

  • Practice all common safety shots until you are reasonably good at executing them for your current skill level.

  • Add the 9-Ball Defensive Ghost Drill to your practice routine. You don't need to practice this every session, just regularly enough to stay sharp.

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