How to play a defensive shot in pool

A  defensive (or safety) shot is when you take a shot where you intend to play defensively. Normally, your opponent will go next and is left with a hard shot. A few examples of why you may want to do this are:

  • Hiding the cue ball behind a ball your opponent cannot hit (Aka snookering someone)
  • Forcing your opponent to bank or kick to strike their object ball
  • Leaving them a long difficult shot

A lot of players struggle to play defensive shots in their game because they are being too aggressive or players do not consider safety shots at all. Many times it is a little too late and they’ve somehow wound up in a bad position where they are not left with that many options. If you can try to keep the defensive aspect in your head throughout the game, it could improve your game immensely. When I coach lower skill level players I always try to hammer it into their heads –  Defense wins games! Think defensively!

I’ve seen it a number of times where players had a very easy safety shot to play but were too worried about running out a rack (which they had a very low chance of doing) and they just didn’t see the oblivious safety shot.

Few things to keep in mind when playing

You want to be asking yourself these questions constantly during play:

  • Can I run this rack out? (If not, play defense!)
  • Are there any balls I can hide behind?
  • What shots is my opponent struggling with? (Are they bad at banking or long shots?)
  • Does my opponent have any balls locked up? (Do they have any break out balls?)
  • Are there any long shots I can set my opponent up for?
  • Are there any of my opponent’s balls I can pocket?
1. Can I run this rack out?

I don’t want to overwhelm you guys with too many questions, but keeping these in mind will help you sharpen your defense game. I want to go back to the first question – can you run this rack out? Do you feel that your chances of running all the balls out successfully are at a 60%? 70%? 80%? If you honestly are feeling that your chances are below those percentages, you need to consider playing defense so you can leave your opponent a hard shot instead of slamming an unmakeable shot. If you can’t run out – play defense!

I’ve seen it too many times where my SL3 or SL4 will run 3 or 4 balls out and leave themselves with a tough shot and no break out balls. These are not situations you want to end up in where your opponent can take advantage and ironically play a safety shot against you. This would be easy if you have fewer balls and your opponent hides the cue ball behind one of many of their remaining object balls.

2. Are there any balls I can hide behind?

If balls are positioned in a good spot near a pocket perhaps, these are perfect balls to hide your cue ball behind! If you see a cluster of your balls that you can squeeze the cue ball in by hitting it softly – even better! Be aware of easy balls you can sneak the cue ball behind and make your opponents next shot a nightmare.

3. What shots are my opponents struggling with?

You want to constantly be on the lookout for what your opponent’s weaknesses are. Are they bank shots? Leave them shots where they will always bank and miss it 99% of the time. Are they long shots? Leave them long across the table and on the rail, you will get a shot the next turn. Many times I’ve seen my players go for a really hard cut when an obvious safety shot is the better route to leave their opponent with a long shot. They would’ve realized it if they had been paying more attention to their opponent.

4. Does my opponent have any balls locked up?

If your opponent has 1 ball left and its already behind the 8-ball, you can probably reposition the cue ball to make sure your opponents next shot is hard. If you have any balls locked up yourself you’ll want to keep in mind that sometimes breaking your balls up and playing safety can be one shot in the same. Try to keep an open mind and be creative.

5. Are there any long shots I can set my opponent up for?

Long shots will always be a very difficult shot for a majority of billiard players. Many times it takes years of practice to get it down and most players don’t work on their long shots enough. If for example, you have a locked up ball, why don’t you break it out and put some English (or side spin) on it in order to send it flying to another side of the table? If it lands on the rail – even better.

6. Are there any of my opponent’s balls I can pocket?

This one is a little more advanced and most beginner players do not think of this. Let’s say that your opponent has 2 balls left. 1 of the balls is already in the pocket, the 2nd ball is stuck behind the 8-ball and hard to see. If you combo your ball into their 1 ball sitting in the pocket, you can take away their next easy shot and position your cue ball in a good safety position. You’ve now taken their breakout ball and left them with fewer options. Try to keep these kinds of ideas in your head. Pretend you are playing in your opponent’s shoes and imagine the strategies they may be sifting through in their head. This will keep you one step ahead of them mentally. Remember, Pool is like a chess game and you need to be thinking of different scenarios.

Other tips to keep in mind when playing safety:

-Don’t smash it, shoot calmly and smoothly
-Work on your ball position, it will help your safety game
-Don’t wait until it’s too late to play a defensive shot
-Practice safety drills
-Don’t be too aggressive* (Unless you feel confident in your run out game)
-Try not to position your cue ball near a pocket, you might scratch!
-Leave your opponent a shot where they have to jack up and elevate their cue!

Safety rules vary

Defense or Safety shots can change depending in what environment or league you are in.

APA (American Poolplayers Association)

On  APA’s Website and below it is defined as:

A Defensive Shot (also called a Safety) is a shot where there is no INTENT to pocket a ball.

This is because in APA, even if you pocket a ball accidentally – your turn will still continue. Scorekeeping wise, the scorekeeper must still mark down a defensive shot because it was an attempted or intended safety shot even if you did not execute it. It still counts because you intended to play a safety shot.

BCA (Billiard Congress of America)

On BCA’s Website a safety shot is defined by a player calling out that they are playing a safety shot and even if a ball is pocketed, their opponent must still go next. They define it as:

The shooter may call “safety” in which case play passes to the opponent at the
end of the shot and any object ball pocketed on the safety remains pocketed.

Remember, if you don’t call a safety shot and inform your opponent – then it doesn’t count and if you pocket a ball you will need to continue your turn and shoot again.

Bar Rules

Bar rules vary depending on which location you are at, but most of them don’t result in a ball in hand. In fact, most people who play bar rules don’t normally play safety or defensive shots. It’s almost frowned upon in this environment. Again, this can vary from location to location but this is just my personal experience. To summarize:

  • Most people don’t play safety or defense shots
  • You don’t need to hit a rail after hitting the object ball

Be sure to read up on the rule book if you are playing in a  league and make sure you are following the rules.

Conclusion & Recommendations

If you guys want to check out a great training resource, I would highly recommend Dr. Dave and his Video Encyclopedia of Pool Practice – Disc 3 Patterns and Safety Play. His videos are clear, precise and the average joe can understand his instructions. There’s no doubt that he has some advanced 8 ball strategy in his training.

If you’re a visual learner like me, the images and video will help you immensely. I do receive a small commission if you use the link above to make your purchase for Dr. Dave’s Disc 3 volume, and as always, it is greatly appreciated.

Be sure to check out my post about Over 50 Useful Pool Tips.

The last thing to keep in mind is that defense will win games! If you want to improve your 8 ball safety play, this is how you do it. Practice and keep up the hard work everyone. Thank you all for reading and good luck with your safety shots!


Benny is the owner of Supreme Billiards and has been shooting pool and teaching people how to shoot pool for a few years now. He enjoys showing new players techniques and drills to improve their pool game.

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