Table Talk: Playing the Ghost

Sometimes, your best opponent is yourself

I have been asked many times “what is the best practice routine?” The honest answer to that is “that depends.” And, of course, it’s the truth.

Practice and drills are meant to help you hone and refine your problem areas, and make you a better player. Every player has different things to work on, so every player should have their own customized practice routines. But man, can it be boring!

Sometimes, just playing a game against other people is what you want to do. The best choice is someone who has the same skill set as you, to give you a good challenge without making you sit in your chair all night.

And you want someone who will play whatever game you want to play, right?

Sometimes, your best opponent is yourself. That’s why I often recommend people play the Ghost.

Playing the Ghost is a good tool to add to your practice routines. Practice can be quite boring sometimes, and tedious. While I am a strong proponent of working on your fundamentals, identifying problem areas, and working them out, I also believe that pool is supposed to be fun. So, it’s good to mix up your practice routines, and this is an excellent way to challenge yourself.

If you are an intermediate or advanced player, then you probably already know how to play the ghost. You may skip to the optional variations outlined further down.

The Ghost is an imaginary player. You are going to pit yourself against this player, and attempt to beat him. If you can do this, you will be able to beat almost anyone you play!

So how does the Ghost play?


Yes, that’s right. The Ghost never misses. If you miss a shot during your turn, you assume the Ghost will run the table and beat you. Therefore, if you miss, you lose!

Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? It’s not so bad. There are “conditions.” Here’s how to play against the Ghost:

  1. Set up your game of choice. Playing the Ghost works for almost any game.
  2. Break the balls the best you can. Do not worry if any balls go in or not, or even if you scratch.
  3. From this point, you have ball-in-hand. Put the cue ball anywhere you like, and try to run the table.
  4. If you run out, you win. If you don’t, the Ghost wins. Score accordingly, and re-rack.
  5. Play to a predetermined number of wins (I usually do a race to 5). When either you or the Ghost wins the match, start over at 0-0.

That’s it!

Can you run out these 7 balls?

With ball in hand, can you run out these 7 balls?

The wonderful thing about playing the Ghost is that it puts tournament-level pressure on you, helping you to learn to focus on your shots. And you get to do this while playing a real game, instead of just setting up practice drills. Good Luck!

“Wait! Michael! I can’t beat the Ghost! I can’t run out a rack of (9-ball/8-ball/Straight pool). How do I play the Ghost if he always beats me?”

Ah. Good point. That brings us to:


If you like, there are ways to vary the rules a bit. Here are a few suggestions, but the list is by no means exhaustive. If you have suggestions, please feel free to share them with me at!

  • After the break, you may pick up a certain number of balls and immediately pocket them (thereby making your run-out a little easier). Be careful not to make it too easy, however. This is supposed to be a challenge.
  • Break fewer balls. Instead of a full 8-ball rack, rack a 9-ball version of the game (4 solids, 4 stripes, 8-ball). Instead of a 9-ball rack, rack 7 balls (standard 7-ball rack).
  • After each shot, allow yourself to move the cue ball one hand-span in any direction. If that is too easy, only allow yourself to do this once or twice.
  • Allow a certain number of misses. This downgrades the Ghost to a lower level player, essentially. I don’t really like this variation, but some people enjoy it.
  • Allow yourself to take ball in hand one time during the course of your run-out. However, if you miss or foul, you still lose.
  • Are you a straight pool player? Instead of a loss, give yourself a penalty for every miss. For example, during a race to 100, when you miss, the Ghost gets 10 balls. Essentially, you are playing a game of single-player straight pool, with 9 allowed misses. Giving the Ghost points, however, adds an element of pressure that forces you to concentrate.
  • If playing the ghost just isn’t your cup of tea, then simply keep track of your misses, and play a set of 5 racks. Your total number of misses becomes your “handicap,” much like golf. Over time, your goal is to reduce that number. Compare with your friends to see who is the best!

There are other ways to challenge yourself than playing the Ghost, of course. One of my favorites is Fargo. The inventor of the game explains how to play in his video:

Playing the Ghost is a very aggressive form of pool, and it doesn’t work on every aspect of your game. It doesn’t allow for the incorporation of safeties, for example. But it does take some of the tedium out of your practice sessions.

Pool is supposed to be fun. Unless you are a professional, practicing 8 hours per day, you are most likely not going to enjoy shooting 500 straight shots in a row. You want to play a game, and challenge yourself. Playing the Ghost is a great way to challenge yourself, set goals, and still enjoy your billiards game of choice.

Good Luck!

Posted in Practice, Table Talk, The Break / Rackem / Stroke Magazines