How To Play Cutthroat Pool: A Simple Guide

How To Play Cutthroat Pool A Simple Guide

Cutthroat pool is a billiards game that is great for all skill levels, so it’s a great way to learn how to play other kinds of pool.

If you’ve never heard of it before, you’ll find out everything you need to know about playing Cutthroat and how its rules work.

Cutthroat is unique when compared to many cue sports because it uses an odd number of players, making it ideal for small social groups, and it encourages socializing like any other billiards game.

If you have too many people to play an 8-ball or 9-ball pool game efficiently, Cutthroat is a perfect alternative. It’s also fast-paced, so it’s great for those with shorter attention spans.

As you will learn, Cutthroat is typically played between 3 or 5 players. Every player is assigned several balls that are theirs, with the goal being to protect your balls while pocketing the opponents’ balls.

How Cutthroat Is Played

Before we get into specifics, here’s a step-by-step rundown of Cutthroat’s premise and how it is played.

On a standard billiards table, the pool balls should be numbered between 1 and 15 – not including the cue ball, of course.

These balls are split between the players based on their number.
From there, the game is played in these steps:

  1. You try to knock your opponents’ balls off the table.
  2. You keep shooting until you miss, scratch, or shoot an illegal shot.
  3. You are eliminated if all of your balls have been pocketed.
  4. You can return to the game if an opponent incurs a foul.
  5. The winner is the player with balls left on the table after everybody else has been eliminated.

How To Claim Groups

Once the pool balls have been separated into groups, each player claims one. You need to protect your own group while attacking everybody else’s.

Breaking the balls into groups is pretty easy. If there are 3 players, you just need to make three groups, 1-5, 6-10, and 11-15. Each player gets five balls that they need to manage.

With 5 players, the groups would be balls 1-3, 4-6, 7-9, 10-12, and 13-15, leaving three for every player.
So, how do players decide which group they get?

There are several ways, we have outlined the three main methods below.

The Traditional Way

There is a traditional way to choose your group of balls in a game of Cutthroat. Naturally, this is also the most complex version and relies on you starting the game first to decide which player gets which set of balls.

With this method, you start picking your group after at least one ball from the opponents’ groups has been pocketed.

If there are three of you and you sink the 2 and 11 balls, you can then claim a group, which would typically be the 6-10 ball group since that puts you at the most advantage.

The Common Approach

The traditional way can be too advanced for some players who want to just get started, especially if you’ve already started drinking.

Because of this, many people choose to claim a set of balls after pocketing one.

This isn’t just simpler, it’s also more relaxed, friendly, and less competitive since you haven’t disadvantaged everybody too much before selecting your own group.

As an example – a player who pockets a ball while breaking can then claim a group. The next player would claim their group and then, as a result, the last player would be left with the worst group.

If the first player doesn’t pocket any balls at the start of the game, the next player to pocket a ball gets the first decision on which group they get.

The Easier Way

Lastly, there is the easiest way to assign ball groups during a game – or more accurately, before the game. Before the game starts and everybody gets competitive, decide between yourselves which groups you want.

Then you can start playing on an equal field.

There is a disadvantage to this, however. You could select your group, like 1-5 for example, and then accidentally pocket the 4-ball during the break.

You have now pocketed one of your own balls and have put yourself at a disadvantage to win the game, which is why other methods wait for a ball to get pocketed before making that decision.

Some people like that risk, especially when there’s not much to play for in a casual game between friends. In more serious games, it may be the difference between winning and losing.

No matter which method you decide, make sure everybody in the group agrees and understands the rules before you start. You don’t want the game to get ruined by confusion and players playing by different rules.

How To Rack In Cutthroat

How To Rack In Cutthroat

Racking in Cutthroat is easy if you have a triangle rack. Most billiards tables should come with a triangle rack nowadays and most public venues should have some available.

At the top of the triangle rack, you should place the 1-ball and the 6 and 11 balls in the bottom corners.

From there, the other balls can be placed randomly across the rack – it doesn’t matter where they go as long as 1 is at the top and 6 and 11 are at the sides.

How To Break In Cutthroat

Breaking in Cutthroat is easy too and similar to how it’s performed in other billiards games. An open break is best, where at least four balls make contact with the side cushions.

This is best achieved with a breaking cue that packs the wallop that’s required to break properly.

This is the best break because it makes the table uncluttered and puts all of the balls in a place where they can get hit.

This means each player can target most of the balls, allowing them to sink some and then decide which ball group they want.

If you’re serious about the game, players can re-rack if they don’t get an open break on the first try.

Rules On Calling Shots

Before you start the game, you should decide if you’re calling shots. This is where players point out a ball and the pocket, then try to hit that ball into that pocket.

When calling your shots, you don’t need to call how the ball makes its way to the pocket.

It isn’t just a form of showboating, it’s ideal for when advanced players face off against one another. If you’re playing casually with friends, calling shots can be a little intense.

So, what happens if you call a shot and then hit the wrong ball or send it into the wrong pocket?

If that happens, the shot is considered illegal and doesn’t count, so the ball gets spotted. It also stops any players from getting eliminated from the game and can even bring a player back if those are the rules you’re playing by.

A legal shot in Cutthroat is where you hit the opponent’s ball before any others. If you hit your ball and then knock an opponent’s ball after, it is not a legal shot.

Then, a legal shot must either make the cue ball or the numbered ball hit the side cushion. The reason it needs to hit the sides is to stop players from playing it a little too safe, tapping the cue ball to make safe shots.

Instead, each shot needs to be powerful enough that it can pocket a ball.
Of course, it’s preferable to send an opponent’s numbered ball into a pocket when making your legal shot.

If you make an illegal shot but you pocket an opponent’s ball, the ball is spotted and your turn is done. This also results in a foul.

Cutthroat Fouls & Penalties

Some illegal shots, like pocketing an opponent’s ball during the shot, incur a foul. Fouls most commonly happen in Cutthroat where you accidentally make contact with your ball group instead of the opponents’.

You can also get fouled by making an opponent’s ball off the table. This only applies to opponent ball groups, it’s fine if you accidentally knock your own ball off the table, just spot it and count it as a scratch.

We have more on scratches in Cutthroat below.
For now, let’s cover the penalties for fouling. The main penalty is that one ball from each of your opponent’s ball groups is put back on the table.

This also applies to eliminated players, so somebody who has lost all their balls can re-enter the game in the event of a foul.

If no opponents have lost any balls when a foul happens, there is no penalty and you just carry on. Nothing is stopping you from adding other penalties in a casual game between friends, however.

Scratches In Cutthroat

Scratches In Cutthroat

If you accidentally pocket the cue ball or knock it off of the billiards table, that’s called a scratch. When a scratch happens, the next shooter gets to make a ball-in-hand shot.

This is just like any other billiards game, where the next shooter picks up the cue ball, places it on the table, and gets to shoot from a position of their choosing.

As long as it’s behind the head string, the ball can be placed anywhere.

For those completely new to cue sport and billiards games, the head string is a line between separating the first third of the table from the rest, precisely where the cue ball is placed during the break.

On some tables, the line is marked while on other’s it is not. On a billiards table with six visible diamonds along the long rail (not including the pockets), it’ll be in line with the second diamond.

Of course, this rule becomes relaxed if all opponent balls are behind the head string. In that case, you pick the ball that is closest to the head string and move it to the opposite end of the table.

Side note: In some venues, tables are coin-operated and won’t allow you to easily return a ball once it has been pocketed.

If that is the case, the player who lost their cue ball gets to pocket one of their own, putting them at a disadvantage.

If a scratch happens in the same shot where an opponent’s ball has been pocketed, and you’re also playing at a coin-operated billiards table, then the opponent removes one of the scratched player’s balls as a penalty.

This re-balances the game and punishes the person who scratched and can even take that player out of the game if their last ball is taken.

Scoring Games

With Cutthroat being a relatively fast-paced billiards game, it’s common to wrap up multiple games into one competition and score them together.

This works like you’d expect, where games are played in matches or sets that are tallied up and kept track of throughout the night.

However, since Cutthroat is based around a game with just three players, there’s no glory to be gained by coming in second. Instead, everybody is playing for first.

Here is a scoring system you should consider if you’re playing multiple games and want to award points for second place.

A win is 3 points, plus one point for every winning ball remaining. The player in second place gets two points. The last player, who is the first to get eliminated, gets no points.

Perfect games can also award more points. It’s common for an extra 2 points to be added which, with the scoring system above, makes them worth 10 points (3 for winning, 5 for balls remaining, 2 for a perfect game).

This type of scoring system promotes strategic play since eliminating one player first may be more important than eliminating the other.

It can also create alliances where the two losing players try to knock the leader off the top spot if the game is friendly enough to allow for that strategy.

Playing In Large Groups

While Cutthroat is optimal with 3 or 5 people, it is possible to play it in much larger groups.

The only problem is that games become shorter by doing so, or at least your participation in the game is shorter if you’re one of the first to get eliminated!

Fortunately, with Cutthroat there is always the opportunity to come back if another player gets fouled.
A simple way to add more players to a game while still using 3 or 5 ball groups is by playing in pairs.

Here, six people can play a game where pairs take alternating turns to make their shots, attacking the other pairs’ 5 balls and defending their own.

You could also play scotch doubles, where players alternate individual shots within the turn, though this can be inconsistent if your partner’s shooting style and skill aren’t matched to yours.

Cutthroat is technically possible with up to 15 people, or at least how many balls you have and your table can comfortably fit.

Sometimes it will be necessary to remove a ball, however, to make sure everybody’s ball group is equal at the start of the game.
Two players can enjoy a game of Cutthroat together where they each have 7 balls, though it would resemble a standard pool game at that point.

Otherwise, you can play with six or seven people, so that everybody has 2 balls each.
At the extremes, you can play with eight to fifteen players and everybody has 1 ball each.

At eight players and above, there aren’t enough balls for players to have multiple, so everybody gets one instead. While that raises the stakes since you have just one ball to protect, it can be frustrating to get eliminated early and watch the rest of the game continue.

You can buy larger racks for playing at a billiards table with a lot of people. These typically look like larger, diamond-shaped racks. You can also get colored billiard balls that have no numbers on them, making it easier to figure out the ball groups and who has what.


That brings us to the end of our guide on playing Cutthroat. It’s a fun, short-paced game that is perfect for casual and advanced, competitive players alike.

Even with 5 people instead of 3, everybody will have just three balls in their group, making for a fast game that keeps everybody entertained.

It’s also deceptively simple – players can knock balls around in a casual game or they can play smart, like making defensive shots and hiding your balls behind opponent balls to protect them.

As we covered, it’s also possible to change the rules and entertain more people with a game of Cutthroat, though it makes for a shorter and more intense game.

No matter how you play Cutthroat, your game should run smoothly if you follow the rules and tips written above.

Dave White