How to Play Cutthroat Pool? All You Need to Know!

Cutthroat pool is a popular alternative to a standard game of billiards.

It’s fun, fast-paced, and requires either three or five players – making it a great game when hanging out with a group of friends. 

Even better, cutthroat is easy to learn and includes a few simple rule variations based on the skill level of the players.

Cutthroat Pool: An Overview

In a cutthroat pool game, the balls are divided into equal groups. For instance, with a group of three players, each gets five balls.

During the game, players shoot for any opponent ball. If they sink it, they keep playing. If they miss, scratch, or make an illegal shot, their turn is over, and the next player shoots.

When all of a player’s balls are pocketed, the player is out. However, they can return if another player commits an illegal play.

The goal of the game is to pocket (or “pot”) all your opponents’ balls before they can sink yours. The last player with balls on the table wins.

How to Determine Ball Groups in Cutthroat

Although most commonly played in groups of three, cutthroat also works as a five-player game.

The main difference is which balls belong to each player.

Three-Player Game

  • Player one’s balls are 1 through 5
  • Player two’s balls are 6 through 10
  • Player three’s balls are 11 through 15

Five-Player Game

  • Player one – Balls 1 through 3
  • Player two – Balls 4 through 6
  • Player three – Balls 7 through 9
  • Player four – Balls 10 through 12
  • Player five – Balls 13 through 15

How do you decide which player is in each group? There’s a traditional method and a simplified one.


The traditional way assigns each player to a group as part of the game. You don’t know which balls are yours until after a few plays.

A player can only claim a group after two balls, from two separate sets, have been pocketed. For example:

  • On the break, you pocket the 2-Ball
  • Then, you pocket the 11-Ball
  • Now, you can claim a team

Most likely, you’ll claim six through 10, as that group has the most balls on the table. After your turn ends (due to a scratch, foul, etc.), the second player is ready to claim a team.

Player two must also pocket two balls from two different groups before claiming a group. 

For example, they could pocket a ball in player one’s group (six through 10) and from the one through five group.

In this scenario, player two would want to pick group 11 through 15, as there are more balls on the table from that group than the other available option. 

After player two picks a group, player three is then automatically assigned the remaining group.

The traditional method adds an extra layer of strategy that many players enjoy. Multiple rounds of play can occur before someone sinks two balls in a row.

You’ll need to consider each shot carefully, so you (hopefully) don’t pocket balls in the group you end up getting assigned.   

Quick Play

The simplified option allows each player to claim a team after they pocket one ball. 

While it doesn’t involve the same level of strategy as the traditional method, many people feel the casual rules get the game going faster.

Here’s how quick-play rules work:

You break and pocket at least one ball. You can then claim any of the three groups.

If you pocketed more than one ball during the break, you’d want to pick whatever group has the most balls on the table. 

Otherwise, you’ll want to pick one of the two groups that don’t have a pocketed ball.

What if you break but don’t pocket any balls? The next player in the rotation then takes their turn. (Before play starts, you’ll want to determine turn order within your group.)

If player two sinks one ball, they can claim an open team. The remaining player is then automatically assigned to the third group.

Sinking one ball instead of two still allows a degree of control over what group you claim while also increasing the overall speed of the game. 

It’s usually the best option for casual and new players.

Pre-Assigned Groups

You can also assign groups to each player before the game begins. Any system will work, such as paper-rock-scissors or a series of coin flips.

While creating groups is simple, it’s usually not recommended, as it puts the breaker at a disadvantage. They could accidentally sink their own balls during the break.

Plus, both one and two-shot group selection are huge elements of the game. By pre-selecting groups, you lose a lot of early-game strategies.

Playing a Game of Cutthroat Pool

Here’s a basic rundown of the game, including all its unique aspects.

Racking and Breaking

First, you’ll need to rack the balls. The position of three balls, in particular, is what’s important:

  • The 1-Ball belongs at the top of the rack (the section also called “the apex”)
  • The 6-Ball belongs in one corner of the triangle
  • The 11-Ball belongs in the other corner of the triangle

The rest of the balls are placed randomly. The purpose of this setup is to help ensure balls from each group have an equal chance of getting pocketed on the break.

Put some muscle into your break! Cutthroat works best with an “open break,” which is when at least four balls bounce off the table’s cushions.

(If you’re playing with experienced players and want to get technical, you can call for a re-rack and second break if the first one doesn’t satisfy the “open break” requirements.)

Legal Shots, Fouls, Scratches, and Related Penalties

The key rules to follow during play are these:

  • You can’t hit any of your own balls first. 
  • Instead, the cue ball must make contact with any of your opponents’ balls.

Ideally, you’ll pocket your opponent’s ball. If you don’t, the shot must result in either the cue ball or any numbered ball touching a cushion.

The idea behind the “touch a cushion” rule is preventing players from taking light, safe shots.

There are three types of illegal shots in cutthroat:

  • Hitting your own ball first
  • The cue ball or numbered balls don’t hit a cushion
  • An opponent’s ball is hit off the table

When a foul occurs, each opponent gets to place a previously pocketed ball back on the table. If a player has been eliminated from the game, they get to rejoin it.  

If you make an illegal shot but your opponents have no pocketed balls, the penalty is ignored. Instead, your turn ends, and the next player shoots the ball from its current position on the table.

If you pocket an opponent’s ball during an illegal shot, it’s returned to the table.


A scratch occurs if:

  • You pocket the cue ball
  • You jump the cue ball off the table
  • You jump one of your own balls off the table

After a scratch, you lose your turn. If you jumped one of your own balls off the table, put it back approximately where it was before the play (a process called “spotting” the ball).

The next player starts their turn with “ball in hand.” It means they can place the cue ball anywhere they like in the section between the head cushion and the head string.

Along the long sides of the table, you’ll see two diamonds. The imaginary line that runs across the table, connecting the two diamonds, is the head string

The section where you can place the ball is the same area where you place it when shooting at the rack.

What if you’re playing ball in hand, but all your opponent’s balls are behind the head string? 

Take the ball nearest the head string and put it in the same location but on the opposite side of the table.

How to Make the Cutthroat Pool Game More Difficult

If you’re playing with experienced players, and want to add an extra challenge, require called shots. Before shooting, you have to announce what ball you intend to put in which pocket.

When calling shots, you have two options. A called shot could include just the ball and pocket, and the specific route doesn’t matter, so combos, banks, and other movements don’t need to be predicted.

Another option is to call the specific route the ball must take. For instance, if you plan to bank it off a specific cushion, you need to announce your plan before shooting.

Regardless of how you define a called shot for your game, it’s the only way the shot counts. 

If you shoot a ball into an unintended pocket, your turn ends, and the pocketed ball returns to the table.

Final Thoughts

Cutthroat is simple to learn while also offering tons of fast-paced, competitive fun for players of all ability levels. 

Games involve strategy and skill but also have exciting, random elements that keep everyone on their toes.

Even when a player is eliminated, a single illegal shot could be all that’s needed to bring them back in, where they could go on to win the game!

If you’re looking for a fun alternative to a standard game of pool, cutthroat delivers.  

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