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How to Play Cutthroat Pool? A Simple Guide

Have you heard of Cutthroat pool, but you’re not really sure what it’s all about?

It may sound a little intimidating if you’re new to pool. Yet the game of Cutthroat is actually perfect for all levels of pool players.

Cutthroat is a popular, fun and social billiards game that’s perfect when you have an odd number of players.

It can also be a great alternative to your standard 8-ball or 9-ball matches.

Cutthroat pool is usually played with either 3 or 5 players. Each player is assigned a group of balls, and the object of Cutthroat is to pocket the balls in your opponents’ groups before they pocket yours.

In this post, I’ll cover the basics of how to play cutthroat pool so you can enjoy this fast and fun version of pool with your friends.

How to Play Cutthroat Pool

Cutthroat is played with a standard set of pool balls – numbered 1 through 15 – plus the cue ball. The balls are split up into groups, and each player claims their own group.

Before we get into the details and rules of this game, here is the basic premise:

  • You aim for your opponents’ balls on the table.
  • If you make one, you keep shooting until you miss, scratch or make an illegal shot (I’ll explain what this means below).
  • Players are eliminated when all of their balls have been pocketed.
  • The winner is the player with any balls left on the table after the other players have been eliminated.

If you’ve been eliminated during the game, you can return to the game if an opponent commits a foul.

Now for some details and an overview of the standard rules of Cutthroat.

Claiming Groups in Cutthroat

Each player gets their own group of billiard balls in this game. You want to preserve your group and knock out the others.

For 3 player games, the ball groups are numbered as follows: 1 – 5; 6 – 10; and 11 – 15.

When playing with 5 players, the groups are divided as: 1-3; 4-6; 7-9; 10-12; and 13-15.

There are a few different ways players can determine groups in cutthroat.

Here are three common options you can choose from:

Option 1: Traditional Way to Claim Groups in Cutthroat Pool

The traditional and most advanced version is when you can only claim a group after at least one ball from the other 2 sets has been pocketed.

In 3 player cutthroat, for example, if you pocket the 3-ball and the 12-ball, you would be able to claim a group. The most likely group would be 6 – 10 in this scenario.

Option 2: Easier and More Common Approach

Other people choose a simpler version of claiming sets in Cutthroat: You claim a group as soon as you pocket a ball. This seems to be a common approach when playing Cutthroat in a more relaxed and less-competitive atmosphere.

For example, if the first player pockets a ball on the break, they can claim a group. The next player to sink a ball would then select his or her group. And the third is stuck with  – presumably – the worst group.

If the first player does not pocket any balls on the break, the next player to pocket a ball gets first dibs on a group. And so on.

Option 3: Assigning Group Sets Before the Game

Other players like to just assign groups before the game starts. Just pick your numbers and start playing.

However, with predetermined groups, it’s not always an advantage to break. You could end up sinking your own balls on the first shot.

How to Rack in Cutthroat Pool

The rack in Cutthroat is simple. Just use a standard triangle rack and place the 1-ball at the top of your rack (the apex) so it sits on the foot spot.

Place the 6 and 11 balls in the corners of the triangle. The rest of the balls can be randomly placed in the rack.

Learn more about how to rack properly.

The Break

You should use an “open break” in Cutthroat. This means that at least 4 balls must be driven from the rack so they make contact with the cushions. It prevents a safe and cluttered break. So make sure the breaking player puts a little effort into it.

If the player who breaks does not complete an ‘open break’, the next player can call for a re-rack and give it a go.

Decide if You’re Calling Shots

Before the start of the game, decide if you are going to play ‘called shots’ only in your game of Cutthroat.

This is usually a good idea when playing with a group of advanced players. It basically means that each player must designate which ball will land in which pocket before each shot.

However, you do not need to call how the ball will reach its designated pocket (i.e. combos or banks).

If you agree to play called shots in Cutthroat, and you pocket an opponent’s ball in an unintended pocket, it is considered an illegal shot. The ball would be spotted in this case and the player would lose his turn.

How to Shoot a “Legal Shot” in Cutthroat

A legal shot in Cutthroat requires that you make contact with an opponent’s ball first.

You cannot hit your ball first.

Then you must either pocket an opponent’s ball, or cause any numbered ball or the cue ball to make contact with a cushion. This is to make sure that each player is not just tapping the balls to play safe shots.

If you pocket an opponent’s ball on an illegal shot, that ball will be spotted and your turn is over. This also results in a foul.

Fouls and Penalties in Cutthroat

There are a few ways you can incur a foul in Cutthroat. First, as we mentioned, is if you make an illegal shot and then pocket an opponent’s ball. Usually this means you made contact with one of your balls first before pocketing an opponent’s ball.

Another way to incur a foul is by jumping an opponent’s ball off the table. However, if you jump one of your own balls off the table, you just spot that ball. If you jump the cue ball it would be a scratch.

The penalty for fouls is that one of each of your opponent’s balls that has been pocketed is returned to the table. This means that if a player had been eliminated, they can now return to the game.

If none of your opponents have pocketed balls when the foul occurs, you just ignore the penalty and the next player shoots.

What Happens When You Scratch in Cutthroat?

In the game of Cutthroat pool, scratches occur when you pocket the cue ball or jump a cue ball off the table.

After a scratch the next shooter gets to play the cue ‘ball-in-hand’ behind the head-string.

Cue ball-in-hand behind the head-string means that the cue ball is placed anywhere between the head-string (the imaginary line between the 2 diamonds on the breaking end of the table) and the head cushion.

If all of your opponent’s balls are behind the head-string, you can pick the ball that is closest to the head-string and spot it at the opposite end.


And that’s it!

Cutthroat is a pretty simple game but it can be competitive, lots of fun, and there are definitely some advanced strategies when experienced players are involved.

There are also a few possible variations on this game that work well with larger groups of players or even when playing with teams. More on this to come.

If I missed anything, please let me know in the comments!

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26 thoughts on “How to Play Cutthroat Pool? A Simple Guide”

  1. What if you hit an opponents ball and scaratch. Do they get that ball and another back on the table?

  2. Hi – did you sink the opponents ball then scratch? And was that a legal shot (ie you did not hit one of your balls before making contact with the opponent’s ball)? If so, the way I would play is spot the sunk ball and give ball in hand to next shooter.

  3. Can I hit my group ball indirectly? I mean hit cushion first then hit my ball safely without potting the ball.

  4. Hi –

    Good question. You mean one of the group balls you’re aiming for (not one of your own balls)? If so, I would say yes. As long as you hit it cleanly (i.e. don’t hit your ball first) then it’s a legal shot, even if you play off a bank.

  5. In that case – the basic rule is that you can’t hit your own ball before your target ball, whether directly or indirectly. Of course, house rules may dictate otherwise.

  6. Bar pool: you put in your 75¢; you can’t pull balls out once they go in a pocket. You’re down to two players. One player puts in the other’s last ball, but HE SCRATCHES THE CUE BALL on that last shot. Does the guy who scratched on the last shot win or lose?

  7. Good question! Since the standard rules of cutthroat don’t address this, I typically borrow from other standard rules that work better for bar tables. Here, I would say that – like 8 ball – if you scratch on the final ball, you LOSE.

  8. 1. Hi Game is down to two players…. And suppose I get ball in hand and the opponents ball is behind the line … Can I hit his ball directly or should I play rebound to hit his ball…

  9. The opponent make a fowl at his first shot or break. … Do the second player get ball in hand or should he play from the line?

  10. Hello – usually ball in hand means you can place the cue ball anywhere.. doesn’t have to be behind the line. Hope that helps.

  11. Decide before the match if you’re playing ball in hand or spot behind the line.. ball in hand speeds the game along.

  12. I usually play that the shooter keeps playing and the balls remain pocketed, unless it’s clear that you hit the wrong ball first. In that case it would be a foul.

  13. Down to the last two players, on the very last shot you pocket your opponents last ball and unintentionally pocket your last ball, who wins?

  14. Thanks for the question. Here’s how I would handle this scenario: Spot both balls. Opponent shoots next. If he misses your ball, you’re up.

  15. We don’t verbally claim sets. You are automatically assigned based on what you pocket. So here’s the scenario. Player 1 breaks and knocks in a mid but then does not sink another ball. Because he only sinks one he isn’t assigned a set. Player 2 runs the table on lows and also knocks in a high so he is assigned mids. Only thing left on the table is mids and highs but no one was assigned lows. So who is out? One player says the next of player 1 & 3 that sinks a mid can claim highs and the other is out. Another player says player 1 stays because he already sank a mid. Someone else mentioned that player 2 just won because there is no rule for this scenario. Any thoughts?

  16. Good question.. The official rules don’t address this. My preference would be for option one – the next player to sink a mid can claim highs and the other is out.

  17. Down to two players, my two balls and one opponent’s ball are left on table, I pocket his last one ball but cue ball get scratched so who will win?

  18. Down to two players, my two balls and one opponent’s ball are left on table, I pocket his last one ball but my cue ball get scratched so who will win the game?

  19. What happens if I shoot my opponents ball then knock my ball in when called and scratch at the same time does my ball come back up to or does it stay down

  20. Here’s one way to handle this.. If it was a legal shot (i.e. hit the opponent’s ball first and caused any numbered ball or cue ball to hit a cushion) then your own ball that was pocketed gets spotted, and due to the scratch, next player gets cue ball in hand behind the head-string. If your shot was not a legal shot (i.e. hit your ball first) then your ball stays in the pocket and next player gets cue ball in hand behind the head-string. Hope that helps!

  21. If i go for a cutthroat and shoot my ball in for position, but miss my ball, is it a foul since i hit my ball first and didnt do the cutthroat?

  22. For the easier way to play for example if player one has declared their group but player two and player three have not. Does player one get to remove a sunk ball if player two or three scratch; even though not everyone has declared?

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