Cutthroat Billiards

Cutthroat Billiards Introduction

Cutthroat is a three-player billiards game, played on a billiard table using cue sticks, that is characterized by the ruthless actions required of the players. To win this game, the player must see their opponent's balls removed from the table while he or she still has some of their own balls on the table (An exception is where all balls are run off the table and the player wins the game.) Subtle differences in game rules exist, with many regional variations. The name "cutthroat" is not unique to pool, but refers to any game played with three or more players in which each player must fend for themselves.

Cutthroat billiards is sometimes played under a different name, "Elimination." This name is not particularly well suited to the game, because when a player scratches, one of both of his opponent's balls is returned to the billiards table. This means that even though all of your balls may have been sunk, you are not necessarily eliminated.

Object of Cutthroat Billiards

Each player is assigned a set of numbered balls. The object of Cutthroat Billiards is to be the only player with balls from their group remaining on the table. Balls are taken off the table by being pocketed on legal shots, or by being "dropped" as a payment for a foul. With that said, the object of Cutthroat Billiards is to pocket all of your opponent's balls. During this process, you will want to "snooker" your own balls into unsinkable positions as often as you are able, while simultaneously pocketing your opponent's balls.

Balls Used

In Cutthroat Billiards, the standard set of object-balls numbered 1-15, plus a cue-ball are used. The numbered balls are split into three groups, the first group has balls one to five, the second group has balls six to ten, and the third group has balls eleven to fifteen.

The Rack

A standard triangle rack is used in Cutthroat Billiards, with the apex on the foot spot. A ball from the first group should be on the foot spot. A ball from each group should be placed in each of the different parts of the rack. That is, the three corners of the rack are filled with one ball from each group, one ball of each group goes on each side of the rack, and one ball of each group goes in the middle of the rack.

Opening Break

Shooting order is determined by lot or lag. The player who is third in the shooting order is to rack the balls, while the player being first will break them. When starting the game, the one-ball, six-ball, and eleven-ball are placed on the three points of the rack. The one-ball is placed on the top where it is spotted. A successful breaker gets to choose which balls will be theirs: numbers one through five, six through ten, or eleven through fifteen. The next player to make a ball gets his choice of the remaining two groups, and the third player gets whichever group is left. Whoever has at least one ball from their group on the table when all the other balls are pocketed is the winner.

The starting player must make an open break or pocket a ball. If they fail to do so it is considered an illegal break, which is a foul, and the second shooter has the choice of either:

accepting the table in position and shooting, or shooting the opening break shot themselves. Any balls which fall from a legal opening break count as legally pocketed balls if there were no fouls.

Should a player foul on the opening break, their opponent has cue-ball in hand behind the head string. Any balls made on a foul break must be spotted in numerical order, lowest closest to the foot spot, except for those belonging to the breaker's group. In addition the breaker must then take one of their off the table and put it in a pocket to pay for the foul. This practice is known as "drop."

Choice of Group

Each set of five balls is initially unclaimed, and the assignment of groups of balls to each player is done during the initial stages of game play. The three players take turns attempting to knock any ball into a pocket. Once a player has knocked in a ball, they know that they do not own that group of balls. For example, if a player started the game by hitting in the 3-ball and the 8-ball, they would own the high balls, as they have knocked in a low ball and mid ball. The other two players would still not have ownership over a set of balls, and would, during their turns, attempt to knock in balls to gain ownership over a set. This method may vary by region. The most common variation is to assign the sets ahead of time in order of play. For example, the first shooter owns balls one to five, the second shooter owns balls six to ten, and the third shooter owns balls eleven to fifteen.


Another peculiarity of this game is the consequence of a scratch. In most circumstances, a player's opponents are rewarded by taking one of their balls each out of the pockets, and spotting them back onto the table. In some regional variations of cutthroat billiards, and especially when played in bars with coin-operated tables where balls cannot be removed, the player who scratched selects one of their balls to be pocketed immediately. Other variants allow the next player ball-in-hand.

Winning The Game

The object is to be the last player with at least one ball left on the table. When a player has no balls on the table, he is said to be "out" and their turn is skipped in the rotation of taking shots. Under normal rules, where balls are retrieved on a scratch, if one of the remaining players scratches, the "out" player can recover a ball and return to the game.

Loss of Game

In Cutthroat Billiards, loss of game does not occur until the game is won by one of the three players. This is necessary since a player can be put out of the game when their last ball is pocketed and at the end of their inning if they pocketed it. Then the player may later be brought back into the game by one of their opponents, choosing to spot one of their balls to pay for a foul they committed. When the game is over, the last person to have been put out is the second player of the next game, the winner becomes the breaker, and the last person racks for the next game. This generally results in a shuffling of who owns which group of balls from one game to the next.


A player's turn continues so long as they pocket an opponent's ball with each shot. A shooter can even pocket their own ball without sinking an opponent's ball, thereby weakening their own chances to win in exchange for continuing their turn. This circumstance is generally called "cutting one's own throat".

When shooting, the player must make the cue-ball contact an object-ball and then either:

Pocket the object-ball, or send either the object ball, or the cue ball to a cushion. Failure to do so is a foul.

A player may shoot at any ball that they choose, but before shooting they must call the ball and the pocket. They need not call any detail such as kisses, caroms, combinations, or cushions, all of which are legal. A legally pocketed ball entitles the shooter to continue.

If a player sinks his last ball he can still win the game if he runs the table out in the same inning.

Illegally Pocketed Balls

Any of the shooter's balls pocketed on an illegal shot will be spotted, unless it was the shooter that pocketed them. Please note that an uncalled shot is considered an illegal shot.

Jumped Object Balls

In Cutthroat Billiards, jumped balls will be spotted if they do not belong to the shooter. If the jumped balls belong to the shooter they will count as pocketed.

Cue Ball After Jump, Scratch, or Foul

Each of these requires the shooter to either: Drop one ball from their group (their choice of which ball), or Spot one of each of their opponent's balls. Note that this may not always be possible, which would force them to drop one of their own. After the penalty has been assessed, the cue ball is put in play from:

When jumped off table, the cue ball is played out of the kitchen from behind the head string. When a scratch occurs, the cue ball is played out of the kitchen from behind the head string. When a foul, the cue ball is played from where it came to rest.

General Course of Play

The list below will give you a good mental picture of the outline of the course of play for cutthroat billiards:

Determine the order in which the three players will shoot. Rack and break. Choose your set of balls when you sink a ball. Choose either one through five, six through ten, or eleven through fifteen. These are your balls now, and you want them to remain on the billiard table. Continue playing as long as one of your balls remains on the table. Try to pocket all of your opponent's balls. Continue your inning each time you successfully pocket a ball. Win when you are the only player with at least one ball left.

Cutthroat Billiards Tips

Since cutthroat billiards is played with three people, you can "work on" that third player when they are not at the table. You can point out to them their easily sinkable balls owned by the third player to create a sense of nervousness. As you are doing this, you are, at the same time, breaking their attention and sight from your own balls. This breaks concentration and creates a sense of nervousness in that player, which can work to your advantage. Some writers on this game contend that you should make the loser pay for the beer!

Situate your active balls in unsinkable positions on the billiard table. In cutthroat billiards, the best offense is always a good defense.

When you scratch, return one of each of your opponent's balls to the billiard table even if they had none before.

When it's not your turn to shoot, help the active shooter locate your other opponent's easily sinkable balls.
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