Can You Play Pickleball With 3 Players? Unleash The 3 Player Pickleball Revolution

Can You Play Pickleball with 3 Players? Unleash the 3 Player Pickleball Revolution

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Pickleball can be played with 3 players, this is known as “cutthroat” pickleball. In cutthroat, each player takes turns serving while the other two players are on the receiving team. The serving player attempts to score points against the two receivers.

When the serving player loses the rally, players rotate positions clockwise and the next player serves. The first player to reach 11 points wins the game. Cutthroat pickleball allows each player to be more involved than traditional doubles and provides good practice for doubles skills like dinking and lobbing.

The key strategies are to focus shots at the weaker opponent when receiving and to move quickly when rotating positions. Overall, cutthroat pickleball is a fun variant that works well when you only have 3 players.

What Is Cutthroat Pickleball?

Cutthroat pickleball is a variant of the game played with 3 players instead of 2 teams of 2. In cutthroat, the players take turns serving while the other two players form the receiving team.

Points are scored by the serving player against the two receivers. Whenever the serving player loses the rally, players rotate positions clockwise and the next player takes over the serve. This rotation continues throughout the game.

The first player to reach 11 points wins the game of cutthroat pickleball. Some alternate variations play to 15 or 21 points.

Cutthroat pickleball requires each player to constantly switch between serving and receiving. It combines the skills of doubles pickleball with the added intensity of competing against the other individuals.

According to the USA Pickleball Association, cutthroat offers excellent practice for doubles play while allowing 3 players to fully participate. Since you’re always receiving against two opponents, it enhances skills like blocking shots down the middle.

How Do You Play Cutthroat Pickleball?

Here is a step-by-step overview of the cutthroat pickleball rules and format:

1. Determine Serving Order

Since there are no teams, decide the initial serving order randomly, often by flipping a paddle or drawing numbers.

2. First Server Begins Game

The first designated server starts the cutthroat pickleball game.

They serve diagonally to the receiving players following standard pickleball service rules.

3. Receivers vs. Server

On the serve, it’s the two receiving players against the one server.

The receiving team attempts to win the rally and gain a point against the server. The server tries to score a point against the two receivers.

4. Rotate Positions When Server Loses

As soon as the serving player loses the rally, players rotate positions clockwise.

The previous 1st receiver now moves to the serving position. The previous server switches over to receive.

5. New Server Begins Next Point

After rotating positions, the new server begins the next point.

Play continues with players rotating each time the server loses the rally.

6. First to 11 Wins Game

The first player to reach 11 points wins the game of cutthroat pickleball.

Some variations play to 15 or 21 points. Players often rotate serving order each new game.

7. Switch Ends After Each Game

After a game ends, players switch sides of the court before starting the next game. This helps balance any sun/wind advantages.

That covers the basic flow of a cutthroat pickleball game! The format enables constant rotation so each player spends time serving and receiving against the other two opponents.

Key Strategies and Tips for Cutthroat Pickleball

Succeeding at cutthroat pickleball requires strategies tailored to its unique 3 player format. Here are some key tactics and tips:

Receiving Tips

  • Focus shots at the weaker opponent – When receiving, aim to move the ball around to the player that struggles more with their returns. Attack their weakness.
  • Communicate – The two receivers should talk to each other and establish which opponent to target shots at.
  • Block down the middle – With two receivers, make it hard for the server to hit angles by blocking shots down the center.
  • Lob over weaker opponent’s head – When the weaker opponent is up at the non-volley zone, execute lobs over their reach.

Serving Tips

  • Serve to weaker receiver’s forehand – Target serves to the weaker player’s forehand to increase chances of an error.
  • Vary spin – Use topspin, backspin, and flat serves to keep the receivers off-balance.
  • Move quickly into position – After serving, get back into ready position fast so you can cover shots from both opponents.
  • Poach shots up the middle – When the receivers leave a gap up the center, poach and strike the ball up the line past them.

Movement and Positioning

  • Switch sides smoothly – When rotating positions after the server loses a rally, move into place rapidly to get ready for the next point.
  • Retreat quickly after serving – As the server, get back into position fast so you’re ready for returns.
  • Protect the middle – As receivers, communicate to guard the middle and force the server to go down the lines.

The Pros and Cons of Cutthroat Pickleball

Cutthroat pickleball provides some unique benefits but also has drawbacks compared to traditional doubles play:


  • More participation – Allows 3 players to be involved instead of sitting out.
  • Enhances doubles skills – Improves abilities like dinking, lobbing, and poaching that are useful in doubles.
  • Intense competition – You’re constantly battling the other individuals to score points.
  • Evens out skills – Less experienced players get to face better players both while serving and receiving.


  • Tougher physically – Increased running compared to doubles since you switch positions after every server loss.
  • Less organized – Cutthroat has a more chaotic free-for-all feel than structured doubles.
  • Communication challenges – The two receivers must collaborate without letting the server know their strategy.
  • Harder for newer players – Constantly having to receive two opponents as a newer player can be frustrating.

Overall the pros seem to outweigh the cons for most pickleballers. The fitness benefits and inclusive participation make cutthroat appealing!

Why Is Cutthroat Pickleball Rising in Popularity?

Cutthroat pickleball grew by around 33% in 2021 according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. So what’s driving more players to adopt the 3 player format?

More Intense Exercise

Chasing down shots from two opponents raises your heart rate! The extra movement compared to doubles provides an intense cardio workout.

Skills Development

Facing shots from two receivers as the server enhances reaction time. As a receiver, you must learn to cover more court. Cutthroat builds skills that boost doubles success.

Inclusive Participation

Having 3 players rotate positions keeps everyone engaged. Players of different abilities get to directly face each other.

Unique Fun Factor

The constant rotation and battles between individuals create a thrill and unpredictability lacking in doubles. The change of pace appeals to veteran pickleballers.

As more players discover the enjoyment of cutthroat, it will likely continue growing as a popular variant of the game. The 3 player format allows a form of pickleball tailored small groups.

How to Get Started with Cutthroat Pickleball

Ready to embrace the 3 player pickleball revolution? Here are some tips to begin:

  • Find 2 other players – You need exactly 3 people, so coordinate schedules with a couple pickleball-loving friends.
  • Explain the format – Before playing, review the cutthroat rules so everyone understands the serving and rotation system.
  • Use foam or plastic balls initially – The slower pace helps master the unique strategies like targeting shots against weaker opponents.
  • Communicate as partners – The receivers should discuss tactics like poaching the middle or hitting to forehands.
  • Rotate positions smoothly – When switching places after a server loss, hustle into the new position so play resumes quickly.
  • Have fun competing! – Embrace the cutthroat mindset of battling the other individuals while enjoying friendly competition.

The joyful yet competitive spirit of cutthroat pickleball will soon have you hooked on its 3 player format. Coordinate with two fellow players today to serve up your first taste of this addicting pickleball variant!

Frequently Asked Questions About 3 Player Pickleball

Is cutthroat pickleball an official format?

Yes, cutthroat pickleball is recognized by the USA Pickleball Association as an official variant of the game alongside singles and doubles. The primary pickleball governing bodies sanction cutthroat leagues and tournaments.

What are the origins of cutthroat pickleball?

While pickleball was invented in 1965, the exact origins of the cutthroat format are unclear. It likely evolved informally as players experimented with ways to enable 3 people to play. Cutthroat then spread as an enjoyable alternative to doubles for small groups.

How do the rules differ from doubles?

The main differences are the rotation system and competing individually. In cutthroat, players rotate positions clockwise each time the server loses a rally rather than staying on fixed teams. And scoring is based on individual players rather than partners working together.

Is one position in cutthroat pickleball most advantageous?

The server has a slight advantage since they can fully control shots and strategy. The two receivers must cooperate and cover more territory reacting to the server’s placement. But the rotation ensures everyone spends equal time in each position.

What size court can you play cutthroat pickleball on?

Cutthroat can be played on any standard-sized pickleball court – singles, doubles, or even indoor courts. The dimensions are identical to a doubles court. No modifications to court size are needed.

How do pickleball strategies differ in cutthroat?

Key strategic differences are targeting the weaker opponent when receiving, poaching as the server, communicating with your receiving partner, and rapid position switching. Serving and return strategies must focus on the individual players’ strengths/weaknesses.

Who typically plays cutthroat pickleball?

While great for all skill levels, cutthroat appeals most to intermediate to advanced players looking to build doubles skills and face intense competition. Beginners may find the rapid rotations and receiving against two opponents frustrating initially.

What paddle characteristics work best for cutthroat?

Control and touch are essential for placing shots accurately. Look for paddles with composite faces like polymer or fiberglass that offer great control for dinking. Edgeless paddles also help sustain rallies. Medium weights around 7.5-8.3oz are ideal.

Is cutthroat pickleball sanctioned for tournaments?

Yes, many local and regional tournaments now include cutthroat divisions. The medal winners are based on each individual player’s performance rather than partners. Cutthroat works well for round robin pool play formats.

Embrace the Cutthroat Pickleball Revolution!

Looking for a fun way to play pickleball with 3 people? Give cutthroat pickleball a try!

The constant rotation and intense head-to-head competition create an action-packed format embracing the inclusive and social spirit of pickleball.

While game strategy and physical demands differ from doubles, cutthroat will rapidly improve control and reflexes. And the smile-inducing battles will provide hours of enjoyment.

Convince a couple friends to grab their paddles and unleash your cutthroat instincts today. Just be prepared to become addicted as you experience this thrilling twist on the world’s fastest growing sport!


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