Pickleball with 3 Players

How to play Pickleball with only 3 players? (Cutthroat/Australian Doubles)


Anyone who has played pickleball more than a handful of times knows that it’s not always easy to round up 4 players to play pickleball. Sometimes a friend is late or even bails at the last second (we ALLL have that one friend). Having only 3 players isn’t the end of the world because there are usually people around looking to hop on the court and play.

In the rare case that there aren’t any floaters looking to fill in at your local courts and you only have 3 players, you can always play this variation called Cutthroat/Australian Doubles.

What I love about this variation is the competitive pressure that is put on each individual person. While you play on everyone’s team at some point during the game, you score points as an individual. You serve as a single player and earning points can be daunting when you are pitted against 2 players. Once you lose and rotate, you work to get back to the serving side as quickly as possible. It’s up to you to earn the points and the accountability falls on you

How to Play Cutthroat Pickleball:

Serving side/single player side:

The boundary is determined by the half that the player serves from. The serving player may have one or two faults depending on what is predetermined by the players. The player only has to cover the half of the court that they are serving from. Any hits to the non-serving side during that point is out of bounds. When the receiving side wins, the players rotate clockwise and the newly serving player attempts to score points.

Receiving side/2 players:

The single player is allowed to hit the ball anywhere within the normal boundaries. As was explained above, the two players have to keep the ball within the half that the single player served from.

Quick things to note:

  • This may go without saying but you can only score when you are serving. Keep track of your points while you are serving and if you rotate to the other side of the net, get back as soon as possible. First person to 11 points wins.
  • This variation is a great drill. What separates great players from the best players is the ability to adjust to your opponent. I have played against players much better than me, but as I pay attention to their tendencies and weaknesses, I am able to get an edge that enables me to put away points.
  • As you play cutthroat, you have a different teammate and opponent every couple of points. As you serve, you can pit both players against each other as you figure out their tendencies.
  • Additionally, you are able to play in a doubles setting without the uncertainty and pressure of playing with a partner. You can focus on shots that you would use in doubles without having to second guess a teammate.
  • Conversely, as you play against the single side, you are forced to be even more precise because the boundary is cut in half. You can focus on practicing deeper slice shots up the lines or hard angle if you are diagonal from the server side.

Bottom Line:

Cutthroat/Australian Doubles is a great variation to play regardless of whether or not you are down a player. If you are looking for ways to take your game to the next level, consider playing cutthroat and using your opponents’ tendencies against them. This is a good skill to develop and will certainly get you little improvements to your game (which honestly makes a huge difference once you are playing at a high level).

Here’s a link to a video that has a great visual demonstration of playing pickleball with 3 people: Cut Throat with Casey Patterson