Play Formats with Uneven Players

What do you when you show up for rec or open play and you don’t have the right number of players? Typically, you’ll have some type of queue or paddle stack. If there are multiple players waiting, most groups will follow the “4 on, 4 off” method. It’s nice but sometimes you get stuck playing with the same four players and play can get monotonous.

Another commonly used method is the “2 on, 2 off” with winners staying and splitting. This is a nice way to mix things up because one of the two winners will be on the losing team for the next game so the players are continuously getting mixed and paired in various ways.

But what do you do when there are only three players? Do you just pack it up and go home? Stay and drill? Play singles and take turns sitting out?

One of my favorite ways to play with only three players is a format called cutthroat, where there’s one player on one side and two players on the other.

Cutthroat (3-Player Game)

  • Each player plays for themselves.
  • The serving team has one player and the receiving team has two players.
  • We typically play this where the receiving team must hit to the serving team/player’s box (even box if the score is even, odd box if the score is odd) and any shots falling outside of the proper box are considered out. However, the serving player may hit the ball anywhere in the receiving team’s court. (Sometimes, if we’re feeling ambitious, we play this with the single player playing the entire court and not just the even or odd box.)
  • The serving player continues to serve (serving from the right if the score is even and from the left if the score is odd) until they commit a fault and lose the serve.
  • Players then rotate clockwise with the next player turning their turn as the serving team/solo player.
  • Play continues until one player reaches 11 points.

Whenever we have six players and more than one court, usually the two waiting players will play singles or drill or simply chat while waiting to take their turn. The usual format is is “2 on, 2 off” but if you only have one court or want all players to be involved, Mortimer Pickleball is a good option.

Mortimer Pickleball (6-Player Game)

  • Each team consists of three players with one of the players being the Mortimer.
  • All three serving team players start at the baseline but only two of them head to the non-volley zone (NVZ) once the rally begins.
  • On the receiving team, one player receives the serve, another stands at the NVZ, and the Mortimer stays behind.
  • After the return of serve, two players play at the NVZ and the Mortimer stays behind to cover lobs or any shots that get past the two front players.
  • The Mortimer cannot serve or return the serve.
  • If one of the two front players makes an error (hits the ball out or into the net) or commits a fault of any kind, then they become the Mortimer.
  • Players take turns being Mortimer until one team reaches 11 points.

King of the Court

  • King of the Court is a form of ladder play that is sometimes referred to as “up and down the river.”
  • Everyone moves to a new court after each round — winners move up and split; losers move down and split — with the exception of the top and bottom courts.
    • At the top court, winners will stay and split.
    • At the bottom court, losers will stay and split.
  • This type of format is best when there are an even number of players but can be modified for when there are players in the queue.
    • Winners always move up and split after each round.
    • Players waiting in the queue will feed into the bottom court, two at a time.
    • Losers will stay and split, except for the top court.
    • Losers from the top court move into the queue and wait for their next turn to feed from the bottom.

I like the King of the Court format but I’m not a fan of the modified format because it rewards the weaker players. If you always lose, then you’re always staying and splitting and never have to sit out a game. On the flip side, it penalizes the better players who actually make it to the top court because they end up having to sit out when they lose. For this reason, whenever there are waiting players, I prefer to use a format called “the funnel.”

The Funnel

  • Players waiting in queue will feed from the top court but every court is a “winner” court — winners always stay and split. Winners are basically rewarded by not having to sit out.
  • Losing team moves down to the next court and splits.
  • Players keep moving down a court as they continue losing until they reach the bottom court.
  • Losers from the bottom court will exit and get back in the queue for their next turn.

I prefer the funnel format because then I can get comfortable and make myself at home if I want and keep my water bottle and towel etc. at the same court because winners never have to move which, besides not having to sit out, is a reward in itself. LOL.

What are some play formats that you’ve tried? Which format is your favorite and why do you prefer it? Is there a format that you absolutely hate? What do you dislike about it? Would love to read your feedback in the comments.

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