I've played a lot of card games, and cribbage is far and away my favorite. It is quite unlike any other major card game out there, and while it is not overly difficult to learn, its apparent simplicity and randomness mask an underlying complexity of great depth. You improve your cribbage skills not through becoming a more powerful player, but becoming a more subtle one. I wish you great joy in your cribbage excursion.

The game of cribbage was likely invented in the 1630s by Sir John Suckling (1609-42), an English poet and dramatist whose passion for gambling and women probably outweighed his passion for words. Sir John's invention was actually based on two then-popular card games called Noddy and One-and Thirty. At the time, he called the game "cribbidge," but the passing years have softened the spelling. Today, the game remains rather popular in areas currently or formerly under the flag of the British Empire, probably moreso in the US and Canada than anywhere else.

To be the first player to score 121 points. (Variant: Some players choose shorter versions, playing to either 61 or 31 points.) Several rounds of play (generally between 8 and 10) may necessary to reach 121 points.

Cribbage is generally a two person game, though variants for three or four people may be played.

Cribbage is played with one standard 52-card deck (K is high and A is low) and score is kept on a cribbage board, which come in a wide variety of shapes and are commercially available. It is possible to keep score by hand, but the structure of cribbage play makes this difficult.

Using the cribbage board to keep score involves leapfrogging two pegs along a track of holes. When you score your first two points, for example, you will place one of your pegs in the second hole. When you sore another two points, you put your second peg (which becomes the "front peg") in the fourth hole, leaving the first peg (now the "back peg") in hole two. When you score another three points, you remove the back peg and place it in hole seven, and so forth.


The Deal
Before the first round, the players cut the deck to determine who will deal first. The player who cuts the lowest card (Ace is low) is the first dealer. Players cannot cut to either the top four or bottom four cards of the deck. The dealer shuffles the deck and deals six cards (one at a time, face down, and alternating—to the nondealer first, then to the dealer) to each player.

Each player then examines his six cards. He selects the best four and lays the other two aside (face down). These cards form the "crib," which the dealer will later be able to use to score points.

The Cut
The nondealer then cuts the remaining deck, again avoiding both the top and bottom four cards. He holds the top half of the pile up (not looking at the bottom card of the stack in his hand), and the dealer turns the exposed card, called the "cut card." The cut card is replaced (face up) on top of the remaining deck. Players may later use this cut card in forming scoring combinations with the cards in their hand.

If the cut card is a jack of any suit, the dealer pegs two points. This is known as "His Heels" in the terminology of the game.

The Play
The nondealer leads a card from his hand, followed by one played from the dealer's hand. Play alternates in this way until the total of all cards played (with face cards counting as 10) reaches 31, or until the point when no player is able to play a card that will keep the running total to 31 or below.

If a player, on his turn, is unable to play a card that keeps the total at 31 or below, he says "Go." The other player must then play whatever cards he can, until the limit of 31 is reached. If that player can bring the count to exactly 31, he scores two points. Otherwise, he scores one point for the "Go."

At this point, the running count is reset to zero, and the player who said "Go" must then lead another card from his hand, and the process repeats itself. If the player who said "Go" has no more cards in his hand, the other player may play his cards one at a time, scoring as appropriate and getting one point for playing the last card.

If a player lays down a card that brings the running total to 15, he scores two points. If a player lays down a card that completes a pair, three of a kind, or four of a kind, he scores either 2, 6, or 12 points, respectively.

If a player lays down a card that completes a run (see Scoring Combinations, below) of three, four, or five cards, he scores one point for each card in the run. These cards need not be played in numerical order to form a run: playing a 5 on top of a 7-6 (for 7-6-5) or 6-7 (for 6-7-5) scores three points. As long as there are no interrupting cards, the run may count. Thus, A-5-6-7 scores three points for the player laying down the 7, but 5-A-6-7 scores nothing.

Hand Example: Matt's hand consists of A-8-9-9, and Noel's consists of 2-7-10-J. Matt, as nondealer, leads the 8. Noel plays the 7, bringing the count to 15, and he scores two points. Matt plays his 9, bringing the count to 24 and scoring three points for the run. Noel must play his 2, bringing the count to 26. Matt plays his A, bringing the count to 25. Noel, with only the 10 and J left, cannot play a card without bringing the total over 31, and he says "go." Matt also has no cards to play, so he scores one point. Noel plays his 10, and Matt responds with the 9, his only remaining card, for a count of 19. Noel plays his last card, the J, bringing the count to 29 and scoring three points for the 10-9-J run. Since he played the last card, Noel scores one point.

Scoring the Hands
Once all cards have been played, the nondealer then scores his hand. He scores the appropriate points for each scoring combination in his hand, counting the cut card as a fifth card in his hand. It is customary to score the hand aloud, breaking the hand down to its basic components.

Example:Noel's hand consists of 3-4-5-8 and the cut card is a K. He has two fifteens (the 5-K and the 3-4-8), so he says, "Fifteen two, fifteen four," announcing the current total. He also has a run of three cards, the 3-4-5 for three points. So he finishes his scoring by saying "And a run of three make seven." He then scores the seven pegs on the board.

After the nondealer scores his hand, the dealer counts his points similarly and pegs appropriately.

Scoring the Crib
Once both hands have been counted, the dealer scores his crib in the same fashion and pegs the appropriate number of points.

Changing the Dealer
Once all scoring is complete, the deal passes to the nondealer.

The following are the various scoring combinations in cribbage. Familiarizing yourself with them will greatly increase your ability to count with accuracy and speed.

  • Fifteens Any combination of cards that totals 15 scores two points. For this purpose, cards are worth their pip value (aces as one, numbered cards as their number) and face cards (the jack, queen], and king) worth ten points each. Examples: 5-10, 7-8, 4-5-6, A-2-5-7 each score two points.
  • Pairs Each pair scores two points. The cards must be of the same rank even though face cards are worth ten points for some scoring purposes. Examples: 2-2, 6-6, and J-J each score two points; J-Q is not a pair.
  • Pairs Royal Three of a kind scores six points. The rationale for this is that there are three distinct pairs in each three of a kind; you can visualize this by putting three of the same cards in a triangle and counting the sides.
  • Double Pairs Royal Four of a kind scores twelve points, again because there are six distinct pairs.
  • Runs You score points for each distinct series of three or more consecutive cards, scoring one point for each card in the run. You cannot go "around the corner" with such runs as K-A-2, as the cards are not consecutive in rank. Examples: A-2-3 scores three points, 2-3-4-5 scores four points, 9-10-J-Q-K scores five points.
  • Flushes If the four cards of your hand are of the same suit, score four points. If the four cards of your hand and the cut card are of the same suit, score five points.

    There is a special rule for flushes in the crib, or "crib flushes": if the four crib cards are of the same suit, but do not match the cut card, you cannot score four points. If, however, all five cards are of the same suit, you score five points.

  • His Nobs If a jack in your hand is of the same suit as the cut card, score one point. This is often referred to simply as "nobs." (Variant: Some players choose to disallow the scoring of His Nobs in the crib.)

If is possible—indeed common—to have several different scoring combinations in the same hand, and in these cases you're entitled to peg for every one. Let's say you're holding the hand A-6-7-8 and the cut card is also an ace. This hand scores a total of 11 points, from the following categories:

  • 3 Fifteens (two distinct A-6-8 combinations plus the 7-8) for 6 points
  • A Pair (the aces) for two points
  • A Run of three (the 6-7-8) for an additional three points

It will be difficult to get the hang of all this in the beginning. It is useful to play with someone who is familiar with the game; but if you don't have that option, just take your time and look for each type of combination (fifteens, pairs, etc.) in turn.

Often, you may want to play a series of games against an opponent—"best of seven" is common. In these cases, the "skunk" (sometimes called the "lurch") penalty is important to remember. If your opponent reaches 121 points before you have reached 91 points, you are charged with a loss of two games, not just one. If you have not reached 61 points when your opponent reaches 121, you lose four games.

(Variant: Some players only penalize a player three games in the case of a double skunk. I think this is clearly ridiculous, as double skunks are extremely rare {I myself have played literally thousands of games and have only been double skunked once}, and if you are the victim of one you should feel very, very bad.)

This is an optional rule that is often omitted in friendly games. If a player does not peg the correct number of points, or fails to peg at all, you may claim the neglected points as your own. For example, a player holds the hand 2-3-4-6 and the cut card is 9. He pegs seven points, although the correct total is nine. You may then call "muggins" and "mug" him for the extra two.

Because Players may score points in many phases of the game, and because the nondealer and dealer peg their hands at different times, the relatively unique concept of timing is extremely important in cribbage. At the master level, this factor has been used to create complex playing strategies, but for the beginner it is only important to remember this: the first player to reach 121 points (or whatever lower score you may have agreed upon) is the winner. It is possible, for example to lose a game because the dealer pegs two points for His Heels. This is relatively rare, but it will happen.

To play with three people, the dealer deals five cards (one at a time) to each player, then one to the crib. Each player discards one card from his hand to the crib. Player to the left of the deal cuts the deck and makes first lead. The rules for four-person cribbage are similar: five cards are dealt to each player, and each discards one to the crib. Four-player cribbage may be played by teams, with two players combining their scores.

Crib"bage (kr?b"?j), n. [From Crib, v. t., 2.]

A game of cards, played by two or four persons, in which there is a crib. (See Crib, 11.) It is characterized by a great variety of chances.

A man's fancy would be summed up in cribbage. John Hall.

Cribbage board, a board with holes and pegs, used by cribbage players to score their game.


© Webster 1913.

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