Cribbage is a game that was created and developed in the 17th century. It is actually derived from an earlier game known as ‘noddy’. While its forebear has long since faded into obscurity, cribbage is still widely enjoyed in households across the world.
A game of cribbage requires two or three people. That said, beginners are advised to stick to two for the time being – the game can get a little bewildering when the third player is introduced. In the article that follows, we’ll take a look at how the game is played – and what tactics might be employed in order to play it effectively.
What do I need to play cribbage?
Cribbage requires a pack of fifty-two playing cards (so set the jokers to one side before proceeding). One of the most unusual features of Cribbage is that score is kept using a specially-perforated wooden board and a series of pegs. These can be obtained in most good game shops, or from online retailers. To begin with, it is acceptable to keep track of your score using a pen and paper – though if you decide that you’d like to take the game more seriously (or if you are looking for a gift for a Cribbage enthusiast) then a cribbage board will in all likelihood be perfectly suitable.
How is cribbage played?
During a game of cribbage, players will earn points. To win, a player must score 121 points. Points can be earned in a variety of ways – mostly by forming cards into various combinations. We’ll take a look at some of these a little later on, but for now it is sufficient to bear in mind the overall objective we are looking towards.
Before the deal
First, we must shuffle the deck and draw cards to see who has the privilege of dealing first. This can be done in a number of specific ways, but to begin with it’s common to simply draw a card each. The player who draws the highest card gets to deal first. If the cards are of the same value, then simply keep drawing until a dealer has been decided. You are now ready to begin playing!
The deal and the crib
The first phase of play is the deal. This is very straightforward – the dealer will deal the players six cards each. After this is done, it is time for the players to perform the crib. The crib involves each player surrendering two of their cards and placing them, face-down, in the centre of the table.
Deciding which cards to relinquish can be a tricky business and one which will depend on a multitude of factors – from the phase of the game to the other cards in the hand. We will take a closer look at this later, when we come to discuss tactics, but for now it is sufficient to know that each player will have four cards and the four in the centre will constitute ‘the crib’, which belongs to the dealer. These cards are not used until after the hand has been played.
We’re almost ready to commence play. But before we can do this, we need a starter card. The person who isn’t the dealer must first cut the deck. Then the dealer turns over the top card of the lowermost pack, and places it atop the pack. This card is the starter.
If it’s a Jack, then the dealer immediately scores two points. This card will be used by both players, in conjunction with the cards in their hands, in order to score further points.
We are now ready to play. Both players must turn over their cards, one by one, in any order they choose. As each player turns their card over, they announce a running total of the value of the cards in play. Each card is worth its face value in ‘pips’; picture cards each count for ten and an ace counts for just one. So for example, if one player first plays a four and then another turns over a queen, they would have fourteen and if the first player were then to turn over an ace they would have fifteen.
There is a catch, however. In a given round, the number of pips a player earns cannot exceed thirty-one. If a player cannot lay down a card without exceeding this number, then they must announce ‘Go’. A new phase of play is then entered.
When a player announces ‘Go’, their opposite number immediately pegs one (we will discuss pegging very shortly). They must then lay down any cards they can without exceeding thirty-one, and will peg further points for using certain combinations when doing so. If a player reaches thirty-one pips exactly, then two points are scored for the Go rather than one.
The player who called Go then leads again, with the pip count reset to zero. A point is also scored for playing the last card. Consequently, the dealer will certainly peg at least one point in every hand, as they will earn a point on the last card, even if they don’t ever get to thirty-one.
Points are scored in Cribbage by ‘pegging’. Points are earned for a Go, but they are also earned through a number of combinations of cards. Let’s take a look at all of these combinations:
If any player plays in a card which brings the total to fifteen, then they will earn two pegs. For this reason, certain cards are intrinsically more valuable than others, as they are divisible by fifteen.
If a player plays a card which matches the preceding card, then they will earn two pegs (a queen following a queen, for example).
A player might respond to a pair by playing a third card of the same value. This will then earn six pegs. This is also called a ‘pair royal’.
Even more improbably, a player might respond to a triplet by playing a fourth card of the same value. This will earn them a whopping twelve pegs. A fifth card, suffice to say, is evidence that something underhand is taking place.
Pegs can also be earned by forming an uninterrupted sequence (so, for example: 4-5-6). A run of three is the lowest value of run and will earn the player three points. Longer runs will earn co-ordinately higher pegs for every card played.
Once a play has ended, the hands are then counted. This phase of play is called ‘the show’. First the non-dealer’s, then the dealer’s and then the crib. In late-game this order becomes especially significant, as it affords the non-dealer an advantage – for reasons which will become clear. When each hand is counted, the starter card is considered the first card and so each hand really comprises five cards.
Scoring in the show.
Fifteen, pairs and runs all count for the same number of pegs that they do during play. But there are also some new combinations which can earn you points too. If all four cards (excluding the starter card and the crib) of a hand are from the same suit for example then the hand will earn another four pegs. If the starter is of the same suit as the four cards in a hand or crib, then the hand scores five pegs.
It is worth mentioning a point on combinations. During the show, cards can be employed in multiple combinations in order to get the maximum number of points. Sequences can be created by rearranging the cards into any order; so, for example, a sequence which runs 4,5,5,6 would earn three points for a run, and then three points again for another run using the same ‘5’ and then a further two points for a pair and finally another two points for having three cards which together amount to fifteen.
It is also important to note that sequences cannot come ‘full circle’ i.e. a king cannot form a sequence with an ace. Similarly, a flush cannot occur before the show.
Twenty-nine is the highest possible score in Cribbage. It requires a bewilderingly unlikely series of cards to come out in the player’s favour and is therefore roughly analogous to the royal flush in poker. In order to achieve a score of twenty-nine, the starting card must be five, as must three of the dealt cards. The final dealt card must then be a jack, in order to confer the ‘his nobs’ bonus. If you manage to achieve this, then congratulations – you’re incredibly lucky!
We’ve taken a look at the rules of cribbage, to the extent that we can probably play a few games now. It is highly recommended that you do so, in order to familiarise yourself with the way it works. If you get stuck, then you can refer back to this guide easily for help.
Once you’ve grown comfortable with the game, you can employ some more advanced tactics and strategies. Let’s examine some of the ways through which you can win at cribbage.
As we have seen, some cards are more intrinsically valuable than others, while some complement one another to create huge scores. Fives, being divisible by fifteen, are valuable – particularly if you have more than one of them. Four, Five and Six cards not only add up to fifteen, but also form a run. Threes, sixes and nines are valuable for similar reasons.
If it becomes clear when you look at your hand that some cards do not complement the rest, then you can dispense them into the crib. Sometimes this leaves you with a conundrum – is it better to put good cards into your opponent’s crib in order to create the best hand for yourself? This is a decision which will be influenced a great deal by the context of the game. If you are in a losing position, then you may be tempted to take a risk and play more aggressively. If, on the other hand, you have a lead to defend, then it may be better to try to – well – defend it.
Let’s take a look at some other considerations which may affect your strategy. Bear them in mind whilst you are playing the game.
If you lead with a three or a four, then your opponent will be unable to make fifteen in the following turn. Conversely, if you lead with a five, then your opponent will have four times the likelihood of holding the required ten than any other card – since they might hold a ten, a jack a queen or a king. For the same reason, you should try not to stop the count at twenty-one, as there are many cards with the value required to get the total up to thirty-one.
If you are faced with a choice between playing a pair or a fifteen, then opt for the fifteen in order to prevent your opponent from responding with a triplet. If, however, you have the card necessary to respond to make a four, then you can go ahead, safe in the knowledge that even if your opponent plays a triplet, you will be able to respond and score huge points!
Making these decisions and thereby outwitting (or being outwitted by) your opponent is central to Cribbage. Like many other card games, much of the fun and challenge of the game stems from a player’s ability to second guess their opponent. If you are good at doing this, then it is likely that you will prosper; if you are not, then Cribbage is an excellent way to learn.
This second-guessing strategy is difficult when two players are involved. As one might imagine, when a third is introduced, things can become hugely complicated. In this article we have examined how the game might be played using two players, as this variant is the most easily understood, there is no reason however that the rules thus far discussed cannot be applied to games which use three (or, with teams, even more) players.