Friday, August 6, 2010

Nobs, Heels, and Muggins: Why Cribbage is King

Sometimes you learn a new game and discover just what you’ve been missing all these years. If I had an opportunity to sit down with a card player and teach him any game I could, that game would be Cribbage.

Until a couple of months ago, my sole point of reference for Cribbage was “that game that Maj. Winchester played on M*A*S*H.” Sure, I knew about the famous board-and-peg scoring mechanic, and even had a couple of boards lying around, but I never just sat down to learn the game.

Between the Cribbage King App and David Parlett’s Penguin Book of Card Games, I was able to teach myself fairly quickly. I began playing several hands on the App every day, and gradually got the hang of its unique elements.

Cribbage is part card game, part race game. The function of the board is to track points for each hand. The first person to make it to 121, wins. The game was invented in the early 17th Century by Sir John Suckling, who not only had a great name, but was also one the Cavalier poets (a group that included Ben Jonson and Robert Herrick).

The point system can be intimidating at first, since it seems to have a lot of fussy details. In fact, it’s governed by a few easy-to-remember rules. Each player is dealt 5 cards (or 6 or 7, depending upon which version you choose to play). They immediately discard 2 cards to the “crib,” which is a second hand that will be scored by the dealer. (The role of dealer alternates each turn, with low card beginning the deal.)

The play is simple: people take turns laying cards, one at a time, face up on the table. Each card has a standard point value, Aces low. Points are awarded based on a few simple criteria. Pairs, triples, and runs peg 1 point per card. If someone places a card that brings the face total to 15, they peg 2 points. If they are the last person able to play a card without going over 31, they peg a point. If they bring the total to 31, they peg 2 points. Card placement then begins again until both hands are exhausted.

When placement is done, players score their hands. They peg points for combinations adding up to 15, pairs, and runs. The dealer also gets to score the “crib” as an extra hand. Thus, when you control the crib, you discard good cards worth points. When the opponent controls the crib, you discard junk (or what you hope will be junk).

I’m leaving out some of the finer points, along with the colorful British terminology. There are points for “His Heels” and “His Nobs,” rules for swiping other people's points (called "muggins"), and other details that add color and depth. Check out the Pagat entry for the full rules.

Cribbage works on several levels, with interlocking strategies that are a delight to manipulate. As with any card game, you're subject to the luck of the draw, but you can bend that luck in ways other games don't allow. A bad draw doesn't have to correlate to a bad hand. The choice of which cards to unload to the crib (as dealer or non-dealer), what order to lay down cards, and which points to attempt all factor into the strategy.

There really is nothing quite like it in the realm of card play. Despite its layered scoring system (which allows cards to score points more than once) and its unique terminology, it’s a fairly easy game to learn and teach. It also plays like gangbusters. People familiar with the rules and scoring system can knock through a full scoring track in about 15 to 20 minutes.

Don’t be put off if the rules seem a bit baroque. A little time spent with an App or web version of the game will get you up to speed quickly. You’ll soon start to see where points are made, and how to manage the crib to best thwart your opponent while rewarding yourself. Print out a simple cheat sheet of the scoring combos and keep it at hand as you learn. A good one can be found here.

Almost every discount store sells a cheap Cribbage board. Target and Walmart sell one by Cardinal that costs about $5, and stores the pegs in a cavity on the bottom. (It also comes with a deck of Cardinal cards, which are good for target practice.)

The eCribbage site is also an excellent way to play, and I plan to cover it in more depth.

It can be played by up to four people, but Cribbage is best as a two-handed game. Although it’s a quintessential English pub game, it doesn’t have a huge following in America.

Let’s try to remedy that.


accordeonaire said...

Went through an intense cribbage phase when I lived in Arkansas. Playing in pubs with the wife. I notice YOU don't mention playing with your wife ... she too cut-throat for ya? Because that's when the game either loses it's charm or becomes a life swallowing obsession, when you start stealing each other's points. I wasn't shark enough for those waters.

Thomas L. McDonald said...

We don't tend to get too cut throat with games. (Except Scrabble, where I automatically play a blocking game.)

I'm slowly walking the kids through more basic card games before I teach them Cribbage. And then I shall make them weep with my merciless application of the muggins rule.

Anonymous said...

There's nothing like a good game of cribbage!
Thomas, send me an email if you want about an article on ecribbage, I'll tell you all you need to know :)

Damien Blond

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