The beginner's guide to the greatest pastimes: Cribbage

Get ready to meet your new weekend obsession

Get ready to meet your new weekend obsession

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The cribbage board is a familiar artifact. Usually, it's an unassuming plank of wood dotted with three winding tracks of small holes. Beneath, there is a hidden compartment for a set of coloured pegs. You will find a cribbage board in game cupboards, cottages, and in every Legion Hall in Canada. Cribbage (or "crib") has lasted for four centuries as one of the most beloved uses for a 52-card deck. Its reach is global, and its history rich.

Poker games can be like barroom brawls - they are about aggression, intimidation, and opportunism. Knockout blows are common; reversals are rapid. Bridge is the game of symbiotic partnership, grand strategy, and killer instinct. Cribbage, on the other hand, offers distinct and more subtle rewards. It is unlikely that it will become a sports network hit, but its fans rate it as the greatest card game ever invented. Cribbage is a stately race, advancing to the goal of 121 points by increments of one or two. Each player responds in turn to the other's moves, making game play more like conversation than combat. On the surface, it's a game of luck and arithmetic but experience reveals depths of strategy, tactics, and psychology. It can be played with two, three, or four players, and is the perfect way to while away an evening at the cottage.


The game of cribbage was invented by the poet, soldier, and ne'er-do-well Sir John Suckling in the 17th century. Suckling was reputedly the greatest player of both cards and bowls of his time. He was also a cheater on a massive scale. John Aubrey, a biographer, says that Suckling sent packs of marked cards as gifts to his noble pals across England. He then toured the country teaching cribbage to those to whom he had gifted trick decks, and "winning" about £20,000 from them, which amounts to nearly 8 million 2018 loonies. Like many devoted gamblers, he also had his lows. Having greatly reduced his fortune and facing poverty, he killed himself by poison while in Paris.

Suckling's legacy, however, lives on. Cribbage was soon adopted by seamen and spread with empire, becoming especially popular in North America. In fact, it is considered the official game of American submariners since commander Dick O'Kane got a perfect hand in cribbage right before starting a patrol in which he sank a record number of enemy boats. The crib board that he used in this game is now passed on to the oldest active submarine in the American fleet.

Crib has waned slightly in popularity, but is still widespread. In fact, there are weekly cribbage nights at bars, social clubs, and community centres across the country. For example, Lee Mac Neil of the Mount Dennis Legion Hall in Toronto hosts four tournaments each year, with over fifty teams of two, and players ranging from ages 16-90. Many of these players travel around the province to compete at different crib tournaments, so if you're looking for a game, the local legion hall is an excellent place to start.

What you need to know to get started

Cribbage can be played with two or three players, or two teams of two player. The game consists of a series of hands, each of which consist of three parts. The first is the deal, in which each player is dealt six cards and then discards two into the "crib" (or "box" or "kitty") which will come back into play later. Then players take turns playing cards, attempting to score points by playing particular combinations and adding up the face values of the cards (face cards count for ten). This is called "pegging". The final phase of the hand is "the show", in which players show their hands and score points based on different combinations of cards such as sums of fifteen, runs, flushes, and pairs.

The rules of the game are a little tricky to learn, but you'll have the hang of it after a couple of rounds. Wikipedia has a straightforward guide to the rules of crib here.

Part of the fun of cribbage is its expansive insider jargon. There isn't space here to list all of them, but here are a few crib terms to get you started.

Pone: An abbreviation of "opponent", refers to the player who is not the dealer.

Crib/box/kitty: The extra hand made of discarded cards which is counted for points by the dealer during the show portion of the hand.

Nineteen hand: If someone says they have nineteen points, they mean they have zero points. No combination of cards in crib yields nineteen, so it has become slang for zero.

Muggins: Also known as "cutthroat". This is an optional rule whereby a player can "steal" any points in their adversary's hand that they fail to count for themselves.

One for his nob: Scoring one point for holding the jack of the same suit as the cut card.

Two for his heels: Scoring two points for turning over a jack during as a starter or cut card.

What you need to get started

You need a regular 52 card deck. Technically, you can keep score with a pen and paper, but traditionally score is marked with a board drilled with holes and pegs. Crib boards range from the very functional to serious works of art. In the early 20th century, the Inupiaq people of Alaska would carve cribbage boards from Walrus tusks or the bones of Musk Ox to trade with colonists. Many of these gorgeous game boards now sit in museums or are sold at art auctions. If you're into woodworking, a cribbage board is a great DIY project. Find out how to get started here.

Top tips:

  • During the deal, each player discards two cards to create a crib or kitty. This creates an additional hand that the dealer can count for points at the end of the hand. This means that you should avoid discarding good cards (such as fives or ten cards) when your opponent has the deal. When you have the deal, you should feel free to put good cards in the kitty because you'll be able to make us of them later.
  • Do not lead with a five. Cards with a value of ten (this includes all face cards) are the most common in the game. Leading with a five invites your opponent to score 2 points by playing 15.
  • Try leading from a pair. Suppose you play an eight. If your opponent matches the card, he scores two points, and has fallen into your trap. You play the third eight for six points.
  • Lower cards are better for pegging, so they can be useful in your main hand. Try to hold on to them especially near the end of the game when pegging becomes more important.

Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.