Making points: Cribbage tournament draws a crowd to Nikiski

This is our 'get-out-and-meet-people' activity. --Kathy Kole

Posted: Sunday, February 25, 2001

Cribbage is a game that one can learn as a child and then spend the next 70 or 80 years mastering. Like every card game, there is the luck of the draw and the skill of strategy.

At the regular Sunday cribbage tournament at the Nikiski Senior Center on Island Lake Road, both luck and skill are in good supply.

While many of the competitors are retired, the game is not the exclusive venue of seniors -- or Nikiski residents, as it attracts regular players in their 30s and from as far away as Sterling.

The 13-week tournament starts right around Super Bowl time, though it skips Easter. Each week costs $10 to enter, with 60 percent of that money going to that day's top three winners. The other 40 percent is donated to the Cook Inlet Lions Club to buy eyeglasses for children.


Story and Photos by Jay Barrett

"We get a lot of calls from school nurses about children who need glasses but don't have the resources," said Bob Harrison, tournament organizer and "Tail-Twister" of the Lions club.

The Nikiski league players do not gamble on their games, though it is a common practice elsewhere to play for a penny a point -- that is, the loser pays the winner a penny for every point they lose by.

Gambling on the game almost certainly was on the forefront in the mind of the game's creator.

Cribbage was invented in the mid-1630s by Sir John Suckling, a wealthy, Cambridge-educated poet, soldier and gambler. He adapted it from two other well-known games of the era, Toddy and One-and-Thirty. The number 31 is significant in cribbage, as it is the point total players strive for during each hand. There have been no major changes to the game in the past 370 years.


Morris Quale lays down his hand after counting up his cards during a tournament last week.

Story and Photos by Jay Barrett

At the American Cribbage Congress World Wide Web site, (, they honor Suckling with a biography that begins: "England's greatest contribution to western civilization is the card game called Cribbage -- not the works of William Shakespeare."

Some may agree, others may not. One thing is for sure, cribbage has filled many a long dark winter night on the American and Alaska frontiers for centuries.

Children were taught the game soon after they could count to 31, and families have been known to play round-robin tournaments well into the night, huddled around the pot-bellied stove or the Victrola, playing scratchy songs from far away.

To play cribbage, six cards are dealt face down, of which each player must choose two to put into the dealer's "crib," or second hand. What one keeps and what one gives away is critical, as different combinations of cards count for different amounts of points.


A player cuts the deck before dealing a hand during the tournament.

Story and Photos by Jay Barrett

The four cards in the hand are supplemented by a card flipped over from the deck, which both players share. In this game, 15 is the lucky number, as any combination of cards that add up to it counts for two points.

Alternating play, each contestant throws down a card, adding its value to the cards already played. Pairs, treys and four of a kind count for various points, as do runs and hitting the numbers 15 and 31 on the nose.

After each round, the players count the cards in their hand, and leapfrog two pegs down a board to the number of points they've scored. The first to 121 goes "out" and is the winner.

At the Sunday game, a win is worth one point, while a "skunk" or "double skunk" is worth two points. A skunk is where a player fails to score more than 90 points, a double skunk is when the player doesn't even make it past 60.

The person with the most points on the day wins, and scores are totaled through the season to determine a champion at the end of the year. The top point-getter of the season wins a laser-etched cribbage board. Three other boards are given to the top three players on the last day.

"That's pretty much what we're playing for," Harrison said.

Kathy Kole grew up playing cribbage and participated in tournaments in New Mexico before moving to the Kenai Peninsula recently.

"This is our 'get-out-and-meet-people' activity," she said.

Her husband, Joe, also plays, but he just learned the game.

Laura Lawrence, a teacher at Sterling Elementary School, said she learned how to play five years ago while teaching in Selawik.

"I needed something to do," she laughed.

Lawrence heard about the Nikiski tournament two years ago on the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District e-mail system. She said she was looking for someone to play with, and another teacher suggested Nikiski.

She didn't play much last year, though. After buying a new computer, she discovered interactive Internet cribbage, where she played others from all around the world at

"My computer was new, and I thought 'why fight the roads,' and so I just stayed home and played," Lawrence said. "But I got tired of looking at the computer screen and wanted to play against people again."

She said playing the computer and online honed her playing skills, but she had to be careful not to lose her counting skills, since the computer does the counting and pegging.

Harrison was wearing a bandage on his left hand at a game recently and asked another regular if he would shuffle the cards for him.

"I'd appreciate it if you'd help," Harrison said with a smile. "And since I'm having difficulty playing, I'd appreciate it if you took it easy on me."

To which Morris Quale replied, "How about if I peg for you, too?" bringing down the room in laughter.

That exchange was typical of the good times the dozen or more players have at the Sunday gathering. They are so good natured, in fact, that they do not steal each other's points.

"We just count them out for each other," Harrison said.

Stealing points is a tactic for the serious player, who keeps track of the opponent's count, and if any points are missed, they can be "stolen" and pegged by the player who discovers the miscount.

Harrison said during the eight years the tournament has been run, there have been "any number" of hands with 24 points in them -- last year's champ, Butch Ewing had several last Sunday -- but nobody at the table ever remembers a hand of 29, the highest hand possible.

There are, of course, several hands of "19" a weekend. That number really means a hand of zero, with no points, so picked because it is impossible to have a hand add up to 19.

The Nikiski cribbage tournament is played every Sunday, starting at 3 p.m. It takes about 2 1/2 hours to play the seven games each participant plays.

Everyone and anyone is welcome to play, Harrison said. But hurry, the tournament ends May 6.

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