Cribbage players put skills, luck to test for charity

In good hands

Posted: Sunday, March 02, 2003

"You rat!"

"Go for it, God hates a coward!"

"If you go out to the parking lot and your tires are flat, don't talk to me!"

From the sound of cards shuffling and some of the statements being made, a passerby might think they were overhearing a high-stakes poker game in a tough bar room.

But this wasn't some seedy bar with rickety stools and stale beer nuts for snacks. This was a gathering room upstairs at Vintage Pointe Manner in Kenai on Feb. 22. The seating was padded, the snacks were homemade, and even the most colorful comments were delivered with smiles and punctuated by bursts of laughter.

And the game being played wasn't poker. It was a game that is older and more widely played: cribbage.

The game was part of a tournament and there was money at stake, but the real purpose of playing wasn't to come out the big winner -- although there was some good-natured competitive ribbing going on.


A player moves pegs on the board after counting his hand.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"They go for the jugular, that's why I have a turtleneck on," said Judy Piepgras.

The stated purpose of the game was to raise money for charity. The Cook Inlet Lions Club puts on a cribbage tournament every winter, open to anybody, where players meet on Saturdays for 13 weeks to test their skills and compete for money and prizes. Beyond that, though, the goal of participating in the tournament is simply for the players to have a good time and enjoy each other's company.

"I just come in for the entertainment value," said Tom Hindman. "The money that's spent is a donation for the Lions Club. The rest of it's just something to do for the day."

Each week, every player puts up $10 to participate. Sixty percent of that money goes back to the winning players. Participants play a series of seven games each Saturday, rotating opponents every game. The winner of each game gets a certain number of points, which is recorded on a scorecard. At the end of the 13-week tournament, cumulative points are added up and hand-made cribbage boards are awarded to the first-, second- and third-place players. Another board is awarded to the winning player of that day's games.

The remaining 40 percent of the money goes to fund the Lions Club vision program. The Lions Club has operated a vision program since 1925 when Helen Keller challenged the club to be "knights of the blind," said Heidi Dominick, one of the tournament participants and a Lions Club member.

"We do anything we can to prevent people from going blind, or we do whatever we can to help them get around if they're seeing impaired," Dominick said.

The cribbage tournament draws a crowd of about 15 players and raises about $500 to $600 a year, which is all spent in the Nikiski area, since that's where the Cook Inlet Lions Club is located, Dominick said. With that money, the club pays for eye exams and glasses for people who need them and can't afford them.


A cribbage board separates two players during a tournament at Vintage Pointe Manor last weekend. The game uses cards to accumulate points that are tallied on the board.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

On a larger scale, the Lions Club district that the Cook Inlet group is part of also contributes to the Leader Dogs for the Blind program. The program was founded in 1939 by a group of Michigan Lions to train and provide seeing-eye dogs for the blind. This year the Lions Club district the Cook Inlet group is part of contributed $10,000 to the program and pledged another $50,000 more for the next four years, Dominick said.

The Cook Inlet group, like other Lions Club groups, also participates in an eyeglasses recycling program, where discarded glasses are cleaned up and given to someone in need who matches the prescription.

"Our glasses go all over the world," Dominick said.

The cribbage tournament began 10 years ago to raise money for the vision program, said Bob Harrison, tournament organizer.

"It was just a game that everybody agreed to play," Harrison said. "Just about everybody plays the darn thing."

The exact history of the game is a little sketchy, but it is thought to have been invented in England by the poet Sir John Suckling around 1632, according to traditional games online. Suckling was something of a scoundrel, known for his expertise in cards and dice and his tendency to do whatever was necessary to win at them.

In cribbage, or crib, for short, players compete to score points. Points are gained from being dealt combinations of cards that total 15, runs of three or more cards, flushes of four or more cards, pairs, three of a kind and four of a kind. In two-handed cribbage, each player is dealt six cards. The dealer and opponent both discard two cards into the dealer's crib. The opponent cuts the deck of remaining cards and the dealer takes the cut card and places it face up on the deck. That card can be used by both players to add points to their hands.

At this point, the players takes turns laying down cards, again trying to score points by making pairs, runs, etc. Each card played builds on the previous one (a three played after a 10 would be 13, and so on) until the tally reaches 31 or the closest the players can get to without going over 31. The play resumes at zero until both players are out of cards. After this round, the players count the points in their hands and the dealer counts the points in their crib. Then the opponent deals and it starts all over again.

The first player with 121 points wins the game. Points are marked on a scoring board with pegs. Each time a player gets a point, he or she moves one of their pegs forward one hole.

Since its invention, cribbage has spread across the world and has become a favorite pastime for families to teach to their children.

"There are a lot of people who play cribbage," Piepgras said. "Our elders played cribbage because back then you didn't have TV and those things available to us, so they played cards. Now everybody sits behind a computer and doesn't get out and see people."

Dominick grew up in Ninilchik and learned cribbage from playing with her uncles.

"That was the thing everybody got together to do," she said. "... I played with the guys at the bar and the rules haven't changed much since."

Cribbage has been especially popular in the armed forces and similar professions where workers can have stretches of free time to fill, yet are stuck in one place.

"I worked on boats for a long time," said Jim Arness. "Anytime we had a time where we were not doing something, we got out the cards."

Ralph Rector learned to play when he was in the Army.


Ralph Rector stops to watch as Piepgrass' defeat nears.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"It's fast and it's fun, no matter if you're a novice or somebody who plays it all the time," he said. "It's fun to relax with it and play."

If you're playing for money, however, as cribbage often is, it helps to have some experience at it.

"I learned from my dad and I never really learned how to play until I went to sea and played for a penny a point," said George Shaw. "You learn quick when it's a penny a point."

Piepgras learned the game just four years ago, making her a novice compared to the more seasoned players in the tournament, many of whom have been playing the game for 30 years or more. Her husband, Ken, played crib with his friends but never taught her how to play.

"I would never have 'Mr. Competition' teach me," she joked. "He would slit my throat and dump me in a garbage can."

Piepgras visited a good friend of her's in Nevada who knew how to play, so she asked her friend to teach her. When she got back to Alaska, she told her husband to get out the cribbage board. He protested at first, saying it would be too tough to teach her, but they finally played.

"On my first game I beat him, and that started our competition," she said.

As Piepgras can attest to, cribbage is not a difficult game to learn, but there are strategies and nuances that can take years to master.


With nothing but zeros in the win column, other players tease Piepgrass at the end of last week's games.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"When you start to play, you think it's just the luck of the cards," she said. "I keep learning all the time. It's a great game, and you meet such wonderful people."

Now Piepgras and her husband seek out cribbage tournaments to play in when they go on vacation. They consult a book that lists the dates and locations of cribbage tournaments across the country. Piepgras has played in tournaments ranging from 65 people up to 1,200.

She and her husband played in one in the Lower 48 where they were the highest qualifiers for the final round.

"They said 'All right you scummy Alaskans, you're not welcome back,'" she said. "But they love playing with us because they think we have nothing better to do in Alaska. They think we're crazy."

In another tournament, she was paired with a man in his 70s who was wearing an impressive-looking ring that she thought was from a college or university.

When she asked him about it, he told her it was a cribbage ring. He explained that if someone is a master player and they get so many points, they get a cribbage ring, like his.

"And I beat him, and he just laughed," Piepgras said. "He said 'It's all in the cards, honey. Don't even worry about skill.'"

Since cribbage is a card game, winning does depend largely on the luck of the cards.

"To tell you the truth, if you get the cards, you can win. If you don't, there's nothing you can do," said Mickey Endsley, who was a winner in last year's tournament.

But there is some strategy involved.

"If you have the cards, you have to know what to play," said Glenn Clifford.

He and Endsley are planning on participating in an upcoming cribbage tournament in Anchorage.

Many of the players at the Saturday game were tight-lipped about their strategies, saying only it was the luck of the cards.

"Cut 'em deep, bound to weep -- I'm weeping," said Arness as he cut the deck and saw the cut card was not the one he was hoping for.

Piepgras was a little more forthcoming.

"You always try to psych them out," she said. "You say 'I'm going to be nice' and they think 'What's in my crib' and it's garbage. "... You don't want to give your opponent anything in the crib. You always have to play on the offensive -- always, always, always."

"That's the way she plays," Harrison said, who was her opponent that game. "I just gave her a pair (in her crib)."

Though Piepgras ended up losing that game, she was good-natured about it, as are all the Saturday players, whether they win or lose.

"If you took this game seriously, you couldn't play because you'd be mad at everybody," Piepgras said. "I think the people who play cribbage are the best people on Earth."

Nobs, pegs and skunks: A guide to common cribbage terminology

15: Fifteen comes up twice in cribbage. During the play of the cards, making the count 15 scores two points. When counting the hands or crib, any different combination of cards totaling 15 also will score two points.

19 Hand: It is not possible to score 19 points in a single cribbage hand. Possible scores are 0-18, 20-24, 28 and 29. Since 19 is the only score under 24 not possible, players often shout "19 hand" when in fact they have zero points.

29 Hand: The best hand in cribbage and a 216,580 to 1 shot. This hand, illustrated above, consists of holding three fives and a jack, with the jack being of a different suit than any of the three fives. The starter card turned must be the fourth five and be the same suit as the held jack, making the hand count 29.

Crib: The crib is the four cards (two by each player) set aside from the original hand of six cards for the benefit of the dealer before the starter card is turned. The crib is counted by the dealer after the opponent and dealer count their hands.

Double skunk: Any game in which the winner reaches 121 points before the loser scores 60. See "skunk."

Double-double run: A double-double run is a run of three cards containing two pairs. The hand is worth 16, plus any combinations of "15" that might exist.

Double run: A double run is a run of three or four cards containing a pair. These runs are worth eight points and 10 points, respectively, plus any combinations of 15 that may be present.

First street: Holes one to 30 on a cribbage board. A tournament-length cribbage board is divided into four sections of 30 holes each which can be used as landmarks during a game. Similarly, second street is holes 31 to 60 on a cribbage board, third street is holes 61-90 and fourth street is holes 91-120.

Go: A player calls "go" when a they cannot play a card without the count exceeding 31. The opponent scores one point unless they can make the count exactly 31, which is worth two points.

Nibs: Nibs, also called "his heels," is a jack turned as the starter card, which counts as two points for the dealer. A player needing only two points to win a game may take nibs to win.

Nobs: Nobs is a jack, either in the hand or crib, of the same suit as the starter card, which counts for one point.

Pegging out: Pegging out is the act of moving your peg into the game hole (the 121st) and winning the game.

Skunk: Any game in which the winner reaches 121 points before the loser scores 90 points. In many tournaments, a skunk counts as three game points for the winner while a regular win is worth two.

Stink hole : Hole 120 on a cribbage board, sometimes referred to as the dead hole. If a player finishes up a game in this hole it means they lost 121-120.

-- From the American Cribbage Congress

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