A place to discuss the finer points of cribbage play.


Last updated 10/15/01

I have said that cribbage stands at the crossroads of science and art. It is a game that rebels at the idea of quantification, yet successful players must have a mastery of both cribbage philosophy and the mathematics behind it.

Fortunately, the structure of Everything allows me to come in and update this whenever I wish, and therefore I do not need to write an entire manifesto in one sitting. I will therefore add to this as time permits. I welcome criticism of any kind.

Click here for an excellent overview of cribbage rules.

Topics

Eleven Alive!
This little phrase came to mind--I believe it was used in promotional bits for NYC's WPIX television station in the 1970s.

Anyway, this is one of the first little tricks that an improving cribbage player should learn. In the play, the object is to bring the count as close to 31 as possible. But here's the important fact: 16 of the 52 cards in the deck are face cards with a value of 10 points when it comes to the count. Given this fact, if you are the dealer you may be able to seize the pegging advantage if you hold cards that add up to 11.

Here's why. Let's say you hold 4-7-7-8, and your opponent holds 5-10-J-Q. Your opponent leads a face card. Which do you play? You hold an eleven combination of 7-4, so lead one of those, preferably the 7 (just in case your opponent holds an ace). Play proceeds as follows (with you in bold):

Q7 104 58 J7

You score 2 for the first 31 and another point for the second go.

This is called the magic eleven by some, and with good reason. In sum, if you are dealer and you are interested in minimizing your opponent's pegging ability, hold onto cards that add up to eleven.

Watch what you do with your 5s
There are a lot of predatory players out there who are hungry for pegging points. These players, at least the shrewd among them, will attempt to lure their opponents into playing 5s. Why? The odds are good that your oppponent has one or more; and armed with this knowledge, the smart player can gain an edge. I am in no mood today to outline all the possible traps that exist, but I will say the following on the subject:

  • If you're desperately in need of two points (in an endgame, for instance), try an opening lead of your 5 from 5-x-x-x. (With the x indicating a face card of any stripe.) If you can afford to give up the 2 points when your opponent slaps down a face, go for it. He'll likely not drop a 5 on a face lead of your own, since that's just stupid if he's playing to shut you out. But he may drop a face on your 5 lead, which you may then be able to pair for your needed 2 points.
  • Get rid of your 5s at the earliest safe opportunity to prevent them from being trapped. Let's say you hold 5-J-Q-K and your opponent holds 3-6-7-8. You lead a face card, then your enemy drops an 8, hoping for another face by you and the subsequent 3 for 31. Playing your 5 opens up the risk of a 31 if your opponent has another 8; but in the case of the hand mentioned above, playing now will save you from humiliation when you (in bold) play as follows: Q 8 J 3 (for 31 and 2 points) K 6 5 7 for three points and the go. Your nemesis has now outpegged you 6-0. You could also have avoided this by following another nice little rule:
  • If your opponent has played no faces or 5s, it's OK to play a 5 as a subsequent lead. Live by this rule.

Discard for maximum score? Bullshit.
OK, this is one of the most-often repeated pieces of cribbage advice. A lot of the time, it's good advice. Basically what it's saying is, hey, you've got six cards in your hand, and it makes alot more sense to try to build the best four-card hand out of those than to either 1) plan to stuff your opponent's crib (i.e., discard in such a way as to minimize potential crib points) or 2) pad your own.

But applied blindly, this can lead to many mistakes. Consider the hand 4-5-6-Q-Q-K. Tossing the 4-6 leaves you with a nucleus of 8 points, while tossing two face cards leaves you with a nucleus of only 7. The conventional wisdom would tell you to keep the faces, but 9 times out of 10 this will be the wrong thing to do. Why? Holding onto the run will net you, on average, 10.15 points after the cut, versus only 9.91 points if you keep the faces. Plus, if it's your crib, you can keep the extra two points from the queen pair that you would have otherwise broken up.

Of course, there's that one time in ten. If you keep the faces, there are two cuts that will get you 16 points, while only a 5 cut will get you 16 if you keep the run. If you need a LOT of points desperately, keep the faces. And if you're playing a hand that's not entirely like this, be sure to make a quick count of how many cuts will help you, and what the max you can hope for is.

Hang Onto an Ace...
...if you can. Consider you've been dealt the hand A-2-5-9-K-K. You're going to want to hang onto the 5-K-K for a 6-point nucleus, but which of the other three cards do you keep and which do you toss to the crib? If it's your opponent's crib, it might be tempting to throw the A-9...after all, your opponent is more likely than not to keep any 5s he possesses in his hand, so your A-9 toss may not amount to many crib points.

I would recommend tossing the 2-9. One of the most important things to remember about cribbage is that the deck contains 16 "face" cards (including the 10s)--just over 30% of the deck! All things being equal, this means that an opponent's four-card hand will generally contain at least one face card, and often more. If you can run the count up to 30, you may be able to play your ace for a cool 2 points. Sure, it's only one point more than the standard "go"; but trust me, these are the little things that win games in the long run.

So it's your lead from A-5-K-K. This is a great hand to play. Inexperienced players will lead the ace on instinct, since it's true that A, 2, 3, and 4 make generally good leads. Lead one of your kings instead. If it's paired, you have a six-point response, and you'll probably have an opportunity to play your ace for 31. If your opponent responds with any other face card, play your second king and you may get a chance to play your acre for 31. If your opponent plays a 5 for fifteen, consider pairing that 5. This may expose you to a pair royal, so check your board position. More likely, your opponent will drop a face card on top of the paired 5, and you'll get your 31 opportunity again.

Keeping a pair of aces along with a 9 is even better, since it sets up the possibility of a four-point play, but we'll get into that later.

Note that this basic philosophy works whether you're the dealer or not. If it's your crib, 2-9 is a much better toss than A-9 anyway, and you'll have the first opportunity to play your ace for 31 if three faces are played, as they often are.

A final note: Don't let the desire to keep an ace (or any card) warp your discard strategy. Tossing the A-3 from A-3-5-6-K-K might lead to a higher-scoring hand (because of the run potential) than tossing the 3-6. And if you're the dealer, this is another area to gain some additional 31 points...but as I said, more on that later.

Play Your Jacks With Care
The jack is the only card in the deck which in and of itself may be worth points (just one, but each one counts, right?). There are 16 face cards (including the 10s) in the entire deck, and players that have a choice between holding a jack vs. any other face card will generally select to keep the jack. Because of this, it is extremely likely that your opponent will hold at least one jack. It's probably the second most common card held, after fives.

So, you may say, what? Here it is: armed with this knowledge, you (or your opponent) may try to use this information to generate points by pairing your jack or using it to create a three-card run. There are only a few situations where\ it matters, but cribbage is a game where victory or defeat often rests on the fight between a couple of points.

Here's an example of how I can use a pair of jacks to make a play for six pegging points. I hold 8-8-J-J. My opponent leads a 3, on which I drop an 8. He counters with a 4 for 15. I now have a choice: play a jack, bringing the count to 25, or play my second 8, bringing the count to 23. Normally, playing an 8 for 23 is not the smartest play, since if my opponent pairs it (for 31), he scores a tidy four points. On the other hand, he probably does not have a 6, so my play of a J for 25 is relatively safe.

In this case, I think my opponent may have a face card, along with an A, 2, or 5 (because he didn't pair my first 8, I doubt he has other 8s or 7s in his hand). That face card may well be a jack. I therefore play the 8 for 23. My opponent drops a 5 for 28, gaining a go point. On my lead, I lead the jack, which my opponent pairs, and then I clean up with the third jack for six points plus a go. Peg totals: 7 for me, 5 for my opponent. The alternative (if I had played a jack during the first 31 series) would be 1 for me and 3 for my opponent.

Of course, this is a contrived example, but if you watch experienced players, you'll see similar plays crop up with interesting frequency. Here's one that happened today in a computer cribbage game:

As dealer, I held J-J-Q-K. The computer led a 4. Normally, you'd like to put one card of a pair on top of this, in order to reduce the chances of being paired yourself. But I played the queen instead of a jack. The computer countered with an ace for fifteen and two pegging points. I played the king, and the computer responded with another 4. I had to "go", and the computer took his point. Next, I led one of my jacks, which was paired by the computer, and then I dropped my second jack for six points and the go. Total: Computer 5, me 7.

So, for the basic jacks advice:

  • If you hold only one jack, dump it at your first safe opportunity (to bring the count to 22 or higher, preventing it from being paired)
  • If you hold two jacks, consider holding them for a final 6-point play.

PEGGING TRAPS
It's probably about time I put together a section of these. In short, a pegging trap is an attempt to get your opponent to play the card you want, so you can pair it or score a run off it. In fact, much of the advice above--such as tips about playing 5s and jacks--technically falls into this category. But there are a number of "set plays" that you should watch out for--and know how to spring yourselves.

Old Faithful This one gets its name from the fact that 1) almost every strong cribbage player knows it, and 2) it works with amazing (or, depending on your point of view, alarming) frequency. The reason it works is that a large proportion of cribbage hands are composed of 5s and face cards (which we will display as 5-x-x-x).

In short, if you are the nondealer and you hold a hand containing two 6s and a 4, lead with a six. The dealer will not play his 5 here because you might peg five points if you respond with a 4. Instead, he will most likely play a face card, bringing the count to 16. Now you dump your second 6, bringing the count to 22. If his hand contains only fives and face cards, he will have to play his 5 here, bringing the count to 27. You lay down your 4 for a total of five pegging points (three for the 4-5-6 run and two for 31). It's tasty.

It's the kind of thing that will make you forever nervous about 6 leads.

Board Strategy in Cribbage

If you are looking to kick your cribbage game up a notch, then knowledge of positional play can effectively increase your winning ratio, so read on. If you are not a cribbage player scroll down to the softlinks at the bottom of the page, as there is nothing to see here.

The Underlying Principle

The average points scored and pegged per hand are 16.2 for the dealer, and 10.15 for pone. This means that on a totally average game, the player who deals first will win the game on the 10th hand, leaving the opponent 7 points short of game. Most players know this and understand that pone player needs to play catch-up, but fewer can accurately determine how they are doing after 4 or 5 hands, in relation to their opponent. Note that whoever is in the lead numerically might not be the mathematical favorite, due to the alternation of the first count.

By careful manipulation of the speed of point scoring, it is possible to align board position so that more often than not, it is you who hit 121 first. Manipulation of point scoring is done by either Playing On or Playing Off at the appropriate times. First let me outline the par position holes, make a quick cup of coffee, then return to the subject of playing on / off for a nice perky conclusion.

Par Position Holes

I recommend marking these position holes on your practice board with tape until they are second nature. If you don't have a practice board or tape then you cannot play, it's just that simple.

Dealer's par holes

Deal 1 : 7, Deal 2 : 17, Deal 3 : 33 Deal 4 : 43, Deal 5 : 59, Deal 6 : 69, Deal 7 : 85, Deal 8 : 95, Deal 9 : 111, Deal 10 : 121 First count.

Non-dealer's par holes

Deal 1 : 17, Deal 2 : 33, Deal 3 : 43, Deal 4 : 59, Deal 5 : 69, Deal 6 : 85, Deal 7 : 95, Deal 8 : 111, Deal 9 : 121 First count.

Every attempt should be made to achieve par, exceeding par is nice, but should not be done at the expense of allowing your opponent to reach their par. Board position should be evaluated before discarding to the crib, and then again, after the starter card is cut. At this stage, knowing you hand total, you can determine how many points you need to meet par. If you are already there, then play off. If you need points, then play on.

Playing On and Playing Off

Many players have only one speed, trying to maximize their pegging, without making obvious mistakes, like pairing the first card laid at every chance. To be really successful you must step out of this comfort zone, and start playing like an apparent idiot.

Playing on involves scoring points aggressively, regardless of the points scored by the opponent. If you can pick up an extra 2 points, to get closer to par, even if your opponent pegs an extra 7 points, it is to your advantage. By making par, you have effectively shortened the game by a whole hand, to beat you to 121 on first count, your opponent must actually now get 26 points ahead to go out before you, this is not easy to do. When playing on, pairing becomes a good thing, runs are marvelous, and dare I say it, you can even lead with a 5 if the situation warrants it. Often too, your apparent abandonment of sanity, will make reading your cards very difficult for your opponent, it makes you unpredictable. Your opponent leads with a four, play a 6 if you have a 3,4 or 7, they play the 5, and get the nice 5 points. You get the 4 points in the run, overall they out pegged you, but you are in better position.

Playing off can really take some self-control to do right. You are shutting down all pegging scoring and slowing the game. You already know you have par, so scoring a couple of points will not help you at all, your opponent however would probably really appreciate those points right now, do not give them away. Do not engage in runs, do not pair, or even double pair, don't even let them finish the play. There is nothing quite as satisfying as keeping your opponent scoreless in a pegging situation. For example, you are at a position when you are dealer and must play off, you hold 4,5,6,7. The opponent leads a queen, what do you play? Well I know you want to play the 5, hopefully they just have 10 cards, and the 6 will be 31 right? No. You are playing off, those two points are not worth it, if they have a 5 also they will pair. Play the 6 first making the count 16. If they have a 5 they cannot play it now, so they make the count 26, after all you surely do not have a 5. Use your 5 to end the play, 31. No points conceded. See below:

Opponent leadsYou are dealer Q6K5Q754

Rook suggested an alternative here, play the 7 against the led Q and hold the 5 till the end, where you might snag a free 2 points. Both are good plays I think.

Learning to play good positional cribbage is not easy. It involves number juggling, multi-tasking, parallel processing, mind bending effort at first. But if you really want to be good, it is worth the effort. Two books that would make this endeavor easier are listed below, I would recommend both to any cribbage player.

Sources

Cribbage A New Concept. John E. Chambers.

Play Winning Cribbage. Delynn Colvert.

Hours spent getting my butt kicked by bigger and better players.

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