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.


Cribbage A New Concept. John E. Chambers.

Play Winning Cribbage. Delynn Colvert.

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