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A Detailed Guide to Cribbage

Cribbage is one of those card games that is distinctly its own. Although it was developed in the 17th century, it still feels like it has a modern edge to it. It’s a fast-paced and fun alternative to more commonly played card games such as poker and rummy.

Also known as crib, the game is distinctive in many ways. It’s effectively two card games in one and uses a “pegboard” for scoring purposes. Although some people say the board isn’t essential, avid players disagree. It’s an integral part of the game because the race to the finish line adds something special.

While the card play in cribbage is relatively simple, remembering the point system and keeping track of all of the ways to rack up points is the initial challenge. The scoring is consistently updated throughout a game, and the goal is to reach 121 points or two turns around the board.

On this page, we’re providing you with a fresh look at cribbage. We cover the rules, how to play, the strategy, and options for playing cribbage online. Hopefully we can turn you into a worthy cribbage competitor!

Cribbage History

Before we get into the “how-tos” of cribbage, let’s go back to the beginning and take a peek at where it all started.

Sir John Suckling

Some writers have been quick to designate poet of England as the creator of cribbage.

Suckling was born in 1606 and knighted in 1630. In addition to his poems and writings, he was an avid bowler and card game enthusiast.

Even though Sir John did his part by updating and popularizing the game of cribbage, calling him the inventor wouldn’t be accurate.

There was already an established game called Noddy that he worked with and repackaged, much to the delight of his fellow Brits, who embraced the new game.

Noddy

Cribbage was an early 17th-century development, but Noddy was played throughout the 16th century. The name was even included in the 1589 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Noddy is said to be a “small cribbage without the crib.” But the similarities are undeniable. Noddy players were assigned points for pairs, runs, and flushes. It was also played with counters, although there are some discrepancies about the levels and points.

Noddy to Cribbage

What Sir John Suckling did was to add the “crib” concept to the game, as well as change the name to its original “cribbidge” spelling.

His prominence in British society didn’t hurt matters, either. Cribbage’s popularity spread rapidly, and it soon became the national card game of Britain and was played by British aristocracy. English colonists also brought the game to North America where it’s still one of the favorite games in Canada, and 10 million people in the US, particularly in northern states, have played.

Currently, in England, there are anywhere between one and two million players, and many compete in at least one of the country’s many leagues.

How to Play Cribbage

We mentioned in the introduction to this article that the point scoring system is the most complex aspect of cribbage. We’re going to cover that in detail later, but we’ll first provide an overview of how the game is played.

The Basics

To play cribbage, you need a standard deck of cards and a cribbage board. The board is used to keep track of all the scoring as a game progresses. Although it’s possible to record the scores with a pen and paper instead, the complicated nature of the scoring system means the board serves a very useful purpose.

An example of the board used to play crib

A game of cribbage is played over a number of successive rounds. Each round consists of a deal, and then the following two stages.

  • The play
  • The show, or “counting the hands”

The play and the show stages are distinct from each other, which is why crib is considered to be two games in one.

Players score points during both stages in each round, and they move their “pegs” one space forward on the board for each point scored. The aim is to circle the board twice and end up back at the starting place (the 121st hole). The first player to do so wins the game.

Players typically play multiple games as part of a match. Matches are awarded to whichever player wins the most individual games. They can consist of a fixed number of games or be played until a player wins an agreed number of games.

Cribbage is best played with just two players. It can be played with three or four, too, and when playing with four players, there’s the choice of either individual or team play.

As two-player cribbage is the most common, we’re going to use this format of the game as the basis for explaining how it’s played. We will include some details of the rule differences for three or four players, though.

Determining the Dealer

When you start a new game, you need to figure out who will be the first dealer. Each player will cut the deck, playing for the lowest card. Whoever comes up with the lowest-value card is the first dealer. After that, the deal alternates between the two players on each successive round.

(For three or four players, the dealer position will move clockwise from player to player.)

The Deal

The dealer shuffles the deck and then deals six cards face-down to both himself and his opponent, alternating cards back and forth after starting with his opponent. The remaining pack is placed face-down on the table.

(When three or four players are playing, each player receives five cards instead of six.)

Forming a Hand

After the deal, each player must choose four of their six cards to keep. These four cards form their hand for the round and are initially held for only their view. The aim here is to keep the cards that are likely to yield the highest score.

The remaining two cards from each player are discarded and placed face down in the “crib.” These four cards are what forms the crib for the entire round, and no other cards will be added to it.The crib comes into play later on in the round.

The Starter Card

After the crib is complete with the four cards, the non-dealer cuts the pack of remaining cards. The dealer takes the top card of the cut and turns it face-up to reveal the starter card.

The starter card doesn’t come into play until the show, with one exception. If the starter card happens to be a jack (aka “His Heels”), the dealer immediately scores two points. They can move their peg two spaces forward on the board.

At this point, all the cards for the round have been dealt. The remainder of the deck can be set aside until the next round.

The Play

The play phase consists of players taking turns putting down their four cards, one at a time. For scoring purposes later on in the round, each player keeps their played cards separate from their opponent’s cards. However, it’s also necessary to keep track of the order in which the cards were played. This is because points are added along the way for various combinations that are made.

We’ll explain exactly how this stage is played shortly.

The Show

The show, or counting the hands, is when each player determines the various combinations of runs, flushes, pairs, and 15s in their hand. Each combination has a corresponding value, and points are scored accordingly. We’ll cover this stage in more detail later.

Once the show is completed, the cards are shuffled, and a new round begins with a fresh deal.

If a player reaches the 121st hole on the board at ANY point during ANY round, they win the game.

The Cribbage Point System

Cribbage has a bit of a learning curve. There are several ways to play your hands, and the scoring system is most effective when you memorize the point values.

Of course, you could always play with a “cheat sheet” in front of you for your first few games, but it’s easier if you get used to adding your points automatically. For every point you claim, you get to move your peg one hole closer to the finish line.

So, before we explain more about the play and the show stages in more detail, let’s provide a summary of how the points are scored.

His Heels

His Heels is when a jack comes up as a starter card. The dealer is awarded two points in this scenario, and it’s the only way for points to be scored outside of the play and the show stages.

Points Earned in Either Round

The following combinations of cards can earn points during either the play or the show. The number of points earned for each one is the same in both stages.

Combination Points Description Example
Pair 2 Two cards of the same rank
Triple 6 Three cards of the same rank
Quadruple (or Double Pair) 12 Four cards of the same rank
Fifteen Total/Fifteen Count 2 Any combination totaling 15
Three-Card Run 3 Three cards in sequence of rank
Four-Card Run 4 Four cards in sequence of rank
Five-Card Run 5 Five cards in sequence of rank

Rules for the “fifteen total” are as follows.

  • Aces are worth one point
  • Face cards are worth ten points
  • All other cards are counted at their pip value (for example, eights are worth eight points)

Points Earned in the Play Only

Players can earn points during the play by being the last to lay a card before the count is reset.

  • One point is scored if the count is under 31 when the last card is played
  • Two points are scored if the count is exactly 31 when the last card is played

We’ll explain all about “the count” in our section on the play stage.

Points Earned in the Show Only

There are two additional combinations that earn points during the show.

Combination Points Description Example
Four-Card Flush 4 Four cards of the same suit
Five-Card Flush 5 Five cards of the same suit

An extra point can also be earned for “his nob.” This is when you have a jack in your hand that’s the same suit as the starter card.

The Play Stage

The play stage involves back-and-forth card placement by each player. The purpose of the play phase is for players to decide the best use of each of the four cards to collect as many points as possible.

Counting During the Play Phase

During the play phase, players take turns putting down one card. As they do so, they will announce the current count status. The count status is based on the running total of the value of cards played.

For example, let’s say the first card laid was a four. The count at that point would simply be four. If the other player then laid a six, the count status would increase to ten.

Aces are always valued at one for the purposes of the count, and all face cards are valued at ten.

The “Go”

The count cannot exceed 31 during the play. If you do not have a card that takes the count to 31 or less, you’re unable to play.

For example, let’s say your opponent laid down a card that brings the count to 29. You would need either a two or an ace in your hand to play. If you had neither, you wouldn’t be able to take a turn.

When you’re unable to play, you have to state “Go.” Your opponent then gets an opportunity to play a card. If they’re able to do so without the count exceeding 31, they score a point. This point is known as a “Go.”

If a player lays a card that takes the count to EXACTLY 31, they score two points. This is known as scoring a “31.”

Resetting the Count

The count is reset when it reaches 31 or when no players can lay a card. Play continues in the same way until all players have laid all of their cards.

Players must also state “Go” if they run out of cards. If their opponent still has a card left, they have another opportunity to claim a “Go” point.

Point Scoring During the Play

There are other points to be earned during the play in addition to those for a “Go” or a “31.” You can score points for any of the following.

  • A count of 15
  • A pair, triple, or quadruple
  • A run

Two points are scored for laying a card that brings the count to exactly 15. If the current count was eight, for example, a player laying a seven would announce “15” and take the two points.

Pairs, triples, and quadruples are formed by laying down cards of the same rank in succession. For example, a pair would be formed if your opponent laid down a six and you followed by laying another six. You would claim two points for your pair.

If your opponent then laid ANOTHER six, they would form a triple. This would earn them six points. If you were then lucky enough to have the final six, you would lay it to form a quadruple. A quadruple would earn you 12 points.

A run in this phase can be in any order as long as the cards are consecutive. What that means is if three successive cards come up in the order 5 – 6 – 4, you can still claim a three-card run.

It can’t be interrupted, though. If something like 5 – 6 – 6 – 4 were played, then the second “6” would claim a pair, but the run doesn’t count because there aren’t three consecutive run cards.

End of the Play Stage

The play stage concludes when all players have laid all of the cards. The game then progresses to the show.

The Show Stage

In the second phase, you’re going to determine the points available to you by using the four cards in your hand combined with the starter card. The order of play is as follows.

  • Non-dealer
  • Dealer
  • Dealer plays crib

The non-dealer (or “pone”) always goes first. While the dealer does have benefits like the possibility of two points for His Heels and extra points for playing the crib, playing first can be a major advantage towards the end of a game when the score is close.

This first player to reach 121 points automatically takes the win, so if the non-dealer reaches that total, then the dealer won’t even have a chance to play their hand.

The show is relatively simple compared to the play. It’s basically just about making all possible scoring combinations from your hand. The hard bit is trying to remember the point system, but this becomes a lot easier once you’ve played a few times.

At this stage, you get to use your own cards AND the starter card. This gives you a total of five cards to make combinations from.

Here’s a reminder of the various scoring combinations and the points they’re worth.

Combination Points Description Example
Pair 2 Two cards of the same rank
Triple 6 Three cards of the same rank
Quadruple (or Double Pair) 12 Four cards of the same rank
Fifteen Total 2 Any combination totaling 15
Three-Card Run 3 Three cards in sequence of rank
Four-Card Run 4 Four cards in sequence of rank
Five-Card Run 5 Five cards in sequence of rank
Four-Card Flush 4 Four cards of the same suit
Five-Card Flush 5 Five cards of the same suit
His Nob 1 A jack of the same suit as the starter

An important rule to remember during the show is that you can use your cards multiple times. As long the combination is different each time, you’ll score points for ALL available combinations.

For a quick example of this, imagine you have the following four cards in your hand.

You could make a “fifteen total” here by using the seven of hearts and the eight of hearts. You could then use the eight of hearts AGAIN with the seven of spades to make another “fifteen total.”

To make sure you don’t miss any possible combinations, a good way to work through to this stage is go through your cards step-by-step. It doesn’t really matter what order you use to look for combinations, but we recommend the following.

  • Look for “fifteen totals” first
  • Then look for pairs, triples, and quadruples
  • Look for runs next
  • The move on to flushes
  • Finish up by checking for “his nob” (a jack of the same suit as the starter card)

Don’t worry if you’re still confused. There IS a lot to take in when learning the rules of cribbage. It’s one of those games that only really starts to make sense when you actually play it.

With that in mind, let’s talk you through a hypothetical hand and work out all the available combinations.

YOUR HAND

STARTER HAND

We’ll look for combinations in the order we recommended above. So we’re starting off with “fifteen totals.”

With this hand, you can make fifteen using each of the following combinations.

Each fifteen is worth two points, so you’ve gotten six points from your fifteens.

Step two is to look for pairs, triples, and quadruples. You’ve just got the following pair.

This earns you two points.

If you had a THIRD king in your hand, you would get paid a total of 6 points, as a triple breaks out into three different combinations of pairs. You wouldn’t get paid for a pair AND a triple. A triple is counting up the pairs.

Step three is to look for runs. You can make a three-card run, as follows.

Your run has scored you three points here.

There are two run rules to remember. First, a run doesn’t mandate that all cards be of the same suit. If the “4” in our example was a spade and the other two cards remained as hearts, it would still be a three-card run. Second, when evaluating points for runs, you can only play the longest run of the five cards. So, if you have a four-card sequence, you get four points period. You don’t get points for both a three-card and four-card run.

Step four is to look for flushes. You have a four-card flush here, using the four cards in your main hand.



This gives you another four points. If the starter card had been a heart as well, you’d have earned five points for a five-card flush.

The last step is for “his nob.” You can claim one extra point if you have a jack in your hand that’s the same suit as the starter card. So, in the example, the starter card is the king of clubs. That would make “his nob” a jack of clubs. You don’t have that card, so you don’t claim an extra point in this case.

The sample hand that we just used in our example is worth a total of 15 points.

Assuming you were the non-dealer, or pone, it would then be the dealer’s turn. The only time the dealer WOULDN’T count points is when the opponent reaches 121 points to take the game.

If both players are still in the game, then the dealer counts up his or her hand using the same scoring system.

Once the dealer’s hand is calculated, he or she gets the added benefit of playing the crib hand as well. It’s an entirely new hand, and not combined with the dealer’s original hand.

So, the dealer will then take the four-card crib and combine it with the starter card for point evaluation.

The only difference between playing the regular hands and playing the crib is that no four-card flushes are allowed with a crib hand. It has to be a five-card flush for five points or nothing.

After all three hands are scored and the board is up to date, the deal changes hands, and a new game is dealt out by the current pone.

Rounds will continue until someone reaches 121 points at the end of the board, or 61 points for a shorter version.

Adding Points to the Board

Since you’re not using a pen and paper for cribbage, it’s easy to keep score as you go by using the cribbage board. You should move your peg to coincide with each step. Each time you score points, you can move your peg forward by the equivalent number of spaces.

For example, if you scored two points after laying a card, then you’d move your peg forward two spaces. If you subsequently scored another four points, you’d move your peg forward a further four spaces.

The Two-Peg Scoring System

Most cribbage boards allocate two pegs for each player. This is to allow use of the two-peg scoring system, which helps to ensure that you never lose track of your current point status. It works by keeping one peg in the correct position at all times.

For example, let’s say the first points you score in a game allow you to move two spaces. You’d take one peg and put into the second hole. If you then scored another three points, you’d use your second peg and put it three spaces ahead (in the 5th hole).

Each time you score points subsequently, you’d take the peg that is furthest back and move it the appropriate number of spaces ahead of the other peg.

This system eliminates the chance of you removing your peg and then forgetting where it was originally placed.

Learning the Lingo

While you may come across longer lists of cribbage terms in detailed rules, there are only a dozen or so that are most helpful for you to know. These are the basic cribbage definitions.

  • Crib
    The crib is the area that will hold the two discards from each player’s original hand. The crib will later be played by the dealer, as it’s considered an extra hand and additional point-earning tool.
  • Game Hole
    The game hole is the 121st hole on the cribbage board. It’s the game-winning position.
  • Pegging
    Pegging is moving your peg around the cribbage board coinciding with your points earned in hand.
  • The Play
    The play is the first scoring stage of each round. It’s when players take turns putting cards down and adding up the value as they go. Cards can add up to 31, and then a new lead card is played.
  • The Show (or counting the hands)
    The show is the second scoring stage of each round. It comes after the play and involves players using the starter card combined with their hands to create combinations that equate to points. The crib is also played by the dealer in the counting round.
  • Starter Card
    This is the card that results from the non-dealer cutting the deck. The starter is determined after the player discards to the crib. It’s then used as a fifth card for scoring each hand and the crib. It can also be called the “cut.”
  • His Heels
    When a jack comes up as the starter card, it’s called “His Heels,” and it’s worth two points for the dealer. It can also be called a cut jack.
  • Street
    A street is one of the four 30-hole lanes on a cribbage board.
  • Stinkhole
    The stinkhole is the next-to-last hole on the cribbage board, or the 120th position.
  • Run
    A run is three or more cards in sequence, as in 2-3-4 or 10-J-Q-K.
  • Lead
    The lead is the first card put down in the first series of the play.
  • Pone
    Pone is a term that can be used to describe the non-dealer.
  • Count
    The count is the combined value of the consecutive cards played in the play and can’t go over 31.
  • Go
    When you’re playing up to 31 and can’t make a play, you say “go” to your opponent. He or she can claim a point if they’re able to play a card.
  • Skunk
    A skunk is when one opponent wins a game by more than 31 points and gets to claim two winning games instead of one.
  • Double Skunk
    A double skunk is a win of 61 points or more, and the winner is credited with a three-game win.

Cribbage Game Strategy

Cribbage provides you with options when it comes to your game strategy. Not only will every hand be different in its make-up, but each offers different ways to play it.

Remember, you have to immediately discard two cards, so you want to go through different scenarios in your head to figure out combinations that will provide you with the most points. It takes practice, and it’s handy to try out some different plays to figure out the moves that work out the best in general.

Play the Crib Differently Based on Dealer or Pone

When you’re the dealer, you want to make sure you have some playable cards in the crib. So, two cards adding up to 15, a pair, or similar will help you when it’s time to determine the points. As the pone, or the non-dealer, you don’t want to give your opponent an advantage, so be careful about throwing in two that add up to 15, and try to include extremes like one low card and one high card.

Keep Fives

A five is a handy card to have because there are so many ten-point possibilities in the deck to combine it with to make 15. Your chances of making a “15” are much higher with a five card. If you’re the pone, don’t throw a five into the crib, either.

Leading Card

When you lead off, it’s a good move to play a card lower than a five if at all possible. That way, you know your opponent can’t get a 15 on the next play. If you don’t have a low card, though, lead with the highest, and then, hopefully, you’ll be able to score some points on your next go-round.

Avoid “21” in the First Round

Just as those tens can combine with fives for a 15, they’re also handy for playing up to 31 in the play phase. Avoid giving the other player the opportunity to throw down ten points on a 21 score and claim that series.

Slow and Methodical

The best thing you can do, especially as a cribbage newbie, is to go slow so that you can check out every new move and hand for all of the options. You don’t want to lay down a card that will allow your opponent to complete a run. Nor do you want to miss any points that you should have claimed. Slow and steady wins the race.

Variations of Cribbage

Cribbage isn’t different from any other card game. It offers many more possibilities aside from the primary game. Of course, we wouldn’t advise getting too crazy until you master the basics. But then, the sky’s the limit.

To get the ball rolling, though, you could try a shorter game, a solitaire, or a multi-player variation.

61-Point Cribbage

Instead of playing to 121, you get the win by getting to 61 points first. Everything else remains the same.

Three-Person Cribbage

To add a third, each player would receive five cards instead of six. The crib would include one discard from each player as well as one random draw from the remaining deck. Play continues clockwise, starting with the person to the dealer’s immediate left.

Four-Person Cribbage

A four-player game can be played in one of two ways. You could play partner cribbage, and then the rules and gameplay would proceed as with a two-player game. Or you could all play individually with a five-card hand with everyone contributing one card to the crib.

Cribbage Solitaire

Cribbage Solitaire is a game for one and also provides some useful practice for beginning players. The deal consists of six cards to you and two to the crib. You then choose the remaining two cards to complete the crib hand. You’ll play both but are competing against the crib

Nineteen

The game of nineteen is played the same way as the traditional one, but you take a 19-point backslide if you end up with a non-scoring hand or crib.

Cribbage 31

If you’ve played cribbage for a while, you might be ready to add some additional twists, and Cribbage 31 will fit the bill. This game adds some different scoring opportunities.

  • 31s in hand or in play count as five points each
  • Any four-card flush counts – you can combine the starter card
  • A five-card flush is worth 20 points
  • Your runs can sandwich in the ace as in K – A – 2
  • If you end up with a zero-value crib, you lose five points
  • Playing the jack in the same suit that was just played gets you an additional point

Cribbage Tournament Play

You may find more opportunities for cribbage tournament play in the United Kingdom, as over a million people are part of a league. But the US has had the (ACC) since 1980.

The ACC is responsible for promotion on both the local and national levels. It provides , sanctioned tournaments, and online tournament play. In March of 2018, the ACC hosted the at the Sands in Reno, Nevada.

Types of Cribbage Tournaments

There are different tournament structures used in the game of cribbage. The following are some of the most commonly used.

  • Single Elimination
    You play until you lose, and then you’re out (unless you’re the last player standing).
  • Double Elimination
    For this type of tournament, everyone plays once, and then the winners will play the other winners, and losers play losers. Anyone who has lost twice is then eliminated.
  • Points
    Playing cribbage for points is the most common. The tournament is set up in groups of nine so that each player competes against each of the eight opponents. Wins are recorded as two points and skunks as three. The player with the highest score is the tournament winner. But if there’s a tie, the total net spread points will determine the outcome. The spread points are how many points you won (or lost) by in each game.

Virtual Cribbage

With most skill games, you’ll find an online version to match the physical game where players have cards or a game board.

Online cribbage provides two different options, as follows.

  • Play the entire game online
  • Use an online cribbage board along with your tangible deck of cards

You can find different types of created for your computer, smartphone, or tablet. They allow you to start a game without having to go out and buy anything, as most people already own a deck of cards.

If you don’t have anyone to challenge or you just want to try out an online game, sites like ecribbage.com offer free versions, including some exciting spin-offs. You can play Team Cribbage, Crib with Jokers, and even Cribbage Baseball.

Cribbage associations, like the American Cribbage Congress, even offer online tournaments. So, you’re always just a click away from a play.

Conclusion

At first glance, cribbage has an intimidating factor. You’ve got a board with pegs that don’t seem to make sense. You’re also playing two games in one with different piles of cards on the table. If you don’t take a few minutes to investigate, you may just run the other way.

But if you’ve read through our description and the two different rounds of play now make sense to you, you’re probably excited to give it a try.

As we mentioned in the previous section, you don’t even need to go out and make an investment in a cribbage board. As long as you have a deck of cards and a computer, smartphone, or tablet, a virtual board will suffice. There is something about the tactile movement of the pegs, though. The integration of all of the game components on the table is appealing.

While you can use the virtual board or even a piece of paper and a pen, it’s that board that gives the game of cribbage a unique flavor all its own.

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