Cribbage: The History and Gameplay

Cribbage dates back to the 1600s and is said to have been derived from the game Noddy by an English poet by the name of Sir John Suckling.

A History

Cribbage dates back to the 1600s and is said to have been derived from the game Noddy by an English poet by the name of Sir John Suckling. One of the significant differences between the two games is that Suckling added a ‘crib’ or discard pile which is where cribbage takes its name from. It is said that in his time Suckling was quite a gambler and swindler and that he gifted many of the nobility in England with decks of cards that he made but unknown to them they were marked. He would then travel around and play these noble folks in cribbage for money; as would be expected, they lost, and Suckling made a fair share from the endeavors. 

Cribbage’s place in history was cemented by Charles Dickens’ tale, the Old Curiosity Shop as well as its popularity with sailors. As the British Empire expanded, they introduced it to more and more of the world. It remains fairly popular in the Northern US as well as the UK. A fun fact is that cribbage is the only game you are allowed to play for money in pubs in the UK. 

One of the most famous cribbage stories comes from a US submarine during WWII. The story goes that a submarine was on patrol north of the Yellow Sea, it was quite hazardous as no ship had previously attempted this. To distract the crew from this, the commander of the submarine, Dudley Morton, and his executive officer Richard O’Kane started a game of cribbage. During the game Morton dealt O’Kane a ‘Perfect 29’ which is the best hand you can get, giving you the most possible points. It consists of a jack and 4 fives. The crew did the math and found that the odds of that hand being dealt was 216,000 to 1 and took this as a good luck charm for the mission which they got through without incident. 

The board that they played with that day was the personal board of O’Kane and to this day that board is in the wardroom of the oldest active submarine in the US Pacific fleet and whenever that ship is decommissioned it gets passed on to the new oldest submarine to continue on the tradition.

How to Play

Cribbage traditionally consists of 2 players but can also be played with 3 or 4, requiring a couple of minor changes to gameplay for 3 players and it is played in teams of 2 with 4 players. 

The objective of the game is to score 61 or 121 points (depending on your board or where you are playing) with the game ending as soon as someone reaches the target score. Players cut the deck to see who deals first based on who cuts the lowest card. The dealer then deals 5 or 6 cards depending on the number of players. If it is two, then each person gets 6 cards, if it's three or four, each player gets 5 cards. If there are three players, a single card is also dealt face down on the table as the start of the crib. After all the cards have been dealt, each player chooses which 4 cards they want to retain and they discard the other one or two cards to form the ‘crib’ which the dealer will get to use later. 

Once everyone only has 4 cards in their hand and the crib is formed, the player to the left of the dealer or the singular opponent if it is only 2 players cuts the remaining cards with the dealer flipping over the top card of the bottom half, this card is called the ‘cut’ or the ‘starter card’. If it is a jack, the dealer gets 2 points for ‘his heels’ or ‘his nibs’. Starting with the player to the left of the dealer, each person lays down one card at a time and states the count – the cumulative value of the cards that have been laid going up to but not exceeding 31. Face cards count as 10. 

Points during counting are scored as follows:

15 – for causing the count to reach exactly 15 you get 2 points then counting continues

Pair – for completing a pair you get 2 points

3-of-a-kind – counts as 3 different pairs so 6 points

4-of-a-kind – counts as 6 different pairs so 12 points

A run of 3+ cards (laid consecutively but not necessarily in ascending/descending order) gets you the number of cards laid.

When the count reaches the point where a player cannot play a card without exceeding 31 they say “Go”. It continues around the table with play continuing until it reaches 31 exactly or no one can play without exceeding 31. At this point, the player that was last to play or whoever made the count reach 31 exactly gets 1 or 2 points respectively. You are required to play a card unless you cannot play without going over 31. The count then resets to zero and the process repeats until everyone is out of cards and then the game continues to the “show”. 

For the “show” each player displays their hand, starting with the player to the left of the dealer, and scores points based on its contents in conjunction with the starter card/cut. 

Scoring is as follows:

Fifteen (combination of 2+ cards totaling exactly 15) – 2 points

Pair – 2 points

Three-of-a-kind – 6 points

Four-of-a-kind – 12 points

Runs of 3+ cards – 1 point per card

Double 3-card run, including pairs – 8 points

Double 4-card run, including pairs – 10 points

Triple run, including pairs – 15 points

Quadruple run, including pairs – 16 points

Flush, 4 cards of a suit – 4 points

Flush, 5 cards of a suit – 5 points

A flush in the crib must include the cut/starter card (so only a 5-card flush)

Jack as the cut card – 2 points (nibs)

Jack of the same suit as the cut card - 1 point (nobs)

After everyone counts and scores their hand, the dealer then flips over and counts their crib. All scores 0-29 are possible except 19, 25, 26, and 27. A hand that scores zero points is sometimes referred to as having “19”. 

Cribbage is a great way to work on your math skills as well as just have a good time with friends or family, especially this holiday season. You can take what you learned here and teach your friends that may not know how to play! Just pick up a Frost River Cribbage Board and Field Deck and you are all set!


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