Among card games, cribbage is an oddity. It uses a standard deck of playing cards, but the way you include your opponent’s hand and the discarded “crib” in counting points is unprecedented, as is the unique pegboard for keeping score. Although the board only needs a track of holes for each player, many have embellishments, such as zigzag arrangements, compartments for pegs or cards, or custom decorations. Here at Kubiya we have three boards to choose from: a two-player set with a long zigzag track and a box for the cards and pegs, four player loop track with a similar box compartment, and a traditional short track with just a small compartment for the pegs. While it’s possible to keep score without a board, it’s not recommended because of the need to visualize the relative distances for some forms of scoring, such as “skunking” another player by lapping them.
Romance, Murder, and the Spanish Inquisition
“As hard as it is not to get distracted by murder, let’s get back to cribbage.”
By now, you’re probably used to hearing about games so old that we don’t know who invented them, but we know exactly where cribbage comes from. It started with a 16th century card game called Noddy, where the goal was to count up to 15, 21 or 31 from cards laid down in sequence by players, aces were low, and a card was turned up that gave jacks of that suit a special value for the duration of the hand. From this foundation, a 17th century English nobleman and poet named Sir John Suckling added the concept of a “crib” or extra hand for the rotating dealer composed of cards previously discarded by all the players, and the use of the pegboard for scorekeeping.
When you add the invention of a popular card game to his plays about unrequited love and poetry about weddings and womanizing, you get the impression that Sir John Suckling was a man of gambling and gaiety, a skirt chasing bon vivant, and you’d be right. While the history of cribbage back to Sir John may be clear, there’s a gaping hole at the end of Sir John’s story that has given many people pause. The official word on Sir John’s death is that he died at 33 having committed suicide by poison, but there are competing stories saying that he ran off to Spain with a woman and was killed by the Inquisition (who would have expected?), or that he died of a fever brought on because of a nail or razor placed in his boot by an absconding servant. Wow. As hard as it is not to get distracted by a potential murder-by-accident covered up as a suicide, let’s get back to cribbage. I promise an update if I can ever figure out which story is true.
A Question of Skill vs. Luck
In my article on chess, I mentioned the Book of Games commissioned by Alphonso X of Castile during 13th-century. This book covers three popular games of that time period, one purely skill (chess), another purely luck (dice), and the last a mix of the two (backgammon). Where cribbage ranges between those poles has been debated many times; many ruling bodies classify it as a game of chance when it comes to gambling regulations, due to the fact that success depends upon random draw. Yet poker also has the same random elements, and it was recognized as a game of skill by a U.S. federal judge in 2012. Experts on cribbage have gone on record with percentages ranging from 15% or 33% luck, but even the most conservative estimates would classify it as a more skill than anything else. Still, those odds make it possible for novices to win against masters every few hands. Sometimes this happens in spectacular fashion, such as in 1999 when the defending National Champion lost to a 10-year old boy who had just lost seven consecutive games!
Perhaps that underdog quality is part of the appeal of the game, allowing novices to have a few wins no matter what, so they will stay in the game long enough to gain the skills necessary. It certainly appealed to me as a child when a teacher taught it to our class. I’m sure the goal was to reinforce math skills, but all we knew was that it was fun. As educational games go, you could do far worse than cribbage, which reinforces not only math but also working memory to hold all the numbers in your head from both hands, logic to make use of the variables and missing information, strategy to navigate the forking paths of probability, and even social skills like bluffing. For every hand, every phase of the game, there are exceptions to the best practices, and exceptions to the exceptions, so that even the greatest champions win just over 50% of their games when playing against people of comparable skill.
A Game For the Whole Family
While cribbage has an assortment of minor rules accumulated through tradition, most of its complexity is in these best practices and exceptions to the exceptions, all of which should really be avoided by the novice until you have the expertise to make use of them. The basic rules are simple enough to be learned in the primary grades, making it a great educational game, whether with other children or adults. There’s a considerable learning curve, however, so it’s recommended that you let an expert teach it to children rather than try to learn the game along with your child. Don’t make the mistake I did, trying to relearn the game for this article while teaching my son; he’s back to playing Minecraft while I sharpen my skills on other adults before trying again.
“The defending National Champion lost to a 10-year old boy.”
So when your family is looking for a fun game to play, cribbage ought to be on the list. It may not be a kids game, but it’s very kid friendly, while still challenging for adults. Where else can you have a tournament where children play equally with grandparents, parents and siblings? It’s still a game of skill, so the most experienced player may still win, but they may surprise you. It’s a marvelous opportunity to cheer for the underdog against the expert, especially when they win in spite of--or because of--the odds.
By Matthew Barrett