Cribbage: game of chance or skill?
The title question is often asked. Let's consider the game from
beginning to end in light of that question. Undeniably some portions of
the game are the results of pure chance. Those elements of the game
which cannot be associated with any type of strategy are considered to
be the result of chance. What are those elements over which player
strategy has no influence?
- The shuffle of the cards
- The cut of the cards prior to the actual deal
- The distribution of the cards
- The cut to determine the starter card
I believe it is reasonable to assume that any game which requires a
shuffle, cut, and card distribution could demonstrate that these items
are beyond the influence of individual strategy and are not influenced
by player choice. This is true of bridge as well except in those cases
where the distribution of cards and hand composition is predetermined as
in duplicate play.
The following portions of the game are heavily influenced by the
strategies employed by the individual player.
Hand recognition and counting is the first area in which the
player begins to develop strategy. So strategy and related decision
making begins as soon as the cards are picked up by the player. The
selection of cards to be retained will be analyzed with board position
in mind. A clear understanding of board position strategy will influence
the type of cards retained. Does the player need cards with pegging
potential? Is the primary need to score large number of points? If so,
what are the best cards to retain, and which cards are more likely to
benefit from the turn of the starter card? Can player afford to discard
good cards to opponent's crib or is there a need to "balk" the crib? If
it's your own crib, what are the best choices to build the crib and
enhance score of crib?
Discarding to the crib is an area in which much knowledge is
required in order to develop an effective approach. During the period
1990-1999, I personally recorded the results of over 250,000 discards in
actual play. From that research, a discarding strategy was developed
based on the average points that any discard selection would provide
when discarded to self or opponent. That data suggests that a player
should put cards to their own crib which have high scoring potential.
What are those cards? In order of preference, and as available, discards
to own crib should look like this: 5-5, 2-3,
5-J, 5-6, 5-K, 5-10,
5-Q, 4-5, 7-8, etc. Some of
these discards are strong enough to sacrifice points in the hand. Part
of the discarding strategy to own crib then becomes making those
selections and thinking of the crib as an extension of the hand and to
view the score of hand/crib as a combined value. What are the cards
which are likely to produce a low score when discarded to opponent?
Those cards look like this: 10-K, 9-K,
9-Q, 6-K, 6-Q, 8-K,
7-10, 6-10, 7-Q, A-Q
and 7-K. There are small hand/large hand formulae
which can be employed as effective discarding strategies.
The pegging portion of the game includes many strategies. Among those
are the following:
- Magic eleven (I call them Elevens from Heaven).
These are cards which total eleven points and are instrumental in
scoring 31-for-2 or more. Two card elevens favor the dealer (5-6,
4-7, 3-8, 2-9, A-x).
Three card elevens favor the non-dealer (A-A-9,
2-2-7, 3-3-5, 4-4-3,
5-5-A). Four card elevens favor the dealer (A-A-4-5,
A-2-3-5, 2-2-3-4) and often result in
huge pegging scores when a portion of the eleven point combination is
a triple (A-A-A-8, 2-2-2-5,
- The 5 card trap is an essential pegging
strategy and is employed frequently by successful players. This trap
play can be executed by either dealer or non-dealer. On many hands
this trap is possible and a player must engage the strategy on the
play of the opening card
- The J trap or rattle trap as I call it is a
very effective pegging strategy
- Low card and middle card trap strategies have been
developed and refined by many players
- Proper utilization of sleeper cards in pegging is an
integral portion of successful pegging strategy
- Enticing the play in a manner which benefits your pegging
prospects is a common strategy even among kitchen players
- Faking a flush in play is a strategy designed to confuse
opponent and gain pegging opportunities
- Endgame pegging involves strategy unlike that employed in
other areas of the board. How do you prevent dealer from pegging at
game end? How do you secure pegs at game end which when combined with
score of hand will win the game? Which cards have high pegging value?
Which have moderate pegging value? Which have low pegging value? Are
there cards which have no pegging value?
One of the efforts of advanced cribbage players and authors of
cribbage strategy is to get players to view the game logically
and to make percentage plays. Applying logic as a strategy causes
players to note cards that are not present in opponent hand without
having visual proof of the non-existence of that card. Such a game
strategy causes players to develop X-ray vision. What is the percentage
lead when holding an A-4 or 2-3 couplet?
What should your opening lead be when holding 6-7-8-10?
What should your response to a Q lead be if holding
A-6-7-8? How should you lead from a four-card run? How
should you respond from a four-card run after your opponent's lead?
There are strategies built on game psychology. Hesitations on
the drop of a card may encourage pairing by the opponent. Some players
act as though they are about to pull another card from their hand at end
of play which may influence the play of opponent. Lengthy hesitation
near end of game may be an indicator that a very poor hand has been
dealt. And there are many more behaviors developed as strategies that
have their base in game psychology.
The basis of all game strategies is board position strategy.
The "Theory of 26" has been developed by DeLynn Colvert and applied to
actual play by thousands of cribbage adherents with amazing results.
Playing critical position zones is another concept espoused by
the author. Both establish a positional strategy as to where a player
needs to be at end of hand one, two, three, etc. Playing this strategy
begins with the opening deal of the game. The players who adhere most
fully to such a board strategy have higher winning percentages in play
at home or on the tournament trail. This strategy is covered in detail
in Play Winning Cribbage, pages 78 through 104.
Essential to success in cribbage is a thorough knowledge of
mathematical probability or frequency of occurrence. What are the
typical results of 1000 games? What advantage does the dealer of the
opening hand gain? What are the average number of points pegged by
dealer and non-dealer? Does dealer or non-dealer score the larger hands?
How many point are scored in the typical crib? What are the margins of
victory in most games of cribbage played?
The game of "cribbidge" was invented by Sir John Suckling around
1631. Game strategies have been outlined in written form since that
time. The first major title, A Treatise on the Game of Cribbage,
was published in 1791 followed by a second edition in 1807. Only one
copy is known to exist in the USA, and is located in an Ohio library.
The Cribbage Player's Text-book was published in 1837, consisting of
128 pages. These first three works were published in London. One of the
earliest American efforts to outline cribbage strategies and general
rules of play was Cribbage Made Easy, published in New York
around 1830. This effort included 143 pages. Many other books have
The five best known contemporary books are: All About Cribbage
by Douglas Anderson, Cribbage for Experts by Dan Barlow,
Cribbage: A New Concept by John Chambers, Play Winning Cribbage
by DeLynn Colvert and Win at Cribbage by Joe Wergin. If you left
cribbage strategy out of these books, you would have only a cover and a
Public information relative to crib strategy is available on the
Internet from the American Cribbage
Congress. The Tip Library menu selection there includes hundreds of
pages of cribbage strategy. Mike Schell, Washington State resident and
statistical analyst, does a great job of studying and analyzing a
variety of crib strategies on the Internet. His
Cribbage Forum Web site would
convince the greatest skeptic that cribbage is a game of skill.
Successful players from internet gaming areas outline strategies for
success in game of cribbage. Player notes relative to game strategy may
be viewed at MSN Gaming Zone's
Artful Dodger's Cribbage Page is another site focusing on crib strategy.
There are many others as well.
Classes have been taught on cribbage in many parts of North America.
Such information is available from the American Cribbage Congress. Many
middle school general math students learn cribbage, as it is a game
which enhances the development of basic mathematic skills. Lea Hornbeck,
from Washougal, Washington is a useful contact if more information is
needed on education programs of the American Cribbage Congress. The
author of this article teaches classes on cribbage to adults. Lectures
are 90 minutes in duration, require an additional 90 minutes of practice
to apply the instruction to actual play, and the complete course is
comprised of twelve sessions. A suitcase full of material relative to
game strategy has been developed for this course. It seems apparent that
a game of chance would not be the subject of written matter nor would it
become valid classroom material.
- Republished by permission. Text copyright © 2000 by George
Rasmussen. All rights reserved.