Michael Schell - Tip #3

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Defending against a two-on-one

Here's a situation you'll occasionally find yourself in as dealer. It's the first hand of the game, and you deal yourself 2 3 4 5 10 Q, from which you toss 5-10. Pone cuts the J and leads the 3. Rather than pair his 3, you prudently play your Q. Pone pairs it with the Q. Since pone's first two cards were both hearts, you decide to play your 3 next. That way, if pone does have a heart flush, he'll be unable to peg two points here (he's already played the 3, and the 5 is sitting in your crib).

Instead, pone says "go", so you're stuck playing another low card. Neither one gets a 31-2, so does it matter which one you play?

PONE  (0):


3 Q ? ?

 play:
3  Q  Q (23-2)  3  "Go"  ?
  crib:   ?-?
5 10
cut J  
2 3 4 Q

DEALER  (0*):

Yes it does! Or at least, it might. Pone has stolen last card, and will have a two-on-one on the next play series. Since he said "go" with the count at 26, he obviously has nothing lower than a 6. There's no way he can trap your last card into a run, and there's nothing you can do about the one point he's guaranteed to peg at the end, but there is something you can do to keep him from pegging a 15-3. Play your 2 here instead of your 4.

If you save your 4 for last, there is no combination of cards that pone can hold that would let him peg a 15-3. But if you save your 2 for last, pone will score a 15-3 if his last two cards are 6-7, a combination consistent with having a heart flush:

3  Q  Q (23-2)  3  4? (30-1)    6  2  7 (15-3)

Here's another example, from a hand I saw played at the 2001 ACC Open.

PONE


7-7-?-?

 play:
7  K  7  2  "Go"  ?
  crib:   ?-?
Q-Q
cut 9  
2-3-4-K

DEALER

It may be that the 3 was a better play on pone's second 7, since it doesn't give up a 31-2 to a 5, and since on a go dealer could have followed up with his 4 for a 31-2. But dealer played the 2 instead, perhaps reasoning that if it was paired, he could then retaliate with his 3 for a 31-2. When pone said "go", he had a choice between playing his 3 or his 4. Like most players, he instinctively played the 4 to move the count closer to 31  an irrelevant consideration here. This led to the following embarrassment:

7  K  7  2  4? (30-1)    6  3  6 (15-3)

Had dealer saved his 4 for last, there would have been no way pone could have pegged extra points.

You may have noticed that the correct play in both the above cases was to play the lower card first, saving the higher card for last. This makes sense if you think about it  the lower a card's pip value, the more combinations there are that can trap it for a 15:

  • an A gives up a 15 to 7-7, 6-8, 5-9 or 4-x
  • a 2 gives up a 15 to 6-7, 5-8, 4-9 or (3-x)
  • a 3 gives up a 15 to 6-6, 5-7 or (4-8)
  • a 4 gives up a 15 to (5-6)

The possibilities in parenthesis cannot arise in this situation unless you passed up a 31-2 on the previous play series.

It would appear that, other things being equal, playing the lower card first is always the percentage play. However, in cribbage other things aren't always equal. Consider this scenario at 117*-113.

PONE  (113):


4-4-?-?

 play:
4  9  4  10  "Go"  ?
  crib:   ?-?
10-K
cut 3  
2-3-9-10

DEALER  (117*):

Pone said "go" at 27, so she has nothing lower than a 5. If you save your 3 for last, it could be trapped by 5-7 or 6-6. And if you save your 2 for last, it could be trapped by 5-8 or 6-7. The kicker is that if pone's last two cards are 5-7 or 5-8, then you'll lose the game no matter what you do. And if they're 6-7, then you'll win no matter what you do. But if they're 6-6, then you'll lose only if you give up a 15-3 at the end. So drop your 3 here, saving your safe 2 for last.

Does this seem like too much mental arithmetic to deal with over the board? Well, I commiserate with you. But if you'd like to see the word Master or Champion affixed to your name one day, this is the kind of tactical detail you'll need to get accustomed to. Otherwise, just make it your policy to drop the lower card first (assuming neither one gets you a 31-2) whenever you're forced into an early go. This will bomb out occasionally, but you'll be right more often than not.

Exercises

OK then, let's take a little test. You're dealer in all the following situations, and neither player is showing a flush. To more closely simulate the environment of a real game, I suggest you work through these exercises using an actual board and cards.

  1. The score is 66*-71, so you're playing on. You kept 3-4-4-8 and tossed J-J. The cut is a Q, and the play started:

    6  4  8  8 (26-2)  "Go"  ?

    Do you play your 3 or your 4?

  2. You kept 2-3-4-6, and the play started:

    9  6 (15-2)  8  2  "Go"  ?

    Does it matter whether you play your 3 or 4 now?

  3. The score is 104*-113. You're holding A-2-3-9, having tossed 5-7. The cut is a 3, and the play started:

    K  9  7  3  "Go"  ?

    The count is 29. Do you play your A or your 2?

  4. Same situation as above, only the cut is a 2, not a 3. Does it matter whether you play your A or 2?
     
  5. Here's a more subtle case. At 80*-84 you dealt yourself 2-3-9-9-K-K and tossed 9-9. Pone cut a 3, and the play started:

    6  K  A  K  "Go"  ?

    You must now play your 2 or your 3. Which is best?

Answers

  1. You're playing on at 66*-71. You kept 3-4-4-8 and tossed J-J. The cut is a Q, and the play started:  

    6  4  8  8 (26-2)  "Go"  ?

    Do you play your 3 or your 4?

To score a 15-3 on your 4, pone's last two cards would have to total eleven. Since she has no 5 or lower (she said "go" at 26), this is clearly impossible. But if you save your 3 for last, pone will score a 15-3 if her last two cards are 6-6. Don't give her that opportunity. Dump your 3 now.

  1. You kept 2-3-4-6, and the play started:

    9  6 (15-2)  8  2  "Go"  ?

    Does it matter whether you play your 3 or 4 now?  

When pone didn't pair your 6, you made the count 25 with your 2. That was a go, so pone must not have anything lower than a 7. Therefore it doesn't matter which card you play next.

  1. The score is 104*-113. You're holding A-2-3-9, having tossed 5-7. The cut is a 3, and the play started:  

    K  9  7  3  "Go"  ?

    The count is 29. Do you play your A or your 2?  

If you impulsively played your 2 here just to get a 31-2, then shame on you! Your hand is worth fourteen points, your crib will be worth at least two, and you've just gotten a go. You're guaranteed enough points to go out if you get to count them, so the extra point for a 31 is worthless. What you should be thinking about is defense.

A better reason to play the 2 here is that it keeps you out of a run situation on the second play series. Pone could conceivably be holding 3-4-7-K, in which case her 3-4 will peg four points against your lone 2. But in this case giving up a run is harmless, since it leaves pone two holes short of victory. As for a 15-3, if you save your 2 pone will score if her last two cards are 3-x, 4-9, 5-8 or 6-7. If she has 5-8, this will cost you the game, but if she has any of the other combinations, she'll fall short anyway.

If, on the other hand, you keep your A as your last card, pone will score a 15-3 if her last two cards are 6-8 or 7-7. This would be bad news indeed, since in either case she would otherwise have fallen short. She could also score on your A with 5-9, but since she didn't pair your 9 you can pretty much rule out this scenario, which would leave her in the stinkhole anyway. The last possibility is 4-x, but this also leaves her short even with a 15-3.

Since the A loses on two combinations while the 2 loses on only one combination, the 2 is the safer card to keep. Eschewing a 31-2 when you're playing defense is rarely a good idea, but in this case you should drop your A now and save the 2 for last.

  1. Same situation as above, only the cut is a 2, not a 3. Does it matter whether you play your A or 2?  

Yes it matters, and this time the "obvious" play is the right one. If you play your 2 now, taking the 31 and saving the A for last, pone will be able to peg three points if her hand is 4-7-K-x, 5-7-9-K, 6-7-8-K or 7-7-7-K. As before, since she didn't pair your 9, we'll rule out 5-7-9-K. If she has 6-7-8-K then she's got the game won. If she has 4-7-K-x she's lost. Only if she has 7-7-7-K will it cost you the game.

Saving your 2 for last costs you the game if pone has 3-7-K-K, 3-4-7-K, 5-7-8-K or 6-7-7-K (in the case of 3-4-7-K, she'll win by trapping your 2 into a run). That's much worse than saving the A for last. So go ahead and take the 31-2. Since the cut makes your hand worth just twelve points, and guarantees you no more than two points in the crib, that extra hole you peg might come in handy.

  1. Here's a more subtle case. At 80*-84 you dealt yourself 2-3-9-9-K-K and tossed 9-9. Pone cut a 3, and the play started:  

    6  K  A  K  "Go"  ?

    You must now play your 2 or your 3. Which is best?  

The difficulty here is that pone could score a 15-3 on either your 2 or your 3. The 2 gives up a 15-3 to a 5-8 or 6-7, while the 3 can be trapped by 5-7 or 6-6. Pone's play so far doesn't conclusively rule out any of these possibilities, so what should you do?

The answer comes from board strategy. At 80-84* both you and pone are jockeying to get into Fourth Street position. The goal is to be the first to reach the next positional hole (96), and preferably to surpass it by a decent enough margin to provide some insurance. If pone fails to do this with his first count, you are virtually certain to do it with your ensuing three counts. Accordingly, your strategy must be to try to prevent pone from reaching or exceeding 96 points on this deal.

Keeping this in mind, let's take a closer look at the possibilities. If you save your 2 for last and pone traps it, he must be holding A-5-6-8 or A-6-6-7, either of which is worth four points with a 3 starter. With the 15-3, this will get him to 91 points, still well short of the positional hole. If pone traps your 3, however, he has either A-5-6-7, worth seven points or A-6-6-6, worth twelve points. Letting him peg an additional two points would push him from poor position (92) to marginal position (94) in the former case, and from marginal position (97) to good position (100) in the latter case. In short, having your 3 trapped is much more likely to decisively impact the game than having your 2 trapped. The right play is to dump your 3 first, saving your 2 for last.

- Republished from Cribbage Forum by permission. Text copyright 2002 by Michael Schell. All rights reserved.

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