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Cribbage is a card game for two to four players. Described by some as 'a game of low, animal cunning', it demands skill, experience, craftiness and luck to win. The rules of cribbage are simple, and the element of chance in the fall of the cards is such that even a novice can beat a seasoned player over one or two games, yet over a longer period expert play will win out.
Simple cribbage rules (please note these are traditional rules for 2 person style and we play 4 person style and deal 5 cards to each player instead of 6)
The rules of cribbage are simple. Cribbage belongs to the family of card games known as 'adders' - that is, games in which the idea is to add successive card values to a running total with the aim of making certain totals - in this case, 31. Cribbage boards are one of the most notable features of the game, used for keeping score. In the first phase of the hand, players take turns playing a card from their hand which is added to the running total. Two points are scored for making the total 15 or 31. Pairs and sequences also earn points. Once the hands have been played out in this way, the players then score points based on the pairs and sequences in their hands, plus the combinations that add up to 15, and record the score on the cribbage board. Each player is free to choose which card to play as long as it is legal according to the rules of cribbage.
The interweaving of luck and skill in cribbage is particularly interesting. Although you have no control over the cards you receive (and thus the points you score in the second phase), there is much opportunity for skilful play in the first, or pegging, phase. A good player can make many more points from a given hand than a novice. However, the element of chance is such that a single high-scoring hand can strongly affect the outcome of the whole game. Thus a rank beginner can comfortably beat an expert, given only a little luck. Over many games, though, the luck of the deal should average out and the skilful player's edge will become apparent.
The cards and cribbage board
Cribbage is played with an ordinary 52-card deck with the jokers removed. The cribbage boards used to keep score are traditionally made of wood, with 30, 60 or 120 holes per player.
The rules require that the game starts with a cut. The player cutting the lower card is the dealer. He should shuffle the pack and offer it to his opponent (the non-dealer is known as pone) for a further cut. Although the official rules of cribbage dictate that the dealer must offer the cut or take a two-point penalty, in friendly games this is usually not insisted upon and you are free to cut or not as you wish (see more about ). The dealer then deals six cards to each player.
The deal alternates with each hand. Over several games, the first deal may alternate between the players, or it may go to the loser of the previous game. One common convention in a 3-game match is to alternate the first deal of the first 2 games, then cut for the last. This is not part of the official rules, however.
Partners Cribbage (this is what we play)
The rules for playing cribbage with Partners are generally the same as those for two player cribbage, with a few exceptions. The game can be played by 4 to 6 players, with each player having at least one other person as their assigned partner. Partners are seated opposite each other around the playing table. Each player counts their points individually, but combine their points with those of their partners by pegging on the same track of the Cribbage Board. Five cards are dealt to each player instead of the usual 6 cards. Each player discards only one card from their hand to the Crib pile. The player to the left of the Dealer cuts the deck for the Start card. After a hand is played, the deal and possession of the Crib goes to the next player to the left. The game proceeds in this manner until one of the Partner groups pegs at least 121 points.
Following the turn-up, each player throws away two cards from his hand into the 'crib' or 'box' - a third hand that is scored by the dealer. The rules of cribbage differ in this respect from its predecessor, Noddy (see the cribbage origins page for more details). This phase of cribbage is called the discard. Since the crib scores points for its owner, your choice of discard will generally be different depending on whether the crib is yours or your opponent's. However, you must throw two cards; it is against the rules to discard none or only one.
It is no exaggeration to say that the discard is the part of cribbage where skill and knowledge has the greatest effect on the outcome of the game. Whole books can be, and have been written, on the art of cribbage discards. A great site to practice your discards is The Daily Cribbage Hand, which has a sample hand for you to consider and then compare your choice of discard against other users, and discuss the different choices.
There are rules of thumb about the discard, and you can find some of these on the Discards section of Cribbage Corner. However, the choice of cards to throw is entirely free and not mandated by the cribbage rules.
The game of cribbage then begins with the dealer turning up the top card (the player to the left cuts the cards for the turn up card on league) on the remaining pile after the cards have been dealt to each player. This card is called the turn-up or starter. If the turn-up card is a Jack, the dealer immediately scores two points ("two for his heels").
In the next phase of cribbage, the players take it in turns to lay down a card, trying to make the running total equal to certain values. The non-dealer plays first and states the value of her card (for example, "ten" for a Jack). Court cards count ten (together with the face 10 they are known as the 'ten-cards', or 'tenth cards'). Ace counts one.
15 and 31
The dealer then plays a card, the value of which is added to the current running total. The player who makes the total exactly 15 scores two points ("fifteen-two"). Two points are also awarded for making 31. Additionally, you score a point if your opponent cannot play without going over 31 ("one for the go", or just "one for go").
If your card is the same rank as the last card played, you score two for a pair. If your opponent plays a third card of the same rank, he scores 6 for a "pair royal" (three of a kind). Four of a kind scores 12 ("double pair royal").
If the last 3 cards played form a sequence, the player making the sequence scores 3 for a "run". For example, 3-4-5 makes a run of 3 and so scores 3 for the player laying down the 5. If the opponent then plays a 6 (or a 2) to extend the sequence to 4 cards, she scores 4, and so on as long as the sequence is unbroken.
Sequence do not have to be in order. For example, if the play goes 7-9-6, you can then play an 8 to score 4 for a run of 4.
The rules of 'go'
The cribbage rules for scoring 'go' sometimes cause confusion. You earn a point for go when your opponent cannot go. This may be (a) because he has no cards (sometimes called 'One for last'), or (b) because he cannot play without going over 31 ('One for the go'). In either case if you make the total 31 you score only 2 points on the cribbage board, not 3 (because the go is included, as described above). However, you may well make 15 with the last card (in which case you do score 3).
An example sequence of play showing the rules for pegging points by both players:
Alice (pone) plays a 4, for a total of 4, and says 'Four.'
Bob plays a 7, for a total of 11, and says 'Eleven'.
Alice plays another 4, for a total of 15, and says 'Fifteen for two.' [and pegs 2 points]
Bob plays a Jack, for a total of 25, and says 'Twenty-five'.
Alice cannot go, as any of her remaining cards would take the total over 31. She says 'go'.
Bob plays a 5, for a total of 30, and says 'Thirty, and one for the go' [and pegs 1 point]
The count now goes back to zero, and the play continues. Since Bob played the last card, Alice goes first now.
Alice plays a 7, for a total of 7, and says 'Seven'.
Bob plays an 8, for a total of 15, and says 'Fifteen for two.' [and pegs 2 points]
Alice plays a 9, for a total of 24, and says 'Twenty-four for three'. [and pegs 3 points for her run of 7-8-9]
Bob cannot go, as he has run out of cards. He therefore says 'Go', and Alice pegs a point for the go. She also has run out of cards and so the game proceeds to the next phase.
Bob (pone) plays a 4, for a total of 4, and says 'Four.'
Alice plays another 4, for a total of 8, and says 'Eight for two.' [and pegs 2 points for the pair]
Bob plays a third 4, for a total of 12, and says 'Twelve for six.' [and pegs 6 points for the pair royal ]
Alice plays a 3, for a total of 15, and says 'Fifteen for two.' [and pegs 2 points]
Bob plays a 2, for a total of 17, and says 'Seventeen for three.' [and pegs 3 points for the run 4-3-2]
Alice plays a 5, for a total of 22, and says 'Twenty-two for four.' [and pegs 4 points for the run 5-4-3-2]]
Bob cannot go without going over 31, and so says 'Go'.
Alice plays a 9, for a total of 31, and says 'Thirty-one for two.' [and pegs 2 points. 'One for the go' is only scored when the scoring player does not make 31. ]
The count is now reset, and Bob plays first, as Alice played last.
Bob plays a Queen, for a total of 10, and says 'Ten.'
Alice cannot go, as she has run out of cards, and so says 'Go'. [ Bob pegs 1 point for the go. ]
For tips on how to make the most of the go, see the cribbage strategy section.
Having played out all the cards, both players then score their hands, pone first - this time including the turn-up card as part of both hands. The dealer's crib also includes the turn-up. Again, points are scored for 15s, runs, and pairs; you can also score for a flush (all cards of the same suit). It is a key part of the rules of cribbage that the non-dealer should score first - at the end of the game, both players may have enough points to win, and the right to score first will determine victory. The cribbage board's positions usually alternate during the game, with first one player leading, then the other. The trick is to be in the first-scoring position when you are close enough to win!
If the four cards in your hand are of the same suit, you score four for a flush. If the starter card is also of the same suit, you score five. However, in the crib you cannot score a four-card flush; all five must be the same suit. These rules occasionally have local variations, so check to make sure which rules are being used. In an official tournament, the American Cribbage Congress rules apply.
Some cribbage rules sites explicitly state that flushes are not scored in cribbage. This is incorrect, at least according to the American Cribbage Congress rules, which are the nearest thing to an official set of rules for cribbage.
2 points are scored for a pair in cribbage, and 6 for a pair royal - that is, three cards of the same rank. This can be considered as 3 different pairs worth 2 points each. Similarly, double pair royal (four of a kind) scores 12 as there are 6 ways of picking two cards from four. You begin to see why mathematicians love this game.
Combinations of cards making 15 score two points each - for example, 8 and 7. As many ways as you can make 15 with your cards, you score 2 points for each of them. For example, 8-7-7-A can make 15 three ways: the 8 and one 7, the 8 and the other 7, and the 7-7-A. Consequently it scores 6 points (for 15s, and a further 2 for the pair of 7s).
Runs score as many points as there are cards in them. For example, a four-card run 9-T-J-Q scores 4.
You also score 1 point if you have the Jack of the same suit as the starter card (known as 'his nobs' or just 'nobs').
Cribbage scoring chart
|Pair royal||6||Three of a kind|
|Double pair royal||12||Four of a kind|
|Run||1 per card||Runs need not be in numerical order (eg 3-5-6-4) but they must be consecutive (3-4-4-5 does not score).|
|Go||1||The go is scored by the last player to lay a card. |
|31||2||The 2 points for 31 includes a go (by definition no-one can go when the total is 31). So no extra point is scored for the go.|
Cribbage scoring may seem confusing at first, but soon becomes easy. Some practice will be required to spot all the scores in a hand, especially the 15s. Look at these example hands:
Example Hand 1
This is a complicated hand, so follow this standard counting procedure. First count the 15s. How many can you see?
Each of the 5s can make 15 with the 10 - that's 2 15s. Each of the 5s can also make 15 with the 6-4 - that's another 2 15s. That's 4 15s in total, making 8 points.
Now look for pairs. There is one pair of 5s, making a further 2 points - that's 10 in total.
Now look for runs. Each of the 5s can make a 4-5-6 run of 3 - that's 3 points per run, 6 points in all, and the hand total so far is 16.
Finally, look for flushes and 'nobs' - there are none. So the hand scores 16.
Example Hand 2
Remember, count 15s first, then pairs, then sequences, then flushes and nobs. The answer is at the bottom of the page.
Example Hand 3
It's easy to miss 2 of the points in this hand. Check your answer.
This is the highest-scoring hand in cribbage. It is a useful exercise to understand where each of the 29 points comes from! (see answers).
Example Hand 2: 13 points. The J-2 makes 15 with both 3s, that's 4; a pair of 3s adds 2 to make 6; two runs A-2-3 add 6 to make 12; the Jack of nobs adds 1 point to make 13.
Example Hand 3: 6 points. The 3-3-4-4-A adds up to 15, that's 2; two pairs add 4 to make 6. Did you miss the 15?
29 Hand: 29 points. The J makes 15 with each of the 5s, that's 8; the 4 5s also make 15 four different ways, that's 16; double pair royal (four of a kind) adds 12 to make 28; the Jack of nobs makes 29. You will not find yourself called upon to count this hand very often.
Although the rules of cribbage are simple, the method of scoring takes a little practice to master. The article How to Count Cards in Cribbage details a little solitaire cribbage game you can play which will help you learn to score hands fast.
Rules of Muggins (we do not allow in league)
The optional 'Muggins' rule allows your opponent to claim points which you fail to score in your own hand or play, or forget to peg on the board. While this certainly forces you to pay attention to the play and count your hand carefully, there are arguments against it: it tends to slow down play, as you tend to count everything twice for fear of missing points. It also seems rather unfair to make you pay a double penalty (not only do you not get the points, your opponent gets them) for what is after all a simple mistake, not bad play. This is especially discouraging for beginners, who ironically are most likely to lose points this way. Muggins is usually played in tournaments, serious club play and between old friends who enjoy arguments.
Cribbage boards and keeping score
Although the rules of cribbage do not actually require it, the traditional method of keeping score in a game of cribbage is to use a cribbage board. This is a flat board, usually made of wood, with a series of holes to show each player's score. Each player has two pins which mark her current and previous score. If she makes a score of 5, she moves the back pin 5 holes ahead of the front pin to mark her new total.
Winning at cribbage
In the standard six-card cribbage game the winner is the first player to reach 121 points, and the end of the board. The cribbage rules do not require you to score exactly 121; any score that takes you past 120 points is enough to win - provided you get to count it! If the loser has not reached 91 points the victor scores a skunk, or double win. Some players also set a double skunk line at 61, for a three (or four) game victory, which adds a certain piquancy to a crushing defeat. The double skunk rules are optional, however.
Cribbage has its own unique and interesting vocabulary. Here is our quick guide to the cribbage terms you need to know:
- Crib - the dealer's extra hand
- Pegging - marking scores on the cribbage board, or more generally, the card-playing phase of the game
- Muggins - claiming points your opponent failed to notice
- Stinkhole - the 120th hole, one short of winning
- His nob - extra point scored for having a jack of the turn-up suit
- His heels - 2 point score by the dealer for turning up a jack