Marcelo Quinto, left, and Ron Crenshaw saddle up to their cribbage boards on a recent Monday night gathering of players.
Every Monday night a group of devoted Juneau cribbage players congregate at the Juneau Senior Center for some heckling and card playing
Story last updated at 6/27/2012 - 2:06 pm
"If you don't let me win, I'll kick your leg."
And so began the first of seven hands of cribbage at the weekly gathering last Monday night. Alan Judson, a retired area-wide fire chief was sitting across from Don Greenburg, a retired math, physics and astronomy teacher who had recently torn one of his calf muscles. Greenburg was the one being threatened.
Heckling is par for the course at these games, which begin at 5:45 p.m. every Monday at the Juneau Senior Center. Lucky for Greenburg, there was an even amount of people (14) that evening. With an even amount of people one person remains in his or her seat, and the rest of the players rotate around that person. With an odd amount of players, one person sits out every game. Thus, repetitive opposition is avoided. Greenburg was able to prop his injured leg up on a chair the whole evening, while the rest of the 13 players shifted around him.
I had put in a few months playing cribbage a few years back, during a summer spent at a family cabin off the grid outside of Homer, Alaska. But my skills were rusty.
Though the game of cribbage requires some thought and skill, "The common denominator is luck," said Wayne Berthol, who acts as the group's director.
"If you play a person who is skilled at cribbage, then your chances of winning are diminished, but they're not out, because good luck could win overall," said Berthol, leaving me with little excuse to simply observe.
Wooden cribbage boards are placed down the middle of the playing tables, between two opposing chairs. The boards we were using contain two sets of holes for each player, 60 holes heading up the board, 60 holes down the board and one hole marking the winning spot. Two sets of pegs are used by the players to advance up and down the board. Players piggyback the pegs; the peg farthest back is brought past the peg farthest forward to account for additional points gained.
Each player is assigned a number, one through however many players there are. They are given a score sheet.
The deck is cut at the beginning of each game. The player with the lowest card takes the deck, shuffles at least three times, and the opponent cuts the deck again. Then the dealer distributes six cards to each of the two players. The opposing player lifts part of the remaining deck up, and the dealer pulls a card out and leaves it face-up on top of the deck. Each player chooses two cards from his or hand and places them into what is called a crib. The cards in the crib remain face down in the possession of the dealer. The two players then place one card down at a time, building upon each previous card, trying to total 15 points, trying for pairs and consecutive runs. Once the tally reaches 31 during the counting process, (each face card is 10 points), the counting begins anew until all eight cards between each of the two players has been played.
Then the opposing player counts his or her hand, each including the face-up card on top of the deck. The players try to reach sums of 15 points, as well as runs. Points are also awarded if the player has a jack that is of the same suit as the face-up card, and the dealer gets points if that face-up card is a jack.
After each player adds up his or her points, the dealer counts the points contained within the crib, which also consist of that face-up card. Having the first crib, or the lowest card when the deck is first cut, is an advantage. It allows that player to earn the most points in the first hand of the game. Then dealership is turned over to the opponent.
The game is full of odd words. For example "skunk" is a term used when a player wins the game 31 points ahead of his or her opponent. At the Juneau cribbage club, that player receives a stuffed skunk. The skunk is passed from skunker to subsequent skunker. The "stink hole" is the last hole for each player. When two players are neck and neck, they each have a peg in the stink hole. The first to score any points that hand wins that game. "Nobs" is a term used to claim points won for having the jack of the same suit as the face-up card.
My first opponent, Ron Crenshaw, a master gardener and former landscape architect, claimed he'd take it easy on me.
"I'll teach you," Crenshaw said, "And I'll teach you how to beat people."
But after our game, Crenshaw had the stuffed skunk. That is, I'd been skunked.
I moved to the seat to the right, to face Berthol. Berthol explained that the Juneau group is part of the American Cribbage Congress. The ACC was founded in 1979.
"The group we have locally is called the ACC Grass Roots, which means it's at the local level," said Berthol. From September through May, scores from the evenings are entered into an ACC website, and tallied against other national ACC groups. The first two evenings a player participates are free. By the third evening, they're encouraged to register as an ACC member.
In June, July and August, people show up to play for fun, mostly. Each player generally elects to contribute $12 to a kitty. One of the dollars goes to club fees. Another dollar goes to a pot for the last person with the skunk each evening. The rest of the money is distributed to the players with the three highest scores: 50 percent to the top scoring player, 30 percent to the second place finisher and 20 percent to the third.
Berthol did not get the skunk, but he did get two points for winning. So part of the luck that night involved playing against me. With 14 players and seven games for the night, not every player played against everyone else. The more hands you have against those with less skill, the higher one's chances are of walking with more money than one paid.
The eldest Juneau ACC member is Agnes Wolfe. Wolfe is 91 and lives in the adjacent Mountain View apartments. She is wry, wears a black leather coat and was born in Hawaii. She remembers the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She's also a very skilled player. After a couple of hands she leaned over next to me.
"You learned a lot from me," Wolfe said, when I threw the same two cards into my opponent's crib that she would have chosen. "You're doin' good. You've been watching me."
With some games ending before others, it leaves room for more heckling and general banter. Wolfe explained that they used to play all over town. At the Sand Bar, the Prospector Hotel, and the Lion's Club. Wolfe had a connection at the Juneau Senior Center, where they could play for free, and as there's no smoking allowed, it would reduce the smoke exposure for those who don't choose to inhale. The one drawback Wolfe sees? They can't drink, she explained wistfully.
Alan G. Gould, a retired surveyor, explained what different numbers on wooden sticks meant to Tom Judson. Three of Judson's brothers, Norman, Fred and Alan, the guy who threatened to kick injured Greenburg, are regular players at Monday night cribbage. Gould had brought along his daughter, Charolyn Concepcion, who was visiting from out of state. Concepcion learned cribbage from her father at the age of nine. She's now approaching 50 years old.
"That's a lot of crib," she said.
"A lot of crib" could be applied, it appeared, to most of those present that evening. Berthol said he and his sister were taught to play when they were young children. The game involves a lot of counting and quick thinking. His mother thought it would increase her children's math skills. His father had a different approach.
"If you're really paying attention you would count your points out like you would count money," said Berthol. "He wanted us to learn the idea of money." The peg holes are organized in groups of five, and instead of counting 1-2-3, his father encouraged him to use the grouped holes to count ahead. For example, if your peg was in the third of a group of five holes, and you scored 12 points, you would move your peg up two to complete the group of five, then two full more groups of five to equal 12 peg holes. It's like not using your fingers to count on, but doing math in your head.
There are lots of tricks to learn: playing a first card under five makes it impossible for your opponent to score a point-winning 15; and there are tricks regarding what cards to toss into the crib if it's yours versus your opponent's.
Frankly, the best trick I learned Monday night was to play the "inexperienced card." There were often players who had finished their respective games and eager to give advice, especially Wolfe.
Berthol would like to see the number of cribbage players increase. There are a lot of positive aspects of the weekly gatherings, he said.
"Camaraderie, learning to play with people you don't know, meeting new people," he said. "There's an excellent group of people in the core group that we're in now, from all over the Juneau area. As long as they want to play crib, they're welcome."
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.