The Manly History of Cribbage and How to Play the Game

by Brett & Kate McKay on November 28, 2012 · 38 comments

in Gamesmanship, Manly Skills, Travel & Leisure

“While I was sitting there thinking of how Bill was a major artist and how even the knots he tied were artistic, he had somehow got ahead of me in the cribbage game, at which he was a chump. At least, I was a lot better than he was at cribbage, once the favorite indoor pastime of the woods. We even played it outdoors, and often on the trail one of us would carry a deck of cards and a cribbage board in his pack sack, and in the middle of the morning and afternoon we would straddle a log and have a game.” -A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean

Later today, we’re going to post an article on how to make a cribbage board. But it seems before we do that, we ought to share some history of this classic game along with the rules on how to play.

The game of cribbage has been beloved by men for centuries. Believed to have been invented, or at least codified, by British soldier and poet Sir John Suckling in the 17th century, it was brought to American shores by English settlers where it became quite popular in the colonies, especially in New England. Requiring only two players, it was readily adopted by sailors and fishermen as a way to wile away the time. Cribbage boards, which have either 61 or 121 holes, were crafted from a variety of materials and could be quite unique and elaborate in form and style. Eskimos would make cribbage boards out of walrus tusks to trade with the sailors and fishermen who made port near their villages.

Cribbage boards made from walrus tusks.
Photo Source

Cribbage remained popular with mariners for hundreds of years, enjoying especially widespread play in the Navy during World War II. It was thought of as the unofficial game of submariners, who played round the clock as they patrolled for Japanese ships.

The most famous incident related to cribbage in the Navy occurred in 1943 aboard one of the war’s most celebrated submarines, the USS Wahoo. For the Wahoo’s fourth war patrol, it was ordered to head to the extreme northern reaches of the Yellow Sea, an area where no sub had gone before. The waters near the Dairen Peninsula were shallow, and crewmembers grew nervous as they glided into dangerous territory. To take their minds off the tension, the sub’s commander, Dudley “Mush” Morton and his executive officer, Richaed “Dick” O’Kane, began a game of cribbage. Morton dealt O’Kane a “Perfect 29” hand — four fives and a jack — the highest possible score for combinations in a single cribbage deal. Back-of-the-envelope calculations were done, and 216,000 to 1 were the odds thrown out as to the chances of that happening. The crew’s spirits were bolstered by what they felt was a very lucky omen. O’Kane had his fellow officers sign the five cards and he framed them.

Rear Admiral Richard Hetherington “Dick” O’Kane. O’Kane has the distinction of directly participating in more successful attacks on Japanese shipping than any other fighting submarine officer during the war.

Good fortune did prevail on the patrol – at its end the Wahoo had set a record for the number of ships sunk. It continued for O’Kane too. When he was detached from the Wahoo and given command of the Tang, that sub broke the former’s record for most ships sunk in a single patrol. And while he was captured by the Japanese when the Tang was sunk by an errant torpedo that circled back and hit it, O’Kane survived the war, and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity” during his submarine’s final operations.

O’Kane’s lucky cribbage board has become an important submariner tradition; since WWII it has been passed along to the oldest active submarine in the United States Pacific Fleet. Once the sub is decommissioned, it is given to the next oldest submarine, where it is placed in the wardroom. The famous crib board currently resides aboard the USS Bremerton, which launched in 1978.

Cribbage remained popular with men after World War II, and was a favorite game of college students at least up through my father’s generation. But it seems to have, along with most other analog games, largely fallen out of favor and sight. I don’t know many guys who play, although it continues to live on in pockets of college men and families.

My in-laws gave me a cribbage board several years ago, but I never used it because I didn’t know how! So I figured it was finally time to learn this classic game for myself. As with learning any new game, it’s hard at first to grasp all the rules, and play is awkward, but after a few rounds you’ll get the hang of it. And once you do, you’ll discover a game that involves both luck and skill, will help you brush up on your basic arithmetic, and is quite enjoyable.

Cribbage is traditionally played with two people, but you can also play with four (two on two) or with three with modified rules. It can also be played with either five or six cards, but the latter is by far the most common and popular version.

If you’re interested in learning how to play cribbage too, below are the rules.


How to Play Cribbage


These rules are taken fromThe Official Rules of Card Games, published in 1922 by the U.S. Playing Card Co. I have made a few slight edits for clarity.

The Pack.—Full pack, 52 cards.

Number of Players.—Two or three; or four as partners. Best two-hand.

Rank of Cards.—K (high), Q, J, 10, 9, etc., to A (low).

Cutting.—Cut for deal—low deals, ace being lowest card.

Shuffling.—Either player may shuffle, dealer last, and dealer’s opponent (pone) cuts.

Dealing.—Deal six cards to each, one at a time, alternately, beginning with pone.

Misdealing.—The following are misdeals, the penalty for which is 2 points (scored immediately by opponent):

  1. Failure to have pack cut.
  2. Dealing a card incorrectly, and failing to correct the error before dealing another card.
  3. Exposing a card while dealing.
  4. Dealing too many or too few cards to either player.

In case of misdeal, pone may require new deal by same dealer.

In first three cases, pone must decide before looking at his cards, whether or not to have a new deal.

If dealer has incorrect number of cards, pone may say whether or not the deal stands, even though he has looked at his hand. If deal stands, and dealer has too many cards, pone may draw superfluous cards from dealer’s hand and place them on the top of the pack, looking at them if dealer has seen them; if too few, dealer supplies deficiency from the top of pack. If pone has too many or too few cards he must say whether or not the deal is to stand, before looking at his cards. If the deal stands, and pone has too many cards, he may replace superfluous cards on the top of pack; if too few, he may request dealer to supply the deficiency from the top of pack.

If a card is faced in pack, there must be a new deal by same dealer.

If pack is found to be incorrect, there must be a new deal by same dealer, but previous scores made with incorrect pack are not affected.

Deal out of turn may be stopped at any time before pone takes up his cards. Player in error is penalized 2 points (scored immediately by opponent). After pone has taken up his cards, deal out of turn must stand, without penalty.

The Crib.—Deal completed, each player discards two cards from his hand face down. These cards constitute the “Crib,” and belong to the dealer. Nothing is done with them until the hands are played out, when dealer scores any points contained in the crib, combined with the starter.

The Starter.—After discarding, pone cuts pack and dealer turns the top card of bottom packet (called Starter) face up on reunited pack. Starter is not used during play of hands, but is counted with each hand and the crib on the final count. (See Counting the Hands.) If starter is a jack (called His Heels) dealer scores 2 points immediately. These points must be scored before dealer plays a card, otherwise he cannot score them.

Objects of the Game.—To form various counting combinations, such as pairs, triplets, fours, sequences and fifteens, as explained under “Points in Play,” and “Counting Hands and Crib.” These combinations may be formed by the fall of the cards in play, or may be held in the hands and crib, combined with the starter.

The Play.—After starter is turned, pone plays any card from his hand face up on table immediately in front of him, and announces its numerical (or pip) value. (All kings, queens and jacks are announced as tens, and all other cards according to the number of spots.) Dealer then plays a card immediately in front of him so as to keep his card separate from pone’s, and announces the sum of his card and the one already played. The play continues alternately in this manner, the value of each card played being added to that of those already played, and the sum being announced, provided, however, that the sum of the cards played must not exceed 31. If, on his turn to play, either player has no card which will play within the sum of 31, he announces a “go”— signifying “Go on and play, as I cannot play further.” The other player, if he can do so, continues to play until he reaches 31, or can play no further. If he cannot play, he so states.

The Go.—The player who approaches most nearly to 31, during the play, scores 1 point; if he reaches exactly 31, 2 points.

The last card played counts 1. If it makes 15, it scores 3 points—fifteen—2 and 1 for “go.” There is no count for last card if it makes 31.

When 31 has been reached, or a “go” declared and pegged, each player turns the cards he has played face down immediately in front of him, and the player whose next turn it is begins to play again exactly as before, from the remaining cards in his hand. Starting the count afresh this manner of play is continued until hands are played out. In no event can a card be played that will make the total exceed 31. The players must always play alternately, except when one player has called a “go,” and the other can still play two or more cards.

Points in Play.—During the play the following points can be made and scored:

Fifteen.—If a player plays a card which makes the numerical value of the cards played exactly fifteen, he scores 2 points, announcing “Fifteen-two.”

Pairs.—If either plays a card which makes a pair (i.e., is of same denomination as last card played, as two fours or two jacks), he scores 2 points.

Triplets, Threes or Pairs Royal.—If, after a pair has been made, another card of the same denomination is immediately played (without a 31 or “go” intervening), the player of the third card scores 6 points for three pairs. (Thus, Q H, Q C, and Q S. The Q H and Q C are one pair; Q H and Q S another, and Q C and Q S the third.)

Fours, Double Pairs or Double Pairs Royal.—If, after a pair royal has been made, the fourth card of the same denomination is immediately played (without a 31 or “go” intervening), the player of such fourth card scores 12 points for six pairs. (Thus, the four K’s—K H and K D are one pair, K H and K C a second, K H and K S a third, K D and K C a fourth, K D and KS a fifth, K C and KS a sixth.)

Sequences or Runs.—When three or more cards, all in numerical sequence, are played, the player of the last card counts 1 point for each card in the sequence, even though they are not played in numerical rotation. (Thus, 6-8-7 is a three-card sequence the same as 6-7-8.) This run of three scores 3 points. If a fourth card in sequence be added, it scores 4 points, in addition to the first three scored, etc.

An Intervening Card or Duplicate “breaks” the sequence; thus, 5-4-3-3. The 5-4-3 is a sequence of three cards, but the second 3 is not in sequence because the first 3 breaks it. All sequences must come within the limit of 31, and cannot continue after a 31 or a “go” is announced.

Note.—Pairs, triplets, fours, and sequences may be formed by the opponents, playing alternately, and also by cards played from one hand (within the limit of 31) after the other player has declared a “go.”

Example of Playing and Scoring.—A plays a 4; B a 5, announcing 9; A, 3, announcing 12, with a run of 3 (scoring 3 points); B, 3, announcing fifteen-two and a pair (of 3′s), 4 points; A, 3, announcing 18, with a pair royal, 6 points; B, 7, announcing 25. A has only a 9 and calls “go.” B plays 6, announcing 31, 2 points. The cards are turned and A plays 9, with 1 point for last card.

After the cards are played out, each player takes up his hand and counts all points it contains, in combination with the “starter,” pone counting first. After counting his hand, dealer counts all points in his crib, combined with the starter. All points are scored as soon as counted.

Counting Hands and Crib.—Points scored in the hands and crib are as follows (starter being used as if it were part of the hand or crib, so that five cards are counted together):

  • fifteen-twos
    • two points for each separate combination of two or more cards totaling exactly fifteen
  • runs
    • three points for a run of three consecutive cards (regardless of suit)
    • four points for completing a run of four
    • five points for completing a run of five
  • pairs
    • two points for a pair of cards of a kind
    • six points for three cards of a kind (known as a “pair royal”, comprising three distinct pairs)
    • twelve points for four cards of a kind (a “double pair royal”, comprising six distinct pairs)
  • flush
    • four points for a flush, where all four cards in the hand are of the same suit, with an additional point if the starter card is also of that suit.
    • one point for holding the jack of the same suit as the starter card (“one for his nob” or “his nobs”)

Starter is not used in playing the hands, but only in counting the hands and crib after the play.

Scoring.—Points are scored as they are made on a “pullup” board or a board with four rows of holes, 30 holes to a row and one extra hole at each end between the four rows. (See Cutting) called Home or Game holes.

The board should be placed horizontally between the players, and each should start from the same end, pegging parallel with each other down the outside edge and up the inside to home. The sixty-first, or game hole, is the objective point, and whoever reaches this first wins the game. Four pegs, two for each player, usually of different colors, are used for scoring. The first points made on either side are marked with a peg in its proper hole from the starting point, each hole counting 1 point. When the second count is made, instead of counting with the peg first used, count with the remaining peg, after which always peg holes by moving the rear peg ahead of the other [leapfrogging].

Game.—Game consists of 61 or 121 points.

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ben November 28, 2012 at 4:44 pm

Cribbage is my all-time favorite card game. Back in my fraternity days, we used to play team cribbage during lunch. As one person had to leave for class another would sub in. Those games went on for hours every day.

2 Don November 28, 2012 at 5:12 pm

My father taught me this game last year and I enjoy playing it with him. Although we call a Jack in the starter “Nibs” and one in your hand (of the correct suit) “Nobs”

3 Dave November 28, 2012 at 5:17 pm

My wife’s family reunions here is Southern Alberta are days of running crib games – there’s no point where there’s no crib game going on! In my office, we have “Crib Wednesdays” – 10 game tournaments where the entry fee goes to the winner’s charity of choice. For my wife and myself, it’s the game over which we talk about the day, the kids, and everything else.

Crib is alive and kicking here in Southern Alberta!

15-2, 15-4, a run makes 7, and 1 for His Nobs… might as well be the family motto.

4 Greg November 28, 2012 at 5:32 pm

My grandma’s brother, Marvin V. DeLapp, perished on the Tang submarine. I wonder if he played on the sub.

I play Cribbage on family vacations and on my smart phone. Great game.

5 Eric Granata November 28, 2012 at 5:37 pm

Cribbage is a family favorite of ours. We play it at most any holiday gathering. If you’ve got Cribbage for iOS find me as Granata on Game Center!

6 Paul November 28, 2012 at 5:49 pm

I was reading this and refreshing my memory and perhaps this came later but as a submariner of 20 years I checked the website and these are the more updated scoring rules:

(the chart won’t post properly formatted)

loved the story about the Wahoo, had never heard about the cribbage board tradition.

7 Helen November 28, 2012 at 9:02 pm

Your Aunt Sandy is a great cribbage player. I think she has even played in tournaments.

8 john November 28, 2012 at 9:38 pm

An excellent account of Dick O’Kane and the crew of the USS Tang can be found in the book Escape From the Deep by Alex Kershaw.
A google of USS Tang would be worth your while as well.

9 Walker November 28, 2012 at 11:20 pm

My wife taught me how to play cribbage, and we spent our first vacation together in Paris playing it at cafes. She learned it from her dad who was a Destroyer captain in the navy. The only rule I didn’t read above, although maybe it is a family amendment, is the ability to call out “MUGGINS!” if you notice your opponent has incorrectly added his or her own score. It really puts the pressure on your arithmetic.

10 Jack S November 29, 2012 at 3:16 am

This is such a great game, my uncle taught it to me but the whole family plays. My grandfather and I machine cut a cribbage board out of brass, it looks fantastic! Walker, in my family when you say ‘muggins’ then you get the points that they forgot to add.

11 Denver Gentleman November 29, 2012 at 8:23 am

My father was in the 101st Airborne Artillery in Vietnam and told us that was an Artillery game. He taught my brother and I and we still play avidly.

12 Shanderson November 29, 2012 at 9:47 am

Some other rules that I play with – you do not cut the deck between deals. You can offer the deal to your opponent, but if they cut you get two points.

Muggins – whenever someone is counting any points that are in their favor, and miss some, you get them instead.

I did not read anything about jacks… but Knobs is a big deal. when you have a jack in your hand that matches the flipped card, you get a point (this is how the maximum hand of 29 is possible). Also, if the flipped card is a jack, the person who’s crib it is, gets two points before pegging.

When playing three handed, deal five cards to everyone and then one to your crib. When playing four handed, deal five to every player and throw one to the crib. You can play six handed, but that seems a little far reaching for this post.

It should also be noted that having no points in your hand is effectively having 19 points – because there is no combination of cards that will give you this score.

I also really love playing cribbage.
I play on a tournament board.

13 Sean November 29, 2012 at 10:10 am

Couple of interesting hands:

Raggedy Andy – Cribbage Hand of 8-7-6-2-2, scoring 11 points.

Raggedy Ann – Term for cribbage hand containing 8-7-6-A-A. Believed named because of its ragged nature but scores well at 13 points.

14 Warren November 29, 2012 at 11:16 am

my dad taught me how to play crib back when I was 8

my very first hand of my very first game of crib ever, was a 29 point hand

we were playing open handed so i could learn how to play.

after that my dad had me pick his lotto numbers for a week, however i think my luck was spent

15 Alan Grover November 29, 2012 at 12:05 pm

In the Grover household it is a time-honored tradition that every male learn to play and enjoy cribbage. I have played since the age of 6. There are many really good smartphone cribbage apps. Maybe I will have the fortune of playing against one of you sometime.

16 Bill November 29, 2012 at 12:23 pm

I proudly own my grandfather’s 29 hand board from a Legion tournament years ago. I grew up playing the game camping on the Cape and still enjoy it today.

17 Dansel November 29, 2012 at 12:27 pm

My grandfather taught me the game of cribbage. Some of my most treasured memories of time spent with him involve a cribbage board between us. Since his passing, his son (my uncle) and I hold Memorial Tournaments in his honor. I usually win. Fantastic game! BTW Walker, Muggins must be a universal rule as we employ it also.

18 Howard November 29, 2012 at 1:10 pm

The wife and I amused the nursing staff by playing cribbage between contractions while waiting for Child #2 to make her entrance.

Missing from your otherwise comprehensive description is
skunking – getting to 121 before your opponent gets to 91. That counts as 2 wins if you are playing more than one game. A double-skunk is reaching 121 before your opponent gets 61 and counts as 4 wins.

19 Derek November 29, 2012 at 1:31 pm

I remember my father playing cribbage a lot when I was younger. He was an old time diesel boat submariner as was on the USS Wahoo in the late 50s/early 60s. Good memories.

20 Scott November 29, 2012 at 4:46 pm

> “There is no count for last card if it makes 31.”

My copy of the Official Rules of Card Games (1968 edition) says, “Playing the last card of all pegs 1 for go, plus 1 extra if it brings the count to exactly 31.”

21 Allen November 29, 2012 at 5:38 pm

Learned to play this game while on the USS Providence (SSN 719). It’s still definitely the unofficial game of submariners. My first Captain would even include questions about it on officer’s qualification boards (usually about that 29 point hand).

22 Josh November 29, 2012 at 11:32 pm

My family has been playing cribbage for 4 or more generations. I know that many of my family members were in WWI and WWII. Many were also in the Navy.

Agree with all the other posts on Muggins, 31 for 2 points, Knobbs, and the “19 point hand”. We also play that if your opponent cuts the deck, after the shuffle, and before the deal, you get two points.

Also there is a difference between the points in the count, vs. points that you earn during the play. Points during the play are called “Pegging”. Some good-natured cheating, or extra pegging, is allowed as part of the rules as long as you can pull it off.

Besides that my family has some cribbage sayings:
- “15-2, 15-4, there is no more”
- “Hold 2, Count 4, Peg 6″
- “I have 2 counts to your next 1″ (as a taunt, just before you go out)

Predicting the cards is also a very popular past time while playing cribbage. (After a while, in a cribbage deck, similar cards tend to group together.)

23 Stever November 30, 2012 at 9:27 pm

I have fond memories of my Dad (a WWII Army medic) playing crib endlessly with one of my uncles (a WWII Marine – point being, it wasn’t just the Navy who claimed this game, I think). My Dad taught me to play when I was around 9 or so and we played often until I left home for college. That pretty much ended the cribbage days for me except for once in awhile, like when visiting an uncle up in Minnesota (a WWII Army infantryman) who loved the game (I’m pretty sure his estimation of me went up the day he discovered I knew how to play the game and could even beat him on rare occasion). In one odd twist, a good friend of mine who lived only 1 block away from me for years loved the game, but we didn’t discover each other’s knowledge of the game until we had moved many states apart from one another; the game just isn’t on the radar screen of too many people these days.

24 Antonio December 1, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Been reading AoM for a while and this is my first comment. While wrestling in college, cribbage was our pastime, and interestingly enough it was the pastime of the other college teams in Oregon too. We would play before practice, after practice, on the bus, basically any free moment we had. I had to learn to play on the fly with muggins and knobs, but I learned to count fast. Love the game and thanks for the post.

25 Andrew December 2, 2012 at 3:59 am

I learned cribbage from an older fella who ran a stall at the local markets out front of the milk bar my now-wife used to work at (wow- that sounds like a memory that should be in sepia, but it was only 5 years ago!)
Here in Australia, I’ve consistently been told cribbage is a miners game.
In fact, most people in the mining town I now live in use the term “crib” to refer to either a work break or the food eaten on such a break!
Great game, and a great looking board in the other post!

26 Larry December 3, 2012 at 12:34 am

I served on the USS Bremerton from 06-09 and learned to play cribbage while on board!

27 Tim December 3, 2012 at 7:41 am

Neat article,
My wife and I are both retired Navy. She spent 3 years on the USS O’Kane, a destroyer named after the Admiral. She was privileged to meet Mrs. O’Kane in 2004 while the ship visited San Fran. A wonderful family and Admiral O’kane was a true hero and fantastic leader of men! My wife did the ships history for visiting parties. If I remember correctly the ADM. wrote a couple books

28 John December 3, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Cribbage is very much alive and well in the sailor community. I graduated this past April from a maritime academy, and every deck department instructor plays during lunch every deck cadet and many engineering cadets at least know how to play.

It’s extremely popular among tugboat crews. They work the same waters all the time, so there’s not much in the way of new things to see every week, so whenever they get a spare hour, it’s down to the galley for cribbage.

29 Kename Fin December 6, 2012 at 3:07 am

My brother has a theory that there are a finite set of cribbage players in the world. One cannot simply learn to play cribbage, rather someone who knows must either pass away or forget to enable newer players to come into the fold. As our father taught us to play early on in life, I still wonder from time-to-time who died or forgot such that I could learn.
My father also learned while a kid, and honed his skills as an orderly in a Naval Hospital. I have tried repeatedly to teach my wife and kids, but I think we must be up against the limit.

30 Phil December 10, 2012 at 12:59 pm

In Maine, my family plays cribbage at every get-together. Love that game!

31 Sylvain December 10, 2012 at 9:50 pm

French-Canadian here, from Quebec. Cribbage (crible in French) is one of the games we play the most on my mother’s side. My grandfather, who died this year, was a very good player. Thanks for the piece of History! And I’m quite happy to learn that it is a part of art manliness. Merci beaucoup!

32 jud January 23, 2013 at 4:45 pm

Taught by my father who played in the Army during Korea. Have taught many people to play over the years. My most recent board, a folding two track, has seen action in Baghdad, Iskandariya, Abu Ghraib, Radwiniyah and Camp FerrTiomonettin-Huggins in Iraq, as well as, two trips to Tiomonett

33 Kevin August 20, 2013 at 4:22 pm

A fantastic game to all whoever learned to play! I’ve never really played in a league, but I formed my own club that meets weekly at various places and enjoys it as a bonding, social activity. After a night of drinking and playing I finally came up with the name for the multi-aged/gendered group; the Coalition Of Cribbage Knuckleheads.
Original Charter: Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.A.

34 Sean September 26, 2013 at 2:53 pm

My Grandfather taught me how to play and I continue playing today out at sea. It is very popular with saturation divers as well!

2 items that I didn’t see mentioned: First – when counting your hand you get 1 point for the ‘right’ jack (one for his nob)

Second – You cannot claim 2 for his heels if you are within 5 points of winning the game.

35 E December 9, 2013 at 12:45 pm

I began playing Cribbage early this year and found myself a local ACC chapter. We play a round robin every Saturday at the grocery store (usually about 3 hours).

The entire chapter is older men (mostly retired) and it has been a great place to go and meet new people and bond over something in common.

36 Steve December 11, 2013 at 8:31 pm

Cribbage is still played regularly over desert/coffee in many submarine wardrooms around the fleet. If anyone ever happens to be on Oahu, Dick O’Kane’s 29 point hand is preserved at the Bowfin Museum.

37 Mark D. LeBlanc February 10, 2014 at 6:46 pm

My grandfather learned to play cribbage in the trenches in France during WWI. As my Gramp would tell it, an Italian named “Tonda” taught him to play. While doing research on my Gramp’s battles, my brother and I found a war picture of my Gramp and also a Modesto Tonda in the same picture. I tracked down Modesto’s son and called him on the phone and said, “Your father taught my grandfather to play cribbage in France during WWI.” (we were both silent for awhile)

38 Nick April 6, 2014 at 9:47 am

I learned to play cribbage from my uncles when i was 15. My one uncle who I loved to death and has recently passed would always want to play whenever i came over. I really miss those days…
ANyways this guy had the luck of the irish when it came to this game I hardly ever won but it was always a good time.
…One alternate rule that could be in effect that he learned from his grandma, but was rarely ever enacted, was the rule that if you miscount your points, your opponent could take them.

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