In-depth: Cribbage Pt 1 – Throwing and Playing

I thought it might be fun to pick one game and go into some in-depth strategy for it. I don’t know how many of these I’ll be able to do, since I’m not really qualified to be offering that much in-depth stuff, but I’ll give it a go. If you’re a Serious Cribbage Player (SCP) that plays in tournaments and that kind of stuff then this is kid’s stuff, but hopefully the typical casual player can pick up a thing or two!

The first decision you have to make is what cards to throw to the crib, so let’s talk about that first. By the by, I’m going to base this entire post on 2-player Cribbage, since that’s usually what you’ll be playing, and strategy for a game with 3 or 4 players is difficult to come by. Obviously the goal is to keep the most points you can while minimizing the crib if it belongs to the opponent. Sounds easy, but there are lots of gray areas that pop up. Let’s say you have this hand and it’s your crib:

3♠ 3♣ 5 8 Q♣ K

You can keep the 5, 8, Q, and K and throw the pair of 3s, giving yourself a total of 6 points (15-4 in your hand and the pair of 3s in the crib), or you can keep the 3s, the 5, and a facecard for a total of 4 points but with the chance of hitting the double run. So you’re sacrificing 2 points for a shot at getting a double run worth 12 with the two fifteens.

3♠ 3♣ 4 4 7 7

You can keep the 4s and the 7s and have 8 points, or you can keep the 3s and the 4s; you’ll only have 4 points, but if you cut a 2 or a 5 you’ll have a really nice hand (16 points for cutting a 2, 20 points for cutting a 5).

What’s the right decision? Should you throw away a few points in order to go for a big score? If so, how many? What I’ve come up with over the years is I’ll gladly sacrifice 2 points for a shot at a big hand, but usually not 4 points. The second hand shows the exception: if it’s a chance at a monster I will sacrifice 4 points. Doesn’t come up often, but good to know.

And one thing I would point out is the odds of hitting a particular card are actually not that bad. In the first hand you’ll catch a 4 about 8.5% of the time, and in the second hand you’ll hit either a 2 or 5 over 17% of the time! That’s over 1 out of 6 times, so it’s easier than rolling a 6 on a die for example.

I really like to keep low cards, since they lead to lots of 31s. The textbook best throw to the opponent’s crib is Ace-King, Queen-Two, or something along those lines since they are the hardest cards to make runs with. Personally if I have the choice between throwing Ace-King or Four-King I’ll keep the Ace just for the play possibilities. That means that every once in  blue moon the dealer will throw Five-Six and a Six will be cut and cost you 10 points, but you can get burned by throwing an Ace too, and that Ace will get you lots of 31s and Gos.

A little more on throwing later in the post, but let’s talk about the play next. When I’m playing first I like to play from one of the following if I can:

  • A pair that adds up to 5 (Ace-Four or Two-Three). If opponent plays a facecard you can play the other half of the pair for 15
  • Of course a card from a pair (Six-Six, Jack-Jack, etc.) is always good because if it’s matched you can put your other one down for 3 of a kind and 6 points. It’s best to do this trick with 8 or higher though so your opponent can’t put the fourth one down for 12 points! Save lower pairs for later in the play.
  • I don’t like playing part of a 15 pair (Seven-Eight, Nine-Six) because even if you get to play your matching card you leave the opponent some juicy opportunities. For example, you play 7♣, opponent plays 8, now you play your 8. Opponent can now play an Eight for 31 and Three of a Kind (8 points total). Might as well not lead the Seven in the first place.

If you’re playing second you’ll often end up on the other side of these plays. I try to avoid putting a facecard on anything less than a Five to avoid the first problem. I usually just go ahead and take the pair, even if it means I give up some 3 of a kind opportunities. I’ll always (exceptions noted later in the post) match a facecard if I’ve got an Ace, since in that case the worst that can happen is opponent gets 6 for the three of a kind and I get 4 for the pair and the 31. And usually they won’t have it, so you come out ahead anyway. And of course if opponent starts with a low card and you’ve got two of them shoot for that 4 of a kind!

The main thing to be aware of in the play is the possibility of a run. Sometimes you don’t mind giving the opponent a run because you know you can extend it; you usually don’t mind giving up a 3 point run if you can get a 4 pointer out of it.

That’s some of the basics of the throw and play; I’m going to cover a little endgame strategy in another post.



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2 responses to “In-depth: Cribbage Pt 1 – Throwing and Playing

  1. Jessica

    Hi. 🙂 I finally remembered to come back to this post. It’s a long one!

    I don’t like playing part of a 15 pair (Seven-Eight, Nine-Six) because even if you get to play your pairing card you leave the opponent some juicy opportunities.

    Maybe I’m just not very observant, but it seems like you play this a lot. Am I missing something?

    • dantherpgman

      Yeah it is long, sorry : / I should really break it up into smaller chunks. I’ll get better!

      I don’t think I make that play that much…

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