Welcome to the crib: Game of cribbage mixes competition, congeniality

art frBy Colby Dunn • Correspondent

If someone asked you to describe the world of competitive, non-electronic gaming, your first thought might be poker, perhaps followed closely by chess. Dungeons and Dragons might get a mention in there somewhere, but cribbage probably wouldn’t be the first thing that popped into your mind. 

But this centuries-old game — which dates back to the 17th-century English balladeer Sir John Suckling — is still enjoyed by thousands around the country and the world, including Western North Carolina’s Reservation Peggers, or Res Peggers for short. With the distinction of being the only cribbage club on an Indian reservation, they are a group of anywhere from just a handful of committed players to 14, 15 or more who get together weekly to battle it out in this fast-paced card game. 


The rules, if you care to try your hand at the game, aren’t so tricky, and the pegging part comes from the small, notched board used to keep score. Points are accrued so quickly, especially among veteran players, that it’s more efficient to move pegs along the rows to count points than stop game play to write them down. 

“The reason that you have the cribbage board is because you point consistently, and if you had to keep adding two points or three points, you’d go crazy trying to add it,” explains Keith Miller, who leads the group. 

But, as fellow Res Pegger Steve McAllister-Pell points out, once you get the hang of it, the game can be as relaxed or as challenging as you make it. 

“I think the thing with any card game is that every game you’re dealt a different hand, so it’s not like checkers where there’s pre-set moves and you pretty much know the first 10 moves people are going to make. With every card game, each hand is a different game to play,” explains McAllister-Pell. 

But, he notes, playing cribbage is also a social experience, as opposed to the intellectual solitude of chess or the bluffing and posturing of poker. In that respect, it’s more akin to speed dating, actually. In tournament play particularly, each game lasts only around 15 minutes. Then it’s on to the next opponent, and watching footage of the dozens of tournaments played around the country, it’s easy to see that this is a central component of the game. 

It’s competitive, sure, but it’s also very genial. Players talk to one another, banter back and forth, even take input from observers, and that adds an element of fun but also is part of the challenge. Unlike a single-minded strategist you may find in other games, playing against an unfriendly opponent in cribbage just isn’t overly fun. So to really rack up the points and enjoy yourself requires both a social and strategic mind. 

At its essence, cribbage is a numbers game. McAllister-Pell learned it at an early age and then left the board for a number of years. But that early introduction, he says, has stayed with him, not only now that he’s returned to recreational play, but professionally as well. 

“My father taught me the game when I was about 10, and it’s used as a learning tool a lot, math skills,” says McAllister-Pell. “I became a banker, and in some ways, I think it helped with my profession. I’m able to see numbers.” 

Even those who aren’t naturally numerically inclined, however, can find a place in the cribbage world. It’s such an unusual mix of laid-back camaraderie and competition that both skilled competitors and complete novices can sidle up to the same table and walk away from the game satisfied. For example, the Reservation Peggers meet each week to play, and the scores from those games are then sent into the official-sounding American Cribbage Congress, something of a governing body with more than 6,000 members in the United States and Canada. Those numbers are then tallied against the other 350 clubs and rankings are created, so each club can see where it stands against the others. For cribbage players, competition happens at tournaments, sure, but it also happens weekly across the continent, which is a somewhat more competitive setup than you’d find at your local bridge club. 

But in their actual meetings, it’s not nearly as cutthroat as it seems, explains Miller. 

“Well, it takes a while to become good at it,” he says, “but we have one of the members in our club who’s very new to playing. She’s new to the game in its fundamentals, but our club’s very informal; she has questions, somebody gives her advice.”

Both Miller and McAllister-Pell said that newbies are often helped along by more experienced members, who will point out mistakes that cost them points or help them see holes in their strategy. Even in CandyLand it’s not customary to clue your adversary in to the fact that they missed the Gumdrop Path shortcut. Advantage is what winning is about. 

In the cribbage world, however, the end goal might be winning, but the underlying theme, it seems, is that winning is more fun when everyone is becoming a better player in the process. For the Res Peggers, at least, the formula of challenging but fun has worked. They’ve been playing for seven years so far and show no signs of slowing up, and the ACC has tournaments constantly at different locations around the country, the annual mother of all tournaments held in Reno, Nev. It may not be the most well-known game in the world, but if you’d like to sharpen your math skills and make a new friend or two, a friendlier bunch you’ll never meet.

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