What follows is an early draft of one possible introduction to the book I’ve been tooling around with for a while. It’s not perfect, but it’s a slice of the world I’ve entered and hope to share. Enjoy.
What do you think of when you hear someone suggest a game of cribbage? Do you think of a scuffed deck of greasy Hoyle or Bicycle cards, their kings and queens hiding beneath fleur-de-lis-like patterns of red and blue? Do you think of the rectangular wooden boards the game is (usually) played on? And who is the one holding those greasy cards, counting pips with their pegs above that board full of holes? What language are they speaking–does “15-2, 15-4, double run for 12 and nobs is 13” sound familiar? Or does it sound, well, confusing? I wouldn’t blame you if you do think of dog-eared decks, boring boards, plastic pegs, and your goofy uncle or aunt mumbling about 15s and Raggedy Anns, muggins and nobs and nibs.
It sounds crazy. I know it does.
But cribbage is a crazy game, created by who some may call a crazy man. His name was John Suckling II–Sir John Suckling II, in fact, knighted under the English crown of King Charles II in the fall of 1630. There is much to learn about Sir John (and in later chapters we will), but–ladies, are you paying attention?–he was tall, dark, and handsome, a true Renaissance man if there ever was one; cavalier poet, distinguished soldier, and learned scholar. A man who wore many wigs, you might say. I like to think of him as the Gentleman Gambler, but that is too easy a moniker–in some circles, he was neither a gentleman nor gambler, but a liar, scoundrel and cheat. He played, some posit, with too full a deck. No matter how one thinks of him, though, it is generally agreed that his was a life worth living, a legacy worth sharing. He is remembered for many reasons (he called Shakespeare’s main rival, Ben Jonson, a friend, and attempted to spring the Earl of Stafford from the Tower of London, for starters), but after his self-imposed exile and death–by his own hand–in 1642, we remember him most for cribbage, so to cribbage we shall return.
“Cribbage is an itinerant’s game,” Boyd MacDonald told me at the annual world’s largest cribbage tournament in Reno, “because it’s so easy.” Before we discussed cribbage, we discussed women, and Boyd, just a year shy of 90 (or a skunk, in cribbage terms), wasn’t ready to “hook up with this woman at the Senior Center” in California. As he fingered his custom bolo tie–three refrigerator magnets of multicolored grinning heads, stacked and glued atop one another on the back of a popsicle stick to make a totem–we spoke more of the women in our lives, and then moved back to cribbage.
Of course, we both know it is more than an itinerant’s game. If you’ve ever met “Coffee John” Sherrell, you probably know that for the last several years cribbage has been one of his main prescribed activities after suffering a traumatic brain injury in a motorcycle accident. You could ask him about it while playing on his great grandfather’s 125-year-old board next to a crackling fireplace underneath the mantle portrait of his great grandfather’s wife, Mary Milligan. You could hear him describe how the tiny finger movements of shuffling, holding the cards and counting the pegs coupled with the simple math of cribbage fire multi-layered synapses in his brain, strengthening the bonds of what might have been lost. Or you could travel to Medicine Lake, Minnesota, just west of Minneapolis, and wait for a cold day in January. If you did that–and the wind would have to be blowing, so the air is at least 17 degrees below zero, because those were the conditions–you could imagine what playing on the world’s largest cribbage board might have been like, for it was drilled through the ice there by Mike Haeg, mayor of Mount Holly, MN, population four. The board measured over a quarter mile long, with pegs five feet high and 18 pounds each, bobbing up and down through the frigid Minnesota water. If winter doesn’t suit you, you could don your climbing gear and scale Kings of Cribbage mountain in the Wasatch Range, Utah, just north of Salt Like City, and watch the desert sun dwindle as you play on one of Jim Hicks’ custom boards, crafted from beautiful burl wood from the nearby Pacific Northwest forests. You could even count your pips with one of “Little Joe” Lilley’s customized pewter pegs, molded from his own hand in Virgina using liquid hot pewter, industrial-strength glued atop a customized shaft, beset with everything from rhinestones to naked ladies to skunks, all in ultra-detailed miniature.
You could enroll in the Navy and play cribbage at 10,000, 15,000, and 20,000 leagues under the sea, embracing a rich history of gamesmanship within the Armed Forces, competing with your messmates on the famous Rear Admiral Dick O’Kane cribbage board within the protective bulkheads of the USS Bremerton nuclear submarine.
You could pack your passport, travel to Canada, trade your loafers for blue suede shoes and watch the hip-swingin,’ lady-killin’ Norm Ackland, “Canada’s 6th most popular Elvis impersonator,” as you play a variation of cribbage he created titled Crib Wars. From there, you could jump the pond from Labrador to London, order a pint and gamble a pound against a badge-hatted bobby as Big Ben tolls outside, because cribbage is the only game legally gambled in English pubs (one may speculate that it’s gambled elsewhere in public too).
Of course, you needn’t leave the comfort of home to enjoy a game of crib. You could join the American Cribbage Congress and test your crib-slinging chops against others via the official website of organized cribbage in America, cribbage.org. If you’re looking for variety, you could surf to eCribbage.com, the world’s fastest growing free cribbage gaming website, build your avatar, and start playing any number of cribbage variations–baseball cribbage, anyone? Cribbage with jokers? You could introduce your love of scrabble to your love of 15s for a match made in Heaven called King’s Cribbage, placing tiles of cards onto a 13 x 13 grid in Scrabble-like fashion, vying for hands much larger than 29.
Any cribbage player would tell you, however, that the game starts at home, because you could do all these things, meet the people, see the boards, and only begin to understand the legacy of a game over 400 years in the making. Maybe, then, the question is not how we play the game, but why. Why does cribbage endure when other games and past times have failed? Why have so many craftsmen devoted their lives (and make a good living doing so) by punching holes in wood? Why has poker, a historically much younger game, achieved a level of sensationalism and notoriety that cribbage has not? Why, in other words, do we continue to count “15-2?” What follows is an attempt to find out, to assail its history, uncover its legacy, and (with luck) to cut something good. Welcome to a world of card players and craftsmen. Welcome to a game dictated by numbers but tempered with luck.
Welcome to Cribbageland.