It’s Friday, March 16, one day before St. Patrick’s Day, and the Twin Cities are absolutely gorgeous tonight. It’s 80 degrees outside, the birds are chirping, and there’s not a drop of snow to be found. I’m on my way to the Woodbury Country Inn & Suites for the Capital City Classic cribbage tournament. Driving east on I-94 into a beautiful waning sunset, I’ve got the windows down, music loud, an arm danging out the window, and I remind myself once again what I’m losing this beautiful night to. A game. Cards. Part of me just wants to keep driving into the dusk.
As I enter the conference room of the hotel and see three rows of tables littered with cribbage boards, a different feeling takes me. Members of my club, the Twin City Peggers, are all around. The tournament organizers, Todd and Diane, greet me at the door and hand everyone their scorecards. I greet friends, because that’s what they’ve become, and ask how everyone’s been doing the past few months. Ed arrives in a black leather jacket, moving quickly to grab his scorecard and sit down. Beth strolls by sporting a Michael McDonald t-shirt under a grey hoodie, jean shorts, a blue nylon fanny pack slung around her waist. An unknown player trundles by in a seafoam sweatshirt that reads “Grandpa’s Catch” in scraggly purple gel across the top, eight or nine fish underneath with names filling their empty bellies–Stephen, Drew, Natalie, others. “Handsome Dan!” I call out to Dan Plouff, another Pegger, as he crosses my table. We shake, say hello, and he grabs a seat elsewhere. I throw $10 at Jerry Gruber, also a Pegger, for an evening side-pool of high finishers ($20 and $50 seems excessive for someone out of practice). “Where ya been?” Jerry asks in his quiet way. “Grad school,” I say. “Yeah, gotta get your priorities straight,” he says. Cribbage has become my priority, now, I think. Later, I realize how unsettling a thought that is.
I head to the bar, buy a Newcastle, and return, taking the seat again next to Jerry. We wait for the tourney to start as others trickle in, say hello, take their seats around the room. A few warm-up games are underway. Tonight, there are about 60 of us for the 9-game playoff. I meet an older guy named Chuck as he harasses Natalie Evans, a woman from our club, with bubbly exhortations of love. “If I were 35 years younger, I’d give ya a go,” he says. We laugh–Chuck is harmless. Lori, another friend from the Peggers, takes a seat to my right.
Todd grabs the mic and welcomes everyone, explains the 9-game format for the evening. “OK, let’s go, we’ll get the decks passed out here…” Jerry stands and makes a last call for side pools, waving a few sheets of paper above his head. Chuck leans in, raising his brows and swiveling his eyeballs back and forth from me to Natalie and back again. “I’m Chuckie!” he jokes. “Want to play?”
I lose my first two games in short order, first to Chuck, then to a guy from Milwaukee named Wayne Steinmetz. Chuck almost skunks me, beating me by 27, and I lose to Wayne by four. I’m 0-for-2 with a -31 spread.
Next is Ed. I usually lose to Ed. He counts fast, shuffles fast, eyes flitting behind a pair of clear glasses under a head of close-cropped auburn hair. He deals me A46666 to begin, and for a second I actually contemplate throwing him a 6 and the ace, hoping for a 5-cut–it’s a sign of my inexperience. I keep the 6s together for 12. “I would have cut your head off if you broke that up!” Lori says. A queen is cut. I take an early lead. Two hands later, it’s Ed by 12 with 76 to my 64. Next, my crib, we’re tied at 96. After, I sit at 109, Ed 101. I’m 12 out with first count. I’m dealt 791010JQ, a double run. I split high and low, throw Ed the 7 and Q. An 8 is cut–damn. That’s only good for 10, and I need 12. I peg one…and just one. I count 10 to 120. One point from winning.
“God dammit,” I mutter. Ed blasts out. I’m 0-for-3, -32 spread. Any chance of making a splash for points or cash is rapidly diminishing–12 points is usually the minimum needed in a 9-game, 2 points per win, 3 per skunk.I fling the cards aside, disgusted with my play. I hate losing. Hate it. Somehow it’s worse that the stinkhole loss is to someone I’ve come to know. I haven’t played a tournament in months, and this one is almost over before it really begins.
I move on, and meet Ron from south of Des Moines. He drove up with a score of others, over 200 miles for this tournament. We play an uneventful game, but I actually squeak out a win. I’m 1-for-4, -13 spread, 2 points. Next, I meet Dan Selke, from south of Chicago. “I was just in Chicago,” I tell him. We talk of film festivals, of his old classmate Roger Ebert, and all the while my pegs are surging forward. I skunk Dan, making me 2-for-5, +23 spread, 5 points total.
Next is John Schmidt, and another uneventful game, but one that sees me reach 121. Three chlorine-soaked kids squelch by, still dripping from the pool next door, asking their dad for pizza money. John and I sign each other’s scorecards, and somehow I’m .500 for the night, 3-for-3, +44 spread, 7 points now. Three games left, and I need to win them to do anything. But at least there’s still a chance.
I swing around the other side of the table and face Lori. In my first tournament over a year ago, Lori beat me in the 5th game of a best-of-5 by cutting a jack and pegging out with Heels. I’d put our overall record at something like 50/50 over the last year, but who knows. She’s seen the hot streak, though, and I’m able to keep it going. After my first hand and crib, it’s 24 to 8 real fast. 12 in my next hand. 8 after that, with 6 in the crib. It’s not a skunk, but a solid win, +24 points. Now I’m 4-for-7, +68 spread, 9 game points. If I can get a skunk for 3 or two more wins for 4, I’ll probably be in the money.
My penultimate match is against Larry Loupee (pronounced loopy), the gentleman whose been sitting to my left most of the night. He’s excited to face “a real youngster” playing the game. We leapfrog back and forth as the points accumulate–Jordan by 5. Larry by 14. Jordan by 3. Larry by 4. Then I clip into a 20-hand, a flush of A678 with an 8 cut. I score 12 next, and I’m out in half the time it took to get that far. Somehow, I’ve gone from 0-for-3 to 5-for-8 with a +84 spread and 11 points. A win in the last game would be huge–a skunk would be even better.
And it’s Marv! My old friend Marv. I’ve played him almost every tournament I’ve attended–I even played him in Reno, among thousands of others. We hopscotch back and forth up the board, and when I think he’s going to lay down a whopper, he throws his cards on the table and jabs two outstretched fingers at me, a horizontal “V” sign–“two!” he laughs. I look at my hand–16. I finally catch a break against him, and count out well ahead. I look at my scorecard. Holy shit, I think. What a run!
I end up 6-for-9, 13 points, with a +94 spread. If I had beat Ed–if I hadn’t stalled in the damn stinkhole–I’d have 15 points, and know then that I am definitely in the money; 13 is usually iffy, right on the cusp. I hand my scorecard to Todd, who nods and says “heeeyyyy…you might be in the running tonight.” I learn the high card is from a man named Doug Whitlock, who played for a staggering 18 points, 7-for-9 wins (four skunks), and a +135 spread.
I linger a while and chat with Dan Plouff. He sips a Mich Golden Light and introduces me to his nephew and a friend. I ask him how he did tonight. “Not good,” he says, shaking his head and taking another sip. “I can’t figure out how to stop a bad streak,” he says, “just have to play through it.” I remark how odd it is that we all think of hot and cold streaks as something we can manifest or escape at will. All the theories, the strategy, the books on board position, the advantage of first crib, all of it means nothing if you’re just not dealt the cards to put a few hands together. A good player can slow it down, but that’s about it. Dan is a very good player–I’m sure he’ll be out soon.
As for me, I’m looking forward to tomorrow. There are still games finishing, and Todd has over 60 cards to tally, Jerry over 40 side-pool bets to sort for the payout. I shake a few hands, wave good luck, and hit the road home. With any luck, I’ll be able to carry this momentum into tomorrow’s main tournament of 22 games.