After the relative success of the previous night, I wake up hopeful. It’s St. Patrick’s day, March 17, and the luck of the non-Irish (Swede and Italian) is with me. Nonetheless, I don a cheap green t-shirt I’ve had since college that reads “Shamrock Campground – Miles and Miles of Irish Smiles,” and hit the road.
I arrive in Woodbury just a few minutes before the tournament starts. I grab my scorecard from Todd and Ginger, and Todd stands up and takes out an envelope. “I owe you money, sir,” he says, and lays $100 on me. I see Jerry, and he hands me another $80. Friday night, my 13 points and +94 spread was good enough for 6th, and I scored both in the general pool and Jerry’s side-pool of $10. If I had beat Ed–if I hadn’t lost in the stinkhole–it would have been worth at least $30 more.
The room is brimming with people. Last night, over 60 people scattered across the tables at will, some more empty than others. This morning, almost the entire room is full, easily over 100 people. I take my seat. My first opponent is Bob Chase, a tall, lean guy sporting a towering Seussicle green-and-white striped hat over a grey button T. I see Richard “Frosty” Frost ambling around in a red polo shirt with a red “Grand National XXXI” logo next to a large apple over eastern Wisconsin, advertising this fall’s national tournament in Appleton. I ask Lori Johnson, again seated near me, if she ever plays a hand before a tournament. “Never,” she says. “Every gambler or cribbage player has some–”
“Mental issues?” It’s Mike Burns, chipping in kitty-corner from Laurie. Mike looms over the table, his broad frame clad in an “Irish Grandpa” sweatshirt, eight or nine cloverleafed grandkids ensconced on the chest. Mike looks as if he’s just blown in from some Mississippi River monsoon, thinning white hair adrift and aswirl on his head.
“Yah, superstition,” Laurie says. I’m indifferent to games before or after. I’ve already tried to tap into whatever luck is floating in the St. Patrick’s Day ether with my stupid t-shirt and morning sweet-tooth–the sticky remains at the bottom of a Shamrock Shake cup is already melting to goo in my car.
“YEAH!” It’s Todd on the mic getting things underway. He makes a few announcements about the day. “Are there any new players here today?” A few hands go up. “What about NUDE players?” Mike bellows. Todd laughs, quiets the crowd, and hands the mic to Joan Rein, another Midwest player, as she models a navy Grand National polo and announces they’re for sale. “Takeitoff!” someone yells.
The decks are passed out. The wet slap of shuffled decks imbues the room, a staccato corollary to the scattered banter. “We playing with a full deck?” Mike asks. “There’s a first time for everything, Mike,” Bob retorts. The first of 22 games, 11 opponents, is under way.
Bob and I cut and deal. As pone (non-dealer), I open with 12, Bob with 10, plus 6 in his crib. He takes an early lead, but I hit a gutshot run on 3rd street to stay alive, keeping 779J as a 10 is cut. From that moment, I can’t miss–defensive throws to Bob’s crib, offense throws to mine. Next door, Lori takes a lead on Mike. She misses 2 in a hand of 16. “I’m getting the shit kicked outta me by someone who can’t count!” Mike says. She waves it off–she’s up quite a bit. Mike notes he’ll gain a point on the overall spread, quoting DeLynn Colvert’s Play Winning Cribbage.It’s bizarre, I think, that people note that kind of thing this early. That competitive arithmetic. There are 20 games left! What’s one point?Lori beats Mike in her first game. “Hard to lose with an average of 16,” he grumbles. I beat Bob twice for a 2-0 start, thrilled that last night’s momentum seems with me still.
Next is Jim Claude. Our first game is uneventful and he beats me. The second game is the same, except for one hand near the end. As pone, I’m dealt 2366QK and debate what to throw: 2Q, keeping 366K for 4? 66, giving Jim 2 in the crib but maximizing my potential with the cut? I throw QK, opting to keep the non-face cards and hoping for something favorable. “Every time,” Lori says. “You made the right throw.” A 3 is cut, netting me 8.
“What’d he throw?” It’s Burns.
“Queen king,” I say. “You threw wrong,” he says. “Wrong play.” Lori and Mike discuss it. “He would have had 10,” he says, and it’s true, I would have, but the net would have been the same if I had tossed Jim the 6s. “C’mon Mike, cribbage is a nice game,” Lori says.
“There’s a lot of nice games out there. Cribbage isn’t one of them,” Mike rumbles. I have 90, Jim 80. “You’ll beat him,” he tells Jim. “We’ll see,” I say, confident in my chances.
Jim beats me. I am dealt good cards, but he stops my crib on 4th street and counts out easily with 12, leaving me behind at 109. I am disgusted. Disgusted with my cards, disgusted with Mike, disgusted with Jim’s cheery nonchalance, most of all disgusted with me. I have proved Mike correct, losing to Jim. I don’t get the feeling I ever misplayed, and I didn’t lose by anything close, but it stings nonetheless. At 4 games, I’m sitting at .500, 2-and-2. My early lead isgone.
Next is Tony Danihel. He reminds me of my old boss, Milt–he shuffles to his seat but shakes a firm hand. He wears a green spring jacket. He lost his last two games as well–“someone will like this one, then,” I offer. “Yeah,” he says, cutting the deck. My first game against Tony, I can’t miss. 8. 15. “Jesus Christ,” says Tony. 16. “Holy shit!” 10. “Oh my god!” 14. Gutshots and peg-runs to 31. I win the first with a flourish, counting 8 when I need 1. No skunk, but a good win. “Can’t change the spots,” he says. I open up during our second game, ask him about his tournament. His lamentations are suddenly gone, and with them, my easy victory. Tony smokes me second game. 3-3.
Dennis Moore is next. We trade uneventful games, each winning one by 12. I miscount hands in both games and scribble comedy of errors! in my notebook. Neither miscount costs me the game, but still. It stings. Such a simple game, and such elementary errors. “It happens to everyone,” is never an acceptable balm. 4-4.
Paul Richie next. Paul finished two spots ahead of me in the Friday night 9-game, netting a cool $130 to my $100 from the main pool. He beats me in two swift strokes (by 12, and then by 20). 4-6, and my chances of doing anything today are rapidly diminishing. Next to me, Lori is doing only marginally better.
The cards continue to fester against Ginger Grogan. As pone opening hand, I peg zero and count zero. It’s 0-19 Ginger after little more than a minute. Next, she makes 17 with a 7 during pegging. I pair it for 24, as I hold the third 7 in play. No chance she has the 4th for 31–no chance.
31. 31 for 8 as Ginger brings the fourth 7 into play. God. Dammit. Knowing the risks, calculating the odds is one thing. Seeing them blow up in your face is another thing entirely. Her pewter horsehead pegs gallop ahead. Next, I count 6 when I have 8, missing the 3rd 15 with AA4Q(9). I look across to the next table and spot a guy wearing an oversize black tshirt with two rows of nuclear neon capitals screaming TROUBLE MAKER. Everything is off. Somehow, I catch up to Ginger with consecutive hands of 16, 12, and 24. We are tied at 97. I make a poor throw, a 5 is cut, it doesn’t matter, she counts out. I heave a sigh as I sign her card and look at mine. 4-8.
Play at our table crawls along. I can’t count on playing my next opponent for at least 20 minutes, as she’s just starting her previous round’s first game. Lori and I joke about doing a shot at lunch, for luck. I already know I will, Lori or no Lori. Hell, I’ll go now.
I leave the conference room and hoof it to the Green Mill, connected to the hotel. I order a pint of Guinness–it’s St. Patrick’s Day, after all, and I did spend a fabulous few weeks in Ireland several years ago. The bar is quiet; a few guys watch competitive bass fishing on ESPN. They probably wonder how anyone spends their Saturdays playing cribbage. I wonder the same about watching bass fishing. No one seems interested in the NCAA basketball (least of all me). I call my brother and stew a bit. He’s an event coordinator with Pheasants Forever and is on his way to a banquet in Iowa. “I can’t talk,” he says, and that’s fine, because I have nothing to tell him. Not like last night.
I return to the bar after overhearing “free shot with Finnegan’s.” The shot is Two Gingers whiskey, the product of Irish Minneapolis transplant Kieran Folliard. “Lay it on me,” I say. I drain the shot, and the liquor feels fantastic. Warm. Invigorating. I grab the glass and return to the tournament.
Next up is Sandy Vee, another sunshine Irish American, just like me. She sports a green hoodie over a white tshirt, a lime-green Bud Light necklace dangling from her neck. Her pewter Minnesota Vikings pegs waste no time rushing toward the end-zone in first-down leaps of 10, 12, 16. I miss four points in my first hand, and have no doubt it’s because of the drinks. I count 16 in my second hand, though, and 16 again in my third. I make grandiose claims with theatrical arm movements. I’m a maestro of mimicry. Sandy beats me. Next to me, Bryan Feda sees Lori count a 24 hand, catching a lucky 5 on the cut while holding 4466. “Brutal shit, man,” he says. I tell him he should start a Crib World column with that title. I deal a hand to Sandy near the end of our second game, hoping for divine intervention. “What do you need?” I ask her, a hand on the top of the deck after she’s cut it. “Not tellin’,” she says. I turn the card–a 3 of diamonds. “That‘s what I need,” she says. She has KKQJ. Next hand, she deals herself 7778910, and throws the high ones. A 7 is cut. She counts 20, for game.
After 14 games, it’s lunch time for our table. I’m 5-and-14 with 10 game points, batting .350 on the day. My tournament, for all practical purposes, is over; even if I were to win the remaining 8 games, I’d only sit at 26, not even enough to qualify (27 is considered the minimum at most tournaments). Lunch has never sounded so good in my life, or at least my competitive cribbage life.
It’s an odd affair. Actually, it’s a stomach-curdling affair–lunch is served in the pool area. Salami sandwiches on wheat buns. Cheddar or swiss. Lettuce. Mustard or mayo. Salty Lay’s chips, which go down unaffected by the chlorinated air. Steer clear of the slippery tile. Thank God no one’s in the pool. Because our table is one of the last to eat, I scrounge a few chocolate chip cookie crumbles. I wolf the sandwich, eat half the chips, down the cookie bits. I sit with Beth Schmidt, a player from my club, and Lori and her mom. Lori and I have made a pact, for luck–a shot and a beer. I excuse myself to the bar, leaving them to catch up.
On the way, I catch Ed in the hallway, Ed who beat me from the stinkhole the night before. “How’s it going?” I ask him. “Bad!” he says, striding toward me. “It’s consolation for me,” referring to the other 9-game tournament tonight. “Me too,” I say, raising a hand. We slap fives in the hall, moving in our opposite directions.
I return to the bar and order our drinks. The beers sweat in the warm bar, the shots complacent pools of amber next to them. Other St. Patty’s partiers trickle in, but few cribbage players. I wait for Lori. Maybe I’m not taking the tournament seriously enough? I wonder. Maybe I’m not taking myself seriously enough. It’s hard to know. Thus far, I’ve made a few errors, but none of them game-changing ones. I’ve enjoyed myself, inasmuch as one looking forward to a losing day can. I’m wearing green, had a great night of cribbage the evening before, and I’m buying these drinks with money earned from a few lucky cuts, a few savvy plays. Mike’s comments continue to erode, grinding away at my mind. Wrong play. He’ll beat you. Maybe it was. He did.
Lori arrives, and we do our shots. “To cribbage,” she says. “Tosomething,” I say.We talk sports, the game in general. We have time. We sip our beers, no rush to return. An hour has been allotted, and an hour we’ll take. We were ahead of our table.
Before we return, I stop in the bathroom. I see Ed once more. “It’s skunks from here on out,” I tell him. “Right,” he laughs. “The thing about skunks–they’re easier to give than to get.”
We return. I am red-faced, jubilant, eager. I play a guy named Randy, and he deals the first hand with a blue-dotted deck from the pyramid-shaped Luxor hotel in Vegas. My mom’s been there, I think. It seems revelatory at the time. Randy jumps ahead with the first crib. I offer a rebuttal with 12 and a crib of 6, but he scores 14 nonetheless. The game goes downhill fast. He skunks me by 38. It’s the first skunk I’ve given up, and Ed’s words haunt me.The next game, I give up 15 to Randy’s first crib. Next door, Lori is practicing some kind of voodoo–she scores 21 in her first crib. Then 12. 14. 8 more. Randy beats me twice. Lori wins twice, once with a skunk.
Next is Moose. Moose is large. Moose is broad. Moose wears a seafoam polo with his namesake embroidered on the breast. The top of his bulging slacks curl over his scuffed leather belt. An alarm blares, and he reaches in his pocket. “Just gotta take my pills,” he says. We play two uneventful games. It’s Moose by 16, Moose by 9. I’m 0-4 since lunch, 5-for-18 on the day. What a difference a day makes. I look down the table and shake my head at my next opponent.
It’s Burns. Mike Burns, who burrowed into my head from the first game. He looks more disheveled than he did this morning–I imagine we all do. These are long tournaments, long days. The fatigue is catching up to me too: the drinks, the chlorinated salami, the perpetual hunch over the board, the endless cards. They begin to run together. I’m tired. I’m losing. I don’t want to put up with anyone’s shit. Mike and Bob are still engaged in a benign argument about something, somehow. Have they been doing this all day? No wonder he’s tired. He takes a long sip on a retro Mello Yello can and slams it to the table, aluminum crackling. The sheer improbability of it all irks me. When was the last time you saw a Mello Yello can? I thought the brand was relegated to Subways and the Iron Range in the shadow of its doppelganger, Mountain Dew. The can reminds me of unfulfilled promises.
I take my seat across from my Mike. “How ya doin’,” I say. It is not a question. “Fine,” he says. It is not really a response. I win the cut, and jump out to an early lead after a few hands. First hand, I pause for just a second counting my hand–2345(6)–and count 9. “You know what any hand of 5 consecutive cards is from 2 to 10?” he asks me. “Nine,” he says. “Always nine.” I wonder how this information is actually useful besides that singular grain of knowledge. Someone asks Mike if he’s still teaching cribbage in the St. Cloud school district. “Yeah,” he says, tossing two cards to my crib. We cut a 7. “I hate this fuckin’ game,” he spits, disgusted with his throw.
“Hard to believe,” I say, “you know so much about it.”
Bob glances at me, grinning. I can tell the liquor has made my tongue a little loose, my play a bit sloppy. Still, I’m pleased with my retort. Cribbage is a singular game. You play for yourself, no team at your side, no bench full of replacements. If anyone understands this notion, it’s probably Mike. No rebuttal awaits my zinger, and Mike opens up.
He speaks eloquently of mathematics and critical thinking, real-world applications and the basic logic problems that cribbage presents. “They don’t care,” he says, speaking of the students. Mike spent most of his career as a public defender. He earned his JD from the University of MN. He’s published a book and a DVD for teachers to use in the classroom to build basic math and problem-solving skills. He’s a major fixture in the cribbage community. “Totally lost on them,” he says of the students. “Who gives a shit? I’ve got one foot in the grave anyway.” He throws to my crib.
“Doesn’t seem to bother you,” I offer, throwing to the crib as well.
“This game bothers me,” and a sliver of a smile cracks across his face. Mike and I have reached some kind of peaceful no-man’s-land at the end of our long day. I can feel any malcontent with him slipping away. He recites a few poems about proctology and golf to me, rhyming stanzas of perfect meter and verse. He looks down the table. “Bobby! How ya doing? Quit shaking your head–I know you’re lying.” Mike’s not so bad.
We split games, and I do the same with Beth Schmidt, my final opponent. I count 9 with 456(7)8, knowing that for the rest of my life, I will always think of Mike and this day when I get the 5-card combo inside 2 and 10.
My final scorecard is pathetic. 7 wins, 14 points, -189 spread. I did better the previous night in less than half as many games. After our shot, Lori continued to smolder, winning 7 of 8 and finishing 2nd or 3rd on the day. We high five on the way out. “I think it was the shot,” I say. “It was the shot!” she exclaims. I speak with a few others about how they fared, but don’t have the energy to stick around–at least not with 14.