Guide for How to Play Cribbage: Rules, Strategies, and Tips


Card games are very similar.  Most card games rank the cards from 2 through Aces with the Aces being the high value cards.  Playing the cards in proper sequential order and taking tricks are also common to most card games.  However, you can throw most of these rules out when playing Cribbage.  The unique rules to Cribbage make the game a little harder to learn at first, but once you understand the rules you will find Cribbage to be one of your favorite card games.

What you Need

To play Cribbage you need a full deck of cards, a Cribbage board, and one other person to play with.  Cribbage can also be played with more than 2 players, but it is best when played Mono A Mono.  Cribbage Boards provide a tangible way to quickly keep score and they come in all different shapes and sizes.  I personally like this Cribbage Board because it is very affordable, but also is compact which is great for storage and travel.

Pro Tip:  Over time playing cards wear.  The corners bend and the design on the back of the cards may peel off.  Playing cards are inexpensive to replace and new cards make for a better card playing experience.  Consider replacing the playing cards every 6-9 months.

Definitions

Cribbage has some unique terminology and the definitions below will help you to better understand the explanation of Cribbage rules.

Skunk – This a game when one player loses so badly that the victor is awarded two game wins at the completion of this game.

Double Skunk – This a game when one player loses so badly that the victor is awarded four game wins at the completion of this game.

Starter Card – The card that is flipped by the dealer after the non-dealer cuts the deck.  This card is used in combination with all hands, including the Crib hand, for the purpose of scoring points.

Nobs – A Jack that is the same suit as the Starter Card.

His Nobs – A jack that is the Starter Card.

Muggins – When one player erroneously counts their points and the other player correctly identifies this error.  Learn more at What is Muggins in Cribbage.

Crib – The extra hand awarded to the dealer used to score additional points during the round.  The Crib consists of the 4 cards (2 cards discarded by each player).

The Play  – The process of scoring points when players alternatively play their cards towards a total of 31.

Go – When a player cannot continue to play cards because their remaining cards will take The Play over 31.  Final player receives points for “GOs” – 2 points when Go = 31 and 1 point when Go is less than 31.

The Object of Cribbage

The goal of Cribbage is to reach 121 points faster than your opponent. 

Each Cribbage game is concluded one a player reaches 121 points, however Cribbage can also be played as a best of three, five, seven, etc.  Or Cribbage could be an extended competition between two players over multiple sessions with the overall winner being the first player to capture 10 wins.

Tallying the Wins

A player can capture One Victory simply by getting their peg to the 121st spot on the Cribbage board before their opponent reaches this location.  Sometimes these games come right down to the wire and the final score may be 120-121.

Other times the game is clearly dominated by one player, but the other player shouldn’t give up.  If the lagging player fails to reach 91 points on the Cribbage board then this is considered a “Skunk” and the victorious player is awarded Two Wins for this game.

Getting “Skunked” isn’t the worst thing that can happen in Cribbage.  If you fail to reach 61 points in a Cribbage game then you have been “Double Skunked.”  If you can beat your opponent this badly then you are awarded Four Wins.

So when playing Cribbage over an extended series of games you need to understand the Skunk Rules.  These rules can take a player who is down 7 games to 3 back to a tie with a single Double Skunk game.  With Cribbage you are never truly out of the series until the final game is won.

How to Score Points

You can score points in Cribbage in five different ways.  These include:  “15’s”  –  2 points for each “15”;  Pairs  –  2 points for each pair;  Runs of at least 3 cards  –  1 point for each card in the run;  All cards in your hand are the same suit  –  4 points total (which is 1 point for each card); and “Nobs”  –  1 point for a Jack in your hand that is the same suit as the Starter Card; and “His Nobs”  –  2 points to the dealer when the Starter Card is a Jack.

Muggins is another way to get points.  At the end of each round players take turns counting all of their points while the other player watches.  If you notice an error and identify it then you are awarded the points equal to the value of the error that you identified.

Determine the Dealer

In Cribbage being the first dealer is a huge advantage.  The dealer in cribbage gets the “Crib” and will use this hand to add more points to their score.

To determine the first dealer one player cuts the cards and the other player calls either “Black” or “Red”.  If the player calls the color that matches the cut card then they are the dealer.  If they are wrong then the other player is the dealer. 

After the first dealer is determined the loser of each game assumes the First Dealer role for all consecutive games until the Cribbage series has concluded.

Dealing the Cards           

The dealer first shuffles the cards.  Cards need to be shuffled at least three times in order for the cards to be considered adequately shuffled.

Deal the first card to your opponent and then alternatively to yourself.  Continue in this fashion until both players have six cards.

Players then look through their cards and determine which four cards they desire to keep and which two cards they will place in the Crib.

Pro Tip:  Always know when the Crib is yours and when it is not.  Your goal is to always keep the best possible hand without giving good cards to your opponents Crib.  On the other hand, it when it is your Crib you will want to keep a good hand and perhaps set your Crib up with good cards too.  See What is the Best Cribbage Hand to learn more about Cribbage hand strategy.  

After all players have placed their discarded cards into the Crib then the non-dealer cuts the remaining deck of cards.  Then the dealer flips the top card on the deck and this is considered the Starter Card because it begins the process of scoring.

It is important to note that the Starter Card cannot be revealed until the Crib is established because if anyone would know what the Starter Card is in advance it could adversely influence what other cards they may choose to place in the Crib.

Finally, remember that if the Starter Card is a Jack this is considered “His Knobs” and is worth 2 points for the dealer.  The dealer should immediately advance their peg two spaces on the Cribbage Board.

Playing Your Cards         

The first process of scoring points is during “The Play”. 

The non-dealer leads with a card of their choice and proclaims the value of that card.  So if they are playing a 3 then they will place it face up in front of them and simultaneously say “three.”  The next player then plays their card face up in front of them and proclaims the added total of those two cards.  So if they play a 9 then they would simultaneously say “twelve.”

This process will continue until all cards equal 31 or no player can play anymore cards because they would go over 31.  If it is your turn and you cannot play another card you proclaim this as a “Go.”  The next player can then continue to play their cards.

All face cards are worth 10 and Aces are valued at 1.

If the final tally is exactly equal to 31 then the player who reached this total is awarded a 2 points Go, which is immediately pegged on the Cribbage Board.  If no player can continue to play cards because it would take the total over 31 then the last player to play is awarded a “1 point Go, which should be pegged on the Cribbage board.

After there is a Go then each player turns over their previously played cards and the process starts over again until all cards are played.

Important Note:  During the Play it is possible for one player to play more cards then their opponent.  For example:  Player A plays a King for “10” and then Player B plays an 8 for “18”.  Player A continues with another King for “28” followed by Player B with and Ace for “29”.  At this point Player A says, “It’s a go” because their remaining cards are greater than 3.  However Player B has an Ace so they can play that card too to bring the total to “30”.  If Player B had another Ace they would play one more time for “31”. 

If Player B does not have another Ace for their final card then he would also say, “It’s a go”, and both players would flip their cards and they would start over with Player A leading because Player B was last to play.

Other Ways to Peg Points During the Play

Fifteens

During the process of playing cards and counting towards 31 if a player can successfully reach 15 then they score 2 points and immediately peg it on the Cribbage board.  For example:  Player A plays a 6 and simultaneously says “Six.”  Then Player B plays a 9 and simultaneously says “Fifteen for 2 points.”

Pro Tip:  When you are not the dealer you will lead the first card during the play.  Keeping a card with a value less than 5 is good for the purpose of this lead card because this will prevent the dealer from reaching 15, for two points, on their first card.

Pairs

During the play pairs are cards of the same value played in sequential order.  So if Player A leads with a 2 and says “two” and then Player B also plays a 2 they would say “four for 2 points.”  Player B would also immediately peg those points on the Cribbage Board.

Continuing with this example, Player A could play another 2, and say “six for 6 points.”  The reason this is worth 6 points is because three consecutive cards of the same value would combine for three different pairs and each pair is worth 2 points each.

If Player B would have the final 2 it could be played and they would proclaim “eight for 12 points.”  The rationale is that four cards of the same value played in consecutive order combine for six different pairs.  Each of the pairs is worth 2 points each.

It is important to remember that the cards need to be played in sequential order to count as a pair.  So if Player A plays a 2 and Player B follows with a 9 the next card played would have to be a 9 in order to collect points for a pair.  If another 2 is played it would not count as a pair because a 9 was played in between the 2s.

Pair Pro Tip 1 – Only cards with a value of 7 or less can be played in order to potentially collect the maximum of 12 points.  Cards with a value of greater than 7 will reach a lead to a value greater than 31 before the fourth card can be played, therefore leading to a Go.

Pair Pro Tip 2 –  If you are not the dealer and are holding two 5s and a 10 or another face card.  Consider leading with a card equal to 10 in value.  This may entice your opponent to play a 5.  You can then continue to pair that 5 for 2 points.  If they play another 5 you will be able to pair that one also for 12 points.  All of these cards can be played prior to reaching a value of 31.

Runs

During the Play you can also collect points when sequential cards can be combined for a run.  A run starts to qualify as points with the third card.

So if Player A plays an Ace and says “one”, and Player B plays a 2 and says “three”, then Player A can play a 3 and say “six for 3 points” and also immediately peg these points on  the Cribbage Board.

However it is important to note that runs can be counted during the play even if the cards in the run are not played in sequential order as long as they are consecutive during the play.  For instance if two players played the following cards this would be considered a seven card run for 7 points: 4 “four” – 7 “eleven” – 2 “thirteen” – 6 “nineteen” – Ace “twenty” – 3 “twenty-three” – 5 “twenty-eight for 7 points.

In the previous example of the cards played combine for a seven card run from Ace to 7, but the run isn’t complete until the 5 is played so this is the person who will be able to immediately peg the points on the Cribbage board.

Let’s look at the 7 card run and change the fifth and seventh cards: 4 “four” – 7 “eleven” – 2 “thirteen” – 6 “nineteen” – five “twenty-four” – 3 “twenty-seven for 6 points” – Ace “twenty-eight for 7 points.”  In this example you can see that when the 3 is played it completes a 6 card run from 2 to 7 so they can collect 6 points.  Additionally the next player’s Ace extends and completes a 7 card run from Ace to 7 so he can all collect points off of this run.

Suited Cards

Suited cards DO NOT count for points during The Play.

Counting the Points in Your Hand

After the Play is competed each player picks up their four cards and now counts the points in their hand.  The non-dealer counts first, then the dealer counts his hand and then also counts the points in his Crib hand.  This order of counting is particularly important when finishing a very close game.  If the score on the Cribbage board is 110 – 114 then the non-dealer get the first chance to reach 121 points by counting the points in their hand.

Procedure for Counting Points

The best sequence to use when counting points in your hands are to first identify and count your 15s, followed by your pairs, then runs, suited cards, and finally Nobs.  There is no penalty if you choose to count your points in a different manner, but using a reliable sequence is the best way to identify all of your points.  Once you have tallied all of your points out loud and showing them to your opponent you will then peg all of these points onto the Cribbage board.

Important Note:  The Starter Card, which is revealed right before the play, is used by all players when counting cards in the hand.  So, all hands will consist of 5 cards, the four cards that each player kept and the starter card.  The Starter Card is also used with the Crib hand too.

Suited Cards

Suited cards do not register for points during the play; however you can get points for suited cards when counting your hand.  If you choose to keep all four suited cards in your hand then each of these cards are worth 1 point each for a total of 4 points.  It is important to remember that all 4 cards need to be the same suit. 

If the Starter Card is also the same suit as the four cards in your hand then this card will also count for another point, but you do not need the starter card to match to count the other four points.  This is not the case for the Crib Hand though.

In order to count suited cards for points in the Crib hand all 5 cards, including the Starter card, have to be the same suit for a total of 5 points.  So, even if the four discarded cards are all the same suit and the Starter card is a different suit then there are 0 points available to the Crib for suited cards.

Muggins

When your opponent is counting their points it is important to pay attention.  If you notice an error made by your opponent DO NOT SAY ANYTHING, and wait until they have pegged the points on the Cribbage board.  Then say “Muggins!’  This indicates that you see a mistake.  Show it to your opponent and if you are correct then you can immediately claim all of those points for yourself.

Important Note:  The “Mugged” points are only available to the person who identified them.  The player who miss counted the points DOES NOT get these points too.  So Muggins serves as a double penalty.

Double Card Runs

What is a Double Card Run?  A double card run consist of two 3 card runs and a pair.  For example, and hand that has a 3, two 4s, and 5 is a double card run.  Another example of this would be a 7, an 8, and two 9s.

Pro Tip:  Double card runs are always worth 8 points.  Each run is worth 3 points and the pair is worth 2 points.

Maximum Double Card Runs

A Maximum double card run is when you have two four card runs and a pair.  The reason this is called a Maximum Double Card Run is because it combines require all 5 cards in your hand.  Examples of maximum double card runs would look like a 2, a three, two 4s, and a five.  Another example is a 9, a 10, two Jacks, and a Queen.

Pro Tip:  Maximum double card runs are always worth 10 points.  Each run is worth 4 points and the pair is worth 2 points.

Perfect Hand

What is the perfect Cribbage hand?  The perfect Cribbage hand consists of three 5s and Jack in your hand and the Starter Card is the final 5 which is the same suit as the Jack (providing a point for Nobs).  The Perfect Cribbage hand is worth 29 points.

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