How to Play Cribbage: Rules for Beginners

Couple playing cribbage in a warm home with fireplace

A historic card game which transformed into an international competitive activity, cribbage is best-known for its unique scoring pattern, which uses a game board rather than a sheet of paper to keep score. However, there's a reason that the game isn't as popular as Black Jack or the slots machines in the casinos around the United States; cribbage rules are somewhat complex and can take some time to get used to. Yet, once you've got the basics, you can enjoy a typical one-on-one match or even a challenging three or four-person game down the road.

What Is Cribbage?

Cribbage's origins aren't definitively known, yet most people agree that the game developed out of noddy, a similar card game which was mentioned in Charles Cotton's 1674 publication, The Complete Gamester. Modern cribbage is usually played between two players, and using a standard 52-card deck, these players try to score 121 points first or "peg out" on the scoreboard.

Equipment Needed to Play Cribbage

The supplies needed for a game of cribbage are few, though specific and necessary in order to play an actual game.

  • Cards: You need a standard deck of 52 playing cards with the jokers removed.
  • Board: Cribbage requires a special board to play, known as a cribbage board. This board has 120 holes plus a winner's hole for you and your opponent to keep score with. The classic design is a flat wooden board with a curved path for pegs. There are also more elaborate designs available, such as those made out of interesting shapes, like states or trains.
  • Pegs: Pegs come with the board and each player is given two to keep track of scores.

How to Play Cribbage

There are a few basic rules of cribbage that you need to know before you can jump into a game:

Determine Who Deals

Firstly, you need to cut the deck to determine who deals. The player with the low card is the dealer; most cribbage operates with Kings high and aces low, meaning that drawing an ace will put you at the bottom end of the deck's worth. Once you've determined who's the dealer, you should reshuffle the deck and deal out six cards to each player.

Create the Crib

Once each player receives their six cards, they're allowed to look at them. Of your six cards, you need to discard two of them to the side, and you and your opponent's set-aside cards combine to create "the crib."

Identify the Starter

After both players have set aside "the crib," the dealer should cut the deck and take the top card from the lower half of the deck, laying it face up. This 'starter' isn't used in the active play portion of cribbage but is rather used for scoring purposes by making special combinations later on. If the 'starter' turns out to be a jack, then it's referred to as "His Heels" and gets the dealer and automatic 2 points.

Begin Playing Your Hands

Once the starter has been identified, play begins with the non-dealer laying one of their four cards face up and announcing its value or 'pip.' Face cards are worth their face value while aces continue to be low at just one point and kings, queens, and jacks counting 10 points each. Then the dealer lays one of their cards down, announcing the cumulative total of the two cards now on the table.

However, the total of all of the cards in play can never reach above 31. Therefore, when a player can't lay another card without going above 31, they announce "go." Reaching "go" rewards the other player by letting them peg one space. While there are additional ways that you can score points on the cribbage board - with each notch equating one point - this process continues until one player reaches 121 points and wins the game.

Specialty Combinations You Can Make

In addition to the front-end portion of the game, there are other backend ways to score points:

  • Totaling 15 - When either player lays down a card that brings the total to 15, this is worth two points.
  • Totaling 31 - Similarly, reaching exactly 31 points on the hands gives you two points.
  • Putting down pairs - Points are further awarded for putting down pairs. For example, if the dealer plays a six and the non-dealer plays a six immediately thereafter, the non-dealer earns two points. If the dealer can follow with a third six, that is worth six points, with a fourth six worth twelve points.
  • Making a sequence - Sequences of cards net points, but do not have to be laid in order. The points awarded are for the number of cards in a sequence. For example, a sequence of three gets three points, even if played in the order 4-6-5 instead of 4-5-6.

Other Combinations to Make for Points

After the initial counting portion of the game, players score additional points by tallying the cards in their hands as well as the crib. The non-dealing player counts first, followed by the dealer. The dealer then counts the cards in his crib. Points are scored as follows:

  • 2 points for any combination of cards totaling 15
  • 2 points for each pair
  • 6 points for each triple
  • 12 points for each hand of four-of-a-kind
  • 1 point for every card in a run (sequence)
  • 4 points for four cards of the same suit - not including the starter and the crib.
  • 5 points with a flush of five cards, which can include the crib and the starter.
  • 1 point for a jack in the same suit as the starter

All of these hands can be combined to score multiple points. Indeed, this is how the best cribbage players play. There is an optional rule called "muggins" that allows an opposing player to claim any points that his opponent did not claim from his own hand. Make sure to total up all of your points and move your pegs on the cribbage board accordingly before you play another round.

How to Win the Game

You win a game of cribbage by being the first player to "peg out." This means scoring 121 points or more, bringing your peg to the game hole. Cribbage games are often played in a series, so winning an individual game might not make you the winner for the night.

Senior Couple playing cribbage outdoors

Cribbage With Multiple Players

Although it may sound a bit strange, much like poker, there are professional cribbage players and tournaments that people can enter. While most of these tournaments involve cribbage with only two players, some of these professional players like to team up and play cribbage between more than just two opponents. Although the game is played pretty much the same with three and four players as it is with two players, there are a few alterations to make note of:

  • Three-player game changes - Players receive 5 cards instead of six and donate only 1 card to the crib.
  • Four-player game changes - Opposing players are now partners and play on the same track on the cribbage board. The dealer still doles out 5 cards to the players and each player donates 1 card to the crib.

There's No Crying in Cribbage

With its unique format and variety of gaming strategies, cribbage has become quite popular with card game enthusiasts but has yet to really make its way into casual gaming circles, perhaps due in large part to its complex gameplay. While the game does have more complicated rules than say, Go Fish, once you've played it a couple times, you'll start making hands in your sleep.

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How to Play Cribbage: Rules for Beginners