Cribbage Rules and Game Play

Cribbage is a card game that is thought to have been invented in the 17th century by Sir John Suckling. It was also the favorite card game of Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Franklin.

Here's how to play:

Number of players: Best for two players although three- and four-handed variations also exist.

Object: To reach 121 points for the traditional or long game; 61 points for the short game. Points are scored by forming specific combinations of cards.

The cards: Standard 52-card deck. Cards are assigned a point value equal to rank. Aces are low and count 1; face cards count as 10.

The Cribbage board: A regulation board has four rows of 30 holes, marked off in groups of five and organized in two rows of two (two for each player). The pegs that come with the board are typically different colors to identify individual players. Each player has two pegs. Before play begins, the four pegs are placed at the start end of the board. The movement of the pegs, up the outside row and down the inside row back to the start, shows the progress of each player's game. The complete trip of the pegs is equal to 61 points. The traditional game is two trips, or 121 points. Use the two pegs in alternating fashion (the first peg indicates the previous score; the second peg indicates the most recent score); in this way, scores can be checked for accuracy.  See the sections on scoring for a complete guide on how to score points and move the pegs.

Dealing: Players cut for low card to determine first dealer. If this results in a tie, cut again. The non-dealer immediately pegs 3 points for compensation, which occurs only once. Henceforth, players alternate dealing, as well as alternate taking turns during a game. Each player is dealt six cards, one at a time. Both players select two cards from their hands and place them face down to form the "crib," which belongs to the dealer. The crib is not shown or used until the end of play. The crib is essentially an extra hand scored for the dealer. Deciding which cards to place in the crib, whether or not you are the dealer, is an enormous part of cribbage strategy.



The start card: After the deal and after forming the crib, the nondealer cuts the remaining pack. The dealer turns over the top card of the stack to indicate the start card. If the start card is a jack (called "two for his heels"), the dealer automatically pegs 2 (scores 2 points). The start card will not be used until play is complete.

Playing: Non-dealer may now play any one card from his or her hand. This is done by turning a card face-up and calling out its value -- face cards count as 10, the ace counts as 1, and the rest of the cards count as their face value. The dealer next does the same, saying aloud the sum value of the two cards played. For instance, if the non-dealer laid down a 3 and the dealer laid down a 4, the dealer would announce the combined value as 7. The cards are kept separate in front of the players. The play continues back and forth between players until one player makes 31 and pegs 2 points.

If, however, you cannot play any of your remaining cards without exceeding 31 during this round, you say, "Go." This tells your opponent to continue lay down cards as long as he or she cannot go past 31 while scoring combinations (see "Pegging for melds in play"). Your opponent must play any remaining cards in his or her hand, adding up to 31 or less. At this point, your opponent pegs 1 point for a "Go" or 2 points if he or she scores 31 points exactly. Play now ends for this deal.

Pegging for melds made in play: Scoring is kept for the "Go," 31, last card, and combinations (melds) made in play. Melds are pegged as they happen. These melds are:
  • If you make a count of 15 during play, peg 2.

  • If you match the rank of the card played by the opponent, peg 2 for the pair.

  • Three cards of the same rank are worth 6 points (6 pegs), the fourth one scores (pegs) 12.

  • Sequences also count, and the cards don't have to be in exact order. For example, 3-6-4-5 scores 4 points for the last player, and if the next player follows with a 2, that sequence is worth 5 points.

  • You do not score a flush (a sequence of cards of the same suit) in play, however, until the hand is tallied.
Scoring Combinations
Fifteen: Any combination of cards totaling exactly 15 points, 2 points

Pair: Two cards of the same rank, 2 points

Triplet: Three cards of the same rank, 6 points

Quartet: Four cards of the same rank, 12 points

Sequence: Three or more cards in a row, any suit (aces always low), 1 point per card

Flush: Four cards of the same suit (not the crib and not including the starter), 4 points; five cards in hand or crib with starter, 5 points

His Nobs: Jack of same suit as starter, 1 point


Combination melds are also possible. For instance, if you start by playing a 5, your opponent can score 2 points by matching your 5, but then you can match with a third five and receive a bonus for hitting 15 as well as a bonus for matching three cards.

Scoring the hands: After the play, the players reexamine their cards for possible scoring combinations (see the "Scoring Combinations" sidebar). First, the non-dealer counts points from the four played cards and the start card, making as many combinations as they can from the five cards available to them. Second, the dealer counts points from the four played cards and the start card; and third, the dealer counts points from the four cards in the crib and the start card.

Much like the melds in play, combination scores are not only possible, but essential in cribbage. Cards may be used several times in an effort to make separate scoring combinations. For instance, if the start card is a 3 and you have a J in your hand, you can use the J to make the "His Nobs" combination as well as any other combinations possible with the card.

Because Cribbage scoring is involved and precise, many players follow the rule of Muggins. In this variation players count aloud their points. If any points are overlooked, the opponent says aloud "Muggins" and takes the points overlooked into their own tally.

Pegging out: A game is over when one player pegs out at 121 (or 61, in the shorter game). This can occur at any time, including before your opponent scores his or her points. So while the dealer gets the advantage of the crib, the non-dealer -- because they tally their points first -- can peg out before the dealer even has the chance to score their points.

It is also not necessary to reach 121 exactly. You can peg out by scoring more than 121 points. You score a double game when you skunk or "lurch" your opponent -- win by more than 60 points (in a 121-point game).

Tips: One of the fine arts of Cribbage is choosing which cards to go into the crib and which cards to keep. If you have a high-scoring four-card group, such as 7-8-8-9, keep them and put the other two in the crib.

If it's your own crib, put scoring cards such as pairs and 15s (or at least a 5-spot) into the crib, when this also leaves you a reasonable hand. In general, put middle-range cards (4 through 8) in your own crib, and put high and low cards (2s and kings) in your opponent's. Take into account how many start cards will be good for the various choices of cards to keep. Likewise, consider how different start cards can combine with your crib discards.

In play, start with a card that counts under 5 so that opponent can't peg an immediate 15.

Near the end of the game, scoring order can greatly influence your discards and your decisions in play. For example, if you need just 3 or 4 points to win, then you don't need a high-scoring hand. Try to keep cards that will permit you to win during the play-out.

Similarly, when dealer is 5 or 10 points from winning, opponent needs to score points soon and may have to gamble on getting help from the start card for a high-scoring hand.