One for his nob, two for his heels

William Hartston explores the curious rules and history of one of our oldest and most popular card games
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Among card games, cribbage has for years been looked down upon as a ragged Cinderella compared with its more affluent sisters, bridge and poker. Yet its mathematical complexities and psychological overtones provide an excitement that devotees insist matches anything offered by those games. The game of six-card cribbage (the most common version), in case you need reminding, works like this:

The rules

Cribbage is a game for two players, using a standard 52-card pack. Kings rank high, aces low. Points are scored for various card combinations either in hand, or occurring during play. Each player's score is registered by a peg moving along a track of holes on a wooden board. The first player to score 61 points wins the game. (You can, of course, use pencil and paper, but for the true enthusiast the cribbage board is an essential feature of the game.)

Cut for deal; the player drawing the lower card is the dealer, the other is given three points for "last" as compensation. (Cribbage is full of such charming twitches of vocabulary.) Six cards are dealt to each player, the remainder placed face down on the table.

Each player must then choose two cards to discard. These are left face down to form the "crib", which is not revealed until the end of the hand. The undealt cards are then cut, and the new top card turned up as the "start" card. If it's a jack, the dealer scores two points, "two for his heels".

Beginning with the non-dealer, the players then take turns to reveal one card from their hands. The pip values of these (court cards count 10, ace is one) are added to the start card, the running total is announced at each play, and the total pip value may not exceed 31. If it reaches exactly 31, the player whose card was just played scores two points. If you have no card that can be played without exceeding 31, you say "Go" and your opponent plays again if he can. If 31 is reached, or both players say "Go", you start counting again from zero with the remaining cards.

Other ways of scoring during play:

15: If you play a card that brings the total to 15 you score two points, "fifteen two".

Pair: If you play a card of the same value as the previous card, you score two for a pair. (King and king are, of course, a pair, but king and jack, for example, are not.)

Pair royal: If you follow a pair immediately with a third card of the same value, you score six for "pair royal".

Double pair royal: And four in a row scores 12.

Run: A run of three or more cards of consecutive values (10-jack-queen, or A-2-3-4, for example, but not K-Q-A) scores as many points as cards in the run. Note that the cards do not have to occur in the right order: 7-3-4-6-5 is a perfectly valid five-card run.

Last card: If the total of 31 is not reached exactly, one point is scored by whoever played last.

When play is completed, each player scores his own hand, adding the value of the start card to the four he kept, as follows:

15: any combination of cards adding up to 15 scores two points. (So, for example, J,Q,5,5,5 would score 14 - each of the fives can pair with jack or queen, and the three fives provide another two points. You would say: "fifteen two, fifteen four, fifteen six ... up to fifteen fourteen, adding two for each scoring combination.)

Pair: As during play, a pair counts two, with six points for a "pair royal" (three of the same value) and 12 for all four.

Run: Runs of three or more cards score as many points as cards in the run.

Flush: Four points if all your cards are the same suit (with a bonus point if the start card is of the same suit)

One for his nob: One point for holding the jack of the same suit as the start card.

When both players have scored their hands, the dealer exposes the crib and adds its score to his own.

The origins of cribbage

According to John Aubrey, the game was invented by Sir John Suckling (1609-42), a poet, gambler and Royalist. "He sent his Cards to all Gameing places in the countrey which were marked with private markes of his; he gott twenty thousand pounds by this way." (From Aubrey's Brief Lives.)

Aubrey also quotes Sir William Davenant, a friend of Suckling, who "would say that Sir John, when he was at his lowest ebbe in gameing, I meane when unfortunate, then would make himselfe most glorious in apparell, and sayd that it exalted his spirits, and that he had then best Luck when he was most gallant".

But he came, like so many gamblers, to a sad end: "He went into France, where after sometime, being come to the bottome of his Found, reflecting on the miserable and despicable condition he should be reduced to, having nothing left to maintain him, he (having a convenience for that purpose, lyeing at an apothecarie's house in Paris) tooke poyson, which killed him miserably with vomiting."

His game, however, flourished, and even bequeathed to the language the term "cribbage-faced", defined in a dictionary of 1785 as: "marked with the small-pox, the pits bearing a kind of resemblance to the holes in a cribbage board." The term "bilk", meaning to cheat of money, also, according to some sources, has its original in the game of cribbage.

And let us not forget the most famous cribbage player of all, as described by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist: "Mr Toby Crackit swept up his winnings [at cribbage] and crammed them into his waist-coat pocket."

Useless cribbage fact:

There are precisely 1,009,008 distinct hands that score no points at all.