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

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.

voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
newsJohn Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Arts and Entertainment
Residents of Derby Road in Southampton oppose filming of Channel 4 documentary Immigration Street in their community
voicesSiobhan Norton on why she eventually changed her mind
Scottish singer Susan Boyle will perform at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Glasgow
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    BI Manager - £50,000

    £49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

    BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

    £48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

    VB.Net Developer

    £35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

    SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

    Day In a Page

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes