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The Cribbage dilemma

Food For Thought

Believed to have been invented by the 17th-century English poet Sir John Suckling, Cribbage remains one of the most popular of all card games. A virtual playground for mental math, the game offers numerous ways to pile up impressive point totals from just five cards. A perfect hand totals 29 points, and that’s just the point count from the cards in one hand of play; there are several opportunities to score additional points during play by taking advantage of the cards played by your opponent, as well as the order in which cards are played.
My dad loved Cribbage, teaching me and my sisters to play the game when we were quite young. Whether or not he intended it, the game was a big help when it came to those math classes in school. For starters, it became necessary to be able to assess all the different combinations of up to five cards that add up to 15. And, one had to visualize the structures of double-runs, triple-runs and double-double-runs. The scoring begins even before play begins– the deck is cut and the top card is turned up to provide the starter card. If it happens to be a jack, the dealer immediately gets two points. Because of the various ways a player can score and the frequency, it is necessary to keep a running score, and while this can be written as most other card games are recorded, it is more convenient to use the board where both scores are readily visible to both players as the game progresses. There are usually 60 holes on the board for each player, and the first player to pass 120 points (twice around the board) is the winner.
Dad was very good at the game and very hard to beat at it. He didn’t ever let us win, not even when we were very young and just learning the game. Dad felt there was no value in being declared the winner just to make a person feel successful. All wins had to be honestly earned, otherwise they were meaningless. When we were fairly young, he genuinely rejoiced when we were able to beat him at Cribbage. He was proud we learned to play so well and we had the skills necessary to win against such an experienced opponent.
There came a time, though, when his best game wasn’t consistently good enough. A time when I won too many games in a row, too easily, too frequently. I had returned from Thursday evening choir practice at about 9 p.m. and found Dad and Mother playing Cribbage in the dining room. There was still not a television set in our house, due to poor reception in the area, and games, puzzles, books and conversation filled most of the evening hours after dark. Mother vacated her chair and invited me to take her place and finish out the Cribbage game she had been playing with Dad. Dad had just begun his second circuit around the board and Mother’s pegs were a rather dismal distance behind his. The gods must have been smiling on me because the necessary cards turned up in my hand deal after deal, pegging opportunities during play and an abundance of double runs, flushes and other scoring bonuses came my way and I won the game easily. Dad grimly gathered up the cards and dealt a new game.
There are few ways to cheat in Cribbage– neither are there many ways to throw a game and lose on purpose because all the cards are visible to both players as they are played and counted, and besides, Dad knew I was too good a player to miss an opportunity for a high count if it was there. For several games, I had to hardly depend on skill at all; the best cards seemed to appear magically at my disposal, as if the deck had been stacked in my favor. At 10:30 p.m., Dad swept up the cards and growled, “Go to bed! That’s all the Cribbage for tonight!” Not that I wasn’t tired and willing to retire for the night, but in our family, nobody who was older than 16 was ever sent to bed. Sixteen was the age of accountability when one was free to go on dates, not eat one’s vegetables, take a part-time job and stay up as late as one chose.
That new accountability, however, didn’t exempt one from the usual family rules, common courtesy and respect for one’s elders. The Cribbage games of that evening turned out to be more than games, I think. For me to have attempted to throw a game would have embarrassed my dad even more than my winning did. And, hadn’t he expected I’d ever get better at it than he was? Didn’t he teach and encourage me to strive to improve at all the things I did? Would he have been even more disappointed in me if I’d never gotten good enough at Cribbage to beat him at it? I learned a lot about parents and parenting that evening. And I taught my own children to play Cribbage when the time came.