Positional play and board strategy in cribbage

Advanced cribbage strategy

Advanced cribbage strategy involves knowledge of the board position. Once you have mastered basic cribbage strategy, it's time to move on to understanding how the balance of scores affects your choice of tactics.

One of the key principles of every strong cribbage player's strategy is understanding how the average hand scores affect play. On average, the dealer scores 16.2 points a hand, and pone scores 10.15. So all other things being equal, the first dealer should win the game on the 10th hand.

In cribbage, board strategy is critical to success. Because the privilege of counting first alternates between the two players, careful manipulation of the score can put you in a position to count first at the right time and win. Let's see how.

After each hand the players can, on average, expect to have reached a certain hole on the board. These are known as the 'par' holes or positional holes. Here are the values for each player:

Positional hole table

Deal Dealer Non-dealer
1 7 17
2 17 33
3 33 43
4 43 59
5 59 69
6 69 85
7 85 95
8 95 111
9 111 121
10 121 -

What this means is that if you are achieving par with each hand, you should win. If you can prevent your opponent from reaching hers, you should win. So how do you do this?

Playing on and playing off

Playing on means playing aggressively to get points, even if it means letting your opponent win some too. Playing off is the opposite: you go all-out to prevent your opponent scoring, even if it means giving up some points yourself. When you are below par, you need to play on to get as many points as possible. Otherwise, the balance of probabilities means that your opponent will win. Conversely, if you are ahead of par, your main priority is to stop the opponent making par, and so you play off.

The reason for this is that making par effectively shortens the game by one hand. Or to put it another way, if you are behind par, you will not score first at the moment when you should be within reach of victory. This effectively hands the game to your opponent. Learn the positional holes (perhaps marking them with tape on your board) and check them before every hand to determine whether you should be playing on or off.

Position isn't everything

Top cribbage player Chris Parsons (author of the excellent Planet Cribbage blog) reminds us that although positional play is important for strategy, it is based on averages, and as we all know, sometimes things aren't average!

The basis of position is sound; you will average 10 points as a pone, and 16 points as the dealer, so you will average 26 points every two deals... the corollary to that statement is that 50% of the time, you will score less than 26 points in two deals. Just because you've gotten to the penultimate positional hole first does not mean you're out of the woods, not by a long shot.

Once you have position on your opponent, don't just start coasting and playing safe to preserve, keep fighting to increase the margin, and give yourself some buffer

(Read the full article here: Position Isn't Everything)

Positional hole table

Hi There,

Is it possible that you have reversed the headers in the table? How is the dealer only supposed to hit 7 on the first hand while the pone hits 17?



I was also confused by this

I was also confused by this

sad demise of Planet Cribbage

Hi Again,

It looks like the Planet Cribbage web site is no longer available online. I was able to find a saved copy using the Wayback Machine on the Internet Archive website (https://archive.org/index.php) dated Feb. 8, 2014. That seems to be the last snapshot with any content. The snapshots with later dates are either empty or show a "domain for sale" page. Thankfully, the one from 2014 has the article you reference (Position Isn't Everything).