Cribbage strategy

Basic cribbage strategy

Cribbage strategy is a key part of playing and winning cribbage. Merely knowing the cribbage rules is not enough to play well. Here are some hints on basic cribbage strategy which should keep you out of the worst of trouble until you have started to get the hang of things.

General cribbage strategy tips

  • Don't lead a 5 or a 10-card. If you do, you give your opponent the chance to score 15-2.
  • Aim to bait your opponent to create runs during play. For example, if you lead with a 7, your opponent could play 8 for 15-2. You can then play a 9 to score three points for a run of 3.
  • Leading from a pair is often a good idea. If your opponent plays the matching card, you can play your own card, scoring 6 points for a pair royal.
  • Throw good cards to your own crib, such as pairs, two cards in sequence, or 5s.
  • If it's the opponent's crib, discard your least valuable cards. Avoid giving them any cards that make easy 15s, such as 5s, or ten-cards.
  • Approaching the end of the game, hang on to low cards and don't discard them. You'll have more opportunities to score points for go.

Discard strategy

See our discard strategy page for more information.

Leading strategy

See the leading strategy page for more information.

Replying to the lead

See the Replying to the Lead page for more information.

Play your 5s early

If you hold 5s, play them as early as you can to avoid them being trapped. For example, if you hold 5-J-Q-K and your opponent holds 3-6-7-8, the play might go like this. You lead one of the ten-cards; opponent replies with 8, hoping you will play another ten-card so that he can make 31 with the 3. If you do, he will reply 6 to your next ten-lead, resulting in: 10 - 6 - 5 - 7 for a three-point run and go. That's a six-point trap which you would do well to avoid. Use this rule: if your opponent does not have a 5-shaped hand (hasn't played any 10s or 5s), your 5 should be a safe lead.

Old Faithful

This is a well-known pegging trap and one that often arises in play. It works against 5-x-x-x hands which are, of course, very common.

Let's say you hold 4-6-6 and your opponent has 5s and ten-cards. You lead the 6; dealer would be foolish to reply with the 5 because of the risk of a 6-5-4 run. So she replies with a ten, making 16. You play 6 bringing the count to 22.

Now dealer can only play her 5, letting you finish with the 4 for a 6-5-4 run and 31, pegging 5 points in all.

Dump the lone Ace

Cribbage strategy expert and tournament champion Mike Burns advises players to get rid of a single Ace as quickly as possible to avoid having it 'trapped' - when your opponent forces you to play out the Ace and scores a go. On the other hand, Aces can be extremely valuable as tens are the most common cards, and 30 is a common point count to make. Use your best judgment and let the board position determine when you should play defensively or aggressively.

Magic eleven

Ten-cards (court cards which all count 10) are by far the most common cards in the pack, and this affects your strategy. If you hold a combination of two or three cards that add up to 11, this can earn you extra points in the pegging. For example, if you hold a 6-5, you might play it like this:

Opponent: Q (10)
You: 5 (15-2)
Opponent: J (25)
You: 6 (31-2)

This combination is known as a 'magic eleven', and is a useful guide when facing a difficult discard. Hold on to combinations of cards which make eleven, especially when defending.

The jack

The jack is the second most common card to hold after a 5. The extra point that a jack can earn you makes it the favourite among all ten-cards. Knowing this, play your jacks carefully and at the right time. You don't want your opponent to pair your jack, so it makes sense to play it only when bringing the total to 22 or more - playing the jack to make 21 would invite your opponent to pair it for 4 points.

The exception is when you hold a pair of jacks, in which case the jack makes an excellent lead, and if your opponent does pair it, you score 6 points for the pair royal and most likely one for the go.

Cribbage hints

Rules of thumb to remember:

  • Dump one jack (making 22 or more, preventing it from being paired)
  • Hold two jacks, reserving them for a 6-point play

Play the man, not the hand

  • Vary your play. Your opponent is certainly familiar with these rules of cribbage strategy as well, unless he is a novice, and will be expecting you to make the obvious plays. Don't follow these suggestions slavishly - play an unusual card every so often. At the least it will make your opponent stop and think - you may be up to something. Or not. Either way, it 'breaks flow' - the equivalent of taking your opponent 'out of the book' at Chess.

  • Conversely, study your opponent's cribbage strategy. Is he stuck in a set of unbreakable habits? Does he always lead from a pair, make 11 or discard the same kind of cards? The less he varies his play, the sooner you can pin down his habits of play, and exploit them.

  • Think about the cards your opponent plays. Remember that when discarding you generally attempt to maximise the points in your hand by keeping combinations that make 15, or pairs. If your opponent lays an 8, chances are he has a 7 to go with it. If he plays an Ace, expect to see a 4 coming out sooner or later (and a ten-card). By the second card you should have a fair idea of the remaining two cards your opponent holds, and his strategy for this hand.

  • Your opponent will be doing the same! If you have an 'odd' card - one that is not part of a 15 or a pair - play it first, to throw your opponent off the scent and put off revealing your hand as long as possible.

More about cribbage strategy

Positional play

The next step in understanding cribbage strategy is positional play, or what is sometimes called 'board strategy'. This involves a knowledge of the average scores on each hand, and thus knowing whether you are ahead or behind the expected score at any point in the game.

For more information, see the Positional play and board strategy in cribbage page.

Your cribbage strategy tips

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Unless I'm mistaken...

... this is wrong:

Opponent: Q (10)
You: 5 (15-2)
Opponent: J (25-2)
You: 6 (31-2)

How is a Q-5-J worth 2 points?

I think you meant:

Opponent: Q (10)
You: 5 (15-2)
Opponent: J (25)
You: 6 (31-2)

Re: Unless I'm mistaken...

You're quite right, well spotted :)