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)

Cribbage strategy: replying to the lead

As there are so few cards played in a hand of cribbage, strategy is important with each play. Your choice of reply to the opponent's lead can be critical.

  • Never play a 6 to a led 4, or vice versa. This leads to a nasty sting as your opponent slaps down a 5, for five points (4-6-5 run and 15). It is a common mistake in cribbage strategy to set up runs for your opponent. Unless you've got a plan up your sleeve, of course...

  • Get rid of your higher cards first, as they will be a liability when the count approaches 31. Save Aces - they are your emergency escape strategy to turn a point-losing 30 into a 2-point-winning 31 (but get rid of lone aces - see below).

  • Do not pair your opponent's card unless you also hold another of the same card in reserve. For example, if your opponent plays a 4, you should not reply with a 4 if it is the only 4 you hold - because your opponent is quite likely to have another 4 herself (making a pair royal for 6 points). Conversely, you should encourage your opponent to pair your card when you yourself hold a pair. The chances of her holding the fourth card to make double pair royal (12 points) are minimal.

  • When holding two cards that together make 5 (for example 4 and Ace), lead one of them. Your opponent is likely to play a 10 onto it, enabling you to make 15.

  • Watch for runs! Don't play a card with a value 1 or 2 away from your opponent's card - for example a 9 on a 7 - as he is likely to complete the run. The exception, of course, is when you hold the necessary card to extend the run yourself and top your opponent's points. Beware of 'banging your head' on 31, though - calculate beforehand whether you will be able to play onto the run without going over 31.

Go to the main cribbage strategy page

Leading strategy

Basic lead strategy in cribbage

  • If in doubt, lead a 4. This is the highest card on which the opponent cannot immediately make 15. Lower cards are best kept for later.

  • Remember that ten-cards in cribbage far outnumber any others in the pack. Thus, your opponent is quite likely to have one or more 10s. Consequently, do not lead a 5, or make 21. Naturally enough, 10s are often accompanied by 5s. Beware of making 26.

  • Conversely, making 11 is generally a good move, providing of course you hold the necessary ten-card to follow up your opponent's.

Planet Cribbage

The things you learn on Twitter! Cribbage fiend and tournament player Chris Parsons has a great blog all about cribbage, called Planet Cribbage! Chris writes on cribbage strategy and has some great tips, for beginners and advanced players alike.

I particularly liked the article Three Levels of Thinking in Cribbage, where Chris explains how thinking deeper into the game and thinking a level above your opponent can really improve your results.

For advanced players, also check out Cribbage Tells: Five Ways Your Opponents Reveal Their Hand - how to work out what's in your opponent's hand from their mannerisms and the cards they play. If you can master this psychological level of cribbage (and hide your own tells) you'll definitely be a better cribbage player!

Cribbage rules - the discard

(Previous section: Cribbage rules - the basics)

Following the cut, each player throws away two cards from his hand into the 'crib' or 'box' - a third hand that is scored by the dealer. The rules of cribbage differ in this respect from its predecessor, Noddy (see the cribbage origins page for more details). This phase of cribbage is called the discard. Since the crib scores points for its owner, your choice of discard will generally be different depending on whether the crib is yours or your opponent's. However, you must throw two cards; it is against the rules to discard none or only one.

It is no exaggeration to say that the discard is the part of cribbage where skill and knowledge has the greatest effect on the outcome of the game. Whole books can be, and have been written, on the art of cribbage discards. A great site to practice your discards is The Daily Cribbage Hand, which has a sample hand for you to consider and then compare your choice of discard against other users, and discuss the different choices.

There are rules of thumb about the discard, and you can find some of these on the Discards section of Cribbage Corner. However, the choice of cards to throw is entirely free and not mandated by the cribbage rules.

Continue to Cribbage rules - the turn-up.

The discard

Cribbage rules and cribbage strategy make the discard one of the key elements of skill in cribbage. You must try to maximise the remaining points in your hand, while leaving yourself useful cards to play in different tactical situations during the pegging, and without giving your opponent cards which may help her in the crib. When discarding to your own crib, you will be trying to anticipate what kind of cards your opponent is likely to give you, and discard cards which will work with them to create big scores in the crib.

Cribbage discard hints

Here are some simple hints to help you get started with your cribbage discards:

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.

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