Strategy Tips

1. The trouble with cribbage . . .
. . . is that making the right play doesn't guarantee victory. Rarely do you make a spectacular play to save two holes, and actually win by two holes. However, at the 1991 National Open, I trailed 3-2 in a best-of-seven match against Frank O'Conner. Frank needed nine holes, and I was 38 holes out. I saved 4-4-5-6, and the cut was a 4, giving me 21 points. Frank led a 10, and I refused the 15-2, playing my 6. I was a mile from home, but my first priority was to keep him from going out. He played a jack, and I scored 31-2 with my 5.
It's worth noting that this play could have backfired. If Frank had been holding 10-J-Q-K, and I had missed winning by two points next hand, I'd have been kicking myself. In cribbage, the right play can win the game, lose the game, or have no effect. It all depends on opponent's cards.
On this particular hand, Frank's last two cards were a 9 and a 5, so I scored another Go. His hand was 5-9-10-J, worth 7 points. He did have a 5, so if I had scored the 15-2, he would have paired me and won. Instead I got to count my 21 points. My crib, alas, was blank, so I had to come up with 14 points on the next hand, while holding Frank to one hole in pegging.
I picked up 3-4-4-5-8-K, and kept a flush, 3-4-5-8 of spades. This works out better than 3-4-4-5 on most cuts, and the 8 gave me more options in the pegging. The cut was the 7 of spades, so I didn't need to peg anything. I led out with the 4, the card dealer was least likely to be able to peg on. He played a 3.
I certainly wasn't about to play the 5 on that, as Frank was inviting me to do. The 8 was the play with the better odds, but again, it was a play that would have backfired if Frank had an 8, and would have been unable to peg on my 3. Frank played a face card, and I scored a Go at 30 with my 5. He scored only the final Go, and I tied the match.
Our seventh game was another close one. In the end, I had enough to go out, but needed to keep Frank from pegging five holes. So what happens? I cut him a jack, and he pairs one of my cards, and wins with his guaranteed Go. So next time you see Frank, give him a good swift kick for me.

2. Expect opponent to have faces and 5's
Opponent deals, and you save A-6-7-8. The play proceeds as follows:
 You                 Opponent
  8                   K (18)
  7 (25)              5 (30)
  A (31-2)            J
  6 (16)              Q (26-1)

Opponent deals and you save 2-6-7-8
 You                 Opponent
  8                   K (18)
  6 (24)              5 (29)
  2 (31-2)            J
  7 (17)              Q (27-1)
Note the difference in the two hands. Guessing that your opponent had face cards and a 5, you arranged to score 31-2 each time. 

 You        Opponent
  8         K (18)
You hold 6-7-8-8. Don't play the other 8, making the count 26. Opponent is more likely to have a 5 than a 6 with that king.
In this next example, opponent need 11 holes to avoid a skunk. You hold 3-4-5-7, and the cut is an 8.
Opponent            You
 Q                  7! (17)
 J (27)             4 (31-2)
 K                  3! (13)
 5 (18)             5 (23-3)
Take either opportunity to score 15-2, and opponent escapes.
Finally, when holding two cards that could form a run with opponent's 5 (3-4, 4-6, or 6-7), try to hang on to those cards till the end. Opponent often won't release his 5 early, hoping he can use it to score 15-2:
Opponent            You
  Q                 8 (18)
  J (28)            2 (30-1)
  K                 7 (17)
  5 (22)            6 (28-4)
Opponent could have jettisoned his 5 on your 8, but chose not to. His loss is your gain. 

3. Guessing Opponent's Cards
It's a good idea, as opponent's cards come down, to guess at what he has left. After seeing three of his cards, if you can guess his fourth, you might save a couple holes. Suppose you hold A-4-K-K.
Opponent          You
  9               K (19)
  9 (28)          A (29)
  A (30-3)        ?
You would now play the 4, not the King. It appears opponent's last card might be a 5. If it is, he pegs two fewer holes if you play the 4. But if the play had gone:
Opponent          You
  9               K (19)
  9 (28)          A (29)
  2 (31-2)        ?
Now you would play the King, not the 4. This time it appears opponent's last card might be a 4.
This strategy may be employed after seeing only two of opponent's cards. If you've seen an 8 and a 4, you might guess there's a 3 over there. If you've seen a Queen and a 3, opponent may well have a deuce. But correctly guessing opponent's cards does you no good if you fail to properly use the information, as shown in the following hands:
 You (2-6-7-8)    Dealer
   8              7 (15-2)
   6 (21-3)       9 (30-5)

It appears Dealer might have an 8. So you decide to play your deuce rather than your 7. Opponent plays an 8 on your deuce! He did have an 8. You guessed right. Unfortunately, when you play your 7 on his 8, he scores a 3-card run with his 6 (or 9). You'd have been better off giving up the 15-2 and breaking up the run with your deuce.
You (4-J-Q-K)     Dealer
   Q              5 (15-2)
   K (25)         6 (31-2)
It appears dealer might have a 4 or a 7. The 7 wouldn't bother you, but you don't want to play the 4 if he has a 4. Or do you? You do if he has two 4's, or 5-5-6-6, or 3-5-6-6. Playing the 4 could prove costly.
If you're going to guess opponent's cards, make sure you guess all of them!

4. Exceptions to the Rule
A pegging strategy which even new players latch onto quickly is that of playing the highest card possible when the count is approaching 31, thereby increasing the chances of scoring a Go.
Opponent          You
   Q              5 (15-2)
   5 (20-2)       ?
Your hand is 5-8-9-10.  Your best play at this point is the 10.  Opponent can score two points with an ace, but nothing with a 2 or a 3.  Play the 9, and she scores with a 2 or a pair of aces.  Play the 8 and she scores with any small card. This is common sense.  There are, however, exceptions to the "rule" of playing as close to 31 as possible.  Less experienced players might overlook these exceptions:
a. If it appears likely you can peg more holes by playing a lower card, do it.
Opponent          You
  Q               5 (15-2)
  K (25)          ?
Your hand is 3-3-4-5.  Play the 4 and you'll probably score two Go's.  Play a 3, and you'll probably score 31 for 4.  True, this backfires if opponent has a 3, but trust me, that's unlikely.
Opponent          You
  Q               5 (15-2)
  Q (25)          ?
Your hand is 3-4-5-5.  If you play your second 5 now, you've lost the chance to score a second 15-2 with it.  Play the 4, and hope opponent says "Go," and plays another 10-card.
b. Don't give up 31-4.  This is the most obvious exception.  Don't make the count 27 with a 4, when you can make it 26 with a 3 (unless you have a second 4, as in the example above).
c. Don't give opponent the chance to score big all by himself.
Opponent          You
  8               Q (18)
  6 (24)          ?
Your hand is 3-4-5-Q.  Play the 5, and opponent scores four points with a pair of aces.  Play the 3, and he scores 30-4 with an ace and a 2.  Play the 4, and he can do less damage.
d. Don't let opponent peg with a card he "apparently" has.
Opponent          You
  4               8 (12)
  K (22)          ?
Your hand is 6-7-8-8.  It "appears" opponent might have an ace.  He might even have two aces.  So don't make the count 30 or 29.  Make it 28--you know he doesn't have a 3.

5. Leading from an 11-Combination
Most players are aware of the advantage of holding two cards that total 11 as dealer. If opponent plays face cards, dealer can score 31-2 by playing from his 11-combination:
   4-7 Combination          2-9 Combination
    Opponent   You           Opponent   You
      Q        7 (17)         10        2 (12)
      Q (27)   4 (31-2)        J (22)   9 (31-2)
There is a related strategy that can be used by the non-dealer, and that is to lead from three cards that total 11. Holding A-A-5-9, non-dealer notices that he holds a three-card 11-combo. He leads an Ace (or the 9) If dealer plays a ten-card, non-dealer follows through by playing another card from his 11-combo (not the 5). This leads to 31-2 if dealer plays a second ten-card. Here are a couple more examples:

2-3-6 Combination        3-4-4 Combination
You      Opponent        You     Opponent
 3        10 (13)         4       K (14)
 2 (15-2)  Q (25)         4 (18)  J (28)
 6 (31-2)                 3 (31-2)
The 2-3-6 combination would probably play out this way whether you noticed your 11-combination or not. The strategy may lie in having saved the combination at all. Your hand may have been 2-3-4-6-9-K. The decision of whether to toss dealer K-6 or K-9 was made by alertly noticing and saving the 3-card 11-combo.
In the 3-4-4 combination, your 4th card could be anything. If you're lucky, it's a 2, 5, or 8. The important point is to resist any temptation to play that 4th card on dealer's King (unless you can peg with it), and to keep playing from the 11-combo.
With 16 ten-cards in the deck, your opponent will often have a few. By saving and leading from 3-card 11-combinations, you can occasionally take advantage of this fact.

6. Opening Lead Priorities.

To speed up play and thus keep from annoying your opponent, it helps to have a system of priorities when making an opening lead.
Assume no one is close to going out, and you must make the opening lead. Your order of priorities should be similar to the following
  • If you have a 2-3 or an Ace-4 combination, lead from it. This leads to a 15-2 if dealer plays a face card. And dealer will often play a face card.
  • If you have a 4-7 or a 3-9 combination, lead the lower card. This allows you to score a safe 15-2 if opponent pairs your lead.
  • Lead from three of a kind. This allows you to triple without danger, if opponent pairs.
  • Lead from a pair, hoping to triple. It is safest if your pair is higher than 7's, so that there is no danger if dealer also has a pair.
  • With a 6-9 combination, lead the 6. If opponent scores 15-2, you can pair safely.
  • With a 3-6 or Ace-7 combo, lead the higher card. You score 15-2 if opponent pairs.
  • Lead a face card from F-5, or lead from 7-8. You can pair if opponent scores 15-2.
  • Lead a low card, knowing dealer can't score 15-2, and hoping she doesn't pair.
When the game comes down to a pegging duel on the last hand, your priorities change. When trying to prevent dealer from pegging, lead the card she's least likely to peg on. This is easy enough to determine. Add the number of cards she might be holding that can pair you to the number of cards she might be holding that can score 15-2. Do this for each of your cards, and lead the card that yields the lowest total. Almost always this will be a low card if you have one. Preferably, you'll have a pair of some low card, or the cut will match one of your low cards.
If dealer needs to peg several holes, lead a card that is close in rank to another of your cards. Leave yourself with a diverse group of cards, reducing the chances you'll get trapped into a disastrous run. For instance, holding 2-6-7-8, with dealer four holes from victory, don't lead the 2. If dealer plays a 6, 7, or 8 on that, you're in danger no matter what you do. By leading the 7, you leave yourself with at least one safe choice for your next play.

When trying, on the last hand, to peg several holes yourself, don't expect any help from the dealer. Leading the 4 from 4-7 or 4-4 may seem like a means to two or six points, but opponent is unlikely to pair your 4, for fear that you have a second 4. In endgame situations, your best bet for pegging several holes is often to hold onto your pair or touching cards, hoping dealer will be forced to give you a run or a triple at the end of the play. Here's an example:

                            You            Dealer
              9               Q (19)
              3 (22)          5 (27)
             Go               4 (31-5)
              J               J (20-2)
              J (30-7)

Both you and dealer need nine holes. You were hoping to cut a 10, but the cut of an Ace has left you with a miserable two-point hand. Dealer is almost certain to go out unless you can somehow peg seven holes. You could lead a Jack, hoping she'll pair it, but unless she's holding something like 10-J-J-Q, she's not even going to consider pairing that Jack. Knowing this, you try holding the Jacks, and you get lucky for once. Dealer is forced to pair when you finally do play a Jack, and you pull out a seemingly lost game.


7. Think it through.
Sometimes, halfway through the play of the hand, the dealer will find himself holding three cards, while his opponent holds only one. If dealer has a pair, it is tempting to lead from that pair, hoping opponent's last card will match the pair, giving dealer six points for tripling, plus two Go's. Here's an example: 
Opponent            Dealer
8                   Q (18)
6 (24)             Go
7 (31-2)            ?
Dealer's last three cards are 10-10-J. Dealer realizes that if oppponent's last card is a Jack, it is best to play a 10. And if opponent's last card is a 10, it is still best to play a 10, as opponent will be forced to pair. So dealer plays a 10. 

If dealer had thought a bit longer, he would have realized that there is one card opponent might be holding that would make playing the Jack advantageous. What is that card? 
That's right, an Ace. If opponent has an Ace dealer can score 31-4 by playing the Jack first, and saving the 10's. And while opponent's last card could be anything, it seems more likely he saved an Ace with that 6-7-8 than a 10 or a Jack, simply because an Ace improves the hand.
Here's another example. As dealer you hold 8-9-10-10.
Opponent            Dealer
J                            8 (18)
J (28)                    Go
3 (31-2)                  ?
Your first thought is to play a 10, because if opponent is forced to pair, you'll peg eight holes. The 10 also works out better if opponent has a 6 or a 9. But my money is on opponent having a Deuce, in which case the 9 is the better play, as you'll score 31-4 with your 10's. And the 9 is also better if opponent has a 5.
Holding three cards (including a pair) to opponent's one, weigh the slim chance of opponent matching your pair against the possibility that opponent's card is low-so low that you can play your pair after he plays his card. If he's unlikely to have a low card, go for the triple. But if the low card seems a reasonable possibility, hang onto your pair in hopes of playing them consecutively.

8. Note the Cards Opponent Doesn't Have.

Watching your opponent's cards during the play is a good strategy. Often you can base a key decision on an educated guess about her holding. For instance, opponent has played two Kings and a 4 , and you must now lead either a 7 or an Ace. You obviously choose the 7. Opponent is more likely to be holding an Ace than a 7 or 8, because she tried to save points, and an Ace would improve what you can see of her hand. 
Don't get carried away with this strategy. Your decision is seldom so clear cut. In fact, in most cases, when trying to determine your opponent's remaining card or cards, there will be several strong possibilities and several fairly reasonable possibilities. If opponent has shown up with a 5, 6, and 7, her fourth card could easily be any card in the deck, with the exception of an Ace (which would add nothing to her hand).

In short, figuring out what your opponent has is strictly guesswork. But there is a closely related strategy that involves very little guesswork: figuring out what your opponent doesn't have. Say you hold 5-9-10-J. You lead the 10 and your opponent plays a 7. You should now play your 9, making the count 26. Why? Because if your opponent had the 5 needed for 31, she presumably would have used it to score 15-2.

Here's another example. Holding 3-8-10-10, you lead a 10. Your opponent plays a King; you play your 8 (28); and she plays a 2 (30 and a go). You note that opponent has played a King and a 2. It looks like she might have a 3 to go along with those two cards, so you start to play your 10. But wait. If opponent had a 3, surely she would have played it back when the count was 28. So the 3 is your safest play.

Whenever your opponent fails to peg, make a mental note of the card she obviously does not have and use this information to your advantage.
9. Sharpen Your Discarding Skills.

Here's a quiz for beginners and intermediate players. All of you experts can take it as well, but shame on you if you miss one.

It's early in the game and your opponent's crib. Which two cards do you toss from each of the following hands? In no case do you have four cards of the same suit.

1.   A-2-2-3-3-7
2.   6-7-8-8-9-K
3.   6-7-8-8-9-10
4.   A-2-2-6-7-7
5.   4-4-5-6-6-J
6.   3-6-6-6-6-9
7.   A-2-3-6-8-10
8.   4-5-6-J-Q-K
9.   2-3-4-10-J-Q
10.  5-7-8-J-Q-K

1. A-2-3-3 will prove best if the cut is a 6 or a 9, but A-2-2-3 is best if any ten-card is cut. Toss 3-7.
2. Toss 9-K, so that your hand will improve on the cut of an A or a 2.
3. Toss 6-10. An Ace or 2 would not improve your hand enough to outweigh the danger of tossing 9-10 into dealer's crib.
4. A-2 is not much more dangerous than A-7, and if an 8 comes up, you'll be kicking yourself if you didn't save 2-6-6-7. Toss A-2.
5. Keeping the 4's helps if the cut is an A, 2 or 7. Keeping the 6's helps if the cut is a 3 or a 9. Toss 6-J.
6. No matter what the cut, you can't score higher than by keeping the four 6's. Toss 3-9.
7. I say toss the 6-10. A-2-3-8 is guaranteed to improve with the cut. Tossing 6-8 is acceptable if you're keeping an excellent hand, but this hand isn't worth the risk.
8. 4-5-6-J beats 5-J-Q-K only if the cut is a 4 or a 6. Toss 4-6.
9. If I had a strong preference for giving my opponent 4-Q over 10-Q, I'd do it. But I don't. So I'll keep the cards that will give me the better hand on most cuts and toss the 10-Q.
10. You wouldn't seriously consider keeping only four points? Toss 7-8 and cut a face card.

10. Learn from Your Mistakes. 
You undoubtedly know the importance of learning from your mistakes.  It's how you grow into a better person over the course of your life.  But when it comes to cribbage, learning from your mistakes can be expensive.  Here's an opportunity to do something better: to learn from my mistakes.  

a. Needing a dozen points to go out, with first count, in a crucial tournament game, I was once dealt 2-3-4-8-10-J. I kept 2-3-4-10, probably the best play earlier in the game, but not here.  My holding wins if a 2 or a 3 is cut, true, but I should have kept 2-3-4-8, which wins on a 2, 3 or 4 cut. Needless to say, the cut was a 4, I pegged nothing, and dealer went out without even needing to count his crib.

b. Needing only three holes to win a game, with first count, I was dealt A-3-8-J-J-Q. Obviously, I saved J-J, but which two cards should I save with them?   I chose A-3.  This added a 2 and a 4 to my possible winning cuts.  Had I saved A-8, I would have added a 4, 6, or 7 to my winning cuts.  Saving 3-8 would have added 2, 4, or 7.  Saving the Queen with any other card would have added 10, K, and another card.  In short, I saved the worst possible two cards.  Of course, the cut was a 6 (not even a 6 that matched one of my Jacks) and I pegged nothing. Had I saved the A-8-J-J, I'd have been a lot happier.

c. I need 11 holes; dealer needs 9. I save 5-9-10-J. I have first count and I feel great, because I don't even need a cut. I feel even better when the cut isn't a Jack. I lead my 10 and dealer scores 15-2. I play the Jack, and she gets a go with a 4. Now I play my 9, and she scores another 15-2 with a 6!   (I'm surprised to find she has a 6, as she didn't play it when the count was 25.)  My 5 makes the count 20, and she has a 7 for a run of three plus a go. She pegs out. Stunned, I toss my lucky pegs into the nearest trash receptacle.

10  5 (15-2)  J  4 (29-1)    9  6 (15-2)  5  7 (27-4)

But, of course, it wasn't bad luck that cost me the game.  Nor was it dealer's brilliant play of holding onto 6-7 in hopes of scoring a run (though she certainly deserves praise).  It was my own fault.  Holding 5-9, with dealer needing to peg six more holes, I should have led the 5. There are no two cards in the deck that would allow her to peg six holes, had I led the 5. By playing the 9, I allowed her to win if she held 6-7 or 6-4.

You'll probably say that these mistakes are forgivable given the pressure and time constraints of tournament cribbage, and you may be right. But what would be unforgivable would be for me to encounter the same hands in the same situations and make the same mistakes. It's not a bad idea to keep a mental or even written notebook in which you file away the mistakes you make. The same hands, situations and decisions do come up over and over, and if you learn from your mistakes, your game will continue to improve.