The History of Cribbage

The storied history of cribbage is a legendary tale that is subject to variation, depending on who you are asking. Ask a Nantucket Islander, and they will stand firm that cribbage was invented on the whaling ships by their ancestors. However, inquire with a Brit, and the card game was imported from Britain to the colonies, straight from the mind of Sir John Suckling in the early 1600s.

wooden cribbage board

The inventor, himself, adds intrigue to the legend of cribbage. A soldier, poet, and ne’er-do-well, Sir John was known as a bit of a rogue in social circles. He made tremendous amounts of money through gambling and was widely known as a cheater on a massive scale. As the story goes, Sir John sent packs of marked playing cards to many of his wealthy friends and then traveled to visit them, “winning” thousands of dollars from those he had gifted with trick decks.

The Details of Cribbage Play

While poker is a game of complete and immediate reversal of fortune, cribbage is a game of strategy and subtlety (skill and luck?). Cribbage scoring is done by one or two points at a time, allowing for incremental advances – more like a conversation than combat.

Cribbage was born as the popularity of its distant ancestor “Noddy” was cooling off. While noddy utilized cards and points, the wood cribbage board became the pivotal difference in cribbage scoring and its subsequent uprisal in the gaming world. The number of players has remained unchanged, and cribbage scoring surpassed a maximum of 31 points and soared to 121 with the introduction of the wood cribbage board.

What Has Not Changed About Cribbage?

two people playing cribbage outside by the pool with one person showing their hand

Cribbage made its debut in the early 1600s as a card game enhanced with a wood cribbage board for the purposes of scoring cribbage matches. In Noddy, points were assessed after many cards were counted, whereas cribbage scoring has always included each card as points.

The fact that cribbage has few rules, but endless strategic subtleties, is only one thing that has not changed since its creation. Other details that have not changed include:

Unchanged Cribbage Standards

  • Two to four players can play at a time
  • A standard deck of cards
  • Wood cribbage board 

Common Phrases Used in Cribbage

The order of the game has remained unchanged as well, consisting of a “deal,” the “play,” and the “show.” The deal starts the hand by handing each player six cards. The play consists of each player revealing cards in certain combinations and adding up the face value of cards, “pegging” points. The show is the final phase, allowing each player to show their hand and complete cribbage scoring on their wood cribbage board based on their cards, revealing sums of fifteen, runs, flushes, and pairs.

Other Popular Phrases in Cribbage

  • Pone – short for opponent (the player who is not the dealer)
  • Crib/box/kitty – extra hand made of discarded cards, points for the dealer
  • Muggins – points stolen due to an opponent not counting them
  • One for his nob – one point for holding the jack of the same suit as the cut card
  • Two for his heels – two points scored for turning a jack on the starter or cut card

Wood Cribbage Boards in History

Block Island Wooden Cribbage Board

Wood cribbage boards have long been partnered with the game’s popularity. The boards range from functional to incredible works of art. The Inupiaq people of Alaska would carve cribbage boards from walrus tusks or ox bones to trade with the colonists. High-quality wood cribbage boards are featured in museum exhibits and art auctions across the world.

Wood cribbage boards are also displayed in a prestigious place in maritime history. For example, the wardroom of the oldest active submarine in the United States Pacific Fleet carries the personal wood cribbage board of World War II submarine commander and Medal of Honor recipient, Rear Admiral Dick O’Kane. When that boat is decommissioned, the wood cribbage board will be transferred to the next oldest boat in the fleet. 

Where is Cribbage Popular?

Cribbage remains popular throughout the Northern United States, with over 10 million players spanning from New England to the Pacific Ocean. The American Cribbage Congress seeks to connect cribbage players from all over the United States to offer opportunities to play both in-person and online. The organization adheres to the long-standing rules of the game and encourages all grassroots chapters to do the same, honoring the traditions of cribbage scoring over hundreds of years.

Cribbage is Popular Worldwide

  • England
  • Canada
  • Northern United States

Pack Your Wood Cribbage Board

Outside of the United States, cribbage remains incredibly popular. When traveling to the United Kingdom, pack your travel-size wood cribbage board – cribbage is one of the only games allowed in pubs without a gambling permit. Shuffle up and deal! Most landlords keep a standard deck of cards tucked behind the bar for just an occasion.

    United Kingdom Cribbage Board

    Although its beginnings may be sketchy, the history of cribbage is one of civility and friendly competition. Many families have taught their children to count on their wood cribbage board, and many friendships have been celebrated while enjoying an evening of gaming. Travel has been commemorated by gifting nautical cribbage boards, and home décor has been enhanced by the artistic, high-quality designs available today.

    No matter your feelings about card games, wood cribbage boards, or the hand-crafted designs that are sweeping cribbage clubs worldwide, are still popular today. There is no denying that the game has influenced the pastime of many people. From Rear Admirals of submarines preparing for battle to friends gathering for a night of cards at the local pub, cribbage has been a constant companion. Few obsessions have changed so little in the face of constant change in the world at large.

    Possibly most to its credit, cribbage has survived the meteoric rise of technology and electronic devices. For every child handed a handheld device, one could argue many generations before them joined with family around their wood cribbage board, scoring cribbage games and building strong family connections. May cribbage enjoy another 400 years of bringing people together!

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