How to Win at Cribbage

General Guidance

Get Lucky

Nothing beats luck.  The cards that are dealt and the card that is turned are random.  When those fall in a player’s favor, they can become almost unbeatable.  This realism is immutable.  While you’re not going to change it, some of the tips below may help simulate some luck.

Deal First

The dealer gets the first crib.  If a game has an even number of hands, the advantage of the first crib is neutralized.  Both players will receive the same number of cribs.  However, if there are an odd number of hands, the player that has the first crib will have an additional crib.  According to game colony, the average crib size is 4.65 points.  This is the odd-hands advantage.  I don’t recall where I read it, but I once saw that the player with the first crib wins about 60% of the time.

Generally, the first deal is random.  It’s determined by cutting the cards.  Low card deals.  We’ve always used the rule loser of the previous game deals.  This tends to make games more competitive among opponents of unequal ability.

Count your Points

Those of us that tend to be more competitive enjoy a good “muggings.”  When pegging or scoring a hand or crib, failure to tally all the points will draw a “muggings” from your opponent.  The underscored points will go to your opponent.  For example, if you’re holding a hand with 12 points and you peg 10 of those points, the remaining 2 points can be pegged by your opponent.  The net result is a 4 point swing.  You are shy two point and your opponent has an extra two.

Some people don’t play with the “muggings” rule.  In this case you are still shy two points.  The bottom line is count your points or risk losing.

Conservative vs. Aggressive

Generally speaking, a conservative style of play that holds and plays cards to maximize the statistical odds of increasing the average hand size will beat an aggressive style.  Luck can be a mean companion.  Sometimes you’ll find yourself way behind.  If you find yourself needing to catch up in hurry, it may be wise to ignore the statistical average hand size and focus on maximizing the probability for a large hand that has the potential to catch up.  In the long term, focusing on the large hands is a losing strategy.  But, you’re only playing one game and losing is losing.  You just as well play the long shot and given yourself a chance.

Discarding to the Crib

Fives in the Crib

When in doubt, throw a 5 in your crib and avoid throwing them into your opponent’s.

A cribbage hand has six cards.  If one of those cards is a 5, there are 2,349,060 possible hands.  All of those hands will tally at least 2 points.  Eliminating all hands that contain pairs, runs, tens, jacks, queens, and kings limits the numeric combinations to only 21.  Suits are unimportant for this analysis.  Below are the remaining combinations with a two point score highlighted.


Related to this is discarding cards that add to 5 (1-4 and 2-3).  Just shy of a third of the cards in the deck have a value of 10.  Hence, the probability of turning or having a player discard a 10 point card is high.  These combine well with cards adding to five.  

Sequences in the Crib

Discarding adjacent cards to the crib improves the odds of scoring a run.  If both sides of the sequence are open – not an Ace or King, about 15% of the cards in the deck will convert the discard into at least three points.  With three additional cards going into the crib, that makes the probability of a run a little better than 60%.  Of course, this analysis doesn’t account for the non-dealer attempting to choose cards that are unlikely to contribute.

Points in the Crib

For the dealer, the crib can be a convenient way to preserve points during the discard.  Tossing a pair or cards adding to 15 allows the dealer to shift points from their hand to the crib without losing them completely in the discard.  For obvious reasons, the nondealer should avoid discarding scoring cards.


Watch for Leading Traps

When pegging, players will often try to bait their opponent into pegging traps.  Three pairs is a common one.  For example, player #1 may lead a 6 hoping that player #2 will also play a 6 and claim two points for a pair.  Player #1 will then play a third 6 claiming six points for three pairs.  Player #1 comes out 4 points ahead unless player #2 holds the fourth six.

Another example is runs.  Player #1 may lead a seven hoping that their opponent will follow with an eight taking two points for the 15.  Player #1 will then response with a nine and claim 3 points for the run.  Player #1 walks away with a one point advantage.

Lead a 4

The opponents scoring opportunities can be limited by leading a 4.  Only 3 cards in the deck can score points off it because a 15 is not possible.  This is also true of the Ace through 3.  However, it is generally best to save these cards to gain a last card when the count gets close to 31.

Avoid 5 and 21 Counts

Ten, Jack, Queen and King are all worth 10 points.  That’s just shy of 1/3 of the deck making it likely your opponent is holding a 10 point card.  Leading a to a 5 or 21 count, therefore, has an increased likelihood of allowing your opponent to score on a 15 or 31.

A corollary to this is to lead to an 11 count.  The idea is to catch your opponent with only 10 point cards in their hand creating a 31 response on your part.

Be Situationally Aware

You may find yourself in a circumstance near the end of game where you really need to peg a few points to get out.  For example, if you have 10 points to go out and only have 8 in your hand.  It may be imperative to peg 2 points because if your opponent is allowed to count their hand, the game could be over before you get another chance.  In this situation, the number of points your opponent scores may be secondary to your getting those extra couple points.  This can reverse the strategy on some of the above tips.

Avoid leading Jacks

Jacks are the second most common card to be held.  Fives are more common.  Leading the Jack runs a risk of setting your opponent up for a pair.  It can also be helpful to play the jacks when the point score would be above 21.  That way your opponent won’t be able to score the pair.

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