Psychology of Cribbage: Bluffing and Reading Your Opponents

By Neal Taparia - 9/15/2023

Cribbage is a classic card game played all over the world, tracing back to 17th century England. Being good at counting is the key to winning at cribbage – but to beat professional players, you’ll have to understand the psychology of your opponent and convince them to play right into your hand. For pros, cribbage is more than arithmetic. It becomes a battle of wits, bluffing, and reading, trying to get into the opponent’s head. But how does psychology come into play in a game as mathematical as cribbage?

Bluffing in Cribbage: How Does it Work?

Cribbage is primarily a game of numbers – but it’s also a game of strategy. Sending mixed signals to your opponents is key to lull them into a false sense of security, and prevent them from reading your plays. For example, playing a 5 early might make your opponent think you don’t have a pair of 5s – a perfect opportunity for a bluff later in the game.

As you’ll notice when playing the game, most casual players are used to playing by established patterns and strategies, like holding onto pairs or sequences for later. You can deliberately break these patterns to catch your opponents off guard, making them question every play you make and keeping them on their toes throughout the game.

Reading Your Opponent in Cribbage

One half of cribbage psychology is keeping your plans shrouded from your opponents – the other half is reading your opponents’ plays. Remember that the cards on the table provide valuable information, but your opponent’s behavior can sometimes reveal even more.

A sudden shift in posture, avoiding eye contact, excessive fidgeting – look for indicators of stress in your opponent, which could indicate an exceptionally strong hand, but also a complete lack of cards. Learning to read your opponents takes time, and each player has different body language that you’ll have to decipher first.

How a player reacts when a new card is laid down can tell you a lot about their hand. If you see an almost imperceptible smile, they might have just found the card they needed – use this opportunity to thwart their plans and make sure they don’t score too many points.

The Mind Games of Cribbage

Cribbage is not only about scoring as many points as you can, as fast as you can – it’s also about making sure your opponents can’t develop their plays, limiting their score. Whether you receive a bad hand or a good hand is purely luck based, and you can’t influence that. What you can do, however, is make best use of what’s in your hand to create situations where your opponents second-guess their moves.

Keep your opponent on their toes and don’t stick to one strategy for too long. If your opponent never knows what to expect, they’ll have a much harder time predicting your moves, keeping your strategy safe.

Some psychological tactics involve directly influencing your opponent. Engaging in casual conversation might seem harmless, but if you can remain focused throughout and distract your opponent from the game at the same time, you’ll gain an edge. If you keep them talking, it’ll also be easier to pick up any cues and behavior changes from the way they speak.

Skill vs. Psychology in Cribbage

Psychology can play a significant role in a game of cribbage – but remember that the game’s foundation still remains in its strict rules and mathematics. Bluffing and reading are useful skills that may give you an edge, but will never replace a solid understanding of the game’s mechanics. What good are a few extra points gained by bluffing if you miss points during the count because you don’t know all the combinations?

Before trying to use psychology to influence a game of cribbage, make sure you have a good grasp of the basic rules and strategies. Familiarize yourself with all the scoring methods, and don’t expect to become a cribbage master overnight. Like any skill, reading your opponent and honing your bluffing skills require practice. Keep playing with new opponents to refine your skills and see how different people react.

There will always be a player out there who can read you better than you think you can read them – stay humble and learn from your losses, always aiming for improvement. In the end, cribbage is a game where logic meets psychology, and only mastering both can make you a professional player. Whenever you play, remember that the game is playing as much on the board, as it is in the players’ minds.