A Beginner’s Guide to Cribbage Strategy

By Neal Taparia - 8/18/2023

If you’re new to cribbage, all the rules and scoring combinations can make it tricky to build up your game strategies. Don’t worry, we’re here to help you hone your skills for this classic card game!

First Things First: Practice Counting Scores

Once you’ve mastered how to play cribbage, your next step is to get very familiar with how to score a game of cribbage.

The math is pretty simple, so you might want to jump in and play the game, but we promise it’s worth practicing. You want to get to the point where you can look at a combination of cards and automatically remember its point value. 

So, go ahead and break out a deck of cards and score some practice cribbage hands.

If you need a refresher, here’s a scoring chart:

Combination Points How it works Examples
15 2 The value of cards played = 15 pips 5+10, 6+9, 4+5+6
31 2 The value of cards played = 31 pips A+5+5+Q+K
Pair 2 A pair of cards of the same rank 9,9
Royal Pair 6 Three-of-a-kind 9,9,9
Double Royal Pair 12 Four-of-a-kind 9,9,9,9
Run of 3+ 1 per card Cards with sequential ranks 6-7-8 (Runs do not have to be in order, 8-6-7 counts as a run)
3-Card Double Run 8 A run of 3 including a pair Four cards total, e.g. 6,7,7,8 (Counts as two 3-card runs and a pair)
4-Card Double Run 10 A run of 4 including a pair Five cards total, e.g. 6,7,7,8,9 (Counts as two 4-card runs and a pair)
3-Card Triple Run 15 A run of 3 cards with three-of-a-kind Six cards total, e.g. 6,7,7,7,8 (Counts as three 3-card runs and a royal pair)
3-Card Quadruple Run, or Double Double Run 16 A run of 3 cards including 2 pairs Five cards total, e.g. 6,7,7,8,8 (Counts as four runs of 3 and 2 pairs)
Flush of 4+ 1 per card Cards of the same suit. Can only be scored during the Show. Four-card flush, e.g. 4 spades in a hand or crib = 4 points or Five-card flush, e.g. 5 spades in a hand or crib = 5 points
Nobs, or “one for his nob” 1 Jack of the same suit as the Start or top card Jack of hearts where the Start card (top card) is a heart
Nibs, or “two for his heels” 2 Jack is the Start card. 2 points go to the dealer.
Last Card 1 The last card played before someone says “Go”
Muggins ? A player calls Muggins to take the points another player forgets to claim. If a player doesn’t notice a combination of 15 by the end of their turn, their opponent may call Muggins to claim the 2 points at the beginning of his turn.

The Perfect Hand

The Perfect Hand in cribbage is worth 29 points. It’s made up of four 5s and a Jack in the same suit as the starter card. The odds of getting a perfect hand are extremely low, but it is possible!

Ok. Now that we’ve gone over the scoring rules, let’s dive into some strategy.

What is a cribbage strategy for beginners? Beginner cribbage players will want to devise strategies for both the crib and the play.

We’ll go over a few different tactics for each element.

What is the 26 theory in cribbage?

The Twenty-Six Theory was developed in 2002 by DeLynn Colvert, a tournament cribbage player. DeLynn found that by playing certain combinations of cards as the dealer and non-dealer during certain rounds, he could increase his winning average by 6% overall.

It’s a pretty complex system of play, but it certainly worked well for Mr. Colvert, a well-known cribbage champion!
You can read all about the 26 theory here

Crib Strategies

Stacking the crib to your advantage is crucial. Here are some basic strategies for making the crib work for you.

1. Give away your least valuable cards.

This takes some thought. When you’re a non-dealer, place higher-value cards such as kings or queens in the crib, as these are more difficult to score points. In general, avoid giving away any 2 cards that make up a scoring combination.

2. Don’t wreck a good hand to prevent a good crib.

When you’re the pone, it’s not always worth playing defense. It’s not worth sacrificing a good hand to prevent your opponent’s crib from scoring.

3. If it’s your crib, feel free to contribute good cards.

When you’re discarding into your own crib, it doesn’t always hurt to stow a 15 combo or a run in there for safekeeping.

4. Keep runs

Runs score a lot of points, especially if your opponent can contribute during play. Hang onto them.

5. Stop worrying about the crib at 116 points

When a player reaches this point, the end of the game is near. It's not worth worrying about the crib, so keep the best cards in your hand. Odds are, you'll peg up and win the game before the show on this round.

What are the best cards to discard in cribbage? The best cards to discard depend on whether you’re the dealer or the pone. If you’re the dealer, try to discard face cards and 5s. If you’re the pone, you should discard cards that can’t be played together for a scoring combination.

Play Strategies

There are loads of strategies you can use during gameplay. How you play will depend on your preferences. Here are some of our best cribbage strategy tips for the play phase.

1. Lead with a pair

If you have a pair in your hand, lead with it. This will automatically give you points during play. If your opponent has a matching card and plays it to make a pair, you’ll get even more points when you play your second card.

What is the best card to lead in cribbage? The best card to lead in cribbage depends on your strategy. Leading with a 4 is a great way to prevent a 15 count combination. Leading with a pair can help you score points early.

2. Play your opponent, not your hand

It can take time and practice to learn to bait other players. Still, if you can pick up on how your opponent plays, you can take advantage of their strategies. For example, if they like to build runs during play, you can plan your moves to play the last card in a run and get maximum points.

3. Be careful with your 5s

Play your 5s with caution. If the other player has a face card, playing a 5 could mean instant extra points for them. It’s safe to play a 5 when adding it to the card count puts the running total over 21. That way, your opponent can only play low cards and won’t score for a 15.

Some cribbage players think otherwise, saying you should play 5s early on and risk it. Again, this comes down to preference and how you want to score points.

4. Avoid counts of 21.

If possible, you should avoid counts of 21. Placing a card and leaving the total value of 21 opens up a move for your opponent to place a face card to achieve 31, awarding them a further 2 points.

5. Start with low cards.

Many players like to start a game with a low card. You should definitely avoid starting with a face card, as this may encourage the other player to place a 5 to score 2 points. 

On the other hand, keeping low cards to the end of your hand also opens up more opportunities to play without saying “go.” Aces are great to keep around if you want to force your opponent to “go.”

Now that you have some beginner strategies, why not play a game of cribbage online?