Understanding the Mathematics Behind Cribbage

By Neal Taparia - 10/18/2023

Cribbage is a game of combinations. One of the main tasks of each player is to select four cards from their hand that, in combination with the starter card, will yield the best scoring possibilities. Consequently, understanding the probabilities of certain card combinations can definitely improve your strategy.

Let’s take a look:

  • Pairs: In total, there are 13 unique card values in each deck. If you hold one of these cards, there are 3 remaining in the deck. So, if the turn card is yet to be revealed, the probability of it matching one of yours is 3/46 (since the 5 cards in players’ hands are already revealed).
  • Fifteens: Any card combination that sums up to 15 earns points. Cards numbered 2 to 10 are worth their face value, while face cards are worth 10 and aces are worth 1. Because of this, some numbers have higher probabilities of making 15; for instance, holding a 5 creates the highest possibility of creating a 15, but any 10-value cards (10, J, Q, K) will also be useful.
  • Runs: These are sequences of 3 or more cards. As there are only four of each value in a deck, calculating the odds of achieving a run requires considering the remaining number of each card in the deck and the sequences you’re hoping to create.

Now, familiarize yourself with some fun probabilities in cribbage that can help you create a winning strategy:

  • The likelihood of being dealt a pair in an initial 6-card hand is roughly 28%.
  • The odds of getting a 15 in your initial hand are around 50%.
  • For a 5-card flush (all 5 cards, including the starter, of the same suit), the odds are quite low, at 0.18%. For a 4-card flush, the chances increase to about 4.9%.
  • With any single card in hand, the chance that the starter card will form a pair with it is around 6.5%.
  • Holding a 5 increases the chance of making a 15 since there are 16 cards in the deck (10, J, Q, and K of each suit) that can pair with a 5. This gives a 34.8% chance, with a single 5 in hand, that the starter card will form a 15.
  • During pegging, if the count is at 21, there's a strategic advantage in playing a 4 if you have it. This is because the only card that can form a 31 (earning two points) is a 10-value card. If your opponent cannot make 31, they'll play another card and potentially set you up to make 31 or get closer to it.

The Value of a Five

The card 5 holds a unique place in cribbage. Since all face cards are valued at 10, holding a 5 dramatically increases the chances of hitting 15 with a single pair. Statistically, there are sixteen 10-value cards in a deck, so if you have a 5 in your hand, the odds are good that the starter card or another card in a player’s hand will yield a 15.

However, during the pegging phase, having a 5 can be both an advantage and a trap. Playing a 5 invites your opponent to play a 10-value card to score two points. But, conversely, if you suspect your opponent holds a 5, and you play a 10-value card, you’re setting a trap for them to play their 5 and allow you to follow up with another 10-value card, scoring points for the sequence.

The 5 is a very significant card in cribbage. Its mathematical positioning within the scoring system of the game, coupled with its strategic depth, makes it a card that can be a game-changer in the right hands. Seasoned players are well aware of how useful the 5 is and will often prepare strategies to bait or trap less experienced players into predictable moves. Be aware of both the strengths and vulnerabilities of 5s when playing cribbage.

Pegging Strategy

Pegging is the phase where players lay down their cards in turn, attempting to score points based on the running total and the relationships between the cards. Once again, mathematics plays a fundamental role here.

For instance, if the running total is 21, playing a 4 means the next player must play a card worth 10 to make 31, or play another card and risk letting the next player make 31. Understanding the remaining possible card values and calculating potential scenarios can give you a huge edge.

The Crib and the 29-Hand

The crib, a second hand composed of discarded cards from each player, also poses an important layer of strategy and probability. When discarding to the crib, players should consider not only their own potential scores but also the likelihood of giving points to the opponent. Discarding connected cards (like 7 and 8) can also be risky since they can form runs more easily. Familiarize yourself with common crib combinations and their probabilities to make more strategic discarding decisions and avoid giving your opponents the key cards they need to win.

The highest possible point total for a hand you can have in cribbage is worth 29 points. It’s composed of holding three 5s and a Jack, with the starter card being the fourth 5 of the matching suit to the Jack. The odds of being dealt this exact combination are minimal—approximately 1 in 216,580—so you probably shouldn’t aim for it, but if it happens, winning should be very easy.

Final Remarks: The Beauty of Math in Cribbage

Cribbage is a game of strategy and careful decision-making. It requires a careful balance between understanding the statistics, reading your opponents, and finding opportunities in the cards you’re dealt. That is exactly what makes the game a classic.