Ask the experts, October 2001

You're pone at 64-61*. You're dealt 5-6-9-Q-Q-K. What do you discard?

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Dan Barlow:

Whenever I toss 6-9, my opponent ends up with a sixteen crib. So I'm tossing K-9. If the cut's a J or a 5, I missed a sixteen hand myself, but the odds are about 4 to 1 that the cut will be something else.

DeLynn Colvert:

You are at 64, dealer at 61*. Your par hole is 59, so you are +5. Play defense. Hold 5-6-Q-Q, discard 9-K. Lead a Q, play on, and pair dealer's 5 if he 15s.

George Rasmussen:

Since dealer is dealing quite short, and since pone would like to have a minimum of 70 points to deal, play this hand defensively to protect the advantage. Discard the 9-K as it is one of two discards available which averages less than 4.0 to your opponent's crib. Lead from the Q-Q whether or not your hand is benefited by the cut. The 6-9 will often score well in opponent's crib, since the most frequent dealer discard in crib is 7-8. You know how easy it is to cut sixteen points to 6-7-8-9!

In this board position, if you're playing the final game of a tournament and need a skunk win to qualify, toss the 6-9, and cut for sixteen. If dealer has a small hand and the 6-9 scores only two points in the crib, you may be able to score that skunk victory and end up in the playoffs. If this were the opening hand of the game, I would recommend retention of 5-Q-Q-K and discard of 6-9. A favorable cut destroys dealer's advantage on the first hand. In an end-of-game situation, where sixteen points will put you out and an extra deal does not seem to be to your advantage, go for it as well.

Michael Schell:

The next positional hole is 70. That makes me +4 while dealer is -9. Since my positional surplus is smaller than my opponent's positional deficit, I should be favoring offense here, other things being equal. Accordingly I would toss 6-9, rather than 9-K.

My play keeps two points more in the hand at a cost of two more points in the crib, so it's pretty much an even trade. Since dealer is starting nine holes out of position, it's unlikely that he'll make up his deficit in one shot despite the 6-9 toss. It averages about 6.3 points in my opponent's crib (1½ points more than the median and 2.3 points more than 9-K), and unlike, say 7-8, there are relatively few ways that dealer can get a shitkicker crib out of it.

Granted, tossing 9-K leaves you with a safer defensive pegging hand in 5-6-Q-Q. You can lead the 6 knowing that you'll have a safe reply if dealer scores on it, while with 5-Q-Q-K, I might have a tough decision to make if dealer scores a 15-2 off my Q lead. But 5-6-Q-Q fails to improve on sixteen different cuts, and if I also fail to peg anything, I'll find myself at exactly 70 points, with no margin for error if my cards falter down the stretch. Better, I think, to buy a couple insurance points at the risk of giving up a large crib. I'm also giving myself the potential for a 12-16 point hand on a 5, J, Q or K cut, in which case I'll have lots of latitude to play off for the rest of the game.

A more subtle point in favor of tossing 6-9 is that an expert opponent will probably be playing defensively here. This should slightly reduce the risk of making an aggressive discard.

Phyllis Schmidt:

I would discard the 9-K. I would play to hold back the opponent.

Peter Setian:

I would throw 9-K. Only four cut ranks (A, 2, 3 or 8) will keep the hand at six points, in which case I would still be dealing from a pretty decent position. With no help from the cut, I'd also play aggressive pegging (20 for two with my 5). A possible six pegs for the dealer is still not threatening, but a possible 12+ crib would be.


Using 26-theory, I project that at the end of the game I will be pone and win with five points to spare, and that my opponent will be dealer at 113. So playing for maximum hand points is not necessary. Instead I'll play more defensively, looking to optimize my hand scoring while holding down dealer's pegging and crib. With this in mind there are three main candidates to analyze:

  • 5-Q-Q-K returns the most points in my hand (9.91 on average) and gives up 2.67 points in the pegging, but 6-9 gives up the most points in the crib (6.07)
  • 5-6-Q-Q gets fewer hand points (8.09) and gives up 2.78 pegging points, but 9-K gives up fewer crib points (3.88)
  • 5-9-Q-Q gets the fewest hand points (7.57), but gives up the fewest pegging points (2.61) and 6-K gives up the fewest crib points (3.81)

Now I use the following formula to rank the candidates:

hand points - opponent's peg points - crib points

This gives the following:

5-Q-Q-K      1.17
5-6-Q-Q 1.43
5-9-Q-Q 1.15

Thus I cast my vote for 5-6-Q-Q, which has the additional advantage of limiting the maximum crib to 14 points (as opposed to 20 points tossing 6-9). It's a close call though, with only ¼ point separating the candidates. In light of this, I'm rather surprised to see so little disagreement among the humans.


Dan Barlow won the 1980 National Open Cribbage Tournament, and made the 1985 All American Cribbage Team. His cribbage strategy articles appeared in Cribbage World for many years, and can be seen on the ACC Web site. He also provides strategy tips at MSN Gaming Zone. He has written seven books on cribbage, two of which have been glowingly reviewed in Games Magazine. All, including his latest book Winning Cribbage Tips, are available at The Cribbage Bookstore.

DeLynn Colvert (1931–2019) is the highest rated tournament player in the history of organized cribbage. He was a five-time National Champion, author of Play Winning Cribbage, longtime editor of the monthly magazine Cribbage World, and the ACC's only Life Master - Seven Stars. He also directed two annual tournaments in Missoula, MT, served as the ACC's President, and was one of the game's most affable emissaries. It's scarcely an exaggeration to say that Colvert's career defines modern cribbage.

George "Ras" Rasmussen is a Life Master - Two Stars, a four-time All-American, the national Grass Roots Division 1 champion in 2009, a former state champion in Virginia, Montana and Washington, and holds a Gold Award and a President's Award. He also directs the Washington State Championship, held each year in Centralia, WA. His articles on cribbage are available on the ACC Web site.

Michael Schell is a pioneer of modern cribbage theory, which synthesizes traditional concepts of expert play with new computer-informed insights and analysis. He has published Cribbage Forum since 2000. Schell holds a Bronze Award, is a Washington State Champion (2001), and was one of the principal architects of ACC Internet Cribbage.

Phyllis Schmidt is a charter member of the ACC, and has been playing cribbage for about 40 years. She is a Life Master - One Star, a Senior Judge, a National Champion (1992) and winner of the ACC Tournament of Champions (2005). She attends about 30 tournaments a year.

Peter Setian has played cribbage for over three decades, and has been a member of the ACC for about 14 years. During that time, he has won seven major tournaments and earned his Life Master rating. He plays in about 12-16 tournaments per year, including the ACC Tournament of Champions and the annual Grand National.

HALSCRIB is widely regarded as the world's strongest computer cribbage player. Its opinion was solicited using a special analysis version of the program. Since HALSCRIB only speaks binary, its thoughts have been translated into English by Michael Schell and its creator, Hal Mueller, a retired mathematics professor and eight-time ACC tournament winner. For more information, see the HALSCRIB home page.

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