Ask the experts, December 2001

The score is 114*-108. You dealt yourself 3-4-5-8-9-Q. What do you keep?

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Dan Barlow:

I keep 3-4-8-Q. The chances that my hand will not be improved by the cut, and that my crib will have only 2 points and that I will peg fewer than three holes is slim. And all of these things must occur for me to come up short. Balance this against the advantage of having a diverse collection of cards that should make it easy to avoid getting involved in a pegging duel in which opponent pegs the number of holes he needs.

DeLynn Colvert:

I would keep 3-4-8-9. You have "out" cards for low or middle leads, and you kill the ten-card lead with the 3-8 combo. Let's hope the starter card misses whatever he leads.

George Rasmussen:

Dealing at 114, with opponent counting first at 108, it is not likely that dealer can peg out. Non-dealer needs thirteen points to win the game. In such situations it is important to require the non-dealer to score those thirteen points without the benefit of pegging. In this situation, I would toss the two middle cards (8-9) to my crib and play the 3-4-5-Q. Although the 3-4-5-8 offers some interesting pegging possibilities as dealer, the presence of the single middle card would cause me some anxiety. If non dealer is holding middle cards, that lone 8 might get caught in a run or result in a 15-2 or pair. Those potential peg points could provide the win. If the board position for dealer was hole 117 or more, I would retain the 3-4-5-8 and take pegs where possible.

Michael Schell:

I'm seven holes out. That isn't close enough to have much chance at pegging out before pone counts her hand. So I'm going to play defense. Luckily I am close enough that if I want to keep a defensive pegging hand, I can sacrifice quite a bit of scoring potential to do so without unduly impacting my chances of going out with my hand and crib.

With 3-4-5-8-9-Q I'd normally keep 3-4-5-Q, of course, but this isn't an appealing defensive hand. It doesn't give me a comfortable reply to a 3, 4 or ten-card lead, it contains a 5 (which is generally a defensive liability), and it doesn't space my cards out very well (if I play the Q on a mid-card lead, I'd then be stuck with 3-4-5, which virtually screams out to get trapped into a run). 3-4-5-8 is a little better defensively. The magic eleven will handle ten-card leads, and the 8 is a good reply to a low lead. But I wouldn't want to be holding this hand if pone led a mid-card, particularly a 6. I'd rather hold 3-4-8-9, which keeps a magic eleven, but spaces the cards better than 3-4-5-8 and gets rid of the vulnerable 5. It keeps two points in the hand, but the 5-Q in the crib will fetch at least two, and since I'm guaranteed at least one pegging point as dealer, I really only need to find two more points to go out. A 5 or ten-card cut adds two points to my crib, while any other rank but an A adds two to my hand. And if I do get an A cut and get stuck with a two-point crib, I'll still go out if I've pegged three points, instead of the minimum one.

The last option is 3-4-8-Q, which retains the best card spacing, keeps a magic eleven, and offers a good reply to any possible opening lead. In particular, the Q handles any mid-card lead. But is this giving up too much offense? At first glance, it might appear so, since I'm keeping only two combined points. But the 5 in the crib guarantees me two points there, so again all I really need is to find two more to go with the guaranteed pegging point. I'll add at least two to my hand on an A, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8 or Q cut, and a J cut obviously also works. That leaves me with four problematic cuts: 6, 9, 10 and K. Visualizing these in combination with my 5-9 toss, I see that I'm virtually certain to get at least four points in the crib on any of these cuts (a single ten-card from pone is all it would take). So upon reflection, it's 3-4-8-Q for me.

As it turns out, the only pone tosses that limit my crib to two points on the four "bad" cuts are:

  • 6 cut: 2-3, 3-8
  • 9 cut: 2-3, 2-7, 3-8, 4-7, 4-8
  • 10 cut: 2-7, 4-7
  • K cut: 2-7, 3-8, 4-7, 4-8

Phyllis Schmidt:

Keep 3-4-5-Q. 8-9 better chance in crib.

Peter Setian:

Needing only seven points to win, I think it's worth keeping the biggest variety, 3-4-8-Q, to stay away from any pegging trouble. Only a few cuts (6, 9, 10, K) along with a very precise discard and no extra pegging points would not give you enough to immediately go out (<5%).


3-4-5-Q is a sure win provided pone's combined points are twelve or less. Some of the humans may jeopardize the "sure" win and go with a probable win (with the view of minimizing pone's pegging) by choosing 3-4-5-8 or 3-4-5-9, which actually are riskier than 3-4-5-Q.

Two hands which are not likely to put me out on two counts are 4-5-8-9 and 3-5-8-9. They should be avoided like the plague. A better defensive choice is 4-5-8-Q, which still has decent offensive potential. However, I'll go with 3-4-5-Q, with 3-4-8-9 my second choice.


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 is the world's highest rated tournament player. He is a four-time National Champion, author of Play Winning Cribbage, editor of the monthly magazine Cribbage World, and the ACC's only Life Master- Six Stars. He also directs two annual tournaments in Missoula, MT, and serves as the ACC's President.

George "Ras" Rasmussen is a Life Master - Two Stars, a four-time All-American, the national Grass Roots Division1 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 about 22 years, 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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