Ask the experts, September 2003

It's 119-118* when your opponent deals you A-5-6-9-9-K. What do you keep?

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Dan Barlow:

I see two ways to go:

  • 6-9-9-K, leading a 9. I'm temporarily safe. His best plays, if he doesn't peg, are those that limit me to one possible pegging card: a 3, Q or K. Which is why I keep the K if I keep 6-9-9
  • A-5-6-K, leading the A. There's a good chance he has no A, I'm still alive if he does have one, and I win if he plays a 4, 5, 6, 8, 9 or K on my A

At the table, I would probably go with 6-9-9-K. I like the security of knowing he can't peg with his first card.

John Chambers:

In this situation, I would keep the 6-9-9-K. Being my lead I would play a 9. If your opponent pairs or makes it 15, you would play your respective 6 or 9 and win the game. I would not keep the A because your opponent will have the advantage on pairing when the count gets close to 31. I also would not keep the 5 because it give you less flexibility to play off if needed.

DeLynn Colvert:

I keep the 6-9-9-K and lead a 9. The 6 and remaining 9 cover dealer's scores, and the K is an "out card"!

George Rasmussen:

If you were concerned with defense you would likely retain A-5-9-K, giving the widest range of cards possible in the hand, and make the defensive lead of the A.

But as pone needing two points, you need not be overly concerned with defense. Dealer averages 3.4 to 3.8 pegs, and sometimes the best defense in such situations is a good offense. So hold 6-9-9-K and lead the 9. If dealer plays a 6 or 9, you win the game by pairing. You also eliminate the two most dangerous cards in that hand when you discard the A and 5. By getting rid of the A you have eliminated the chance for a small card trap. And the 5 is the most frequently trapped card in cribbage! So you've minimized dealer's chance of scoring three points prior to your score of two.

Michael Schell:

In situations like this my priorities are:

  1. Make sure I'll have enough points after the cut to count out if I survive the pegging
  2. Give myself a covered lead. A low pair is ideal, since if dealer scores on that, I'll triple him to win immediately. Also good are combinations like 3-9, 4-7, and 5-K-K that let me retaliate for at least two points if dealer scores off my opening lead
  3. Space out my cards as much as possible, and try to avoid liabilities such as 5s and stray low cards that could get trapped into runs or triples once the count exceeds 21

Let's examine this particular hand in light of these priorities. Any four cards you can keep from A-5-6-9-9-K will get you two points, so priority #1 isn't a problem. As for #2, if I keep 6-9-9 I'll have a completely safe lead of a 9. If dealer scores on that I'll win immediately, and if he doesn't I'll have two cards left that he can't pair (since he surely would have played a 6 or 9 on my lead if he had one. That brings me to #3, and the question of what to keep with 6-9-9. I rule out the 5 immediately. It's too close to the 6, and 5s are just too damn dangerous in these situations (you could get forced to lead one, dealer will be gunning for a 5 more than any other rank, etc.). Between the A and the K I prefer the K. Dealer is likely to hold an A if he is dealt one, but is not likely to hold a K. And an A is vulnerable to being trapped into a run with a 2-3 combo. The A does enhance my chances of grabbing the first go, but this wouldn't get me over the line, nor would it cost me the game if I failed to get it. No, I'll hold 6-9-9-K and lead a 9, planning to play my K on a 5, 7, 8 or ten-card reply. I'll lose if I give up a 31-2 to dealer's second card, but I think that risk is more acceptable than the inherent risk of keeping a lone A that's vulnerable to being paired.

Phyllis Schmidt:

I'll keep A-5-6-K, dumping the 9-9. This keeps as many different ranks as possible. I'm going to try to peg two before dealer can peg out.

Peter Setian:

I'd probably keep 6-9-9-K and lead a 9 for the only safe first play, and the least likelihood of getting into pegging trouble. The dealer may only get the opportunity to pair his/her own small card upon a go (because even 31 by itself won't be enough).


Any combination of four cards will be worth at least two points after the cut, so my only real concern is pegging safety. I needn't take chances to set up offensive pegging opportunities since it doesn't matter whether I win by pegging out or by counting my hand. It's obvious to me that I should start with 6-9-9, since I can lead a 9 and win immediately if dealer scores. As for the fourth card, the A is the most dangerous since it can get paired or trapped into a run if the count gets high (remember dealer will probably keep any low cards he was dealt). The 5 is less dangerous in this particular case since it's unlikely that I'll be forced to lead it. It could also win quickly for me if I get the first go and dealer then leads a ten-card. But I'm going to choose the K, a rank that dealer is unlikely to have kept, and which is thus relatively safe from being paired. 6-9-9-K gives me comfortably spaced cards, and once the 6 is out of the way, there's very little risk of dealer trapping me into a run.

Keep  Toss 

  Chance of losing

A-6-9-9     5-K 23.2%
5-6-9-9     A-K 18.8%
6-9-9-K A-5 16.0%


This problem was submitted by Roland Hall, a Grand Master from Napa, CA, who encountered it in a tournament game during the 2002–3 season. Like most of the panelists, Hall decided to keep 6-9-9-K:

"I held it that way thinking it was my best chance to hold dealer to two goes. But opponent had A-A-2-4, so...

9  4  9  2  6  A (31-2)    K  A (11-1)

...and I'm gone. On second thought, instead of defensive pegging, I should have thought offensive pegging (figuring dealer to keep low pegging cards), and kept A-5-6-K and led the K.

Cribbage is a great game."


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.

John Chambers was one of the original founding members of the ACC. He is a Grand Master, winner of seven major tournaments, and author of Cribbage: A New Concept, He also directs three annual tournaments: the Ocean State Cribbage Classic, New England Peer Championship and Charity Cribbage Challenge.

DeLynn Colvert is the world's highest rated tournament player. He is a five-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 directs the Montana Championship and Montana Open, both held annually in Missoula, and serves as President of the ACC.

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 over 20 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 eight tournaments per year, including the ACC Tournament of Champions and the annual Grand National. He enjoys participation in Grass Roots Club #72.

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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