Ask the experts, December 2004

You're pone at 111. Dealer is two holes out at 119*. You kept 5-5-J-K after tossing 2-7. The cut is a 3. Which ten-card do you lead? What do you play on an 8 reply?

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Dan Barlow:

Dealer knows I need 10 points, and that I'm more likely to save a J than a K, because it might give me one of those points. Of course, whether he would save his own J to peg on me, or toss his own to keep me from pegging on him (he doesn't know I have enough, after all) is the question. I don't know the answer, but I would lead the K. On his 8, I would play the J. This loses if he has an A, 2 or 3. Playing a 5 loses if he has a 5, 7, 8, 4-4, 6-2, or if he plays a 4 or a 6 and doesn't have to play another card. Or if he plays a low card, I play my other 5 for a Go, and he later pairs or traps my J. Or...

The point is, he may be playing the 8 from 3-8, but I would gamble he's playing it from 7-8-J-Q or some other hand with no low card. I expect to lose this game almost every time, no matter what I do.

John Chambers:

In this situation you would lead the K. You would not play the J because that is the most likely kept tenth card, and of course, you would not lead a 5. Let's face it. The only way you are going to win is if you can count your hand. Being the dealer, your opponent will peg one point during the play. So you can't afford to let your opponent peg anything. If my opponent played an 8 making the count 18 I would then play my J to make 28. Remember, you can't let your opponent peg, and getting the play as close to 31 is the best way to do that.

DeLynn Colvert:

A good player will play you for a K, so lead a J, unless you have a poor player as your opponent. Then play a 5 on the 8 response. Three 8s beat you this way, no worse than the three 3s that beat you making the count 28, and this way you unload a dangerous 5.

George Rasmussen:

My lead in end-of-game situations is the K. In other places on the board, it would be the J. That's another story. In end of game pegging, the K is the least likely card to be retained by a dealer needing two points to win. If an 8 is the response to my K lead, then I have to drop a 5 for a count of 23. The fact that a 3 is on the deck doesn't change that, although one might be tempted to make the count 28 after seeing the 3. Making the count lower may also increase the number of cards the dealer will play. That makes it less likely dealer will get two pegs (dealer may only get one go on the lower count of 23). And you don't have to consider leading from 5-5 as well. Remember there are lots of ways to score on a 5 rather than by taking 15. A 4-6 or 6-7 often results in a run of three and 15 or go to claim a game. You've got enough to win if you can limit dealer to that single go.

Michael Schell:

Dealer, in an obvious offensive pegging situation, is more likely to have kept a J than a K, since from ten holes out, I'm more likely to have kept this rank too. So my K lead is less likely to be immediately paired than the J. On the other hand, if dealer does have a J, it'll probably end up on top of my J anyway, and a J is much more vulnerable to being trapped into a run. I'm not sure where this shakes out at this particular score. Over the board I'd probably lead the K, but I suspect it's pretty much a tossup.

On the 8 reply, I could play high with the second ten-card, hoping that dealer has no cards lower than a 4, in which case I'll notch the first go. The problem is that a competent opponent would have kept at least one low card if it was possible to do so. Though I'm not fast enough to calculate this over the board, I can tell you that allowing for the 2 and 3 I've already seen, there's a 74.2% chance that dealer was dealt at least one A, 2 or 3 (without those two sighted low cards it would increase 81.1% ). If dealer kept at least one A, 2 or 3, then making the count 28 will lose immediately. Thus playing high wins only if:

  1. I hit the 25.8% flip side, and
  2. Dealer doesn't have a 3-4, 4-6, 6-7 or a single 5 to trap of one of my 5s, and
  3. Dealer's last three cards don't add up to 21, which would give him a 31-2 on the second play series

Alternatively I can make the count 23 with a 5, hoping to steal last card by trapping dealer with two mismatched low cards (or 6-A). This also leaves me with the more manageable 5-x, instead of the awkward 5-5. I'll still lose to a single 5 or a 3-4, and I'll also lose to dealer's second 8, or a 4, 6 or 7 that's unaccompanied by a low card. But given the likelihood that dealer saved as many low cards as practical here, I think going as low above 21 as possible is the thematic play, and will win a bit more often in the long run than going to 28.

If dealer had played a 9 instead of an 8, then I think the balance would tip in favor of playing high.

Phyllis Schmidt:

Lead the K, the card dealer is least likely to be holding. Play a 5 on the 8, and hope he has two cards that play and not be a run.

Peter Setian:

Holding the dealer to one peg is always a tough job. I would lead the J, for the simple fact that if the dealer does not have a J, he/she will never be able to "back into" a three card run with your K. There are many ways to make a three card run with a J (without using a K). On an 8 reply, I would make the count 23. We know the dealer doesn't have a 5 (and very possibly a 3). I'd say the dealer has a better chance of having to either play two (non-matching) cards on him/herself under 31, or getting a go yourself with the second 5, as opposed to getting a go at 28. And, even if all the dealers cards were 4 or higher and you got that go at 28, you now are stuck with two 5s and the dealer is leading from three cards (4 or higher), with a decent chance to score a three card run (especially 7-5-6).


As the play starts, I have no better than a 14% chance of winning the game by holding dealer to a single peg. My calculations suggest that the J, not the K, is the percentage lead. If the K lead isn't paired, the J is still vulnerable to a 9-10 or 10-Q trap. But if the J lead is not paired, the K cannot be trapped. That gives a narrow edge to leading the J, despite dealer's bias toward retaining a J over a K in an offensive pegging situation.

On the 8 reply, I'm dropping a 5. Given the board position, dealer will be strongly biased to keep as many low cards as possible. If she plays a 6 or higher and has no low cards, or in the unlikely event she says go, we will lose, as will be the case if she has a pair of 4s or lower. But we'll turn a loss into a win if we trap her with A-2, A-3, A-4, 2-3 or 2-4. That's enough to give the 5 a narrow edge over playing high with the second ten-card to maximize my chances of notching the first go.


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 (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 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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