Ask the experts, December 2005

Score 108*-97. You kept 7-8-9-9, tossing yourself 4-K. The cut is a 7 and pone leads an 8. What's your play?

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Dan Barlow:

Keeping him from pegging three or four will take some luck if he has 20 or 21. Half the hands that would give him 20 or 21 don't include a pair of 8s, so pairing the 8 isn't a bad play, especially as it prevents a run, at least for the moment. Odds are heavily against both of us having 20+, so I prefer to concentrate on keeping him from pegging eight if he has a 16 hand (6-7-8-9, 6-8-9-9, 6-8-8-9 or 6-6-8-9). In each of these cases, playing the 7 is disastrous. Playing the 9 could be bad (if it gets paired). Pairing the 8 is safe if he has three of these hands, and I'm not quite dead even if he pairs my 8 with 6-8-8-9. So, I pair the 8. My guess is that he led that 8 just to throw a scare into me, and his hand is 3-4-4-8.

John Chambers:

In this situation your goal is to keep your opponent from getting too far down on Fourth Street. You want to keep your opponent far enough from going out so you have a chance to count your hands. My first thought if my opponent leads an 8 is that he has another and wants to peg. Your opponent must have 7s and 8s. I would play a 9. If your opponent pairs your 9 then your opponent will get two for the pair plus a go or 31. If your opponent plays a 7 for 24-3, you can play your seven for 31-4. If your opponent plays another 8 for a count of 25 it could be a go or 31. Because of your opponent's lead and the cards in your hand, I believe playing the 9 is the safest play.

DeLynn Colvert:

Your opponent needs 24 to win so I would assume a possible 16 hand. Giving up four pegs is OK, so I would play a 9 on his 8. If you give up a run to an 8, you'll play your 7 for 31-4, leaving you with a fairly safe 9 to stop any further pegging:

8  9  7 (24-3)  7 (31-4)

George Rasmussen:

I like my position at 108*. It takes 24 points for opponent to get out from hole 97. The lead of the 8 with a 7 as starter card makes me nervous, I have to admit. If opponent's hand goes up from the eight spot, they cannot score more than 14 points with the 7 cut. If opponent's hand goes down, they may not need pegs in order to score 24 and win the game by first count. I would like to know early which direction the hand goes. So I will play my 9. If opponent plays a 7 for a count of 24, I pair the 7 and close the count with 31 for four points. In normal play situations with this hand to include 9s and no 6, I would pair the 8. I just can't take the chance of giving up six pegs in the final stages of this game. In giving up six on the play of a single card, pone may win by first count even with a 16 point hand by picking up two more pegs along the way.

Michael Schell:

The normal play would be to minimize objective risk by pairing the 8. This exposes me to only two losers, worth six points each for an objective risk of 12, ignoring goes. Note that after being tripled, I can close out the play series with my 7, though this leaves me with the inflexible 9-9 to face the second play series.

Playing the 7 instead is clearly too loose, exposing me to a pair or two different shots at a three-card run. Playing a 9 carries a much higher objective risk of 22:

7 2 ∙ 3 =  6
9 2 ∙ 2 =  4
10      4 ∙ 3 =     12

But you can probably discount the risk of pone's 10, since aside from flushes, a 10 would give her a maximum of 14 points in hand. I'm guessing it's about 50-50% between the 8 and a 9. I'll leave it to the bot to find the optimum play.

Phyllis Schmidt:

I play a 9. If opponent he has a 10, he gets three to four holes. Against any other card, like a 7, I can get back in the run with little damage.

Peter Setian:

Since a 24 point hand cannot be stopped, a 1621 point hand must be guarded against. The key is: I would not make the count 15 (with the 7), as the pone could pretty easily peg eight points and count a more common 16 point hand. I would probably play a 9, but could play the 8 also...for calculating all the possible regrets would take too long during play.

But let's see: the number of regrets seem to be close either way. Some of the pairing regrets include the pone holding 6-6-8-8 or 6-8-8-9. Some non-pairing regrets include 7-7-8-9 or 7-8-9-9. Looks like more "case" cards are needed for the non-pairing regrets.


The humans may complain that this hand is best suited for computer analysis, and I concur. My calculations which include a probability-adjusted frequency of each of all possible hands, reveals the following where the play could make a difference:

  • 6-6-8-8 (loses to 8)
  • 6-6-8-9 (loses to 7)
  • 6-7-7-8 (loses to 9)
  • 6-7-8-9 (loses to 7)
  • 6-8-8-8 (loses to 7 or 8)
  • 6-8-8-9 (loses to 7 or 8)
  • 6-8-9-9 (loses to 7)
  • 7-8-8-8 (loses to 8 or 9)

My results show a slight difference in loss probabilities between playing the 8 and the 9. (Playing the 7 is worse by about 4%.) I will play the 9, which minimizes opponent's winning chances.

Card        Weighted Probability of Loss
7 12.2%
8 8.0%
9 7.8%

If the suits of the cards were known, flush possibilities could have been included but this would have been overkill on my part and may add insult to injury to the humans.

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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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