Ask the experts, May 2008

At 74-69* you're dealt 5-6-7-J-Q-K. What do you keep?

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Dan Barlow:

A 16 point hand will probably leave me short of optimal position, and I need a cut for that anyway. So I'm slowing things down (I hope) by tossing Q-K, which I don't expect to bring dealer a crib bonanza.

John Chambers:

In this situation you need to get to hole 96 to get into position. Your opponent is in position. What you need to do is break up the crib, minimize your opponent's pegging and hope his hand isn't good. With this in mind, you have two options. You can discard the Q-K or the 6-K. To guard against the dealer discarding a 5 into his crib and the probability of a tenth card being cut, I would discard the 6-K.

DeLynn Colvert:

I keep 5-J-Q-K and hope for a 16 cut leaving me dealing at 88*-90 or so, with a skunk try. Good luck with this one. It's kind of an all or nothing play.

George Rasmussen:

I like my position very much. I don't really need a hand at all. Five points is just fine with me, and a Q-K discard. I don't really think anybody will be surprised to learn that the Q-K is a much safer discard when compared to the 6-7. Just know that the Q-K produces two points or less 42.431% of the time. Of the 91 discard combinations, only the 10-K does better for low scoring cribs. And that 6-7 is twice as likely to score 12 points or more.

By the way, I've got to lead the 7 in this case as the x-pointer is my escape card. You see what happens it I lead the J and opponent scores 15-2? Where do I go then? If a middle card is played on my 7 lead, don't be fearful of leading the 5 in later pegging action.

Michael Schell:

We're both near the positional hole, and I'm facing one of those troublesome go-for-it vs. break-it-up decisions. It's in situations like this that I developed the four-to-one rule (see here for some background). Granted it's not the easiest thing to apply over the board, and it requires that you know your discard averages pretty well. But it has saved me on many occasions.

To summarize, the four-to one rule holds that in situations where it applies, the aggressive discard (6-7 in this case) is only justified if it earns you four times as many points on average than it costs you in the crib. Let me show you how I'd approach this in a real game.

The most compelling defensive play is 5-7-J-Q. 5-6-7-J also looks reasonable but I'm going to ignore it to keep my mental calculations manageable. 5-J-Q-K is worth nine points going in, while 5-7-J-Q is worth four points. But in my method for estimating relative hand value, I subtract a ½ point "penalty" for breaking up a run, dropping 5-7-J-Q to 3½ points. I doubt there's much difference in pegging potential between the two hands, either playing on or playing off, so we'll leave it at a 5.5 point difference in offensive potential (note that I'm not concerned with the fact that the average hand is going to be more than these numbers, since I'm only estimating the difference in offensive value).

6-7 gives up 6.4 points on average in opponent's crib, while 6-K gives up just 4.1 (over the board I don't trust my memory of discard averages to more than one decimal point of resolution). That's a difference of 2.3 points. As noted above, I don't expect a significant difference in pegging performance, so I'll just note that four times 2.3 would be 9.2, considerably more than the 5.5 point difference I'm estimating so far.

Based on this, I can't justify the aggressive keep unless I'm desperate for a skunk. Unless the bots, or lots of playouts can convince me otherwise, it looks like 5-7-J-Q gives me the better winning chances.

To save you a little work, I'll note that in actuality, 5-J-Q-K averages 11.39 points after the cut, while 5-7-J-Q averages 6.58 points, so the true spread is 4.8 points. That only reinforces my guess that defense is the way to go.

Phyllis Schmidt:

I'm keeping 5-J-Q-K. The 6-7 throw to the crib is dangerous, but sometime you have to take a chance. I'm more confident in my own pegging than in slowing down my opponent. Any two cards can be dangerous as well.

Peter Setian:

Unlike last month's question, this time opponent is a little more desperate, dealing from 69*. Also considering that a nice cut card for 1617 points would still leave me short of a good dealing position, I would definitely break up the hand, keeping 5-7-J-Q (unless I needed a skunk near the end of a qualifying round).


Often I've found the humans to be insufficiently aggressive, and that's despite the fact that human experts play more aggressively nowadays than they did before bots like me started show them the way! Nevertheless, the conservative respondents have the right idea here. My position is too good, with dealer in a marginal spot, to try to go out in four counts here. In fairness to the gung-ho contingent, though, the difference in winning chances is only a few percent.

I do have one small quibble with the defensive-oriented humans, though. My favorite defensive play is 5-6-J-Q, rather than 5-6-7-J or 5-7-J-Q. I like having the 5-6 available if dealer is stuck with four ten-cards:

J  J (20-2)  Q (30-1)    10  6  Q  5 (31-2)    10 (10-1)

Click here for a guide to cribbage notation and symbols.


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, and the ACC's only Life Master - Six Stars. He directs the Montana Championship and Montana Open, both held annually in Missoula, and served for many years as President of the ACC and longtime editor of the monthly magazine Cribbage World.

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 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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