Leading a 5

Average players know never to lead a 5 if they can avoid it. Expert players, however, don't know this, and you'll often see them leading a 5 for a variety of reasons. This article will examine the most important ones.

Colvert's rule

It often surprises folks to learn that a 5 is often the best lead in defensive situations. The most common case goes like this:

Q  8  J  2 (30-1)    ?

It's early in the game, you are pone, and your last two cards are 5-Q. The correct lead is the 5, not the Q. Yes, this gives up an easy 15-2 if dealer has a ten-card. But in this situation it's more likely that dealer has 3-4 or 6-7, and is gunning for your 5. In fact, 5s are the most tempting target for dealer, since pone will be holding one or more of them about 39% of the time (after the cut). By playing your "problem" card first, you foil dealer's trap, costing him three points.

DeLynn Colvert advises you to lead the 5 from 5-x whenever your opponent has two cards left and isn't showing a ten-card. This protects you from giving up a run against 3-4, 4-6 or 6-7, at a cost of an occasional 15-2 (see Play Winning Cribbage, p. 45). This is good, sound advice from a four-time National Champion, and I'll refer to it henceforth as Colvert's rule.

An alternative ploy in the above situation would be to dump the 5 on dealer's 8. This is a legitimate tactic, favored by many experts, but nevertheless one that I don't much like, since it forgoes a shot at a go if dealer has no low cards. With a hand like 5-x-x-x, I'll normally lead a ten-card with the intention of playing a second ten-card on dealer's 6 through 9 reply. If I get a go that way, I'll peg one point I probably would have missed if I'd dumped the 5 instead. If dealer gets the go, I can still stay out of trouble by following Colvert's rule and leading the 5 on the next play series. The only time I favor dumping the 5 on a mid-card reply is in an endgame situation where you can't afford to give up even a two point peg. At 113-118* for example, I would dump the 5 on an 8 or 9 reply. I'll lose if dealer can take a 31-2 with his next card, or if he can play a low pair or run on my go. But this seem less risky than holding the 5 into the second play series when the option of leading it is unavailable.

The 5 as opening lead

Colvert's rule applies to the second play series. Is it ever a good defensive move to lead a 5 on the first play series?

Yes, but don't make a habit of it.

Here's one case where it makes sense. The score is 66-62*. You tossed 10-K from 4-5-5-6-10-K and cut a Q. It seems you're in great shape here. Your hand will get you well beyond the next positional hole (70), while dealer is starting out eight points behind it. Despite the Q cut, dealer is not likely to get much help from your 10-K toss, since you're holding two of the four 5s. About the only thing you have to worry about is giving up a big peg that could enable dealer to overcome her positional deficit. Something like this:

4  3  6  2 (15-2)  5 (20-5)  A (21-6)  5  2 (28-1)

Or this:

4  4 (8-2)  6  3  5 (22-4)  2 (24-5)  5  2 (31-2)

Or this:

4  4 (8-2)  6  A (15-2)  5  K (30-1)    5  K (15-3)

You can mitigate any of these scenarios by leading a 5 instead. Viz:

5  3  6  A (15-2)  5  2  4 (26-6)  2 (28-1)

5  4  4! (13-2)  2 (15-2)  6  2  5  3 (31-2)

5  K (15-2)  5  K  A (31-2)    6  4  4 (14-3)

Perhaps you're thinking: "Suppose dealer has all ten-cards? Wouldn't leading the 4 save you some points?" Well, it actually saves you just one point against x-x-x-x:

4  K  5  J (29-1)    6  K  5  Q (31-2)

5  K (15-2)  5  J (30-1)    4  K  6  Q (30-1)

And against a hand like 5-x-x-x, it usually saves just two points:

4  K  5  J (29-1)    6  Q  5  5 (26-3)

5  K (15-2)  5  5 (25-3)    4  Q  6  J (30-1)

Of course, an easy point or two is not to be taken lightly, and when I hold 4-5-5-6 I usually just lead the 4 and hope for the best. But it's worth knowing about the 5 lead for those times when you need to play prevent defense.

Here's another situation. The score is 87-87*. You're holding 5 J Q K. The cut is a 10. You led your Q, and dealer took a 15-2 with a 5. What do you do now?

Q  5 (15-2)  ?

Your board position dictates playing off, but now you have a dilemma. If you pair dealer's 5, you risk giving up a run if dealer has 3-4 or 4-6. If dealer has another 5, you'll be tripled, and in the improbable event that dealer started with three 5s, you'll give up a disastrous nineteen pegs:

Q  5 (15-2)  5 (20-2)  5 (25-6)  5 (30-13)

The alternative is to dump the J, but that has risks too. You could be forced to drop your 5 on an early go, giving dealer a three-on-one during the remainder of the play. This could get you trapped into a run:

Q  5 (15-2)  J  5 (30-1)    J!  K  Q (30-4)    K (10-1)

Or worse:

Q  5 (15-2)  J  5 (30-1)    K  K (20-2)  K (30-7)    10 (10-1)

You can avoid this mess by leading your 5, and accepting that dealer will get an easy two points if she has a ten-card. If it's the endgame and you can't afford to give up even two points, then your only choice is to lead a ten-card and pray. But in most cases my advice is: lead the 5 from 5-x-x-x if you're not willing to pair dealer's 5.

Leading a 5 for offense

Let's look at the above hand from a different perspective. We'll move both you and dealer forward twenty points, making the score 107-107*. The cut is still the 10, so you need to peg two points to win. Your best lead is, again, the 5.

This is a perfect illustration of an offensive 5 lead. The idea is simple. You're hoping dealer will play a ten-card for a 15-2. If she does, you have a 9-in-13 chance (69%) of pairing it for two points. This is a much better shot than leading a ten-card and hoping dealer plays one of the three remaining 5s. It's most effective when you have three different ten-cards, and for that reason this play is most commonly seen from 5-10-J-Q or 5-J-Q-K, although it's equally effective from 5-10-J-K or 5-10-Q-K. You can also lead the 5 from hands like 5-10-J-J or 5-5-10-J, but you'll have fewer shots at scoring on a ten-card reply.

Of course there's no guarantee your plan will work. Dealer may have no ten-cards, or may be wary enough to avoid taking a score off your opening lead. But many otherwise strong players have weak endgame technique, and will carelessly take a 15-2 out of habit. It's also possible that dealer will be holding something like 4-5-6-x or 5-x-x-x, and will feel that a ten-card is the safest available reply.

The lead of a 5 from 5-x-x-x in the endgame is a play that I regard as an old, trusted friend. The opportunity to run it arises perhaps once in 100 games, but if you know about it, it'll get you quite a few close shave victories. It's far from unknown — John Chambers discusses it in Cribbage: A New Concept (p. 128-130 of the Fifth Edition), and Joe Wergin mentions it in Win at Cribbage (p. 94 of the 1993 edition). Wergin even suggests leading the 5 whenever you have this hand, and not just in the endgame.

Note that the 5 can be an effective endgame lead even if you don't have any ten-cards. Suppose you're dealt 5-7-8-9-Q-K at 110-108*. You toss Q-K and cut a 6. Needing to peg two points to win, I suggest you lead your 5. You stand an excellent chance of catching an 8 or 9 in reply, particularly against an expert player who will try to avoid playing a ten-card. Of course, you'll also score on an A, 2, 3, 6 or 7 reply.

A case history

Here's the ending of a game I played last year at PlaySite. I was at 110-93*, usually a pretty good position to be in. I'd been dealt A-2-5-10-J-Q and naturally tossed A-2. The cut was a 3 (no Nobs), so I needed to peg two points. Needless to say, I led the 5.

PONE  (110):


   5  Q? (15-2)  Q (25-2)  5 (30-1)    10  10 (20-2)  J (30-1)    5 (5-1)   
  crib:   A-2
cut 3  

DEALER  (93*):

Dealer took a 15-2 with a Q, which I paired to ensure the win. I probably also would have won if I'd led a ten-card, since I could have paired dealer's likely 5 reply. But let's focus for a moment on how my opponent handled this deal.

keway tossed himself 2-4 from 2-4-5-5-10-Q. So far so good. But with the score 93*-110, was there a better reply to my 5 lead than the Q? Based on what you've read above, a 5 lead in this situation is very likely to have come from a 5-x-x-x hand, particularly one with three different ten-cards, such as 5-10-J-Q or 5-J-Q-K. Both of these hands are good enough to win if I peg two points, and both of them contain a Q. Only one of them, however, contains a 10. So in this particular scenario, the 10 would have been a slightly safer play than the Q.

Of course, I also could have been holding 5-10-J-K or 5-10-Q-K, but since these two hands are worth only six points (seven with the J), there's less reason to specifically defend against them. Another possibility would have been something like 5-10-10-K or 5-J-Q-Q, but this sort of hand could just as easily contain a 10 or a Q.

One might object to this analysis on the grounds that dealer would still have lost the game if he'd played the 10 instead of the Q. Fair enough. So was there an even better play available to him? Yes, a 5!

Pairing my opening lead would ostensibly violate a central principle of endgame defense. But in this particular case, it carries very little downside. Whereas playing the 10 or Q gives me three possible scoring cards, playing a 5 lets me score only if I have the last 5. That's statistically unlikely to begin with. And if I'd really led a 5 from 5-5, my full hand would probably be something like 5-5-J-K, worth ten points and guaranteed to peg at least one against dealer's 5-5-10-Q:

5  10 (15-2)  K  5 (30-1)    J  5 (15-2)  5 (20-2)  Q (30-1)

Consider what would have happened if my opponent had played a 5 here:

5  5! (10-2)  Q  Q (30-3)    10  5 (15-2)  J (25-1)    10 (10-1)

I'd have ended up in the stinkhole, my opponent would have gotten to 111 with his ten point hand, and he would have won the game with his ten point crib.

And you wouldn't have read about it in this column.

- November 2000

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