Annotated game: Wilson - Heath (Portland, 2002)
|One of the best ways to improve at cribbage is
to study annotated games. Finding them can be a problem though. Compared to
chess, go, bridge and backgammon, where an extensive body of top-level
published play has long been available, cribbage boasts a rather meager
literature. A few published games have appeared in cribbage books, and are
well worth examining — but they're invariably composed games, fabricated by
an author using fictitious players to demonstrate certain specific concepts.
On the Internet you'll occasionally encounter an annotated game that was
actually played, but usually at least one of the participants was a computer
(click here for an example). If
you want to see how two expert human opponents did in a real game
with money and rating points on the line, you're out of luck.
Until now. What follows is, I believe, the first published annotated tournament game between two world-class human players. I'll be presenting more of these in the future, and hopefully other authors will follow suit, so that the study of expert games can become established as a part of cribbage pedagogy.
So get out your board and cards and follow along through the fifth and final game of the semifinal match between Roger Wilson and Rollie Heath from the 2002 Portland Summer Open. Wilson is a Life Master from Colorado, author of the cribbage glossary on the ACC Web site, and a prominent cribbage judge. He has a reputation for aggressive play, which will be amply displayed below. Heath is a Life Master from Oregon who co-directs several major tournaments in the Pacific Northwest region. His style is more balanced. The game took place on July 28, 2002. Heath deals first. As is usually the case in playoff matches, skunks do not count for either player.
When you are first pone, as Wilson is here, you start the game with a significant positional disadvantage: -8 compared to dealer's +8. Many players try to be aggressively in this situation, hoping to score their way out of the deficit, either all at once or else more gradually over the first few deals. But since dealer's surplus is no greater than your own deficit, it's just as valid to play all-out defense, trying to wreck your opponent's position, again either all at once (if his cards are terrible), or else more gradually. Usually the cards you're dealt will suggest one approach over the other, but occasionally they'll suggest a third option: cautious offense, following a more balanced strategy and awaiting future developments that may more clearly indicate an offensive or defensive tilt.
Given all this, put yourself in Wilson's shoes and consider what you'd do
with A-2-8-10-10-J. The main choice is to whether to keep the
10-10-J combo together to maximize your hand potential, or to
toss 8-J to optimize your defensive potential.
2-10-10-J gets the best average hand and expected average, but I don't think it's the right idea at 0-0*. The most it will be worth after the cut is nine points (with the right 3, 5, 9 or Q), and it's unlikely to fetch much in the pegging either, so you stand little chance of getting near the positional hole (18) on this deal. With such mediocre offensive prospects, it's worth looking at a more defensive-minded keep. Wilson's pick is A-2-10-10. This takes about ½ point off the expected average, but gives up ¼ point less in the crib, with a good shot at shutting out the crib entirely. It should give up fewer pegs too, since Wilson can lead the 2 and use the A as an out on an awkward 8, 9, 10 or J reply. If Heath's cards are sluggish, this could shave several points off his positional surplus. On the other hand, Wilson still has a shot at a nine-point hand on a 3 cut, which would give him the option of playing on during the pegging and trying to win going forward. Either way, it should be clear what to do.
As first pone, it's usually necessary to vigorously pursue either an offensive or defensive strategy from the get-go. That's why at 0-0* it's often right to look for a forcing discard — one that's likely to drive you toward a particular strategy — rather than one that might be best for balanced play.
Of course Heath, being first dealer and owning the positional advantage that goes with it, has no need of forcing the issue, so he simply tosses 9-9, keeping A-4-4-7.
Wilson, after getting an ideal cut, kicks into offensive mode by leading one of his 10s in hopes of making something happen later with his A-2. The rest of the play is pretty straightforward. On the second series, Heath must choose between an A or a 4 reply to Wilson's 2 lead. Neither one defends against a 3. The 4 is less likely to be paired, but is vulnerable to a 9, whereas the A is not, so Heath chooses the latter.
With his opponent still -7, it would be tempting to keep 2-Q-Q-K, which gets the best average hand. But Heath's choice of 6-8-Q-Q is much safer on defense, and although it averages about ½ point less than 2-Q-Q-K, it actually gets four or more points on seven different starter ranks — whereas 2-Q-Q-K only does this on six.
Despite the 6 cut, Heath leads his 8, anticipating a possible ten-card reply on which he can safely play a Q without giving up a 31-2 to a 5.
Wilson's 10 lead gives rise to a spectacular series of pegging runs. Although both player gets ten points out of it, the episode has worked to advantage of Heath, who finishes the deal +13 to Wilson's -7. It would have been better, I think, to lead the 2, retaining the 10 as a break card to disrupt pegging runs. Just because the cut is a 5 doesn't mean that Wilson should abandon defense.
A-2-2-10 is the right keep, dismantling the run but retaining the A-2-2 magic five.
Wilson gets a big break in the crib, pulling him to -2. Now it's Heath who needs to worry about defense.
A reasonable alternative under the circumstances is to toss 10-Q. This retains a magic eleven, useful if pone starts the play with two ten-cards, though it's prone to having both low cards squeezed out on an early go, thereby allowing pone to steal last card. Note how the delta for all the discard candidates is positive. This is often the case for weak, uncorrelated hands.
For more about delta, see the article Discard averages in the real world.
Most players avoid playing a 6 on a ten-card lead, fearing that pone will play a second ten-card, then a 5 for a 31-2. If you work it out though, you'll see that this particular hand gives up at least two pegs to 5-x-x-x no matter which card is played first. The real downside to the 6 is that it can get trapped immediately into a 31-5 if pone is lurking with a 7-8. That seems unlikely here, but it's still a big enough threat to cause Heath to drop the 9 instead, under the theory that 9s and Ks are rarely found together in pone's hand. Since the 3 cut promises at least five points in the crib with the potential for a lot more, Heath doesn't have to worry too much about finding extra points in the pegging.
Nevertheless, the 10 is probably a better defensive choice. Halscrib figures it gives up fewer points on average than the 9, since it leaves the latter card available to lead on the second play series if necessary. This saves one point against 5-x-x-x if pone can't pair the 10. Compare the following to the pegging in the actual game:
In general, when you hold 6-9-x-x and your opponent leads a non-pairable ten-card, the best reply is the 6 unless you specifically need defense. In that case, play the highest available card that does not immediately risk giving up a run.
The board position now favors Wilson, who deals +3. His advantage is modest though, and with Heath in no position to reach the 96th hole on this deal, Wilson should pretty much sacrifice everything for offense. The 7-8 toss is straightforward, and Wilson's play of the K on Heath's 8 lead, keeping his Q-Q together in case of an eventual two-on-none, is consistent with an offensive strategy.
Heath's strategy is the opposite. He only needs two points to reach the
70th hole, so he should be willing to sacrifice some scoring for defense.
Breaking up a pair to toss 10-K is the right move.
|Heath leads the 8. When you have a 2/2 hand with two
mid-cards and two ten-cards, it's usually best to lead one of the mid-cards.
Now the game is coming to a head. Wilson is -4 while his opponent is +3. Although Wilson is at a positional disadvantage he is ahead in the score, which means that he has some flexibility in how he approaches this deal. If he gets promising cards he can play on hoping to score well enough to reach the positional hole (96) on this deal. With weak cards he can break up his hand, make the safest possible toss, peg defensively, and hope to erode Heath's modest positional surplus. With middling cards he can play cautious offense, stay non-committal, and see where the chips fall. The offensive approach would entail keeping A-A-4-x and tossing 5-x. This would probably the right move if either player was four or five points further along. But at a score where Wilson still has significant chances to win through defense, it's better just to toss the safe A-x.
Which ten-card to toss is a matter of conjecture. In the game, Wilson picked A-10, explaining afterwards that he sees little difference between that toss and A-Q, and would be equally likely to choose either one in a particular situation. Most discarding statistics favor A-Q by about .15 points. The Q is more likely to be paired in the crib, since dealer is more likely to toss himself a Q than a 10, but the 10 is far more likely to find itself part of a run, since it can combine upwards with other ten-cards or downwards with 8-9. On the other hand, the Q is a safer pegging card, since dealer is less likely to be able to pair it or trap it into a run. Personally I would toss A-Q, preferring the tangible benefit in the crib to the intangible benefit in the pegging. But it's probably a wash.
The cut is a Q, giving Wilson ten points. He leads the "safe" A (remember there's another A in the crib), but this doesn't necessarily mean he's playing off. If a 5 reply comes along, he'll gladly pair it, and if not he's kept his 4-5 together in hopes of trapping a 3 or 6 into a run. Generally you should lead the upper card from a magic five, but leading the lower card is often the right idea if it's duplicated, or if you have a 5 in your hand.
Wilson correctly guesses that Heath's 3 reply portends a 4, so Wilson drops his 5 next. This shows that he is now committed to offense, since he could have played his Q as an out card. The rest of the pegging is straightforward.
Now let's have a look at this deal from Heath's perspective. He is
positionally advantaged, but behind in the score, so he lacks the
flexibility that his opponent has. He must maintain, or preferably improve,
his own position while preventing Wilson from jumping into position. I like
his keep of 3-3-4-5. It gets a
lower expected average than A-2-3-3, but it's a powerful
pegging hand, scoring six points if pone begins with two ten-cards. Exactly
how these considerations balance out is a tough call, and the bots don't yet
agree on the answer. Probably either hand is a good keep.
|Given the cut and the toss, what would you play on Wilson's A
lead? Unfortunately there aren't any satisfactory choices. The 3
is pair-proof, but it gives up a run to a 2, leaving you
without a break card. Dropping the 4 gives up an easy 15-2 to
a ten-card. Ordinarily that wouldn't be so bad, but with the cut also being
a ten-card, Wilson could easily have an eight-point hand with which a couple
extra pegs would go quite nicely. And if the 4 is paired
you're trapped. That leaves us with the 5, which gets you
trapped if it's paired, but is otherwise safe. The 5 is my
choice in this position.
Heath drops a 3 instead, and Wilson replies with his 5:
Now Heath understandably plays his 4, preferring the prospect of giving up a run to the prospect of having his 5 tripled with a Q cut showing. The most defensive option would be to play the second 3. This appears to be pair-proof (since the first 3 wasn't paired), and if pone does produce a 4 for a run, Heath can pair it reasonably safely, thereby cutting off the run sequence. Having seen A-5 among his opponent's cards though, Heath was probably not expecting to score well in the crib, and thus felt that pegging a few points himself could come in handy, despite the risk it opens up. This is the sort of positional problem you often face when you trail in the score.
At a precarious score, Heath gets dealt 3-5-5-6-8-10, and has some decisions to make. Keeping the six points with 5-5-6-10 is clear — he's not in secure enough position to sacrifice everything for defense by tossing 6-10. The Q cut gives him a nice pad if he can hold down Wilson's scoring. Now he has to choose a lead, and it's not an easy choice.
The obvious play is to lead the 10. This has the fewest immediate losers (five), and if Wilson does have a 5 for a 15-2, Heath can safely pair it. Heath can also dump a 5 on Wilson's 10 reply. Thus a 10 lead is consistent with the defensive principle of leaving yourself with a safe reply to your opponent's scoring cards. The downside is that it leaves Heath with bunched-up cards, susceptible to being trapped into runs or triples. A 4, 6 or 7 reply would put Heath in a bind right off the bat.
So the alternative is to lead the 6, giving up two more immediate losers than the 10, but following a slightly different defensive principle: leave yourself with a diversity of cards. If Wilson pairs the 6, things are pretty awkward: Heath must break with his 10, leaving him stuck with 5-5 for the remainder of the pegging. Against a hand like 6-6-7-8, he'll give up seven points this way. But if Wilson scores with a 9, Heath can dump one of his 5s. And Heath also has a comfortable reply to any other card.
The difference between leading the 10 and leading the 6 comes down to the difference between playing desperation defense and playing off. In the former case you are anxious to avoid giving up any score, and are willing to risk giving up a big score to maximize your chances of shutting out your opponent. In the latter case you are simply trying to hold down your opponent's overall scoring, which often means accepting a heightened short-term risk to forestall a more serious long-term risk. Needless to say, board position is usually the critical factor in determining which strategy to follow.
Suppose, for example, that Wilson was at only 90* points. Given the 3-8 toss and the Q cut, Heath would clearly want to play off with the 6. Only above-average scoring will get Wilson into position for his first count as pone next deal, and Heath certainly wouldn't want to bring this on himself by getting into a pegging dual. The Q starter is also an important factor. It won't help Wilson much if he's holding mid-cards, so Heath will have little to lose by giving up a quick two points to a 6 or 9. But if Wilson has a combination of 5s and ten-cards, he could already have ten, twelve or even sixteen points, and the two additional pegs he might score off a 10 lead could be decisive.
Now suppose that Wilson has 100* points, making him +4. In this position, even average scoring will will put him out with points to spare, and if he falls short by a couple holes, he should still have an opportunity to peg as dealer two deals hence. It's imperative to stop him dead in his tracks now, and so Heath should lead the 10 to minimize his immediate losers hoping to somehow elude Wilson's pegging attempts for the remainder. The fact that Wilson's scoring cards (5 and 10) would combine favorably with the Q cut is actually a plus in this situation, since the couple extra pegs from a pair or a 15 probably won't make much difference. It's more important to defend against a scenario where Wilson is holding mid-cards, has thrown something like 5-x to the crib, and thus could really use a couple extra pegs to secure his position. When you're playing desperation defense, don't bother defending against your opponent's winning hands — just defend against the ones that offer you hope.
Now you can see why the decision at the game score is so difficult: with Wilson at 95*, it's not altogether clear which strategy is best. My personal judgment is that the 6 is the better play. With Wilson one point behind the positional hole, I'd rather give up a couple pegs to a mid-card hand that doesn't combine with the cut. And there are just too many problematic replies to a 10 lead to make it comfortable. But reasonable people can differ on this, and in the event Heath chooses to lead the 10. He's immediately trapped by Wilson's 4. Since Wilson appears to lack a 5, Heath should play his 6 next delaying any possible run by at least one card. Instead he plays a 5, launching a series of runs that eventually grosses ten points for Wilson. It's all over.
Before going on, let's briefly consider this deal from Wilson's perspective. He needs to maximize his offense, so the 2-3-4-4 keep is clear. What would you play on Heath's 10 lead? The 4 works out nicely if you're hoping to get a series of pegging runs going, as happened in the actual game. The other approach is drop the 3, hoping to score a 31-4 if pone plays a ten-card next. This is my preference, since it performs better against hands like 5-x-x-x and 5-5-x-x which pone is quite likely to have given that he led a ten-card in a defensive board position. If Heath had one or two low cards, he probably would not have led the 10.
With the score 119-105* in Wilson's favor, Wilson simply shows that he was dealt at least two pat points, whereupon Heath resigns.
Wilson went on to finish second in the tournament, ending the year in fifth place among active tournament players. Heath, by reaching the semifinals, earned just enough MRPs to slip into tenth place overall, thus notching the final All-American slot. Incidentally, this tournament, coming as it does each year on the final weekend of the cribbage season, is a good place to see high rated players in action, since it attracts "point-hunters" from all over the West and Midwest.
Here are some of the key points from this game:
Most of all, try to take away an insight into the over-the-board thought process of expert players. If this seems challenging, take heart that in games like this, coming at the end of a grueling weekend of tournament play, even the best players make mistakes. They just make fewer of them than most...
- September 2002
Pegging averages may have arithmetic discrepancies due to rounding. Mueller pegging averages were obtained from Halscrib 4.84. Click here for a guide to cribbage notation and symbols.
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