It’s all about the board
January 5, 2021
Early January is a good time to hunker down and find amusing pastimes. What with the tiresome and ongoing lockdown, occupying oneself with solitaire might be fun. Or, if you are sequestered with another person, I suggest Cribbage.
Cribbage was invented by English Poet Sir John Suckling in the 1630’s. An older game, Noddy, was the inspiration for cribbage. Noddy, now considered an historical game, is rarely played.
On the other hand, Cribbage has been referred to as “Britain’s national card game” and is the only game which can be legally played in pubs and clubs. All other games require special permission!
A standard 52 card deck and a piece of paper and a pencil is all one really needs to play the game. However, most aficionados use a cribbage board. A traditional board features two ‘tracks’ of 60 holes each, drilled into a piece of wood. Over the centuries, cribbage boards have been made from a variety of materials including ivory, horn, leather, and bone. Plastic and manufactured stone are more modern materials which have been used in recent years.
The game play is fairly strait forward for two people. Six cards are dealt to each player. Each player then chooses two of the cards to place in the ‘crib.’ Whoever dealt the hand gets to count the points in the crib. On the next hand, the other person deals and counts the crib. Once the two players have removed their two cards, the non-dealer cuts the cards and that card is flipped over.
Where strategy comes in is to figure out what the best combination of cards should be kept and which should go to the crib.
For those unfamiliar with cribbage the Infallible Wikipedia provides information on how to play. The link is below.
Rather than use this space to discuss the minutiae of the game, however, I was captivated when I started reading about what is known as the O’Kane cribbage board. Naval legend is that just prior to a submarine bombing mission in 1943 Lieutenant Dick O’Kane broke out his cribbage board to play a game with the commanding officer, Lt. Commander Dudley Morton.
From the Defense Visual Information Distribution Services website:
“Morton dealt O’Kane a perfect cribbage hand of 29 — the odds of which are 1 in 216,580. The crew would take this extremely rare hand as an omen of good luck. The following day, Wahoo sunk two Japanese freighters.
Two days later, Morton and O’Kane played another game of cribbage in the wardroom. This time Morton dealt O’Kane a hand of 28 — these odds being 1 in 15,625. Morton was furious, vowing to never play O’Kane again, according to O’Kane’s book, “Wahoo: The Patrols of America’s Famous WWII Submarine.” The hand proved to be another stroke of good luck as later another enemy freighter was spotted and promptly sunk. Wahoo ended up being one of the most successful submarines during World War II.
O’Kane’s luck with the board would continue as he took it with him to become the commanding officer of USS Tang (SS 306). Tang would go on to set the record of most ships sunk on a patrol. O’Kane received the Medal of Honor for his actions while commanding Tang.
On Oct. 25, 1944, Tang was sunk by its own torpedo. Only nine Sailors survived, O’Kane being one of them. The survivors were picked up by a Japanese frigate and taken as prisoners of war. The original board went down with the submarine.”
O’Kane replaced the board and, upon his death in 1994, it was given to the oldest submarine in the fleet, at that time the Kamehameha. For over 25 years the board has been passed down to the oldest submarine when the current ship is decommissioned. Considered a good luck charm, it is currently aboard the Chicago.
My first recollection of seeing people play cribbage dates to the mid 1960’s. We are at my Aunt and Uncle’s house for Thanksgiving. In addition to them, my parents and siblings, my cousins, and my maternal grandparents, I clearly recall my great-grandfather, Charles Hancock, was also present. Everyone called him Big Grandpa. Which really confused me as a child. He was a skinny little old man – barely taller than I was – whose baggy pants were held up with suspenders. He had thick glasses and was, by then, at least 90 years old. Ancient in the eyes of a child.
But the one thing Big Grandpa loved to do was play cribbage. After Thanksgiving ‘dinner’ –which was ALWAYS served at 1 p.m. – he and my oldest cousin, Patricia, adjourned to the living room. Big Grandpa brought out his cribbage board and cards and they sat across from each other at a folding card table and played, oblivious to the cacophony of us younger kids engaged in other activities nearby.
Their game was lively with one or the other laying down a card with enthusiasm as the lead shifted back and forth. Occasionally the volume of conversation would rise and there would be exclamations of surprise; and it was clear they were both fully engaged and enjoying themselves.
Several years later, as a teenager, I learned how to play cribbage. Over the years, I have found many willing individuals to join in a round or three. One of my more memorable opponents was a co-worker, Paul, who is legendary for his big laugh and even bigger personality. Most every day we’d break out the cards and board and play while eating our lunches. Others would come into the break room and watch the game for awhile, sometimes kibitzing and offering suggestions. But we paid little attention to others, it was far more important to win and the competition was fierce.
One day, after Paul counted a coveted 29 hand he jumped up and did a victory dance then bragged that he was certain he won more often than I did. I disagreed and the contest was on. From then on, every time we played I would mark down who ‘won.’ By the time we both left that company, I had bested him at a rate of winning three games for every two he won. No doubt when he reads this he will remember it differently. But I have a steel trap mind for stuff like that and it’s true.
Live opponents have been much more difficult to find in recent years. For some time now I’ve had a digital game on my phone and will play it, usually, once or twice a day. I get mad at it because I’m sure it cheats and deals itself better cards. But I’ve also learned that it, unlike a human opponent, is very predictable in its methods, always playing its lowest card first and always making a ‘15’ rather than a pair or strategizing how to make a run if there is an option.
The upside is that I’ve gotten much better at the game and currently have a 70 percent win rate, better than my 60 percent win record with Paul.
Of course I still prefer playing with an actual person using real cards and one of my several boards. But the most treasured board of all is the one which we found when cleaning out my parents’ home in 2019. It’s a small folding board, made of brown leather, likely intended to be carried in a pocket like a wallet. An internet search turned up little information on it but I was able to discern that this style of board was manufactured in the 1930’s and 1940’s. I know it belonged to my great grandfather as his initials C.E.H. – Charles Edwin Hancock – are written in ink on the interior fold. It’s still in great condition.
Maybe my family can start a tradition – like the O’Kane board – and the cribbage board is kept by the oldest person in the family, passed down to subsequent generations. We can start that just as soon as I’m done being the keeper of Big Grandpa’s cribbage board. Or maybe we should hold a tournament and whoever wins the most games gets to keep the board. I like that idea and think I have a pretty good chance. Time to go practice with the computer.