FAIRBANKS — Mike Gervais learned how to play cribbage the hard way as a kid growing up in Minnesota. His father taught him how to play the popular card game.
“I played my dad for a nickel a hole,” Gervais said. “I had to split and pile a lot of birch to pay him off before I figured out how to play.”
Almost 40 years later, Gervais is still playing the game and he’s definitely got it figured out. Gervais was crowned the Fairbanks Cribbage Club’s season champion earlier this month.
Gervais, 50, learned the game when he was just 12. His parents owned a bar/grocery store/gas station called Lakeview Service in Tofte, Minn. It was there he was introduced to cribbage.
“I’d watch all the old people play and say, ‘Let me play,’” Gervais said.
To this day, he is always looking for a game. Gervais owns about a dozen cribbage boards and carries one pretty much wherever he goes. He tries to play every day.
“I always have a board or two in the truck,” said Gervais, who moved to Alaska from Minnesota in 1981. “You can always find a game.”
Cribbage is a card game traditionally played by two players. It involves playing and grouping cards in combinations to score points, which are scored for card combinations that add up to 15 or 31, and for pairs, triples, quadruples, runs and flushes.
Players are dealt six cards and must put two in the crib, a separate hand the dealer counts as his or her own. The deal alternates each hand. After the crib is set, the deck is cut and a card is flipped that becomes a fifth card in all three hands.
Players then play the four cards they are holding one at a time, trying to reach 15 or 31 or create pairs, triples, quadrules or runs. After the count, each player totals the number of points in their hand that includes the card that was flipped.
The object of the game is to be the first player to score 121 points, which are counted with pegs on a scoring board.
To be successful, players must know which combinations of cards to keep and which to put in the crib. If it’s an opponent’s crib, you sabotage it. If it’s your crib, you load it with potential points.
Some people say cribbage is more luck than skill but Gervais thinks skill plays a bigger role than people think.
“I think it’s 60 percent skill and 40 percent luck,” he said.
Gervais likens cribbage to poker because of the speculative nature of the game. Much of the game is based on chance but there are many ways to improve your chances and “trap” opponents by playing certain cards that lead to points, he said.
“When you start playing your cards you can see what their hand is going to be and set traps with the cards you’ve got left,” Gervais said. “Sometimes you miss, but a lot of times you can trap them and get some points.”
Like poker, Gervais also said it’s possible to read what other players will do based on the cards they plan and their mannerisms and expressions.
“You keep playing the same people all the time and you can see what they’re going to do,” he said.
The Fairbanks Cribbage Club was founded in 2000 and is one of almost 200 clubs in North America sanctioned by the American Cribbage Congress Grass Roots, a nonprofit cribbage organization, club president Pat Felcyn said.
The club has about two dozen members and meets every Saturday to play at the Elk’s Lodge. From September to May, the club holds weekly nine-game, round-robin tournaments in which players earn points. A win is worth two points and a skunk — beating an opponent by 30 points — is worth three points. Players must win at least six of their nine games to qualify for points for that week.
“It’s tough to get 12 points,” Gervais said. “Some weekends no one gets points.”
The club champion is the player who accumulates the most points over the course of the year. Gervais edged out three-time club champ Ida Sanford in the final three weeks of the season. Gervais accumulated 165 points, followed by Sanford with 150 and Paul Esau with 133.
“Mike had a good streak at the end of the season and passed her at the end,” Felcyn said.
Play a game or two of cribbage with Gervais and it’s obvious he knows what he’s doing. Gervais has played the game for so long he knows almost immediately how many points are in his hand or an opponents’ hand as soon as it’s laid down.
“Most hands I can just look at it and tell you what it is and they’re still counting,” he said.
Over the years, Gervais has learned little tricks that can make the difference between winning and losing, such as the importance of winning the deal because it means you get the first crib and it’s always best to play a low card to start the count because there’s no way an opponent can make 15. Gervais knows the average hand is eight points and the average crib hand is six points.
In all his years of playing, Gervais has yet to ever get a perfect 29-point hand, which consists of three 5s and a jack in hand and a fourth 5 flipped that is the same suit as the jack in hand.
“I’ve seen three of them during club tournaments but I’ve never had one,” Gervais said.
There are times when Gervais purposely sabotages an opponent’s crib because of where they are on the board, even if it means sacrificing his own hand.
“Sometimes you’ve got to demolish all your points to destroy their crib or they’re going to win,” he said. “It hurts but you gotta do it sometimes.”
The best way to blow up somebody’s crib is to put a king and a 6 or a king and a 9 in it, Gervais said.
“It’s almost impossible to get points with those cards,” he said. “The most they can get is 12 and that’s by a miracle; they have to throw a 7 and an 8 themselves to do it.”
The card that is cut plays a major role in the game. It can make or break a hand, Gervais said.
“If it hits your hand you get the points and if it hits their hand they get all the points,” he said. “The perfect deal is when the cut card hits your hand and the crib. It doesn’t happen often but when it does you fly right up the board.”