21 Cribbage Strategy Tips To Win More Games [Guide]

  • By: Zach
  • Date Updated: April 27, 2023
  • Time to read: 15 min.

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There are a lot of folks who play Cribbage and don’t see a path forward to getting better. 

I know, I was one of them! 

But when you dig further into the game, there is a lot of Cribbage strategy to implement to offset the effect of luck on the game. 

A better player won’t win every time, but they’ll win somewhere between 65-70% of the time, depending on the gap in ability. 

I wanted to help you out, so I compiled this list of 21 tips to improve your Cribbage game and help you get better at Cribbage. 

We’ll split this up into three main areas: 

  • Discard
  • Pegging
  • Position

You may also want to check out some of these tips in video form if you prefer:

Discard Strategies

cribbage discard strategy

What you choose to discard from your hand into either your crib or your opponent’s crib is the most important decision, affecting how the game goes. 

As such, there are a lot of strategies and decisions to make at this point in the game. 

Whole books have been written on discard alone, and it’s critical in making the most of your luck in Cribbage. 

For more information on skill and luck in Cribbage, check out our detailed article at the link. 

Here are the tips! 

Psssst! I also do videos on discard tips. This is the first one:

Keep The Highest Number Of Points As Dealer

One of the most obvious, yet often messed up, strategies are to make sure you keep the highest points possible when you’re the dealer. 

Don’t just count your hand; consider what you throw away. 

You want to maximize your earnings, and the cards in your crib are part of those earnings. 

Half of this tip only works if you’re great at counting points. 

It’s pretty tough, so I made this Cribbage counting cheat sheet for you to use. (Head over to the link to download.) 

The other half considers all your options, including the crib as a separate entity. 

Let’s look at a couple of examples. 

Example 1

Imagine you have the following hand, and it’s your crib: 

3 of hearts, 4 of clubs, 5 of spades, 7 of diamonds, 10 of spades, 10 of clubs.

Many people will look at their hands and immediately think: I’ll keep the 5, 10, 10, and maybe the 7 for 6 points. 

This makes sense, and it looks better than the other options: 3,4,5, and 7 which is only worth 5 points (3+7+15 = 15 for two and a run for three more). 

But what about your crib?

If you keep the 3, 4, 5, and 7, you discard the pair into your crib, giving you a guaranteed total of 10 points! 

It’s better to keep the total number of points, including your crib. 

Example 2

Imagine you have the following hand, and it’s your crib: 

5 of spades, 8 of clubs, 9 of clubs, 10 of diamonds, 10 of hearts, J of spades. 

What would you pick?

New players may forget about how they need to add their points from the crib as their option. 

There are many hands that give eight points alone: 

  • 5, 10, 10, J (Dis: 8,9)
  • 8, 9, 10, 10 (Dis: 5, J)
  • 9, 10, 10, J (Dis: 5, 8)

These examples give you eight points in your hand, but only one gives you an extra two points: 8, 9, 10, 10 (Dis: 5, J). 

Subtract Opposite Dealer Crib Points

On the opposite side of the coin, when you decide on discards as the Pone (non-dealer), you need to be aware of what you’re throwing away. 

Sometimes, it’ll be worth it to give them points or good cards if it saves a killer hand for yourself. 

At others, you’ll want to avoid it, even if it weakens your hand. 

How do you know what to throw?

A simple answer is to keep the best hand for yourself but subtract any points you throw away from your total. 

This rule will serve you well 95% of the time, and it’s one a lot of new players don’t follow.

They either forget that giving points is bad OR do too much to avoid giving the points. 

Let’s look at some examples: 

Example 3

Imagine you have the following hand, and it’s the opponent’s crib: 

5 of spades, 8 of clubs, 9 of clubs, 10 of diamonds, 10 of hearts, J of spades. 

This one should look familiar; it’s the last example we had from the previous strategy. 

Now from the lens of the Pone or non-dealer, we have a completely different view on it. 

We still want to start by looking at our top hands (all worth eight points): 

  • 5, 10, 10, J (Dis: 8,9)
  • 8, 9, 10, 10 (Dis: 5, J)
  • 9, 10, 10, J (Dis: 5, 8)

Yes, each one gives you eight points, but does it? Considering the crib, the answer becomes different. 

With the 8, 9, 10, 10 (Dis: 5, J) hand we liked before, we’re not really earning 8 points for ourselves because the discard gives an automatic two points to the dealer. It’s really worth six points. 

Then, if we look at the other hands, the clear answer is to play 5, 10, 10, J (Dis: 8,9). 

Why? Because 5s in the crib is basically a guaranteed two points anyway (more on that later). 

Example 4

Imagine you have this hand, and the opponent gets the crib: 

7 of spades, 7 of diamonds, 8 of clubs, 9 of clubs, Queen of hearts, Queen of spades.

What do you throw?

If you start by looking at the best hand possible, it’s clear the 7, 7, 8, 9 is the best combination. It earns ten points (7+8 = 15 twice for four points, and a double run is eight more for twelve total), but this means you have to toss the Queens into the crib, giving your opponent two points. 

Is it worth it? 

Look at it mathematically. 

7, 7, 8, 9 gives you twelve points. A pair of Queens gives the dealer two. Twelve minus two is ten points for yourself (basically). 

The other nearest hand avoids the Queen pair with 7, 8, 9, Q (Dis: 7, Q). 

This gives you five points (7+8 = 15 for two, and a run for three is five points total). 

Clearly, the ten-point advantage is worth the five-point one by avoiding giving something to the opponent. 

Use Probable Cuts; Not The One You Want

This was a common mistake and missed opportunity I fell into for years before I broke the habit. 

I would look at my hand and wonder about what would happen if I drew this card or that card. 

I would pass on hands with a better potential for one big payout. 

This didn’t pay off that often. Sometimes, the more boring option is the right one. 

You need to think about the cards left in the deck and what’s most likely to pop up. 

For serious players, we’ll even count and do some mental math to determine the most likely cards and how those will affect your total score. 

The way of doing this is quite complicated but worth learning how to do. 

One of the better ways to learn how to do it is to watch a video like the one below. 

It demonstrates the ideas perfectly (though a little long for quick consumption). 

Keep Runs Close Together

With the previous two strategies all being equal (after doing the math), it’s time to look at equal hands. 

If you have two combinations of cards for your hand with an equal point value, choose the one that keeps consecutive cards together or choose to keep runs intact. 

A single run of three has three cards to potentially turn it into a double run and more than double its points. 

Example: Ace, 2, 3, 8 only needs to cut another Ace, 2, or 3 to be worth a lot more. 

A set of consecutive cards also has two cards on either side to make it a run for three points. 

Example: Tossing an 8-9 into discard will use a 7 or 10 to make a run, compared to distant cards like a 2-9.

This strategy can be reversed if the opponent has the crib. Avoid throwing consecutive (all else being equal, of course). 

Check out our counting runs in Cribbage guide for every variation.

Jacks Over Other 10s

There will also come times when hands look completely equal, and you need to choose between the cards with a value of 10 (actual 10s and all the face cards). 

These cards aren’t actually equal. 

Don’t forget about the nobs rule. 

If you hold a Jack of the same suit as the starter card, you get a bonus point! 

This means by choosing to hold Jacks over other 10s (when all else is equal). 

Count Correctly

This may seem obvious, but you have to count correctly in order to get the most points. 

Once you’ve gotten the hang of counting, it may seem easy (and it is). 

But don’t get too comfortable. Learn to count quickly. 

If you make a mistake, your opponent corrects your points and steals any you miss. 

But even better, if your opponent makes a mistake, you get to steal theirs. 

You don’t get a lot of time to check their hand and count, though, so be prepared and be quick. 

5s In The Crib Are Guaranteed Points

5s are powerful cards in Cribbage. 

They combine with so many cards to make points, from runs to 15s. 

Whenever you get a 5, you know you’re going to end up with at least two points. 

Don’t ever be afraid to toss a 5 into your own crib. 

It’s worth pretty much a guaranteed two points. 

Why? The number of 10-ranked cards makes up 31% of the deck, so the odds of seeing one are good (or having it cut). 

On top of this, many cards add up to ten, so you may be able to play off those as well. 

Avoid 5s In Opposite Crib

On the other hand, if it’s not your crib, avoid throwing 5s like the plague. 

There are only two times you’d want to throw a 5: 

  1. If your hand is so good, it more than makes up for the free points. 
  2. It’s the end of the game, and you don’t think your opponent will get to play their crib. 

If you go back to Example 2/3, you’ll be able to see why we don’t toss the example with the 5 even though the hand is equal.

Balking Cards For Opposite Crib

All else being equal in your hand and you’re not sure what to discard, go for balking cards. 

This is a term referring to cards far away from each other and unrelated to one another. 

These are cards like 4 and 9, 8 and 3, and Ace and 8. 

Basically, anything that doesn’t add up to 5 or 15 or is right next to each other is a balk. 

Save Pegging Cards When You Have A Bad Hand

No matter how good you are, luck plays a heavy hand in Cribbage, so you’ll sometimes you’ll just be dealt junky cards (you may even deal them to yourself!). 

When these bad hands pop up, it may feel like there’s not much to do, and there’s really not. 

But one option you do have is to keep the lower cards in your hand. 

For one, lower cards may add up to 5 and give you a couple of points with a 10 cut. 

But they also are more valuable in pegging situations. 

I’ve had many rounds where my hand was worth little to nothing, yet I still managed to squeak out eight points from pegging. 

Study Discard Problems

The highest-level Cribbage players study discard problems like chess players study games and positions or poker players study tells. 

If you play on an app or desktop game like Cribbage JD as I do, you’ll have a built-in discard strategy checker. It shows you your hand score out of 100 for each one as you play (but after you choose).

Discard strategy makes a huge difference game over the game, and with almost 13 million possible hands, you may never see the exact same one twice. 

But getting a handle on discarding will really up your game. 

Cribbage Discards by Anthony Myers is a legendary book in the game and filled with ideas and analyses of hands, especially tricky ones to help your game. 

Pegging (The Play)

cribbage pegging strategy

Pegging, or The Play as it’s officially called, is my favorite part of the game, and it’s another area where having the right strategies will make a huge difference. 

Let’s take a look at 8 of the ones that helped me become a stronger player.  

Start With A 4

The best card to lead in Cribbage is, hands down, a 4 if you have one (barring the next tip’s opportunity). 

A 4 is safe from all 15 combos, gives them the chance to follow up with your own 15 combo, and it isn’t as useful at the end of the 31 points in the Play. 

On top of all this, a 4 leaves the deadly 4-5-6 combo ripe for the picking. 

This gives you a run for three and 15 for two more, making five points in pegging. A good combination! 

Low cards are also good leads if a 4 isn’t available. 

Read more in the article on the best card to lead in pegging in our article at the link. 

Lead With One Of Your Pairs

The exception to the 4 (or lower) rule above is if you have a pair in your hand. 

Unless you have a 10-value card or a 5 pair, if you have a pair, play the pair first! 

There’s a chance the opponent will follow with the same card to make a pair for two points. 

Then, you have the chance to play your card for a pair royal (worth six points!). 

Play may go like this (You have two 6s in your hand): 

  1. You play a 6 and say, “6.”
  2. The opponent smirks as they play a 6 and says, “12 for two points.”
  3. Wanting to seem graceful, you calmly play your second 6 and say, “18 for six points.”
  4. The opponent shakes their head in disappointment. 

Avoid 5s

The worst card to lead of all time is a 5. Roughly 30% of the deck is made of 10-value cards, and people tend to keep at least a couple of those in their hands. 

If you play a 5, you’re basically giving them a free two points. 

And it’s tough to follow-up with a pair off their 10-value card because it could be a 10, Jack, Queen, or King. 

There’s no anticipation! 

Unless you’re out of cards, never lead a 5. 

Avoid 10s

10-value cards aren’t much better than 5s. 

If someone has a 5 in their hand, they’re sure to follow up with it for two points. 

If your only options are a 10 or a 5 to lead, go with the 10. 

The exception to this rule would be if you had a pair. 

Yes, the other player may play a 5 off your card, but they could also play for a pair. 

Then, you get your royal pair again (and likely a Go! because the count is at 30 points). 

Watch Out For Creating Runs

Runs in pegging are probably the most underutilized and underrealized points in this phase of the game. 

It’s possible to make runs in pegging, and it’s a lot more common than you think. 

In pegging, runs don’t have to be in order to count; they just have to be consecutive. 

For example, if the Play goes A-3-2, this still counts as a run of three. 

And it can be played off of as well. 

Here’s a quick list of run plays to show the example of some of the rules (all from the beginning of the Play at zero): 

  • A-3-2
  • 6-7-8-5 (run of four)
  • 3-4-2-3 (the first three, 3-4-2, make a run of three for that player, and then the other players get another run of three for 4-2-3)
  • 3-4-5-2-6 (a run of five)

Two main rules with runs in pegging, though. 

If it’s not consecutive, it doesn’t count. 3-2-5-4 isn’t a run. It needs to build off the three. 

If the counting is split by a Go! or 31, no runs are used with cards from the previous Play. 

Here’s an example of this (P = Pone, D = Dealer): 

  1. P: 8 (8)
  2. D: 2 (10)
  3. P: 10 (20)
  4. D: 9 (29)
  5. P: Go!
  6. D: Takes a point
  7. P: J* (10)

*The Pone doesn’t get a run here of the 10-9-J because the 9 and 10 belong in a different count. 

If you notice your opponent play a card next to yours, jump on it with a run if at all possible. 

Those points add up fast!

Race To 31 Unless You Have A Score

Without a chance to make points, you want to play your highest card (while avoiding allowing the opponent to play runs) whenever possible. 

This gives you the best chance of getting Go! or using one of your lower cards to make 31 for two points. 

If you lead, stick with low cards or a 4, and then go like gangbusters to get those big cards out of your hand. 

Avoid Adding To 21

As you add the Play up to 31, avoid playing anything that adds the total to 21. 

Remember how common those 10-value cards are? (10, Jack, Queen, King.)

Odds are: if you play for 21, they’ll follow up with 31 for two points. 

Use Clues To Guess What They Have

My grandfather-in-law taught me the value of this Cribbage strategy. 

He would always out-peg me like crazy (and still does, most of the time). 

Finally, one day I asked him how this was possible. 

He said he always pays attention to what the other player throws and imagines why they would keep that card. 

It gives him a hint of what’s in their hand. 

For example, if they play an 8, there are good chances the player also has a 7 (to make 15) or another 8 (for the pair). 

He keeps this in mind for later on and anticipates what they would play. 

I’ll admit; I haven’t a good grasp of this yet, but even the little this mindset has changed my pegging has helped a ton. 

Positional Strategies [Endgame]

cribbage position strategy

Positional game in Cribbage is a strategy for the highest level of players. 

For most of us beginners, intermediate, or even advanced players, there isn’t too much we need to worry about. 

Still, here are a few anyone can keep in mind.

Sacrifice Count In Pegging To Keep Down Score At The End

The end of the game is the trickiest part of Cribbage. 

After all, whoever gets out first wins, regardless of whether they’re in the Play or the Show (pegging or counting). 

If you’re close to the end and have enough points to go out, opt for lower cards or pairs to help you get more points pegging. 

If your opponent manages to pull off some good combos, they could beat you before you even get to count. 

If Dealer Is About To Win, Sacrifice Points For A Crazy Cut

Sometimes you see the end coming a mile away. 

If this is the case, and you know you don’t have a shot via normal Play, it’s time for a Hail Mary! 

Think about your hand in a new way. 

If a single, perfect card was cut, what would be the maximum hand possible? 

Even if the odds are low, there’s always a chance. It probably won’t pay off, but hey? What have you got to lose at this point?

If It’s Really Close, Don’t Worry About The Crib At All

If both players are neck and neck toward the end, you may not want to worry about what you throw into the crib, especially if you’re the Pone. 

Even if you throw points or a 5, give yourself the single best hand possible. 

They probably won’t get to count their crib anyway, so it won’t make a difference. 

If you want to play more Cribbage quickly, check out Cribbage Online here.

It’s a browser-based game, so it’s easy to get to and get started right away!

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