To understand the card game cribbage, one needs to understand its creator, 17th century Englishman John Suckling, who was widely considered an unabashed rake. Rich, handsome, and a talented writer, Suckling was notorious for his quick wit, his womanizing ways, and his expertise at gambling in card and dice games. While he was well-liked and known to be generous with his money, most shopkeepers knew he couldn’t be trusted.
Suckling was knighted in 1630, the same year he created cribbage. Legend has it that he gave away a significant number of marked card decks to aristocrats around the England. It is believed he amassed a fortune fleecing said noblemen, by traveling the countryside and offering to play them cribbage for money. He finally fell into disgrace in 1641 when he was accused of conspiring to free his friend, the Earl of Stafford, who was jailed in the Tower of London. After he fled to Paris, Suckling is thought to have poisoned himself at the young age of 33.
Charles Dickens’ solidified cribbage’s immortality in “The Old Curiosity Shop,” the story of an eccentric shop worker named Richard Swiveller who teaches a young slave girl he du...
Cribbage is actually a simple variation on a Tudor-era game known as Noddy. The earliest version of cribbage dealt five cards to each player, whereas Noddy was played with three cards a piece. Five-card cribbage requires each player to discard one card face-down into the “crib,” which belongs to the dealer. These days, cribbage is often played with six cards as well, with two discarded face-down into the crib. Cribbage scoring is based on the order in which the players lay down their remaining cards face up, and each player receives points for sequences totalling 15 or 31 points, as well as runs and pairs.
The most uniquely collectible aspect of cribbage is its scoring board, usually a piece of wood with series of holes called “streets” that hold scoring pegs called “spilikins.” This score-keeping system likely predates the game, as similar objects have been found in Egyptian tombs. Each player has two spilikins that leapfrog over each other, which helps keep track of the previous score. If an opponent fails to peg their points, a player can call out “muggins” and score those unclaimed points.
The winner of a cribbage game is the player who gets to 121 points first. An early cribbage board-design featured an equilateral triangle with two row of forty holes on each side. The classic cribbage board design is usually just a piece of wood about a foot long and 4 inches wide with two sets of 60 holes divided into five-point sections. “Pegging-out” holes at the end of the board are used to indicate when a player has reached 60 points and is counting points in the opposite direction.
Some antique cribbage boards feature a third track of holes where each player has another peg to keep track of how many games he’s won. Newer, vividly colored board designs in plastics like Bakelite have as many as three or four rows of 120 holes. Over the centuries, cribbage boards have been made in a multitude of colors, shapes, and designs, including oval and circular, and one particularly popular modern cribbage board comes in the shape of the number 29.
While wood is the most popular material, some antique cribbage boards were made of ivory, bone, or animal horns, like the scrimshaw cribbage boards made from carved whalebone or walrus tusks. The spilikins, too, may be made of wood, ivory, bone, plastic, or metal—some are even carved into shapes like horse heads.