On a frigid Monday evening in a tent outside Eugene’s ColdFire Brewing, a crowd of 40 bubbles with conversation around a picnic table topped with a red neon cribbage sign. Bundled in puffy jackets, sweatshirts and beanies, the patrons are waiting for the start of a weekly cribbage tournament organized by Dave Hurst and Bill McClain, the founders of “Bill and Dave’s Cribbage Adventure.”
A little over a year ago, ColdFire Brewing was looking for a fresh way to jumpstart business on Mondays. The tournaments have helped enliven the weeknight — not only for the brewery, but also for some locals trying to navigate life post-COVID-19.
Unlike typical bar games like trivia, bingo or poker, cribbage helps people connect in a more genuine way, the hosts say.
“The biggest thing for cribbage versus other games is you can play and you can talk,” said Hurst. “And it’s one on one.”
In two-player cribbage, players alternate dealing. Six cards are provided to each person. Players keep four cards to form a hand and discard two. The discarded cards are combined to form an extra hand for the dealer called the crib.
Score is kept on a board that has 121 holes signifying the number of points needed to win the game. Players move physical pegs toward the finish line. Cards that add up to 15 are worth two points, as are pairs. Runs and flushes are counted based on the number of cards included.
Brett Silva came to ColdFire about a year ago on a scouting mission. His father had suffered a brain aneurysm and needed stimulation to recover. The two had played cribbage during Silva’s youth, so he thought the group could be a good fit.
“I ended up at a team night by accident,” said Silva. On the final Monday of the month, the game is played with four people instead of two. If players come without a partner, they are paired with one. “It was fun, just nice people,” he said.
He started bringing his father regularly. They go to ColdFire on Mondays and to a second cribbage night hosted by Hurst and McClain at Falling Sky Delicatessen on Thursdays.
Dave Silva warns opponents he counts slower than his son, but the 15s roll easily off his tongue. He wears a Heceta Lighthouse hat with a peace sign pinned to the bill.
“I’m lucky to be alive,” he said. In addition to playing cribbage, he keeps a daily journal to make progress in his recovery.
Memories from playing with his children pop up during the games. When a crib containing zero points is flipped over, he said with a laugh, “We used to call that caca when the kids were little.”
Learning the ropes
Nearly everyone at the tournaments picked up cribbage from someone in their family. “Most people that come here already know how to play,” said Hurst. “And they learn the same way that we did, like, ‘Oh, my grandpa taught me,’ or whatever.”
That said, it is possible for newbies to learn. Hurst and McClain link to a video on their website that explains the basics. An app called Cribbage Pro is also helpful for practice, they say.
A warning they always give to beginners is that “it’s a pretty short but steep learning curve.”
Part of the challenge is cribbage has several quirky rules famous with devotees. For example, if you have a jack in your hand that matches the suit of the cut card, you get an extra point called nobs. If you cut a jack, the dealer is awarded two points under a different rule called nibs.
“One thing I definitely recommend is not introducing new or minor rules until it actually happens in the game,” said Hurst.
A rulebook from the American Cribbage Congress summarizes all the ins and outs of the game. When in doubt, Hurst and McClain reference it to guide play. But they said disputes are rare. “Winning is secondary to people coming just to hang out,” said Hurst.
The people are the draw for Greg Preston who said the tournaments are the first social thing he’s been able to do since the pandemic.
Preston moved to Eugene from Hawaii in January 2020. His wife died in December of that year, during the height of COVID-19 restrictions.
Before moving to Eugene, Preston had worked on the Pearl Harbor shipyard in Hawaii, keeping to himself and saving money for a retirement he hoped would be filled with the company of his wife and a circle of close friends. He said the loss of his wife and isolation from the pandemic was devastating.
But now, chatting at Falling Sky Delicatessen, Preston said he is finding happiness. He bobs down to find a face in the crowd of players and points, “I’m going to a concert with that guy,” he said. He has also hung out with others from the group who share similar hobbies.
Although they didn’t set out with the explicit intention of facilitating these kinds of meaningful connections, Hurst and McClain are thrilled with the outcome. “There are some gems of stories in here,” said McClain.
The hosts intend to keep the group going and are open to helping others start leagues. “My goal is to spread cribbage around just because it’s fun, gets people together,” said Hurst.
Hurst, a stay-at-home dad, has set up quite a model for others to follow. He created a logo for the group riffing off “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” swapping the phone booth for a cribbage board. He sells swag adorned with the logo and sends weekly newsletters with reminders on meeting times and locations.
He and McClain get paid a small purse to host the tournaments. Winners are awarded gift cards to the host location. Buy-in is $3 at ColdFire and $5 at Falling Sky Delicatessen.
“We’re not doing it for the money,” said Hurst. “It’s just fun to see people have fun,” added McClain.
Claire Shanley is a journalism master’s student at the University of Oregon. Find more of her work at medium.com/@claire_shanley