By Robert Husseman, The Triplicate October 24, 2012 05:12 pm

Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson Trevor Poole, 12, shuffles cards during the tournament Saturday. He began competing with the Crescent City club three years ago.
Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson Trevor Poole, 12, shuffles cards during the tournament Saturday. He began competing with the Crescent City club three years ago.
Someone had placed a simple white sign in the window of the Dining Hall at the Del Norte County Fairgrounds main building Saturday morning. One word on the sign: “WHINING.” Circled, and crossed out.

The author of this piece gulps. He is walking into a veritable lion’s den.

One other sign graces the dining hall: The red, black and white banner of the American Cribbage Congress, which sanctioned the 13th annual Crescent City Open cribbage tournament. The two-day affair drew 44 players from California and Oregon to compete in the classic card game.

The object of a cribbage game is to score 121 points before the opponent does. Players keep score on special peg boards — often wooden, occasionally decorated — with pegs marking the point total as the game progresses. (It is possible to play cribbage without the distinct boards,  but serious players prefer their aesthetic appeal.)

Cribbage dates to 17th-century England; its origins are unknown, but British poet Sir John Suckling is credited with popularizing the game. In World War II, U.S. submariners played the game amid lulls in action in the Pacific Ocean.

Six cards apiece are dealt in two-player cribbage, with two cards apiece going toward the dealer’s “crib” — essentially, a second hand. A card is chosen at random by the player opposite the dealer that both can use in their hands; this is the “cut card.” Game play is broken up into two components: “play”, in which cards are played in succession toward a set number of points, and “counting,” in which points are awarded based on the cards in each hand and the cut card.

Add in the strategy component — which cards to play when, which cards to keep in a hand for maximum points and which cards to throw into the crib — and the game becomes that much more challenging.

The 44 men and women gathered in Crescent City this past weekend are among the best players in the United States. Tournament director Jim Waldvogel, director of the Crescent City Cribbage Club, estimates that at least half of the field are ACC-designated Masters, meaning they have accrued at least 2,000 Masters Rating Points (MRPs) in their lives. 

One hundred and five MRPs are awarded to the Crescent City Open winner, with additional points for high qualifiers. A quarter of the field — the top 11 — will earn points in the tournament playoffs. Getting to 2,000 takes people years, even decades.

The author takes his seat preoccupied with making the tournament playoffs and not finishing last. He has played occasionally with the Crescent City Cribbage Club — meetings are held Tuesdays at the Coast Guard Auxiliary on Marine Way at 6:30 p.m. — and self-identifies as a perfectly acceptable cribbage player. The key will be to cut down on mistakes in strategy, and not to let bad runs affect him.

The author chats amiably with his first opponent, Tom Langford of McKinleyville, and plays well early — up until Langford turns over a 7-7-8-8-9 crib. Twenty-four points, almost a kill shot in a 121-point game. (The maximum score is 29; four 5’s and a jack with a matching suit to the cut card.) The author loses by 26 points. 

Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson Some of the 44 contestants compete in the 13th annual Crescent City Open cribbage tournament Saturday.
Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson Some of the 44 contestants compete in the 13th annual Crescent City Open cribbage tournament Saturday.
Langford’s son, Tim, is the next opponent. At age 24, Langford is among the youngest players in the field. He combines a brilliant game with great cards to beat the author by 41 points. (Cribbage players are “skunked” if they lose by more than 30 points.)

The author records his first win one game later at the expense of Eureka’s Lavonne Cookman, whose husband, Tom, ranks No. 4 in the nation this season by the ACC for points won in tournament play. (Seasons begin every Aug. 30.) Two more skunkings and two more wins punctuate the tournament until the author lines up against Cres Fernandez of Santa Rosa.

Fernandez, 77, is a quick-witted, warm individual with One-Star Life Master designation from the ACC. He has earned 11,807 MRPs to the point when the author meets him, making him the 50th-highest rated player in the country. He credits the education he received from Catholic nuns in his native Michoacan, Mexico, for his cribbage prowess: “The way to teach is to memorize everything. You have to stand up in front of everybody and recite. It was very hard.”

Fernandez announces upon shuffling that he wants to play fast. The author is game. He plays well enough, but cards do not come up in his favor. Fernandez cruises to a 27-point victory.

Trevor Poole of Crescent City is the 11th opponent on the day. Poole, 12, is half the author’s age and half the author’s size but twice the player. He won an “early bird” tournament on Friday and has won half his games to this point.

Poole, the youngest of six siblings, learned the game watching over the shoulder of his father, Chris. He began competing with the Crescent City club three years ago and found the experience to his liking. Unsurprisingly, math is his favorite subject in school — he’s a seventh-grader at Crescent Elk Middle School.

“He can keep up with adults,” Chris Poole says. “He’s very good at staying with the math.”

Late in his game against Trevor Poole, the author suffers his worst beatdown. Both players, it turns out, were dealt virtually identical hands and threw identical cards into Poole’s crib. The crib is worth 12 points to Poole, and the author loses by 14 points.

It is the midpoint of a seven-game losing streak that the author eventually turns around with a three-game winning streak of his own. Qualifying is a fever dream at this point, but much knowledge is to be gained playing out the string.

When the author matches up against Todd Malmgren, a Two-Star Life Master and the tournament’s highest-achieving player, it hits him: He is physically exhausted. Twenty-two games over six hours with mathematical computation and strategic calculation wears down the body, like a high-stakes poker game. Malmgren beats the author handily.

The player with perhaps the best endurance is also the tournament’s eldest, 92-year-old Ruth Fraker of McKinleyville. Fraker — nicknamed “Ruthless” by the fellow tournament players — began competing in tournaments in 1994 and achieved her Master’s designation at age 90. “All the nice people,” she says, keep her coming back to tournaments. “They really run a nice tournament here,” she remarks after beating the author by 18.

Fast-forward to Sunday’s playoffs, and the championship pits Fernandez (who swept Danny Mitchell of Crescent City 3-0 in the semifinals) and Chris Poole (whose semifinal against Ralph Hart of Roseburg, Ore. came down to the final hand in a 3-2 win). Poole wins the first game with a 2-2-3-4 hand a 4 cut card — 18 points — but Fernandez takes the next two games.

Poole overcomes an early deficit in the fourth game to force a winner-take-all scenario in the fifth. Both players are trading points at the halfway point before Fernandez gets a jack cut with his 8-9-9-10 hand. That’s good for 10 points, and with a four-point crib he wins the championship.

In addition to securing 135 MRPs (105 for winning and 30 for his qualifying score), Fernandez also took home the first-place trophy: a custom-made, lighthouse-shaped wooden cribbage board. It’s another of some 150 cribbage boards that Fernandez has won over his years of tournament play.

One day, maybe, the board will serve a purpose beyond game play: Fernandez has talked with Jerry Oxford of Crescent City — a carpenter who regularly plays with the Crescent City club and in tournaments — about incorporating the cribbage boards he has won into the coffin he will one day be buried in.

“Someone gave me the idea,” Fernandez recounts on Sunday, “and I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’”

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