Fifteen-two and counting: Cribbage at Offshore

Jim Trish shows Bill Narkiewicz the money (a $1 bill) after getting skunked this past Thursday. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Sir John Suckling made it to age 40 – barely. The aristocratic English one percenter was a trend setter in his day. A warrior and rake, a gambler and womanizer of note in the early 17th century, Sir John’s accomplishments did not include, alas, backing the right horse to be king in the monarchy wars raging at that time.

His man, Charles I, lost, and Sir John was executed in the ensuing downsizing. But before he trotted off this mortal coil, Sir John invented cribbage, that down homey king of board games that’s been played almost since Bartholomew Gosnold landed on Martha’s Vineyard.

Cribbage is still here and its popularity has been growing every Thursday night this winter at Offshore Ale Co. in Oak Bluffs, where upwards of 20 aficionados deal the cards and hope to move small wooden pegs up and down rows of tiny holes on a small wooden board before their opponent gets there. You can join them at 8 pm for a few more weeks until the group takes a hiatus for summer. They will resume next January.

Despite the rock star status of the game’s inventor, the folks playing on Thursday night love it for the challenge that rewards strategy and anticipation and, importantly, because it is a game loaded with pleasant, important memories for them. Those memories drew a surprisingly young demographic: Plenty of 20-somethings sans iPhones.

“Oh yeah, I remember going to Montana every summer as a kid to visit my grandfather. We played cribbage all the time. That’s what we did,” Colin Evanson said on Thursday night after congratulating friend Lizzie Andrews on her first Thursday night win.

“This is awesome. When we learned this Thursday night thing was going on, we came to check it out. I didn’t realize so many people liked cribbage,” Ms. Andrews said, scanning the room.

Probably very few of us realize the game’s appeal. But after talking to the players and learning their histories with “pegging,” “counting,” and “skunking,” the idea took shape that cribbage is a family heirloom, passed on at the kitchen table from the grownups. A rite of growing up. Like most of the players, I remember being excited to be old enough to be invited by my grandfather to sit down at the board. And I still like recalling that.

Mr. Evanson realized the importance of cribbage in his family life, and he made a cribbage board in the shape of the Island as a Mother’s Day gift for his mom. I’d have paid cash money to see the expression on her face when she opened that gift of memories memorialized.

Jake Gifford, co-proprietor of The Lazy Frog in Oak Bluffs, hosts the weekly tournament, at the invitation of Phil McAndrews, Offshore owner. It was the brainchild of pizza chef Freddie McDougall.

Mr. Gifford patrolled the five tables, bell in hand, to toll the beginning of a night of singles play, with the winner taking $20 home. Mr. Gifford was a kitchen table cribbage inductee and took the family game with him from the South Shore to The Lazy Frog where the boards are in good supply.

“Yeah, they do sell,” Mr. Gifford said, noting that the first couple of weeks of the tournament included tutorials for rusty and new players. At table one, Kate Medeiros, an engaging barista at Mocha Mott’s by day, explained the finer points of point-making to Marnie Gauley, who is taking up the game after a long hiatus. “Yep, I learned it at the kitchen table, like a lot of people,” Ms. Gauley said as Ms. Medeiros helped her count a hand that moved Ms. Gauley’s peg far ahead of her own.

Not everyone was a kitchen table novice. Bill Narkiewicz, an expert knitter and DJ at WMVY, learned it at UConn. “My roommate was an Irish guy. He taught me and we played all the time,” he said. As a testimony to the game’s inherent appeal, Mr. Narkiewicz recalled a bachelor party that began as a poker fest and ended as a cribbage tournament. “My roommate and I wanted to play cribbage, not poker, and within a half-hour the rest of the guys switched from poker to cribbage,” he recalled.

Ms. Medeiros said she learned the game “in the fifth grade at the Tisbury School. I liked it and so I taught my friends to play.” Math skills, memory, and strategy are the key ingredients to good cribbage play. Ms. Medeiros has also found a version called “chess cribbage” online. “You play five games simultaneously. I made a board for it,” she said.

And so it went. No one reached cribbage nirvana, a perfect 29 score in a hand. Jim Criss, the overall win leader this winter, got “skunked” when Mr. Narkiewicz lapped him on the board.

The players were intent, having fun playing a 400-hundred-year-old, no-tech game.

Cribbage Night, Thursdays, 8 pm, Offshore Ale Co., Oak Bluffs. For more information, call 508-693-2626.