Work friends often become life friends. They can lift you up when you’re feeling down, save your sanity by sending funny texts during laborious meetings, and even join you in creating new adventures. Such is the case for M.V. Hospital employees Mary Alice Russell and Tricia Bergeron, who bonded over their love of cribbage, and went on to start the Vineyard Cribbage Club in 2019.
Cribbage is a card game, traditionally for two players, that involves playing and grouping cards in combinations that gain points. Instead of using pencil and paper to score, however, players use a wooden board and pegs. According to cornwallmanor.org, cribbage is a derivation of the game “noddy,” invented in the 1600s by Sir John Suckling, an English poet, gamester, and gambler. While noddy has disappeared, cribbage has survived, and is played by millions of people of all ages and backgrounds.
“Our oldest member is Dick Kelly. He’s 90. He told me once that his wife thinks he’s here to play cribbage, but really he’s here to get a hug,” Russell laughed. “He’s amazing.”
The Vineyard Cribbage Club, 439, is part of the American Cribbage Congress, established in 1980 as a nonprofit organization dedicated to making the game of cribbage fun and fair for people of all ages. The Island’s club consists of about two dozen members of all ages and occupations. “Our group is a cast of characters. Hospital people, retired people, doctors, blue-collar workers. You name it. The youngest are probably in their 40s, but in the summer, people in their 20s drop in,” Bergeron said.
Though often considered an older person’s game, cribbage has qualities that benefit younger folks as well. ”Most people say their parents or grandparents played,” Bergeron said. “They say cribbage is an old person’s game, but one of our members who used to teach at Tisbury School taught all of his kids how to play. It’s a great way to teach math.”
Playing cribbage is often passed down from generation to generation. Bergeron and her husband play, and Russell’s family are cribbage people. Her husband Bill not only plays but announces as well. “At the beginning of the evening, he announces the winners from the week before, welcomes new players, shares the payout schedule, and asks people to sign up to bring food,” Russell said. Russell’s daughters also partake. “My twins learned to play at the Tisbury School in the fourth grade. They’re now 25, and they still play.”
I recently attended a game at the American Legion Hall in Edgartown, and it quickly became apparent that the club isn’t just about the game itself, but connecting with others. Conversations consisted of everything from pets to work to food. The club has a potluck once a month, and members also take turns weekly bringing a main dish and dessert to share. The night I attended, it was Ed Montesion’s turn to bring dinner. Montesion is a former caterer, and his skills were evident as he set out a tray of hot Chicken Cordon Bleu with asparagus, along with rolls and dessert. During dinner there was a lot of laughter and chatter, but at 6 pm sharp, the game began, and the energy shifted a bit into a “this is fun and I like you … but I’d also like to win” vibe.
My knowledge of cribbage is lacking, but in essence, each player is dealt six cards and throws two in the crib (dealer gets the crib), cust the deck, flips the card, and takes turns playing from their hand. Players score if they play a card that makes the total 15 or 31, and win the game by being the first to reach 121 points. To try to understand better, I sat at a table with club member Samantha Burns and watched a few rounds. She was kind enough to explain what points were attached to which card, and when and how they moved the pegs. I nodded and smiled, but probably looked like a deer in headlights, but I was intrigued by the cribbage board and pegs. The board has 120 holes, and each player has two pegs that they place in the holes, moving further along as they get points. Many of the players had traditional wooden pegs, but several had personalized pegs — anchors, horses — and one player, Chick Stapleton, had chick pegs that Burns had recently gifted her.
Players are placed depending on how many games they win. The week prior to my visit, Kathy Kinsman won every game — a grand slam. The night I visited, Bill Russell wound up coming in first. If you lose every game, it’s called a string of pearls, because your score is 000000. There is also something called “getting skunked.” In the center of the cribbage board, there is a line with an S on it. If your opponent makes it to the end, and you haven’t received enough points to pass the S line, you’re skunked. The skunked person then walks over to a table, puts a $1 bill into a skunk-shaped jar, and rings a cowbell, while everyone applauds and playfully razzes them. There were 12 skunks the night I was there.
So where does the money come from for cash prizes? “People pay to be a part of the group. Each night it’s $15. Two dollars goes into a 24-point hand, and the winners will split the money in that pot. To join the club, it’s $8 a year for grassroots, and $23 a year for national. If you’re new, you can play four times as a guest to try it out,” Bergeron explained.
The Vineyard Cribbage Club doesn’t just award their members, though. They also provide scholarships. “We pay a $500 scholarship to someone who is going into the trades field,” Bergeron said. So far, the club has given out more than $2,000 to support the blue-collar workforce.
Though the club is a tight-knit group, they happily welcome new members. The night I was there, a woman came in a little late, and Bergeron immediately invited her to a table to play. Though she clearly had some cribbage experience, what struck me was just how much she was smiling.
Intrigued? “Just show up at the American Legion Hall in Edgartown by 5:30 on a Wednesday. We eat dinner, then play. And we play all year. It’s so great to have something to do during the winter too. It’s really fun. I’ve formed so many new great friendships,” Russell said.