After three decades playing the game that scores points with pegs and aims for skunks, Chuck Yursina of Oak Harbor finally has something to show for his favorite past time — a Mexican-style wrestling belt.
At least that’s what he and his Whidbey Island cribbage-playing buddies dubbed his first-place prize won at last month’s Long Beach Invitational Cribbage Tournament.
Yursina beat out 90 players and played dozens of rounds of the centuries-old card game during the weekend tournament, winning $1,000 and the traveling champion belt.
“It’s not something I’ll be wearing around anytime soon,” he joked, slipping the heavy, brightly-colored trophy from its long black carrying case. “In fact, I may not take it out again until I have to give it back.
“It affirms at least I know how to play the game after 30 years,” he added.
Having a champion among them is a novelty for the Whidbey Cribbage Club that first started gathering in Greenbank in 2004.
“It’s the first time any of us has ever won a sanctioned tournament,” Mike Diamanti said of the die-hard regulars that gather every Thursday evening at Island Pizza in north Oak Harbor. “Even though we tease him about the prize, it’s a big deal.”
Cribbage has been described as similar to bridge but without the boredom. While it doesn’t have the trumping zing of poker, it can be cut throat.
However, players’ banter sounds more like acquaintances taking a break from family and daily routine.
“It’s a mental challenge and sometimes a verbal challenge with all the trash talking,” remarked Deborah O’Brien, the only woman taking on about a dozen men during a recent match. “But it’s all in good fun.”
Talking trash, nerd style, passes the time during games of the informal Whidbey club that has no officers, by-laws or mission other than to meet regularly and skunk each other.
“A skunk is beating them out by more than 30 points,”O’Brien explained.
Cribbage is similar to gin rummy in that players score points by forming combinations of cards. Scoring is tracked on boards containing small holes for points. A game can take 15 to 30 minutes. Usually seated at long tables, participants play their cards sitting across from their opponents. They move to the next challenger simply by getting up and moving to the next chair.
The objective? Being the first player to score a target number of points, typically 61 or 121. Points are scored for card combinations that add up to fifteen, and for pairs, triples, quadruples, runs and flushes.
Welcome to the conundrum of cribbage. Aficionados say it’s fairly easy to learn but once they start explaining the rules, all bets are off.
(Yes, there were pennies and dollar bills floating around at Thursday games but that’s just ‘pizza money,’ say the Island Pizza cribbage crowd.)
The explanation goes something like this: Each player gets six cards, then chooses and discards their worst two cards to make a “crib” or “box” — an extra hand of four for the dealer. Non-dealer cuts the pack and dealer turns the top card of the cut, or the “turn.”
The next portion of the game is called “pegging.” Each player takes turns to lay one card at a time on to their own discard pile, adding the face value of one another’s cards each time, in a bid to score points.
“Cribbage is all about getting to 121 points first,” Diamanti explained.
Cribbage started out as mostly a male-dominated game to pass the time on long sea voyages, in dingy pubs and prisons. It became known as “an old man’s game.”
But in these modern times, that’s no longer the case. Young girls and women, encouraged to pursue careers in math, science and technology, may enjoy cribbage because it’s “very much a math game,” O’Brien said.
Overall, getting more youth interested in cribbage is a goal locally and nationally.
“We need more members, younger blood would be great,” said Diamanti, age 69. The American Cribbage Congress just added a youth tournament.
Island Pizza has been happy to turn its back room into a cribbage den from 6 to 9 p.m. on Thursdays for many years, said Gene Rice, the keeper of the “cribbage box.” It’s filled with decks of cards, boards and pegs and stays at the restaurant near Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
Players fill up on personal-size pizza and salads and sip soda during down time as not all two-person cribbage matches finish at the same time.
Competition is basically based on how many people show up.
“As many as 23 of us nerds or as few as three have shown up,” Diamanti said. “We’re informal but we always meet once a week.”
• Whidbey Cribbage Club encourages all those interested in the game or its meetings to show up an hour before the 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday card games begin at Island Pizza, 947 Ault Field Road. For information, call Mike Diamanti at 360-678-3598.