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Disciples of the Game


photos by  MARK LUFKIN

[photo of couple playing cribbage]

CRIBBAGE ORIGINATED IN ENGLAND, INVENTED IN THE first half of the 17th century by one Sir John Suckling, who was said to be "thegreatest gallant of his time," soldier, poet, playwright and card sharp. Sir John might well have been surprised, however, to know the extent to which his game caught on in " the colonies," as some British still like to think of America. Today there are about 7,000 cribbage players in the American Cribbage Congress (ACC).

Some of the game's most dedicated disciples are right here in Humboldt County, among the 40 members of the Humboldt Cribbers, who, this weekend will host for the second year in a row the Humboldt Bay Classic at the Mad River Rapids recreation room in Arcata.

Nearly 100 players are expected, slightly up from last year. They will pay a $50 entry fee, (a part of that going in donations to the American Red Cross and the American Leukemia Society), in the hope of taking home trophies as well as some cash, going as high as several hundred dollars for the first-place winner.

They will be coming in from all over the West Coast, plus one couple from Wisconsin and a possible entrant from Arizona.

Ruth Fraker, a sprightly, blue-eyed and white-haired widow of 79, says that's nothing: "There are people who fly from coast to coast to play in cribbage tournaments."

The ACC tournament trail for this season, extending to next July, listed tournaments everywhere from Las Vegas to Anchorage and Niagara Falls to Honolulu, including three on cruise ships.

[photo of Ruth Fraker]Ruth Fraker, who grew up playing cribbage and has hardly stopped since, said she hasn't gone quite so far afield.

"I've played in Portland, Oreg., about three to four times," she recounts, "and I've played in Reno about five times, and Crescent City and Oroville, Willows, Quincy, Medford, Roseburg . . ." And, oh yes, she also planned to play in Centralia, Wash., where she'd be in the neighborhood for some family reunions before getting back here for the Arcata tournament.

On her most recent foray in Reno, she came in 8th out of 340 competing in the 13th annual Independence Day Cribbage Open, bringing back a nice little plaque plus $580. Obviously, she's no slouch at the game.

She goes on to say: "There's a fellow in Missoula, Mont., DeLynn Colvert, who's written several books on cribbage and who has a very high rating. He's considered the master."

Then, in a quiet aside and with an artless little smile, she adds: "But I can beat him."

[photo of Hershel Mack]Herschel Mack, 57, who is a professor of communications at Humboldt State University and who is the director of this weekend's tournament at Mad River Rapids, is another Humboldt Cribber regularly on the ACC tournament trail. He and his wife, Rickie, who is the statistician/secretary for the Humboldt Cribbers, just recently celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary. They often go together on cribbage expeditions.

Mack has already played in 15 tournaments this year. During a lull in play at a recent Thursday night Cribber session that's their regular game night, at the Red Cross quarters in the Eureka Municipal Auditorium he told me, looking just a bit sheepish about it, " I've played the last seven weekends in a row." He has played as far away as Virginia and Massachusetts, but he can't do that often during the school year unless he flies, which he occasionally does.

Herschel is one of  three past champions of the Humboldt Cribbers, along with Carl Stone and Harold "Lucky" Reed. Reed, incidentally, got the Humboldt Cribbers chartered with the American Cribbage Congress in February 1994, starting out with only three to four members.

"My goal," says Mack, "is to be in the top 50 of the U.S." He has a pretty fair start on that, ranking 33rd among the top 100 players in the Western Region which has probably a total of 3,000 members. At the top of the West, not surprisingly, is that master from Montana, DeLynn Colvert. One of Mack's major wins was at the Chinook Winds Casino at Lincoln City, Ore., where he placed fourth out of maybe 240 players, and picked up "about $600," along with his plaque.

As Ruth Fraker says: "It's a bigtime business." She mentioned that she didn't stay around to see who came out first in that Reno tournament. "I was tired after three days of playing," she said.

When I suggested that it "sounds worse than poker players," with whom I have some slight acquaintance, she was quick to admit: "Oh, it is! It's a disease, an addiction." (But surely no worse than television, I'm thinking.)

Fraker knows of some couples who play every day, including one that plays after breakfast, after lunch and after dinner. "It's a good pastime," she says, a good two-person card game."

She recalls: "My husband came from a big family and so did I, and during the Depression you made your own amusement. When we were first married in 1941, we didn't have a great deal of money, didn't even own a car, so we used to play cribbage in the evenings. And one winter my husband was a logger up on the Olympic Peninsula in the state of Washington it snowed, and they didn't work for three or four months.

[photo of cribbage awards]"And we had three children, and he and I used to play cribbage to see who'd wash the dishes, give the kids a bath, cook meals, bring in the wood, and who got up in the morning to build a fire. I never got up to build the fire. I'd done everything else, but didn't ever have to get up to build the fire. I won those games."

She laughs at the memory. They left the Olympic Peninsula in 1957 and settled in McKinleyville a year later. Fraker has worked here at the Bank of America, at the Humboldt County Medical Center and at a variety of county government jobs, the last of them at the tax collector's office, ending in 1984.

Now her main interests are doing volunteer work at the Senior Center in McKinleyville, working for the Catholic church there (as well as walking a mile to the church for daily mass), traveling and playing cribbage not necessarily in that order.

Before Earl Fraker died in the autumn of 1995, she and her husband went together on cribbage trips. "but he wasn't as competitive as I've become," she acknowledges.

"After he passed away," she adds, "I went back over to the club, probably six weeks later, and somebody said, `We wondered what you were going to do,' and I said, `I don't think he'd want me to sit at home and look at four walls, so I decided to go back to cribbage.'"

For the uninitiated (like myself), cribbage is a two-handed card and peg-board game with 121 holes. The object is to move your peg across the finish line before your opponent (or "pone," as they say) does. If the poor pone doesn't make it as far as the 91st hole, that's a "skunk," and the height of ignominy.

There are about a zillion ways to score points in cribbage, or so it seemed to me after reading Douglas Anderson's "All About Cribbage," a thin volume I picked up at the Eureka Library. You can score by cards adding up to 15 (a 10-point face card and the 5, for example), by runs, by pairs, and "pairs royal" (three of a kind) or "double pairs royal" (four of a kind), and other ways too arcane to mention.

[photo of group at cribbage table]To cribbage players, the Jack is known as "His Nobs" or " His Nibs," although Anderson's book didn't tell me why, and sometimes just as Jack. You must never touch the pones' pegs, and moving your own peg for more points than you are entitled to is another No-No. There are, in fact, 37 rules of cribbage listed in the Anderson book, which, I must confess, told me more than I ever wanted know.

From Ruth Fraker and Herschel Mack I learned that a 29-point hand is the highest possible in cribbage the equivalent, I gather, of a royal flush in poker. Both of them told me they've never had one. Fraker added: "But in the last year and a half, I've had five 28's and I'd never had a 28 before."

One other lesson gleaned from the Anderson book does seem worth noting. Sir John Suckling was "regarded as the best card player and bowler in Britain, if not in all Europe." but he also had his down days. (Don't we all!) A friend, John Aubrey, said that because of Sir John's reputation as a gamester, "no shopkeeper would trust him for six pence," as he might be worth 200 British pounds one day and maybe "minus nihilo" the next.

In fact, old John or actually young John, because he was only 33 when he hit the punk, so to speak, came to an untimely and ignominious end. As Anderson tells the tale, in 1641 Sir John led a conspiracy to rescue a friend from the Tower of London maybe to get in another game of cribbage? The plot, however, was discovered and Sir John fled to France. And there, a year later, "fearing poverty and unable to return to England, he took poison and died."

If the contestants in the Humboldt Bay Classic this weekend think at all of Sir John Suckling, it probably won't be about his untimely and unlamented decease, but of the game he left behind.


1. Rickie Mack, seated left, plays a hand with Barrett Mace.

2. Ruth Fraker Studies her hand.

3. Hershel Mack will sometimes jump on a plane for the East Coast to play in a tournament.

4. Cribbage awards

5. Rickie Mack and Barrett Mace with other players at a table.

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