Twice a week, a group of mostly older men congregate in a back corner of the American Legion Hall on St. Patrick Street in Rapid City to keep alive a tradition of playing a centuries-old card game.
Beginning about 7 p.m., the members of the Black Hills Cribbage Club arrive. And while there's talk of their wives, their lives and sometimes their latest illnesses, the focus is mostly on playing cribbage with a healthy dose of ribbing and fibbing rolled in.
The B-S and banter begins almost immediately among the men, who know each other well.
Longtime player Rick Vee stepped in on a recent night, balancing three cups of coffee in his hands, distributing them to players still seated at the tables.
“Rick, I ordered a ham sandwich,” one of the other players joked.
But while they congregate to socialize, for the next three hours they are mostly there to focus on playing competitive cribbage.
Tops among the local players is Wes Hall, a legend at the American Legion Hall gatherings.
Hall, 85, an Air Force veteran who wears a "Support the Troops" cap, is there almost every Monday and Thursday nights. He’s got a quick smile and gentle attitude, but he plays a mean game of cribbage.
Hall is the longest-standing member of the Black Hills Cribbage Club. He plays a fast game; he's the first one to finish, and even his competitors will acknowledge that he usually wins.
Leroy Schecher, 82, said he learned to play cribbage as a 17-year-old living in a hotel in Bison, S.D. when the infamous blizzard of 1949 hit. He said he and a couple other guys sat up all night playing cribbage and watching the storm as it snowed them under.
As the two play warm-up games before their regular Thursday-night tourney games, the jesting starts even before the first 15-2 is counted.
“He’s the old fart,” Hall said of his longtime pal.
“He’s the matriarch,” Schecher said of Hall, later correcting himself, that he meant to say the “patriarch” of their club.
Hall said he learned the game from his uncle while in grade school but really developed his cribbage chops while in the service.
With 218 points acquired for victories last year, Hall took first place in the Black Hills Cribbage Club.
Hall said he loves the game because “anything can happen … there’s so many hands possible.”
An ancient game
Cribbage is a game believed to have been created by English poet Sir John Suckling in the 17th century as an adaptation of a game called "noddy."
At its basic level, two players are each dealt six cards (five cards for three or more players), and the player keeps those that form runs of three, pairs or triplets or the combinations that add up to 15, which each score two points.
Two cards are thrown by each player into a "crib" that is counted by players in alternating hands. There is also a segment called pegging, in which the same point system is used but via alternating dropping of cards. The first player to mark 121 points on a peg board wins the game.
The skill in the game is knowing how to make multiple combinations of 15, but more so in the "pegging" where a player must anticipate his competitor's next play in order to score points, but also prevent the other player from scoring. A strong sense of making combinations of cards and thinking ahead benefit a good player.
The cribbage regulars said like any card game, winning at cribbage is a mix of skill and luck. Hall estimated it was 80 percent luck and 20 percent skill. “That other 20 percent can help you win one once in a while,” he said.
Beyond pride, money is almost always at stake. While winners of the local games can bring home a share of a $90 nightly purse, Vee bragged about trips to Reno, Nev., where he won a top prize of $4,000. He said with all the side betting that goes on, a good player could win upwards of $9,000 at a weekend tourney. (As expected, he doesn't discuss the losses.)
Like many old card games in an technology-crazed world, interest in cribbage seems to be on the wane.
Membership in the Black Hills Cribbage Club is about a third of what it used to be. Back in the 1980s, the club had more than 40 members; today there are 14.
Hall has two daughters and several grandchildren, none of whom play cribbage. “Now, the younger people have better things to do,” he said.
Howard Pearson has been with the club since the early 1990s. As director, he arrives each week with a wooden caddie laden with decks of cards, notebooks filled with names and scores, a 40-page cribbage rule book and ongoing wagers from past matches that are up for grabs at that evening's contest.
“It’s a whole different generation now,” said Pearson. “Everyone here probably learned when they were 10 to 14 years old, back when cards and social gatherings and Sunday dinners were the norm.”
Like the players, the record-keeping that goes on is strictly old-school. Take the “skunk pot”, in which players contribute a quarter each time they lose by more than 30 points, but can then win that kitty if they register a top score later.
Peterson has a tiny spiral notebook that shows who won the pots all the way back to the 1980s.
The local club may also be suffering from lower membership because of the age of its players. The club is still mourning a woman club member who recently died.
In fact, the youngest player in the club is 46-year-old Steve Bernard, who sipped a brew on a recent night while taking on his older brethren.
Bernard lost quickly, and tossed out a good-natured barb as he headed to the restroom to regroup. "Every one of them is 100," he said. "The old bastards — that's why they hate me."
Top score hard to come by
Even though they play dozens of games a week, and have done so for years, both Hall and Schecher have only one coveted 29 game to their credit. A 29 is the highest-possible score in cribbage and can only be obtained when a player holds three fives and a jack that matches the suit of a 5 that is turned up after the cut.
Vee may epitomize how cribbage gets under a player’s skin at some point. He regularly travels to tournaments in Nevada and elsewhere. He and his pals take a van in which all but the driver play cribbage all the way to the event, and after playing up to four dozen games in a weekend, they then play the game all the way back.
Special reverence is given to cribbage players from Wisconsin, where numerous tournaments are held and the game has a long history.
“If someone from Wisconsin beats you, they’re a better player,” Vee said. “If you beat someone from Wisconsin, you just got lucky, and everyone knows it.”
Vee said he’s forged friendships with his fellow players and several of them go fishing together.
“Some of these guys are very nice,” he said, but then added, “some are decent.”