The Magazine

Game Over

The rise and fall of televised cribbage.

Oct 20, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 06 • By JOE QUEENAN
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Nothing in entertainment history is more shocking than the overnight collapse of the televised cribbage craze.

Prime-time cribbage came and went faster than Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? and for the same reason: greed, overexposure, copycat programming, the television industry's constitutional inability to nurture a newborn. There is a lesson to be learned here. If you're going to kill the golden goose, at least wait until it's stopped being a gosling.

Until Al Gore mentioned it on a late-night public television program several months ago, cribbage was almost unknown in this country, its enthusiasts limited to a few aging sailors and a handful of wan, pasty-faced anglophiles. Played with a board that contains two sets of 120 holes, cribbage players score by combining cards to total 15 or 31 points, or by pairing several identical cards, or by arranging runs of consecutive cards.

Easy to learn, with an official lingo limited to a few catch phrases like "Morgan's Orchard" (two pairs) and "Two for his nibs" (two points are awarded when the jack turns up after the cards are cut), cribbage has long been a staple of British pub life, where teams compete on a weekly basis for local supremacy. But even in Britain, its popularity has been dwindling for years as it is now mostly associated with an aging, genteel, generally rustic demographic group, not with the young, edgy, hard-drinking urbanites advertisers crave.

Given these particulars, no one could have foreseen the cribbage tsunami that swept the nation this past year. But thanks to the desperation wrought by the writers' strike, networks were prepared to try just about any programming as long as it was inexpensive and novel. That was certainly an accurate description of the reality show Castaway Cribbage, which debuted in January. Castaway Cribbage featured 13 Gilligan's Island impersonators trapped in Shamokin, Pa., for three months with nothing to do but play a card game that none of them liked or understood. Each week, the lowest scorer got booted off the show. The losers won SUVs and condos; the winner took home $10 million. The kicker was that none of the contestants had ever played cards before as they were all practicing Methodists.

"We originally thought about mah jong or Go or belotte or something Third Worldian," explains Chantal McElroy, who came up with the idea for the show. "But those games were too hard to follow on television. Even on a 52-inch flat screen, mah jong is boring. The only thing worse is ice hockey."

"We knew that people would accuse us of trying to cash in on the poker craze," concedes executive director/stunt coordinator Wayne Ferris. "In fact, we were leery of cards to begin with, because Redneck Canasta had gone down in flames on A&E and Old Maids in the 'Hood had crashed and burned over on BET. But we thought that because of the cute little pegs and the funny scoreboard, cribbage just might touch a nerve."

"People who think we phoned this in have no idea how hard it is to find eight Methodist Gilligan's Island impersonators," adds McElroy. "We were this close to bagging the cards idea and going with Big House Quoits."

If the network was seeking to touch a nerve, a nerve it touched: The staggering popularity of Castaway Cribbage led to not one but two prime-time ESPN programs devoted to the heretofore arcane card game: Cotswold Smack-Down Hold 'Em and Cribbage: Rawer Than Raw. This was followed by the blockbuster film Deck Shoes about a mild-mannered math teacher from Bury St. Edmund's (Antonio Banderas) who saves a group of inner-city ballerinas from drugs by teaching them the venerable-if-somewhat-prissy limey pastime. By March, cribbage was the second-most-viewed sport on television, right behind professional football and X-treme snowboarding.

Add to that a trio of reality shows--El Sabado del Cribbage, Queer Jack for the Straight Queen, and No Crib, No Cribbage--not to mention a line of cribbage apparel designed by Tommy Hilfiger, and it's not hard to see why cribbage made the covers of Time, Newsweek, Forbes, and Vibe the very same week. And with online cribbage projected to rake in $183.8 billion in annual wagers, cribbage seemed poised to depose the online poker industry that had dominated the Net since Spring 2006.

How, then, did a sport that seized the nation by the throat in January completely fade from view in a matter of months? Clearly, its association with Al Gore helped and hurt. In 2007, while developing a line of eco-friendly children's products under the rubric Green Games for a Grey Planet, Gore got his hands on scientific data indicating that cribbage playing left the smallest carbon footprint on the planet of any pastime known to man, including checkers, Parcheesi, Fish, Ultimate Stratego, and Clue.

"You just don't move around a whole lot when you're playing cribbage," Gore told Charlie Rose. "You don't eat, you don't talk, you don't sweat, you hardly need to breathe. It's a little bit like being John Kerry. If everybody on this planet would take up cribbage and stop driving their Hummers to tailgate parties, or playing World of Warcraft 24 hours a day, we could reduce carbon emissions 90 percent by the year 2010. If we could get the Chinese to play cribbage, we'd reduce emissions by half that amount by Flag Day. Cribbage may be the most powerful new idea since metrosexuality."

It soon turned out that Gore's data were all wrong: Because most cribbage boards are made of wood, the popularity of the game was causing devastating deforestation of the Amazon, inflicting even worse damage on the ozone layer. This grim news hit the papers the same day Celebrity Cribbage was slated to air, and just as the public was starting to tire of the craze. Today, televised poker is alive and well, while cribbage mania is scarcely a memory.

"Cribbage went the way of the meringue, communism, the pet rock, Wig Wag magazine, Judge Reinhold and Bill Richardson," laments Ferris. "I think the real killer was when Madonna started playing cribbage with Sting and Paris Hilton and Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan after her kabbala classes. The public liked it when cribbage players were fat slobs from the Post Office with stupid hats and starter goatees and aviator glasses and nicknames like Odin, Bringer of Suburban Darkness.

"Once Brad and Angelina got interested, cribbage was doomed."

Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country.