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.