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The Recorder - Cribbage tournaments keep people coming back to South County Senior Center

Heavy is the head that wears the crown — unless that crown is plastic and held together by duct tape.

In that case, that crown just might be one of the prizes received by winners of South County Senior Center’s monthly cribbage tournament. The senior center started the competition about eight years ago because, as Program Coordinator Sue Corey puts it, “we love to play cribbage.” It has since grown in popularity, with about one or two handfuls of regulars showing up at 9:30 a.m. on the second Wednesday of each month. Corey noted that attendance is higher when it’s not winter, as several of the center’s members are snowbirds and fly south to warmer climates.

“There were so many people that liked to play cribbage, so we established a time where everyone can compete against each other,” Corey said as she watched Sylvia Nye play Walter Sadowsky and Matthew Jakutowicz against Steven Perkins during a recent match. “Everybody plays everybody once. If there’s an odd number, I get to play.”

While the competition is stiff, the players agreed that’s not the main draw. They keep coming back for the camaraderie they find through the tournaments and the North Main Street center’s friendly atmosphere. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be a little incentive for winning.

“The person that wins, they get $5 (and) bragging rights in our monthly newsletter,” Corey said, adding, “And the crown. They get to wear the crown.”

She noted the center’s director, Christina Johnson, bought the crown online.

Sadowsky, 78, is the tournament’s current two-time reigning champion, having won in December and January. He said he learned the game in his 20s but did not start playing regularly until the tournament started. That story seems pretty typical among the senior center’s players, as the demands of career and family often put recreation on the back burner. But one’s golden years often provide a better opportunity for leisure. Still, not every elder can count on having ample time to kill.

“Because I work four different jobs, I can’t always be here,” Jakutowicz said. “I’m surprised I even made it today.”

But while busy, Jakutowicz is at the top of his game.

“I beat Steve. And that’s an accomplishment, because I think he was a champion two months in a row,” he said, noting he appreciates “good competition. Plus, Sylvia, she makes excellent blueberry muffins. She really does.”

According to Corey, the tournament’s bracket is determined by players drawing numbers at random. For example, player one plays player two, and player three takes on player four. Then they swap. 

“They’ll each play a total of three games, with four people. When we had 10 people, it actually took two days,” Corey said, “because some people are very quick; some people, it takes a little longer.”

The game’s history and benefits

Like virtually all card games, cribbage requires a combination of luck and skill.

According to the American Cribbage Congress (ACC), the game was invented in the 1600s by Sir John Suckling, an English knight, poet, playwright and gambler born into a wealthy and prominent family. It was originally called “Cribbidge” and consisted of features from Noddy and One-and-Thirty, two other card games of the day.

Cribbage is typically played between two players, though sometimes three or four, using a standard 52-card deck. A game begins with the dealer distributing six cards face down to each player, beginning with the opponent. Players earn points for making various card combinations, and the objective is to be the first player to score at least 121 points (occasionally 61). Each time a player scores, they advance a peg along a row on their side of the game board, counting one hole per point.

Corey also says cribbage has proven to be beneficial to the aging.

“With the counting, it’s very good for the mind — keeps you sharp,” Corey said. “Right, Silvia?”

“Well, it’s not doing me any good now,” Nye quipped, looking at yet another lousy hand.

Nye, 85, has been playing cribbage since she was 14 years old.

“It’s a lot of fun,” she said, gesturing across the table to her competitors. “They’re all good sports, too.”

Learning the game in different environments

In attendance at last month’s tournament, Patty Zoly said she learned to play years ago while working as a bartender at the Bloody Brook Bar, which is now The Tavern Sports Bar in South Deerfield’s village center, having been taught by a regular customer who worked second shift. Jakutowicz, on the other hand, started playing while serving in the United States Navy.

“I’ve been playing since I was in the military, in Vietnam, off the coast of Vietnam. I even played with the captain one time,” he recalled. “I did beat the captain and I went back and told some of my shipmates and they said, ‘Matt, that’s not a good thing to do.’”

For Corey, cribbage is a bridge to her childhood. She recalls her father and grandfather teaching her to play while visiting family in Maine when she was 10 years old. There was no electricity in the family’s cabin, so everyone entertained themselves with card games. The center’s monthly games are reminiscent of those memorable times around the table, she said.

Just then, her description of the senior center tournament’s jovial nature was interrupted by Nye’s exaggerated screeches when opponent Sadowsky sported a dynamite hand.

“Put up your dukes,” Nye told Sadowsky in jest.

“Wally just got a 29-hand, and a 12 in the cat,” Corey said, explaining that a 29-hand is the best possible hand. The odds of getting one in a two-player game is one in 216,580. 

Jakutowicz mentioned that he, also, has one of the fabled hands on his résumé, having been dealt it while playing at the South Deerfield Polish American Club.

He memorialized the occasion with a photo he keeps on his smartphone. Corey said a deck is retired whenever a player gets a 29-hand.

Juxtaposed to that rare occurrence, a more regular one happened a short while later.

“Your muffins are gone, Sylvia,” Corey called out.

“Well, that’s good,” Nye replied.

“There’s more blueberries than there is muffin. They’re excellent,” another woman chimed in.

Domenic Poli joined the Greenfield Recorder in 2016. He covers Sunderland, Whately, Conway and Deerfield. He can be reached at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.

How to connect

Besides South Deerfield’s second-Wednesday tournaments, the ACC sponsors hundreds of sanctioned tournaments throughout North America each year. Winners of these tournaments can earn Master Rating Points, trophies, and cash awards. The non-profit organization maintains statistics each year and presents lifetime awards. It awards $100 for every 29-hand earned in sanctioned play, and certificates for all 28-hands. Also, its members receive Cribbage World, a monthly magazine. It includes information on tournaments, schedules and point standings. The ACC Grand National XXXIX is scheduled for Sept. 22 to 27 in Sacramento, Calif. More information is available at cribbage.org. The senior center can be reached at 413-665-2141. The next local tournament is scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 12.

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