I spent the last week visiting 9,000 or so rolling acres of barley and alfalfa in Montana. The land has been in my partner’s family for three generations. She used to spend her summers climbing the hay bales that are rolled up like snack cakes out there. My job was simple: Enjoy the great outdoors and meet a dozen or so uncles, aunts, cousins, second-cousins, and neighbors who might as well be family
She told me she dreams of Montana and I want to be in those dreams. And, so, I did my level best to respect her holy land.
I usually prefer the great indoors. But near the end of the weeklong trip, I hooked a finger-sized trout in one of the cool, clear rivers snaking through the property and felt, at that moment, a little bit Lewis and a little bit Clark.
There’s not much to do on a working cattle ranch except work, eat, sleep, and work some more. I really nailed the eating part. But when there is a pause in the toil, I learned, ranchers like to play board games and cards.
Allow me to impart some advice that will come in handy to those who may find themselves playing board games with cowboys and cowgirls as the sleepy sun paints the horizon pink: Scrabble is a blood sport in God’s country.
It’s also a wonderful way to unwind after 12 hours of labor. The act of playing — blowing on dice, moving pieces, scribbling down points — is an underrated way to make new friends or turn friends and family, briefly, into bitter enemies. It makes me think the world would be better off if every human was compelled by law to play Parcheesi with strangers from different backgrounds.
My first day at the ranch was full of laughter and declarations of board game victory while feral cats called out for their dinners at the screen door.
The people who work the land on this ranch wake up at 4am to chase cows. They make eye contact as they extend a friendly hand with missing fingers. They smile politely when a visitor complains about the lack of Wi-Fi way out here in the middle of nowhere.
They know every two-letter word in the English language by heart.
The ancient ranch house where we stayed didn’t have a television, but it did have stacks of classic board games like Yahtzee, Monopoly, and Clue. The pile of colorful boxes promised good wholesome fun without any beeps or boops. I’m pretty sure board games would survive the post-apocalypse because the survivors would need something to do when they aren’t fighting mutants.
There is also a porch swing with a view of the mountains. The range in the distance is called “The Crazies.” No one knows why, but one story goes like this: During the frontier days, a woman lost her entire family to one of the many gruesome ends that regularly befell folk back then and walked into the mountains, grief-stricken, wailing, moaning and, well, crazy. This is the sort of story that, true or not, most Montanans would tell with a wink. Things are still deeply weird and occasionally wild in this part of the country, even if more and more coastal fancy pants are showing up and demanding better Wi-Fi.
It didn’t take long to realize I wasn’t cut out for ranch work. I came to this elementary conclusion when I needed to go take a nap after one of the ranch bosses bounced me up to the foothills of the mountains in his truck. I was exhausted. My milky smooth hands are not meant for honest work. To be good at this job, you have to have brain and brawn in equal supply, and I’ve always thought of myself as having a surplus of mostly beauty. I’d love to possess the qualities most successful ranchers have: grit, common sense, and a working knowledge of biology and physics.
In certain kinds of western novels, there’s always a character who gets kicked in the face by a horse and spends the rest of the story drooling. I don’t want to be that character, so I stayed far away from the massive broncs. I’m fairly certain that if I was sent off into the mountains to fix fences in the autumn, my skeleton would be found tangled in barbed wire the next spring. I think the only job I’d be good at on a ranch is chili stirrer.
I learned that one part-time job on the ranch that I’d be potentially qualified for is “agreeable board game loser.” I’ve never been very good at playing board games but I always have fun. I guess I could stir some beans, lose a round of Connect Four, and then get back to the pot.
I knew most of the games in the house, save for one that looked like a well-worn plank of painted wood. I asked my partner what it was and she told me it was for the old-timers in her family who rolled the bales she use to clamber up. Then she changed the topic.
This was a secret invitation. There is a 1980s kid’s movie I loved that begins with a boy asking a mysterious bookstore owner about a magic book. The boy asks if he can read it and the cranky response from the proprietor is a sly “forget about it, this book is not for you.” The boy then steals the book. I am that boy.
I asked her to teach me how to play. It’s too complicated, she said. At least tell me the name of the game, I replied. Cribbage, she responded. I joked that it sounded like something sleepy retirees would play. I was wrong, of course. Cribbage is a game for the weary and waiting.
Cribbage was invented in the 17th century by Sir John Suckling, a poet, and royal court wannabe, who was lucky enough to inherit his father’s estate when he was 18 years old. What was true then is true now: If you’re going to be a poet, then it is best to be born rich.
Sir John was a gallant dandy who was never taken seriously, even though his poems were popular amongst the blue bloods who could tolerate his social-climbing desperation. He was so eager to impress that he raised a troop of soldiers to help King Charles I with his unsuccessful first war against the rowdy Scots. His men were attired extravagantly but bad at fighting. This was one of many stories that his betters giggled about behind his back.
He was, however, a very successful gambler. This was a Golden Age of aristocrats eager for new ways to rip each other off. He was especially good at playing the game that would immortalize him. To this day, Cribbage is the only card game that can legally be “played for small stakes” in English pubs.
Sir John died in France, where he fled after being accused — and later found guilty — of high treason. So, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t the person who brought Cribbage to America, the land of second (and third) chances. Charles Dickens was a fan of Sir John’s legacy, so maybe he smuggled a board in when he stooped to visit the savage new world in the 19th century.
No matter how the game got here, it got here and stayed.
Poker is the unofficial game of the Wild West — it’s relatively easy to learn and exciting to play and only requires a deck of cards. I can’t imagine that Cribbage inspired any gunfights, because it is a deeply cerebral game that combines intuition and arithmetic. Outlaws don’t have the temperament for that kind of recreation. It is, though, an intense and entertaining way to pass time. Which ranchers have plenty of when they’re not weaning calves or steering 1,000 pounds of hot horseflesh across a frozen creek.
Cribbage is also the official pastime of US submariners. The oldest boat in the submarine fleet carries with it a Cribbage board owned by Medal of Honor recipient Richard H. “Dick” O’Kane, a World War II hero who was captured by the Japanese after heroically charging the enemy. Cribbage travels well in a saddlebag or a rucksack.
I don’t know how the game found its way into the hands of the Navy, but every large Montana family has at least one child who can’t wait to go see the world. I guess one of them must have escaped their landlocked home by sea.
She agreed to play a game of Cribbage with me after I wore her down with playful begging. We had just returned from town with groceries for a big dinner that we were going to cook for the family the next day. Chili was on the menu. In Montana, they like their chili with beans, which is offensive to those of us whose kin live in Texas.
We had all evening to play, like a pair of tired ol’ cowhands who had spent the morning soaking in a nearby hot spring.
I don’t learn new things well, but she tried and, for the most part, succeeded in making the fundamentals of the game stick in my memory, if only for a short period of time. How hard could this be, I sneered. Her eyes grew narrow at the question. She warned that if I so much as rolled my eyes, even once, the game would be over. I was to focus and take her instructions seriously.
The lesson looked like the set-up to a politically incorrect joke: A half-Mexican Catholic and a New York Jew with country roots sit down to play a board game in Montana. The punchline, of course, is that she won the first game, which would have been shorter had she a cleverer student. She was patient, though, especially considering her leather-tough teachers were not.
I do not endorse gambling, but before we started, I suggested we make a small wager: The loser would clean the dishes in preparation for the next day’s feast.
She dusted off the rectangular wooden board dotted with four circuitous rows of 30 well-worn holes and proceeded to teach me a game with dozens of rules and its own silly vocabulary.
The very basics: Cribbage is a game about counting. This is a deceptive summation, however. The goal of the game is to score 121 points. Each player is gifted two colored pegs. One denotes the score from the previous turn and the other denotes the current turn’s score. A deck is shuffled. After the deck is shuffled and cut, six cards are dealt; each player has to pick four of them to keep and two to discard into “the crib.” The dealer then gets to keep the crib, so it is important that the player who is not dealing sneaks in their worst cards. This is a game about sabotage, in addition to counting.
She demonstrated this aspect of the game every chance she had. I’m sure it brought her no pleasure.
Points are scored by making pairs or runs. Two points are awarded anytime a player’s cards count up to 15. Two points are given to pairs or triplets. One point is assigned per card in a run. Thirty-one is a magic number: You get a point if your cards add up to, but do not exceed, that number. Pegs are moved forward for every point. I mentioned that Cribbage is a game about, among many things, counting. I had more trouble with that than I thought I would.
Along the way, there are, at least to me, unknowable little tricks that can either earn you or deny you points. There are multiple ways to exact revenge on an adversary in Cribbage. The path to victory, like the path of the holes, is not a straight shot. The game is full of words like muggins, knobs, and pone that all sound like English slang for genitals but, in fact, are obscure ways to advance. To “skunk” an opponent is, simply, to win an extra point for just winning. And it is a delightfully aggravating tactic. This is a rudimentary overview of Cribbage, though. I’m afraid, even if I read a book about it, I’d never fully learn every single detail — there are entire books filled with tips and tactics for fanatics.
I’m told a game of Cribbage played by experienced pros can take a nail-biting 15 minutes. I needed an hour, at least, to lose. My defeat was inevitable, but it still stung. I heeded her warning and did my best impression of an outlaw’s poker face. We counted up the points. She had all the points. Her own stern expression softened and then brightened; we both laughed.
Playing against her, I understood how this complex game can create lifetime rivalries and joyful rematches. I understood this because I immediately asked for a rematch. She wanted to know if I was sure I wanted to lose again. Oh, how I scoffed. But that was a bluff. What I didn’t tell her was that, at that moment, I was sure I’d be happy spending all my days watching her win. We agreed that I could pay my debt the following morning. The new bet: Loser buys huckleberry ice cream bars.
I shuffled, I cut, the crib was mine.
Most nights, the Montana sky is nothing but thousands of stars spilled across the heavens like thrown dice. This night, however, the old frontier was starless and dark, like the bottom of the ocean. The only light for miles was a single lightbulb dangling from the ceiling over a game of Cribbage played by two people who, in a few hours, would be sharing the same dreams.