For the state’s largest senior cribbage league, the math-happy card game is a great way to score some fun.

LEWISTON — It took an hour and a half, but 96-year-old Mickie Farnum finally got a hand she liked.

To a non-cribbage player, the cards appeared to be a meaningless jumble. There might have been a jack in the mix? An eight? She looked pleased, though, flashing them just for a moment, there and gone, before slapping a card down on a Lewiston Armory table.

But it was too little too late. At least, for this game.

Around the table, the other three players — ages 73, 71, and 69 — tossed down their own cards in rapid succession, adding them up instantly in their heads and calling out “12!” and “18!” and “27!” at a furious clip. Then, someone hit the max: 31. The laying of cards, which is the first phase of each hand, continued until all the cards in their hands were gone.

Pegs were moved forward on the cribbage board as points were scored — just a little bit for Farnum and her partner, a lot for the two women on the opposing team.

Then they moved to the second phase: counting the points in their hands. “Well,” Farnum said gamely, “we’re not going to get skunked anyway.”

Getting “skunked” is not something anyone desires — either in life or in the Lewiston Senior Citizens Cribbage League. 

“The thing is, most of the time if you say, ‘This is easy! We’ve got it,’ things turn around,” said Anita Maheux, an official scorekeeper for the active 70-plus member league. “Because cards can get you in the end.”

‘ALL NUMBERS ALL THE TIME’

The cribbage league started so many years ago that players can’t remember when it began.

Today it boasts 70 to 80 members, most of them 60 years old or older. While there are a lot of small cribbage groups and leagues scattered across Maine, Ken Capron, founder of the Great State of Maine Cribbage Tournament, believes Lewiston’s group is the largest in the state “by far.”

It’s so large that the league regularly fills the dozen or so tables set up in the Armory’s gaming room. Its not unusual for players to overflow into a second room. 

They are so passionate about the game that when the Sun Journal stopped publishing the club’s weekly winning scores, they submitted a petition signed by 57 members urging the paper to reconsider. (It did. The scores are back in the paper.)  

Play starts promptly at 9 a.m. each Thursday. People begin arriving as early as 8 a.m., when volunteer Roger Labbe is still setting up, so they can get in some practice hands.

Not that many of them need to warm up. A lot of players belong to leagues in other nearby towns, too. They play with spouses at night and grandchildren on the weekend. They’ve been counting cards — in the cribbage sense — since they were kids themselves.

“My mind, it’s just all numbers all the time,” said Anita Maheux, a cribbage lover who serves as official league scorekeeper with her husband.

They’ve been playing the game for decades, which may be why their explanation of the rules to this non-player sounds confounding.

“They pass out four cards — no, wait — they pass out five cards to each player. The player keeps the best four cards and puts one in the crib and whoever dealt, that’s their crib. So the dealer actually gets two hands. They play the first and they play the second,” Maheux said. “With the four cards they’re left with, they start playing and whoever gets up to 31 first gets two points. Thirty-one is two points. If nobody can make 31, it’s whoever made the last point. They get one.”

She paused.

“It’s kind of hard to explain more than that,” Maheux said.  

She plowed on, throwing out terms like “15s” and “runs” and “skunked” (when a team loses by 31 points or more). Eventually she just smiled.

“You’d have to see it,” she said. “You’d have to see it to believe it.”

On a recent Thursday morning, 48 players filled the room, four each to a card table, two people to a team. The space echoed with talking and laughter, the sound of decks being shuffled and the thwap of cards slapped down with vigor. One player taunted another with “nah, nah, nah-nah, nah.”

Things could get a bit competitive.

“We’re just not getting nothing today,” groused Farnum, the league’s oldest player and one of its best, after coming up short several hands in a row.

But any rivalries were more friendly than cutthroat. Opponents helped each other when they stumbled with the card count. One player jumped in to correct the score when she received an extra point by accident. Someone called someone else a showoff, then immediately added, “Good job!”

Carol LaPlante, 73, spent several moments animatedly arguing with her table about who’s turn it was to cut and deal the cards. Suddenly she stopped. Then burst out laughing. 

“You’re right, you’re right. I’m sorry. You’re right,” she said.

A lot of players have been in the league for years, and many attended every Thursday without fail. Because partners and opponents are randomly assigned each week, everyone gets to know everyone else. 

“When somebody is missing or sick or whatever, especially if they’re sick or somebody in the family has passed away, we send them a card,” Maheux said. “A few years ago I had knee surgery and I got a card. Everybody signed it. It’s just nice, you know, to know somebody’s thinking about you.” 

The players are mostly retirees — men and women who for decades owned their own businesses or worked in factories, offices, medical practices or schools.  The Lewiston cribbage league has given them a way to keep socializing. 

“(It gets me) out of the house in the morning,” said Ron Maheux, Anita Maheux’s brother-in-law. “And I love the game and the people here because we’re always joking around.”

They also believe that cribbage, with its constant need for math, memory and focus, helps them stay sharp.

“It’s a challenge, but it keeps your mind going,” Maheux said.

And then there’s the cash prize. League members can put a $1 into a pot every Thursday for that week’s two top-scoring teams to share.

That day’s kitty: $47. Better than bragging rights alone.

“Although bragging rights are OK too,” Maheux said.

MORE FUN WHEN YOU WIN

While many players fell in love with cribbage when they were children, it’s largely considered a game for seniors now. That’s something cribbage fans — including the Lewiston league — are trying to change.

A school in Portland is teaching kids cribbage, Capron said, and a Portland bar holds regular cribbage nights. Members of the Lewiston league have taught area elementary school students the game.

Players at the Thursday game talked about teaching their grandchildren how to play. Some mentioned seeing younger people — 30s and 40s — playing in other leagues around the area.

Capron, who plays in the Portland area, sees cribbage getting more and more popular. He started a statewide tournament last year and drew 180 people. The second tournament drew 240.

“There’s definitely, nationwide, an upswing in players,” he said. “Everything goes in cycles.”

Maheux hopes so.

“I think it’s going to be ongoing, no matter what generation you are,” she said. “I can see this just blossoming, really. It’s hard to imagine that there isn’t going to be cribbage.”

At her table, Farnum and her partner lost all four games. In a second match with different opponents, they lost three and won one.

Despite her 1-7 record for the day, Farnum acknowledged cribbage is still a fun game.

She added, “It’s more fun when you’re winning, though.”

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Carol LaPlante, left, and Mickie Farnum concentrate on their game of cribbage at the Lewiston Armory recently. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Edith Chambers takes a close look at her hand as she decides which cards to play during a Thursday morning cribbage game at the Lewiston Armory. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

A cribbage game in progress at the Lewiston Armory. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Carol LaPlante, right, and Ron Maheux try to figure out whose turn it is to deal during a regular Thursday morning cribbage game at the Lewsiton Armory. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Anita Maheux is the official scorekeeper for the weekly cribbage games at the Lewiston Armory. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Ron Maheux, Carol LaPlante and Sandy Oliver share a laugh between hands during a morning of cribbage playing at the Lewiston Armory. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)


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