A game with Keizer’s cribbage master
By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
Two poorly-shot, instructional YouTube videos and an hour trying to memorize the scoring table at the American Cribbage Congress website are all I’ve got when I sit down at the table.
My opponent, Keizerite Rollie Heath, is a 2011 inductee of the Cribbage Hall of Fame with more than 13,000 wins to his name – enough victories that he’s a Life Master. More than enough, actually. To honor the achievement, the powers that be had to add a * next to his Life Master title whenever he’s mentioned in ACC official documents and newsletters.
The thing I should be feeling is intimidation. At another time in his life, Rollie might have wanted it that way. Instead, he is effusive in ushering me to the seat in the kitchen of his apartment. It’s like sitting down to play my family’s card game, Spite & Malice, with my maternal grandfather. Two minutes after meeting Rollie, I’m ready to spend the rest of the day with him.
We cut for the deal. He cuts the low card winning the deal and shuffles the deck three times, standard practice for cribbage. He deals out six cards to each of us.
“When I was younger, I was hot-tempered,” Rollie says. “I was a teacher, strict, but fair.”
Rollie, now 74, surrendered to teaching at the age of 21. He’d led a star-making career as a pitcher at Grant High School in Portland. He was undefeated in the Portland Interscholastic League in 1955, his senior year for the Generals. The team took the PIL title and he had major league aspirations. Rollie secured a slot on the mound at University of Oregon and believed he was on his way until injury benched him and sidelined the dream.
Rollie puts down two cards in front of him. I have to add two from my hand. For the duration of the game, which unfolds over several hands, deciding which two cards to let go will be my biggest struggle. The videos didn’t cover this part of the game and focusing on the scoring now seems like a dramatic misstep.
Cribbage is a combination card game and board game. At the end of the hand, we want to be able to peg the most points on the scoring board. Points are scored by any combination of cards that add up to 15, through pairs, two of a kind, and sets, three or more of a kind, and runs, sequences of consecutive cards. Flushes, cards of all the same suit, are also worth pursuing, but probably not as fervently as other combinations. I drop two cards into Rollie’s “crib.” After we play out our hands, he’ll try to get additional points from the ones we’ve discarded. I’ll get the crib on the next hand.
The non-dealer cuts the deck and the dealer picks up the next card placing it face-up on top of the deck. It will be used by both Rollie and I fill complete a five-card hand at the end of play. Rollie puts the community card and deck on his side of the pegging board so we remember who dealt.
Most teachers recall their first year on the job as a harrowing experience, but Rollie let his frustration show in the worst way possible. He’d taken a job as a physical education teacher and baseball coach at Nestucca Union High School off Highway 101 near the Oregon coast in Cloverdale.
“We had no weather for baseball, no summer program and I was a first-year teacher. One night, I told the kids they weren’t good enough for me,” Rollie says. It didn’t take long for word of the incident to reach members of the school board. He was called to a meeting with the board members who offered him a bus ticket to wherever he wanted to go. Rollie swallowed his pride and stuck it out.
Cribbage play begins with the non-dealer laying down a card on their side of the board. The dealer lays down a card on his side and announces the sum of the two cards in play. Play progresses as each player lays down alternating cards and announces the new sum. Aside from scoring with whatever cards you start with, additional points are earned if the 15-sums, pairs, sets or flushes crop up during play. If one of the players manages to hit sum-31, it’s worth two points, otherwise whichever player lays down the last card that gets the total closest to 31 without going over earns a “go,” worth one point. The last player to play a card also gets a point.
I manage to hit 31 in our first hand, but Rollie gets a run and the final point. When we add up our cards, I have three combinations that total 15 points and a pair that nets me eight points total. Between his starting hand and the crib, Rollie leads me by 10 points on the pegging board. The final winner is declared when one of us accumulates 121 points.
After that tumultuous first year, Rollie found more success on the field and in the classroom. “We had five good baseball teams, once we got within two runs of playing for the state championship. I coached wrestling, which I knew nothing about, and had three state champions and 18 kids out of 32 placed. My girls basketball teams went to state every year,” Rollie says.
After some decent runs, he left the baseball diamond behind. “Our school had 185-250 kids and our talent was limited if we couldn’t come up with a couple of pitchers,” he says. With teams that had trouble turning the corner, Rollie couldn’t boast a record that might launch him into college coaching and it was easier to hang up the cleats than continue facing opportunities that kept passing just beyond his reach.
After the second hand, I’m up by four on the pegging board, Rollie cuts my lead down to two in the third hand, but I regain the two points I lost on the fourth hand. I’m starting to get a feel for the game, but discarding to the crib is a frustration, especially knowing Rollie might assault me with ammunition I’m supplying. I ask if cribbage is more a game of luck or skill. Rollie tells me about Theory of 26.
Ideally, any dealer should score at least 16 points when they play. The non-dealer should score at least 10. For each two-hand cycle, that means 26 points total. Rollie adheres to strategy because it’s a measuring stick that allows any player to instantly know where they stand in relation to their opponent. By the Theory of 26, I’m ahead of where I need to be, Rollie is lagging slightly behind.
“You’re holding your own and you’re getting to be pretty damn fast counting up your hands,” he says.
“I have a good teacher,” I say. “He’s a Hall of Famer.”
While he was finding his groove as a high school coach, Rollie proved to be even better in the classroom. In addition to teaching physical education, he took on driver’s ed which helped forge stronger relationships with his charges in one-on-one and one-on-two settings. He had a soft spot for any kid battling personal demons. It led to him taking on a role as a counselor.
“It was about listening to them. I’d like to think there are about 30 kids out there, who were being sexually abused, that are better off because I took the time to listen and do what had to be done,” Rollie says.
By the end of the next hand, Rollie is back up by nine.
“I didn’t answer your question about luck or skill. It’s luck, about 90 percent is the luck of the cards you are dealt, but there are some real numbers folks playing the game who say it’s about 15 percent skill, but that’s still 85 percent luck,” he pauses and looks at his cards before starting to shuffle up the next hand. “Unless I’m winning, then it’s skill,” he adds.
Rollie maintains the nine-point lead through the next hand. I threw a six of hearts into the crib that would have given me a double run and cut into his lead. He offers to let me keep the points, but I decline. Rollie is overly gracious as he teaches me the ropes of the game.
Out of the blue, Rollie says, “I learned more about sportsmanship playing cribbage than in all the years I had as a coach.”
I’ve been a journalist and writer for a dozen years. If you asked me what I’ve become best at in that time, it’s the interview. More than once, I’ve had colleagues in the journalism field ask me how I “get” people’s stories. How do I get a Ph.D. in psychology to give me not just the story about how he tried out for The Commodores, but the one about the young man he mentored and whose death as the result of gang hostilities on a Portland street corner led directly to him becoming a Ph.D.? How do I get the football coach to open up about the most difficult moment he experienced in the wake of being cut from what was considered one of the greatest teams in the history of the sport? I don’t “get” these stories. I earn them, I earn them from people like Rollie when they enter into a space with me that we create together, and when they reveal a door I didn’t see when I arrived in the room. I walk through it by asking questions, “What did the kids teach you, Rollie?”
Rollie’s head drops into his arms like I’ve clobbered him from behind. “Oh, boy. You haven’t got enough hours,” he near-mumbles this into the V of his elbow.
Later, as I’m about to depart, Rollie will be showing me around his apartment and beaming over memorabilia from a careers as a beloved teacher and a world class cribbage player. He’ll open a brown, fabric-covered ottoman and dig to the bottom past scrapbooks and photo albums. He’ll struggle to retrieve a light blue poster board with large messages written in permanent black marker and dozens more inked in the script of individual writers reminding him that they’re standing with him as he tries to complete rehab.
“The kids turned me in,” Rollie says. He’d had a half-gallon-a-day drinking habit when it happened. “A year out from retirement, I showed up at work drunk one day and the kids turned me in. I was sent home and checked into rehab the next day.” In rehab, family didn’t visit, but his students sent him the card. “They saved my life,” he adds.
On the next hand, I reclaim a three-point lead, but it’s vaporized on the hand after when Rollie lays down 20 points on an epic crib hand and takes a 13-point lead. The highest hand possible in cribbage is worth 29 points. Some players never see one in their lives. Rollie has had three himself and dealt five others.
As he battled addiction, Rollie began looking for a starting point to begin rebuilding his sense of self-worth.
“The thing that I had that helped bring back my self respect – that I did well sober – was cribbage,” Rollie says. He’d learned the game from a custodian at NHS while drinking, but when he threw himself into it with all the vigor he once saved for the reaching the bottom of a bottle he discovered it could replace the alcohol.
After getting sober by the end of the academic year, and despite the wishes of the school administrators, the Nestucca students voted Rollie “Teacher of the Year.”
He’d sorted out his teaching gig, but Rollie’s cribbage game needed work before he could begin to soar. He entered a tournament in Portland and finished seventh winning just three games out of 22. He thought about quitting, but a friend urged him to stop licking his wounds and play. In Rollie’s next tournament, the Oregon Coast Classic, he won. He kept up with cribbage until it became an addiction in its own right. In 23 years of playing sober, he’s taken the top prize in 13 major tournaments and five major consolations. He was ranked among the top 10 players in the nation in 1997, 1998, 2000 and 2002. The high mark was winning the Joseph Petrus Wergin Open – the World Series of cribbage – in 2007. It won him a $10,000 purse and bragging rights. He still remembers the pegging situations and cards played leading up to his biggest wins and most bruising losses.
One of the challenges of cribbage, the one that is beginning to eclipse my difficulties in discarding to the crib, is managing both the cards and the pegs. It’s not uncommon for a player to get confused and begin pegging backward to the starting line. And sometimes, it’s possible to lose the trees for the forest.
“The toughest loss came in a high rollers contest. I had two points to go out and he had six to go. He played a three and I had a three and I didn’t play it. All I had to do was play that three for a pair and the two points, but I lost where I was and ended up losing the game,” Rollie says.
While he doesn’t get out to as many tournaments as he once did, he fills in the gaps by playing with other local enthusiasts. His favorite opponent is another Hall of Famer, Paul Hatcher, of Salem. The two of them have played more than 12,000 games together. Until a somewhat recent computer crash, Hatcher had kept track of every one.
I count up my hand and Rollie counts up his. I’ve cut his lead by eight and he’s eight pegs from the finish line. When he picks up the crib it’s precisely the eight points he needs for the win. I’m sixteen away from the finish line feeling like I’ve made great strides in an hour and a half as a cribbage player.
I ask Rollie what he gets out of this game, what’s still out there that challenges him given all that he’s accomplished.
“I was sitting around a few months ago looking at all my awards and thinking about all the people who were going to pass me up in rankings after I die. I realized what was left was enjoying the game and enjoying the people. I always thought that most people are good even in our world of chaos, and I enjoy finding them at a cribbage table,” Rollie says. “I also work with a lot of people who have drinking problems, I find that to be satisfying. Some of them even play cribbage.”
Being good at the game helps, he says, but it’s actually more a matter of realizing our limitations, “When I’m hot, it’s not me, it’s the cards. But I’m a good enough player that I know how to take advantage of good cards.”
I leave Rollie wishing these types of interviews reared their heads more often, missing my grandfather more than usual, and hopeful that, when the times come, I know how to take advantage of the good cards when they’re dealt.
NEED TO KNOW
Ready to learn more about cribbage from a master?
Anyone can join in the game or just drop into spectate when the Oregon’s Capital Cribbage Club meets each Thursday at the clubhouse at the Reflections at Hidden Creek Apartments, 6651 Hidden Creek Loop N.E., in Keizer. They meet for a nine-game mini-tournament each Thursday at 6:30 p.m. For questions or more information, contact Craig Jensen at 503-409-3749 or [email protected]