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The instant loss of color in Dustin Fitzgerald’s face said volumes.
Dustin Fitzgerald of La Grande got a coveted 29 hand at Sunday‚Äôs tournament. Observer photo/Dick Mason
The shouts that followed said even more.
Fate had smiled on Fitzgerald. Now he was smiling, and the 16 other cribbage players with him were jubilantly smiling back.Fitzgerald had just found himself in possession of a coveted 29 hand Sunday afternoon at the Grass Roots Regional Cribbage Tournament in La Grande. The elusive hand is the crown jewel of cribbage, the highest a player can get in the card game. A 29 hand is comprised of three fives, a jack and a five as the cut card. The five cut card must be the same suit as the jack.
The odds against getting a 29 hand are 216,508 to 1, according to the American Cribbage Congress. For added perspective, an amateur golfer’s chances of getting a hole in one are 12,800 to 1, according to Golf Digest.
“I’ve known people who are senior citizens who have played all their lives and never gotten a 29 hand,’’ said John Fitzgerald, Dustin’s father and the director of the Blue Mountain Peggers, La Grande’s new cribbage club, which put on Sunday’s tournament.
John Fitzgerald, who has had a 29 hand in more than two decades of playing cribbage, will never forget his son’s response.
“His face went white. Then he let out a shriek of disbelief.’’
The 29 hand is the first Dustin, 26, has had since he started playing cribbage eight years ago.
“My friends said I was as white as a ghost,’’ Dustin Fitzgerald said. “I’m amazed. I still don’t believe it.’’
He and his father saved the deck the hand came from and will have it framed.
Sunday’s tournament, conducted at Duke’s Bar and Grill, was one of about 360 regional Grass Roots tournaments put on in the West each year. All are sanctioned by the American Cribbage Congress.
The scores of players competing at Grass Roots regional tournaments are added to a ranking of players from western states including Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California, Nevada and Montana. The ranking is compiled by the American Cribbage Congress.
None of the players in the approximately 360 other Grass Roots Regional tournaments in the West got a 29 hand.
Amazingly, Dustin Fitzgerald, who lives in La Grande, was not the only player who defied long odds at Sunday’s tournament. Lou Gardner of Smyrna, Ga., got a 28 hand, the second rarest in cribbage. The odds of getting a 28 hand are one in 15,208. The 28 hand is only the second Gardner, who was visiting friends in La Grande, has had after playing cribbage for decades since he was child.
Gardner learned to add numbers rapidly as a youngster because of cribbage.
“When I got to school, I could add faster than my teacher, but I could only go up to 31 (the highest cribbage players can go when ‘pegging’),’’ Gardner said with a laugh.’
Cribbage is a card game usually involving two players but can be played with three, four or more players. The game involves playing and grouping cards in combinations that gain points. One objective of cribbage is to get cards in groups that total 15.
Many of the people at Sunday’s tournament grew up playing cribbage at home.
“It is definitely a family game. If one person in a family plays, many in the family usually play,’’ John Fitzgerald said.
Nod Palmer of Union grew up playing cribbage with his family and today speaks proudly of his brother Rob of Baker City, one of the top players in the region. Rob, who was not able to play in Sunday’s La Grande tournament, recently won Grand Nationals and High Rollers in Portland, a rare combination. He made the cover of Cribbage World magazine because of his success.
There are more than 10 million cribbage players in the United States, many of whom are forever honing their skills because of the nature of the game, created in the 1600s by Englishman Sir John Suckling.
“It (cribbage) takes minutes to learn and a lifetime to perfect,’’ said John Fitzgerald, a La Grande resident.
La Grande players constantly honing their skills include Lee Gandy, who often plays 10 to 20 cribbage games a day. He enjoys the game’s calculations.
“I like the mathematical strategy,’’ Gandy said.
Players are drawn to the challenge of the card game and the friendly nature of those who play it, something Sunday’s tournament reflected. Friendly banter could be heard throughout the event. There was no mistaking it for a chess tournament.
“It is a social game,’’ Nod Palmer said.
Sunday’s La Grande tournament involved players going one-on-one in games that usually took about 15 minutes. The head-to-head competition matched players of varying skill levels. Still in any given game, both players had a solid chance of winning.
The reason: lady luck and her powers of equalization. A highly ranked player can defeat a lesser skilled competitor at any time as a result.
“Everyone can be beaten,’’ Gandy said.
The luck is in the draw of the cards.
“It is hard to beat the cards. If you are not getting good cards, you are not going to win,’’ Fitzgerald said. “You are only as good as your cards.’’
Kristine Keller, a member of the Blue Mountain Peggers, agrees. She turns a phrase from the movie “Star Wars” to make her point.
“If the cards are with you, the force is with you.’’
A force that was with Dustin Fitzgerald Sunday afternoon.