The world’s highest-rated cribbage player, DeLynn Colvert, lives in a modest upper Rattlesnake home in Missoula—at least when he’s not traveling coast to coast playing tournaments. In his driveway sits the cribbage-mobile: a white and rust-tinged Honda CRX hatchback with political bumper stickers and an emblem on the driver’s door for the American Cribbage Congress (ACC), of which Colvert is a Hall-of-Famer, past president and newsletter editor.
“There’s 536,000 miles on that car, mostly cribbage miles, and all on the same engine,” Colvert says proudly.
Colvert, a septuagenarian with a white goatee and tufts of white hair bookending his otherwise bald head, is the cribbage equivalent of Michael Jordan. He’s authored a book, Play Winning Cribbage, that’s sold 17,000 copies through mail order, and he’s considered the leading authority on the game. He averages about 30 tournaments a year and wins often enough to earn between $14,000 and $16,000 annually, though he spends at least half that on entry fees and road expenses. It’s not extravagant, but it’s become Colvert’s life.
“For every $1 I put in in entry fees, I get $1.90 back, so it’s better than the stock market, I figure,” Colvert says.
But despite Colvert’s niche fame, he’s relatively unknown in Missoula. There is no local cribbage club (Helena is home to the only ACC-approved club in Montana) and only one weekly public game. The low profile baffles World Games of Montana manager S. Matt “Smatt” Read.
“I tell people all the time the national champion lives here and they’re like, ‘You’re kidding.’ They had no idea,” says Read, whose store hosts a weekly game night featuring cribbage.
Cribbage is a numbers game, simple to learn but filled with nuances and strategies to frustrate even the most advanced players; Colvert’s book says rookies can win nearly four of 10 games with beginner’s luck. To play cribbage, you need a deck of cards and a scoring board, usually made of wood or Formica. Six cards are dealt per hand, and the aim is to score 121 points through runs, pairs, trips, quads, flushes and combinations of cards totaling 15 before your opponent. The dealer typically has an advantage because he gets to play “the crib,” a separate hand of other players’ discards.
Colvert’s made money at the game since he began competing in Wallace, Idaho, in 1981, promising his two sons new bicycles if he won.
“’Course, when you win something like that, you are hooked,” he says. Now a celebrity in “Cribbageland,” as he calls the subculture, he boasts he can visit any aficionado and be invited in as a houseguest.
“It’s like a great big soap opera,” he says. “We keep track of who’s sick with cancer, who’s dating who and who’s fighting with her husband.” Indeed, such titillating tidbits are published in Cribbage World magazine.
“Cribbage is like having a big family, and he’s the grandfather,” explains Sharon Hejtmanek, an ACC board member and fellow Missoulian who often carpools with Colvert to tournaments.
Colvert was born in Stanley, N.D., in 1931, but raised in South Carolina and Florida. His sister bought him a cribbage board as a high-school graduation gift and he began playing for pennies during his military stint in the Korean War. Colvert later took a summer job selling subscriptions for Spokane’s Spokesman-Review in Missoula during a break from college at the University of Florida, but he never made enough money to go back south. He eventually graduated from the University of Montana and has lived here ever since.
The cribbage bug really bit after his lunch break working as a Forest Service illustrator was cut from an hour to a half-hour. Before that, his buddies would play chess, but they learned they could squeeze three games of cribbage into half an hour and switched games. Colvert began writing down his scores and deciphering which strategies worked and which failed. He read G. Douglas Anderson’s book, All About Cribbage, and was inspired to prove its strategies wrong using statistical analysis. As a result, Colvert is credited with bringing strategic changes to the game, such as his “Theory of Twenty-Six” for advanced players, which is detailed in his book.
“Even the very best players can only hope for 60-percent wins,” Colvert says. “It’s a very subtle game, and you have to know when to play offensively or defensively.”
When Colvert is home, he’s quick to warn guests about his “bachelor pad”—his wife lives in Arizona and he visits her two or three times a year; he’s allergic to her pets. It’s an unconventional marriage that suits Colvert’s unconventional cribbage-touring lifestyle.
“Besides,” he says, “we never got along that great anyway…she can’t stand game-players.”
Life on Colvert’s road may lack the glamour of touring Texas hold ’em millionaires, but not the adventure. Colvert is full of stories to tell anyone who’ll listen, describing in detail the time he hit a deer, but his cribbage travel buddy was too drunk on whiskey to know what had happened. Another time, they were pulled over for speeding and a flask fell out of the jockey box in front of the policeman, who fortunately was understanding (or a cribbage fan). After a big win, Colvert took two friends out for a lobster dinner to celebrate, and one of them, a fellow Montanan, suffered a heart attack and died on the road.
Unlike some of his comrades, Colvert isn’t a big drinker. He’ll have a “toddy for the body” before dinner and a few on a Saturday night, about the time he busts out his naked-lady gameboard pegs, which he’s more than happy to show off to guests.
And the cards are looking up for Colvert, who says he’s coming off a year-and-a-half losing streak. “I’ve had an abnormal run of bad luck,” he says. “If you don’t get the numbers, you’re a dead duck.”
More recently Colvert placed fourth out of 105 competitors at April’s Montana Open at Joker’s Wild in Missoula, and then won the Oregon Championship last month. Both are good signs he’s on the rebound, but as he gets older and new players emerge, Colvert recognizes his championship run may be increasingly threatened.
“I think I could do a lot better if I hadn’t written that book,” he says. “I’ve trained five national champions using that book. I’ve discredited Douglas Anderson with it, and I’ve proven my numbers. I’ve won 40 sanctioned tournaments, and the next closest person is [at] 29.”
But while Colvert continues to create his cribbage legacy across the country, he says he’s just fine maintaining a certain level of local anonymity. He’s content focusing on the game he loves, and making himself a better player.
“There’s a world full of great people, and I’ve got to control my Irish temper,” he says, mentioning specifically his biggest challenge in competition. “I don’t get mad at my opponents anymore, I get mad at the cards.”
World Games of Montana, 115 W. Front St., hosts Cribbage, Mah Jongg and Go Game Night every Friday at 6 PM. Call 541-4FUN.