Cribbage keeps aspiring St. Paul writer occupied

  • Updated: November 26, 2011 - 6:29 PM

One man's obsession: chronicling the people and history of a curious card game called cribbage.

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Jordan Wiklund

A headline in the Onion's back-to-school edition caught Jordan Wiklund's eye and made him chuckle.

"It said something like: 'Master in Fine Arts fails to sell anything' and I said to myself, 'That's going to be me.'"

Wiklund grew up in Duluth, majored in English at Luther College, works as an editor for a Minneapolis publisher and is earning an MFA at Hamline.

The Onion headline prompted him to do a self-analysis and reconsider his fiction-writing dreams. He realized he reads nonfiction, so he created a list of topics he could dig into that would keep his interest. He filtered out everything until one word remained:

Cribbage.

He played the card game with his dad growing up, counting his 15-twos, 15-fours and moving his pegs up and down the 120-hole board used to keep score.

"I don't live in the fever dream of the game," he says. "But as a subject to write about, it's fascinating."

For 14 months, he's become increasingly obsessed with his book-in-progress -- "Cribbageland: The People, Craft & Culture of a Curious Game."

He doesn't have a publisher, but he does have an agent, a cribbageland.com website, a presence on Twitter and Facebook and a mushrooming collection of anecdotes. When he read about Somali pirates holding a British couple hostage, allowing cribbage as their lone leisure activity, Wiklund e-mailed the dockmaster where they keep their boat.

"I told him I didn't want them to recount their whole ordeal, I only cared about the cribbage," he says.

Two days later, he was doing an e-mail interview.

"I don't care about the strategy, but I'm trying to answer the question: Why does the game endure?"

He's traced cribbage's history to the early-1600s when a "rake and scoundrel" named John Suckling II created the game. He's learned that a captain of a nuclear submarine dealt the perfect 29 hand once. Belief in good omens keeps that cribbage board residing aboard the longest-serving nuclear sub in the U.S. fleet.

Wiklund traveled to the national cribbage tournament in Reno, Nev., and the Hobo Museum in Britt, Iowa, to see the cribbage board the family of the late Fishbones Stevens donated. He's researched the doctor who mended John Wilkes Booth's broken leg after the Lincoln assassination and learned the doctor carved cribbage boards. And he's interviewed the Minnesotans who drilled holes one winter on Medicine Lake to play on the world's largest frozen cribbage board.

"I'm casting a wide net and trying to get the best stories from very different cultures," Wiklund said.

He attributes cribbage's revival among his fellow twentysomethings thusly:

"We all want to get away from our screens and interact face-to-face with someone," he said. "Cribbage takes 15 minutes and it's competitive, but not antagonistic. Families don't sit down and play poker. They play cribbage."

As his business card says: "There are only two types of people in the world ... Those who love cribbage and those who don't know how to play."

CURT BROWN

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