Cribbage players aren't trying to keep the card game a secret, but they aren't exactly a visible bunch. The Baltimore Cribbage Club, for example, plays on Wednesday nights in the back room of a Chinese restaurant.
Even yesterday's national tournament sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Area Cribbage Club was held in relative obscurity.
Although competitors traveled from as far as Massachusetts and Georgia and some were nationally ranked, the tournament at an American Legion Post in Bowie could easily have been overlooked.
"There are a lot of closet cribbage players," said Steve Sattler, 49, of Towson. "They don't know there are others out there who love this game."
Although the two-person card game dates to 17th-century England, players say most people have no idea what it is.
"You get a lot of strange looks when you say you're going to play cribbage," said Frank Ruff, a 60-year-old general contractor from Davidsonville and member of the Chesapeake club.
Players say the game's popularity peaked during World War II. Those who served in the Navy were especially fond of cribbage because its small size made it ideal for shipboard life, they say.
Today, the game is still recognized by its wooden scoreboard with pegs.
"That's what people know about cribbage," said Larry Phifer, who traveled from Raleigh, N.C., for yesterday's tournament. "But it's really the best two-person card game there is."
"Every hand is a different puzzle," he said.
One hand takes about 15 minutes to play. But at yesterday's tournament, players switched opponents and played for more than eight hours -- fueled by coffee and sodas. They sat at two long tables, scoreboards between them.
After 12 games, those in the top 25 percent advanced to playoff and elimination rounds, while the others played consolation games. About 60 players participated.
"In this environment, you see how competitive and fun it can be," said Sattler, a founding member of the Baltimore club who until recently maintained the Web site for the American Cribbage Congress -- the game's sanctioning organization.
Yesterday's tournament was the first ACC-sanctioned event for the Crofton- and Bowie-based Chesapeake club.
The registration fee of $45 paid the cash prizes for the top players. Scores counted for national rankings, which are important because the biggest cribbage tournament in the United States is about a month away.
Held in Reno, Nev., each year, the tournament is the Super Bowl of the cribbage set.
Just for fun
The game tends to be less serious at the local level. Losing nine games has been nicknamed a "string of pearls." At the Baltimore club's weekly meeting, players who lose nine games are given a pearl necklace to wear for the night.
"Everyone's there to have a good time," Sattler said.
"It's like bridge because of the strategy side of it," he said. "It's also a game of probability. But more than anything, it's luck."