Jeanne Jelke, the executive director of the Benton Franklin Chapter of the American Red Cross, has more than 253,000 miles racked up on her trusty 2001 Subaru Outback.
That’s likely fewer miles than the number of cribbage points Jelke’s pegged since taking the card game seriously in 1999 and traveling to tournaments around the Northwest and across the nation.
Although Jelke has won 17 tournaments in the past dozen years, her crowning achievement came in February. Jelke pegged past some 800 players to become the first woman to win the American Cribbage Congress’ Reno Open, which is billed as the largest cribbage tournament in the world.
Not bad for a woman who played her first tournament 13 years ago on a whim.
“When my dad taught me to play cribbage, I was probably in my teens,” Jelke said. “And I played off and on after that, but only for fun. I didn’t know there was a science to it.”
Jelke’s father loved playing cards and her parents were charter members of a grassroots club sanctioned under the American Cribbage Congress in Northern California.
Jelke, who was living in Redding, Calif. at the time, played in the club one night and met a cribbage enthusiast named Jim Langley, also a charter member of the club. Langley announced to the group that he was going to a tournament in Arcada, Calif. and needed a partner.
“If I would have known him at that time, I would have known he was joking,” Jelke said. “He hates partners.”
But Jelke took him seriously and that weekend found herself in Arcada playing cribbage.
She doesn’t remember how they finished in the partners division, but she got fifth place in the singles.
That tournament was a turning point in her life. She discovered a new hobby and a new boyfriend.
“After that trip we decided to see more of each other and we found a common bond,” said Jelke. “We are still together.”
And although the live in separate towns, they maintain a long-distance relationship.
She credits Langley, also a national cribbage champion, as her cribbage mentor.
“He taught me humility pretty quickly, and he showed me winning strategies — how to ‘trap’ cards and how to peg successfully,” Jelke said.
There’s a lot more to the game than being dealt good cards or getting a good cut, she said.
“It’s very difference from any other card game because it’s a race,” she said.
In addition, there are infinite combinations of cards that can make up a good hand and the decisions a player makes in holding cards can make or break the hand.
“You are constantly making decisions,” Jelke said.
Most competitive cribbage players start at the grassroots level, in a local club that meets weekly and is sanctioned by the ACC.
And on nearly any given weekend, there are tournaments around the country the players can compete in.
The tournament begins with a preliminary round and those that end up in the top 25 percent after that round proceed to a head-to-head, single-elimination playoffs where they earn points and cash, depending on how they place.
The points are used by the ACC for rankings and to determine skill level. When a player has earned 2,000 points, they are considered a master. Jelke passed that milestone long ago.
The points she accumulated at the Reno tournament gave her a One Star Life Master rating — of which there are only 76 in the nation.
The finish also put her in the race to end the year ranked in the top 10 in the nation, which would earn her an All American Award.
She accomplished that goal in 2007-2008, when she finished ninth in the nation. She just missed that mark in 2008-2009, ending up the year (which officially ends June 30), ranked 11th.
“In 2008 I got off to a good start and ended up ninth in the country,” she said. “But it took so much out of me – and all the traveling is expensive.”
After the good start, Jelke said she started “chasing points,” to have the highest ranking possible at the end of the year.
That involves going to every feasible tournament on every open weekend to capture as many points as possible. That’s difficult for someone in an executive position, like Jelke, who often works 50 or more hours a week.
“That took so much out of me and it was expensive,” she said. “So I said I wouldn’t do it again until I retired.”
But the following year started with a few good wins, so Jelke continued loading up her car and her dog Keshi every Friday and driving to another tournament somewhere in the Northwest.
“I didn’t want to squander it,” she said.
But she had some rough tournaments at the end of the year and finished a disappointing 11th.
“I was still the highest-ranked woman, but I did kind of feel like a failure,” Jelke admits.
Right now, Jelke is ranked sixth in the country – and is the highest-ranked woman. (In cribbage there is no separate women’s division – the women play on equal footing with the men).
But she’s not going to wear herself out making sure she finishes there. She’s plotted a solid strategy of 14-15 tournaments within reasonable distances that she plans to play before the season is over. As long as she plays smart, she should be able to maintain her ranking within the top ten.
“So I am officially NOT chasing points,” she said.
For more information, go to www.cribbage.org.