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When it's dark and cold outside, cribbage heats up

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It's cribbage league night at the American Legion in Cloquet and the regulars are lined up on the Cloquet Avenue side of the bar, waiting their turn to pay.

As each person approaches organizer Chad Mackey, he or she hands over $10 and takes a playing card from the pile in front of Mackey.

Mackey knows every person's name, and banters back and forth with many.

"Can your kid play better than you?" Mackey asks one old-timer who says his son could be a substitute.

"Why, I whupped his butt last week," the older man responds without hesitation.

The cribbage players come in a variety of ages and include both men and women. Although the group skews over age 40, there are younger folks there too. The league happens the same three months every year, from January through March, on Thursday nights with supper starting at 6 p.m.

The cards they draw in line determine where they will sit and who will be their partners. People with the same number cards sit together, and the same color cards at each table are partners. On this particular night, there are 38 players, which means nine tables of four and one table of two. They will all play nine games before they go home.

But before they play, they fill their plates from a temporary buffet resting on top of a pool table covered with a blue tarp.

Cribbage is a card game that's played with a deck of standard playing cards and a cribbage board. Players keep score by moving pegs around the tracks on the cribbage board.

Chad's dad, Rick Mackey, says Chad is the one who "kind of runs the whole thing," but Rick has his own role to fill: unofficial communications director.

"I help out when it's time to find more players," Rick admits. "I make most of the calls."

Rick is one of several men who have been playing in the cribbage league for decades.

Twins Ray and Roy Dickison first played in the league when the American Legion was located across the street from where it sits now, then the Legion and the league moved out to the old Vikings Supper Club off Highway 33 (where Applebee's is now) and then back down to Cloquet Avenue.

"I started playing for Northwest Paper at the Northeastern Hotel," explained Ray. "It was salaried versus hourly back then, in the Sixties."

Then Mel Koski organized the league at the Legion.

Of course, originally it was a men's league, notes Don Ketola.

"The wives used to cook dinner, they had forced labor," he says with a chuckle.

Then one day they were short a player, and Ginger Koski filled in, Rick Mackey explained.

"We got to talking, why not let them play?" he said.

It's been co-ed ever since.

Anyone can play in the cribbage league, Rick explained. People don't have to be an American Legion member or even related to one. Knowing how to play cribbage helps, but Rick claims the more experienced players are willing to be patient with those who are relatively new to the game.

It takes them awhile to do the math sometimes, said Rick, who taught all four of his sons to play — both Chad and Ryan play in the league — and now he also plays with his grandchildren when they're around.

"It's good for young kids," he said. "They have to keep track and add things up in their heads. It keeps the older people sharp too."

A lot of family members play in the league. Father and daughter Steve Teasck and his daughter. Christina DuBois and her boyfriend. Husband and wife teams like Craig and Carol Miller, Scott and BJ Lingren, Dave and Kim Buscalia (who said she subbed for years while her husband played and finally joined herself once her daughter got her driver's license and could drive herself to dance lessons). George Bednarek — who learned how to play cribbage at the paper mill during breaks — used to play in the league with his brothers, but now one doesn't want to play anymore and the other one died.

"We had a rash of people get old on us this year," Rick Mackey said with a smile.

Still, nearly all of the tables on the ground floor of the Legion are filled with cribbage players the night of Jan. 26. The sound of cards being shuffled and players talking and laughing fills the room. A bartender periodically clears away glasses and brings refills now that the meat raffles are over for the night.

Larry Wilson said he keeps coming back because he enjoys playing and he enjoys the camaraderie.

"Every week you play with someone different," he said. "And some of us are getting older and we don't have anything else to do."

In April the league will hold its annual awards banquet. The top 10 players — scores are tallied every week — win cash. The winner gets a cribbage board, made by Ray Dickison.

"The loser gets a board too and I have one," Wilson said. "It's a toilet seat."

It's true, Mackey confirms.

"It's for the crappiest player," he says.

They both laugh and get back to their cards.

"There's a lot of good-natured ribbing goes on here," Rick Mackey said. "Like these guys trying to skunk us and we won't let that happen."