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`High Roller King' heads to Reno

by: Photo By Susan Matheny - Cribbage player Frank Lake with some of his trophies.

Frank Lake loves the game of cribbage, and even though he already has five boxes of trophies, he was off to Reno last week to compete at the Tournament of Champions.
   At age 83, Lake is at the top of his game and can hold his own against players of all ages. Yet, he can't understand why his skills might be a little intimidating to new people just learning to play.
   "Cribbage is a fun game and I tried to get a crib club started here," the Madras resident said, noting they started out with 23 players, but the numbers dwindled over the weeks.
   When he asked people why they weren't coming, they said it was because they couldn't win against the more experienced players.
   "How do you think we got so good? You've got to play!" Lake advised them.
   Cribbage is a card game which uses a special board and pegs to keep score. Lake said he first learned to play at home when he was young. Later, he played for fun while in the Army during World War II, and in games at the Elks Lodge.
   He didn't get into competitive playing until 1980, when he entered a game at the Elks Lodge in Willows, Calif. He joined the American Cribbage Congress, which currently has 9,000 members, and eventually became certified as a judge for tournaments.
   "If a player thinks something's not right during a game, they put their hand up and two judges go settle the problem," Lake explained.
   He chuckled at memories of his early cribbage tournaments. "When I first started playing, each cribbage board had an ashtray on each end, but now there's no smoking," he observed.
   In tournaments, he said people sign up to play and are assigned a number on a table. They play the person sitting across the table from them, then all players shift one chair to the right and play a new person. This goes on for 22 games. Along the way, they record points and sign each others cards to verify the points.
   For doubles games, Lake said Jim Waldorf of Madras is his partner. In doubles, partners play nine games together against other pairs.
   In the 1990s, Lake said Waldorf used to organize a big cribbage tournament every year at Kah-Nee-Ta, until scheduling conflicts became a problem.
   The more Lake played, the better he got, and soon he was racking up more trophies than he had wall space for.
   This month the Madras senior center is featuring a display case full of Lake's top trophies. The traditional trophy is a specially decorated wooden cribbage board. Opening the locked glass case, Lake showed some of his favorites.
   A trophy he won in 1989 in Bend at the Cascade Classic is adorned with a handpainted elk and mountain scene by Crooked River Ranch artist Roberta Dyer.
   He won a crib board shaped like the state of Oregon by coming in 32nd in a Portland tourney with 500 players.
   Trophies come in all shapes and sizes. One board has a carved wooden duck sitting on top, which actually conceals a deck of cards. That one was presented to him for being the High Roller Champion at a Prineville tourney.
   "They called me the High Roller King in 1994, when I was really hot," Lake said.
   Another board carved in the shape of the Three Sisters, he won at a competition in The Dalles in 2004.
   The Tournament of Champions is played in Reno, while the Grand Nationals rotates each year between an East Coast, Central, or West Coast location. This year's Grand National Tournament will be played in Lincoln City.
   Prineville even hosted the Grand Nationals in 1989. "We were playing on bales of hay, there were so many people there at the fairgrounds," he recalled.
   To keep in practice, Lake plays cribbage every Wednesday at the VFW Hall in Prineville, along with 16 to 24 club members from Madras, Ashwood, Prineville, and Redmond.
   "I won eight out of nine games last time and took first place, which provided the traveling money for my trip to Reno," Lake said last week.
   At the Reno event, held Feb. 10 through 13, the games are played at the Sands Hotel. On Friday night players vie for an $8,000 first prize. Then on Saturday night, 1,028 players compete in a 22-game round for the top prize of $10,000.
   In 2002, Lake put Madras on the cribbage radar and got his picture in the Reno newspaper for a 12-round game he played against 600 other players. "I won 10 out of 12 games and came in fourth," he said. He garnered a slot machine-shaped trophy for that win.
   Besides the excitement of competition, the Reno event is a chance to catch up with other players he's met over the years.
   "You meet a lot of nice people in Reno. People I haven't seen for a while will be there," he observed.
   Lake's cribbage schedule this year began with a January tournament in Centralia, Wash., the big Reno game this month, and more slated for the spring.
   "I go to at least one tournament every month," he said.
   Over the years, his tournament excursions have taken him to the Grand Nationals in Hawaii three times, Canada, Alaska, Greenbay, Wis., Raleigh, N.C., Augusta, Ga., and Daytona, Fla. The competition in Plymouth, Mass., was especially enjoyable since he was born near Boston and was able to visit relatives for two weeks.
   There's also another advantage to all that travel. "I've built up frequent flyer miles and it's only costing me $15 to go to Reno," he said with a grin last week.
   Lake repeatedly emphasized how much he would like to get a cribbage club going in Madras, and noted experienced players "go easy" on new players for three weeks and show them how to play the game.
   "Cribbage is a fun game; you're supposed to enjoy it. Every once in a while you get hot-heads, but most of the people are wonderful," he said, encouraging anyone interested in playing to contact him at 475-0437.
   Even kids can learn to play, and pick it up pretty quickly. "Some of the younger ones will take you to the cleaners. They're sharp as can be," Lake laughed.
   Lake summed up his secret to winning in two words: "I'm lucky!"
   "There are guys that could whip me to pieces, but with luck, you can beat a better player. Cribbage is 85 percent luck and 15 percent smarts," he stated.