Ken Capron was trying to think of a fundraising event that people would flock to when he seized upon cribbage, the centuries-old card game taught to many Mainers by their grandparents and played in summer cottages, dorm rooms and senior centers all over the state.

But Capron soon found out that putting on a cribbage tournament to make money – even for charity – was not nearly as easy as setting up the cribbage boards and shuffling the deck. Under Maine law, cribbage was treated as a “game of chance” and regulated like other gambling card games, making it extremely difficult to put on tournaments with entry fees and prizes.

The past few years, Capron, several legislators and local members of the American Cribbage Congress pushed to change that. Thanks to those efforts, the monthlong Great State of Maine Cribbage Tournament kicks off Sunday. It was made possible by the “charitable cribbage tournament” provision of state law enacted in July. The event is a fundraiser for MemoryWorks, the nonprofit Portland dementia-aid organization that Capron runs.

Cribbage fans hope the new legal wording will spawn more events and help promote the game, largely played by older adults, to a younger audience. Some believe the game can hone mental agility and math skills, while allowing young people to mix socially without social media. Competitive players now hope to hold big tournaments in Maine, bringing in players from around the country who would, in turn, spend money on hotels and meals here.

Plus, it’s nice for cribbage players to know that their pegging – keeping score with pegs on the cribbage board – won’t land them in the pokey.

“Nobody thinks of cribbage as gambling, so I didn’t understand why the government had to stick its nose in it,” said Capron, 66, a longtime cribbage player. “I’ve told legislators I didn’t realize the state was so desperate they had to try to get money out of family card games.”

Under the old laws, fundraising tournaments weren’t actually illegal. Capron could have put on a tournament, but it might have cost him $1,000 or more and required him to spend months getting licenses from every town in which a game was held. For this tournament, although he is holding games in at least 12 towns, registration with the state’s Gaming Control Unit will cost just $15 for a week or $60 for a calendar month. More than 150 people have signed up to play in the tournament.

Ken Capron, left, and Eldon Woodman play cribbage at Banded Horn Brewing Co. in Biddeford on Thursday. Capron lobbied to get state gaming laws changed to allow charitable cribbage tournaments and he has organized the Great State of Maine Cribbage Tournament, which will be held in locations throughout the state during September, with the final state championship tournament being held in Portland on Sept. 30. The tournament will benefit MemoryWorks, a dementia care organization Capron operates. Staff Photo by Gregory Rec

State Rep. Louis Luchini, R-Ellsworth, the House chairman of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, which has oversight of gambling, shared Capron’s opinion that cribbage tournaments shouldn’t be so highly regulated. Luchini had heard from several bar and restaurant owners in his district who wanted to host cribbage tournaments, often to raise money for charity but, like Capron, found the licensing process prohibitive.

Luchini sponsored a bill this year to create a specific provision about cribbage tournaments, and that language was eventually included in the budget bill that passed in July.

“We wanted to simplify the charitable gaming laws, reduce the paperwork and the licensing fees,” Luchini said. “We wanted to make it clear that cribbage tournaments are legal. The game is so popular and would make for great fundraisers.”

He said that as his bill was being considered and research about gambling and cribbage was done, nobody could come up with a specific law that had been enacted to regulate a cribbage tournament as a “game of chance.”

Luchini thinks cribbage was probably always considered a game of chance under state law, but at some point the policies on how to enforce rules about tournaments changed.

The American Cribbage Congress, a national group that helps organize local clubs and tournaments, held its national tournament in Portland in 2007. The event brought more than 400 people to Verillo’s restaurant and event center. But soon after, local members of the ACC found out high fees and cumbersome licensing procedures would make similar events nearly impossible to organize, said Joe Bowen of the ACC’s Penobscot Peggers club, based in the Bangor area.

Bowen approached legislators about changing the licensing for the kind of tournaments the ACC puts on, which attract competitors from around the country. In 2015, he found a sympathetic ear in state Rep. Karleton Ward, R-Dedham. Ward introduced a bill to allow large competitive tournaments on a trial basis, three a year for two years. This year, Ward introduced a bill to make the provisions about “super cribbage tournaments” permanent, which was also enacted.

Since Ward’s first bill became law, the Penobscot Peggers have had four tournaments and raised about $2,000 for charitable groups, Bowen said.

Passing both bills was easy, Ward said. The hearings went smoothly, and most legislators wondered why cribbage tournaments were so difficult to put on lawfully. Ward had expected more resistance and more debate.

“I underestimated the universal attraction of cribbage,” said Ward, a backgammon player. “Normally (during legislative sessions) there are a lot of stoic and angry faces. But when I brought up cribbage, it was all smiles.”

Whether cribbage is more popular in Maine than in other places is hard to say. The ACC lists two member clubs in Maine and six in Montana, which has about 1 million residents compared to Maine’s 1.3 million.

And while many cribbage fanatics in Maine are 50 or older, younger players may be taking up the game. Bowen, for instance, is in Oregon this weekend for a tournament, and his two sons, ages 12 and 17, are also competing. Some local bars and pubs have regular cribbage nights.

The winner of the Great State of Maine Cribbage Tournament will receive this cribbage board shaped like the state. (Staff Photo by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer)

The Great State of Maine Cribbage Tournament will end with a championship match on Sept. 30, at a yet-to-be-determined site, with the winner taking home $2,500. Before the championship, matches will be held at venues across the state all month.

Among the venues is the Back Street Grill in Sanford, owned by 37-year-old cribbage fanatic Jim Paquette. Paquette was taught the game when he was 7 years old by his French-Canadian grandfather, his “pepere.” He says he could spend hours playing cribbage and loves that it requires him to stay mentally alert. Sometimes patrons of his restaurant, knowing he’s a strong player, challenge him to games.

He hopes the tournament, and others that might follow now that the laws are less restrictive, will help make the game more popular and show young people that math can be fun and that not every game has to be on a screen.

“It would be good if we could bring it back a little, show people what a great game it is,” Paquette said.

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 210-1183 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: RayRouthier