Spade Strategies

Spades is a card game played like a simplified version of Bridge. Here are some winning strategies for spades.

Many people enjoy playing the card game Spades, a trick-based derivative of the more complicated game Bridge. As in Bridge, players are partnered with those sitting directly across the table. All cards are dealt, and each player attempts to estimate how many four-card 'books' he or she will win throughout the game. Books are determined by the highest card in the suit played, or by the highest spade card used as a trump. This means that a player or players who do not have a playable card in the original suit can override and win the book by playing a spade (trump)on that particular round. However, if a player uses a trump card to win an early hand and is later found in possession of a card in the original suit, then the opposing side can charge that player with 'reneging' on the book. This can mean the loss of that book if proven, which could easily spell disaster for the offending team.

Games are scored according to how many books were successfully captured by each team, compared to the number of books bid at the start. If a team bid 5 books at the beginning and actually caught 7 books during the game, their score would be 52. The original bid (5), plus the remaining books that were overbid (2). If the players had originally called 7 books and caught all 7 during the game, their score would be 70 (the original 7 books plus no overbids). Consequently, bidding an accurate number of books is essential to getting the highest scores possible. If a team fails to capture the estimated number of books, they are 'set back' the number of books bid. If a team bids 5 books and only captures 4 during the game, their score would be -50. This is another important factor to consider while playing the rounds. Since the number of total books is finite (13), both sides are betting that they will capture their own bidded books. Most likely, each side will indeed come close to getting their allotted books. But if a partner inadvertently cuts the other partner out of a crucial book, the count can suddenly swing in favor of the opponents.

Most games of Spades are played to a set point, commonly 500 or 1000 points. The first team to reach this goal is declared the winner. However, there are special bids that can keep a team in the running even if one team is perilously close to winning. Partners can agree to bid 'Blind', in which they specify a certain number of books they can capture WITHOUT looking at their cards. Most commonly, the bid is Blind 6, or six books caught without any consultation at all. As you can imagine, this can be quite a risky undertaking, but the team can be awarded 100 points in addition to their bid if successful. Another special bid is called Nil. Not all players will agree to its use, so it's always best to know the ground rules beforehand. If you are convinced that your hand is so weak that you could not possibly catch a single book, you can bid a zero, or nil, hand. Again, the opposite side is free to force you to take a book with a low card, so it is a risky bid to make. If you are successful, however, you will get bonus points.

The best special bid is called a 10-for-2 hand. If you and your partner both hold high cards in each suit, along with a strong number of spade trump cards, then you may call a 10-for-2 hand. This means that you will get at least 10 out of 13 books. Such hands are rare, but are devastating if played correctly. You can get 200 bonus points for declaring such a hand before the game, plus the point value of a high bid. A 10-for-2 hand must be played with care, because partners can accidentally cut themselves out of a potentially winning book by playing the two highest trump cards simultaneously.

The overview I've just presented is not meant to be the standard for every Spades game you will ever play. There are many variations among individual players, so be prepared for new rules when playing with new partners. Some Spades players will remove the two of hearts and the two of diamonds and replace them with the two jokers in a standard card deck. One joker will be designated as the 'Big Joker' and the other becomes the 'Little Joker'. These two cards are the highest trumps in the deck, even more powerful than the Ace of Spades. If you are fortunate enough to get them, then you are assured of at least one book. But if you and your partner get one apiece, then you must use them judiciously or else risk losing a book.

Now that you have some idea of how the game is played, here are some strategies for winning a game of Spades:

1. Bidding well is your best chance of winning. For the most part, a normal distribution of cards will result in one side getting 7 books and the other side getting the remaining 6. The challenge of Spades lies in the fact that most hands are not normal, but will invariably give each player more cards in a certain suit than strictly necessary. In order to offer an accurate bid of your own hand, you should play out the game in your head to account for such overages. You might want to count both the Ace and King of Diamonds, but if your hand is loaded with low Diamond cards, the chances are not good that the King will survive a second round. Queens and Jacks rarely survive, but do make for good cards to 'force out' an opponent's trump cards. Only count Aces and Kings if you are not saddled with more than 4 or 5 cards in that suit.

Only bid what you know until you become more confident in your abilities. Count the Aces and Kings in the non-trump suits, then assume at least one cut for every two Spades in your hand. Obviously the Ace of Spades (or the Big Joker) will earn you a book, but stick to the 2/1 strategy for every other Spade. The more accurate you become at bidding, the faster you will move up in points. If you notice a pattern of underbidding books, get more aggressive with your bidding, but within reason.

2. Watch for signs of signalling, reneging or other illicit communications. Since Spades depends so much on successful play between partners, there is always the temptation to communicate across the table. Even the best efforts to keep this to a minimum can fall victim to human nature. Partners who have been playing Spades for a long time can develop secret methods for communicating that fly under the radar. They may make an innocent comment about the weather or about a current event, when in reality they are telling their partner whether or not they are holding the Little Joker or too many cards in one suit. Such information can prove invaluable when contemplating a 10-for-2 bid or some other special bid. If you can prove conclusively that the opposite side has communicate across the table, then you can politely ask them to stop such signalling and play fairly. If you are not sure about the other side's intentions, then you may just have to keep your suspicions to yourself until the time is right. Winning a game of Spades is difficult enough in a fair setting, let alone one that is obviously tainted by cheating.

3. Know when to cut and when to throw off. The first few hands of a Spades game usually follow a predictable pattern- one player leads off with a high card in a non-trump suit, and the rest of the players throw off their lowest cards in that suit. But after the first few rounds, the game gets much more strategic. Players who do not hold any cards in the suit may opt to 'cut' the hand with a spade (trump) card and win the hand, or they may throw off a non-suit card and allow their partner to win the book. This decision can ultimately make the difference between making the final bid or not. What you want to consider is the potential payoff if you do indeed cut the book in your favor. Your partner may already know that you were going to trump that hand, so you won't hurt his or her bids by cutting. But if your partner throws out a fairly high card in that suit and you haven't seen signs of cutting from either opponent, it's best to throw off a non-suit card. Besides guaranteeing a book for your team, you can also increase the possibility of cutting the other suit later.

A good partner will sometimes feed you a card in a suit he or she knows you are cutting, but a beginning partner may not be so observant. If you suspect that your partner has not been paying attention to the cards previously played, you may want to cut for self-protection. One rule for cutting with a trump card, especially in the early rounds, is only go as high as you need. Often a two or three of spades is all that is required to win the hand- save your higher spades for bigger stakes. The exception to this would be if you and your partner are trying for a higher bid, like 8, 9 or 10 books. The last thing you'll want to do is cut your own partner out of a book, so if you have the second-highest trump card (either the King of Spades or the Little Joker), you may want to cut an early hand with it to prevent later head-bumping.

3. Always keep a running count of your opponent's cards. If your opponent throws out a fairly high card in a non-trump suit early, chances are pretty good that they are going to begin cutting that suit soon. Advanced players will sometimes do this as a ruse, but most players will instinctively throw out their lowest cards when the book is obviously going to their opponents. If you have no other choice, you'll throw out a face card earlier than expected. Observant players will avoid that suit as much as possible. One way to see what your opponents are thinking is to throw out a Queen in a suit that has already been lead. Queens are usually not counted as a guaranteed book, but will sometimes survive a third run in that suit. Since your opponents won't want to lose the book, they may start cutting, which settles the question of who is cutting which suit. If your partner is the one cutting the suit, he or she will most likely blow off a non-trump card. If this happens, and you do get the lead, then lead out in that suit again and watch what your partner does. Expect a fairly high trump card, followed either by a higher trump from your opponent or a blow-off. Either option should prove expensive for the competition.

4. Be especially careful when playing the end rounds. Eventually the focus of the game will be on the relative number and strength of Spades in your hand. All other suits become fairly useless.

The one thing you don't want to do is cut your own partner out of a winning book. In order to avoid this, many partners develop a signal that lets the other know to play a higher card. Since this signal is not verbal, it is not considered a illegal communication. If you get the lead in a later round of Spades and you want to know if your partner is holding the Ace, lead out with the lowest Spade you have. The two is especially effective for a signalling device. This will let your partner know that you expect he or she to throw out their highest card. With luck, that will be the Ace or King. If it isn't, and you lose that book, at least you know that the remaining cards can't hurt you. The Ace or Big Joker was bound to capture a book, so it's usually best to sacrifice a lower spade to spare the life of a Jack, Queen or King.

There are many other tricks you'll discover as you get more experienced with the game of Spades, but these basic tips should keep your head above water while you learn the ropes. Be aware of various playing styles, and try not to fall victim to aggressive players. Some players will deliberately save Aces and Kings of non-trump suits in order to get a better shot at stealing a book or two later. Others may rush your judgement by anticipating their own win and crowding over the cards, just waiting for your non-winning play. Some partners are known to overbid or underbid consistently, so take that into consideration before committing your team to a final bid.

Most importantly, just try to have fun with Spades as you pass the time away with friends and family. Everyone loses a hand now and then, so let the cards fall where they may and just enjoy the companionship.

© High Speed Ventures 2011