Illustration by Sam Woolley

Whether it is played in the back of a college cafeteria, at a bachelor party, or during a Black cookout—not a barbecue, because barbecues are different from “cookouts”—no activity solidifies the bonds of melanated people like a game of Spades. The internet will claim that Spades is a member of the “Whist” family of card games and was invented in the 1930’s, but the game actually predates all recorded history. Amateur researchers like myself speculate that ancient Sub-Saharan African tribes chose their kings from Spades tournaments, and when archaeologists excavated the secret rooms in the Egyptian pyramids, they found that members of the royal courts were buried with a hand of 13 cards in each sarcophagus. The Pharaoh always had the Big Joker.

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Although it is theoretically possible for Caucasians to master the game of Spades, I have never seen it happen. One of my dearest friends (who just happens to be white) adamantly insists that she has world-class Spades skills, but because she says she’s “super good at it” I tend not to believe her. It’s all about phrasing. I do believe that the key to bridging the racial gap there may lie in the understanding of this ubiquitous sport—yes, if golf, bowling and poker are sports, then so is Spades. I’ve been lobbying for years for ESPN to host a World Series of Spades with Katt Williams doing commentary instead of Norman Chad.

Consider this a primer for anyone entertaining the thought of sitting down at a Spades table. Be patient as you learn. It is damn near impossible to understand the intricacies of the game as a first-timer, because Spades is not only a card game-–it is a metaphor for life.

Spades is intuitive.

There is no comprehensive instruction pamphlet or rule book. As I mentioned, Spades is a lifelong pursuit, and there are levels to this shit. A proper Spades education begins with you sitting down next to a table and watching the game. There you will learn the basics, and one day someone will hand you their Spades hand and tell you to play a round while they go outside and smoke, or run to the bathroom. You will fuck their game up, but don’t worry, someone always has to pee, so you will get another opportunity. If you hang around enough Spades tables, one day someone will need a partner and begrudgingly choose you. When this happens, play confidently, but quietly. You won’t be any good, but you will officially be a Spades player.

Know the rules.

We cannot give one set of rules because winning at Spades will depend on who you’re playing with, but let’s try.

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Simply put, the game requires two teams (each composed of two people), with each player playing a single card per turn. The first player plays a card, and the subsequent players must play a card of the same suit. The highest card of that suit wins those four cards (called a book) unless one of the players plays a spade. Spades is always the trump card but, and here is the key, one can only use a spades to trump another suit (called cutting) if—and only if—they don’t have a card of the initial suit played.

So if the first player leads with a diamond, you will try to beat his or her diamond with your own diamond. You can cut their diamond and win the book with a spade if you have no diamonds. If you play a spade while you still have a diamond in your hand, you are the lowest, most despicable form of human cheater who probably brings store-bought potato salad to cookouts and tell people you made it. This is called reneging.

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The one steadfast commandment is that the house makes the rules. To become a consistent player you must be flexible enough to handle the infinite number of variations. The key is knowing the rules before you sit down to play the game. If they are playing with jokers—a card that will play higher than every other—ask them to show you each one. In some houses they will write on the card which one is which. If they use both the deuce of diamonds and/or deuce of spades as a trump card, for example, make sure you find out which of the two is higher. You can’t win if you don’t know the rules, and losing is no fun. Remember, Spades is not about fun, it is about winning. If you want to have fun, play Uno.

Scoring is complicated.

At the beginning of each game, each team will place a bid for how many books they think they can win during the game, based solely on the cards in their own hands. Spades uses a complex scoring system that awards 10 points for each book bid, and one point for each book a team makes above their bid. The game ends when a team reaches 500—except during a cookout, party, and family reunion situations, when the goal is usually shortened to 350. In situations with special circumstances (no paper, no pencil, the participants are too drunk to perform addition and subtraction, etc), it is sometimes acceptable to play until one team makes 13 more books than their opponent.

Know The Lingo

Spades comes with a particularly interesting set of jargon that you’ll need to know if you want to succeed:

Joker, Joker, Deuce: This designates the order of the most important cards in a game. Although “Joker, Joker, Deuce” is the most common hierarchy played, “King High, no Jokers” is the truest form of the game, usually only played by old Black men. If you hear this, you should know that these people aren’t fucking around. (If your Spades game is not strong don’t even bother sitting down to play “King High,” because not only is your card-playing reputation at stake, but so is your manhood.) People who play “Joker, Joker, Ace” also don’t have time for your bullshit and if you slip up, you could possibly be ostracized for life. No woman will date a man who screws up at a Spades game. Also, if you are ever approached by a woman during a Spades game, and she says you should “play with the kitty,” she is not offering you sex. She is insulting you by suggesting that you play in a Spades game with remedial, kindergarten rules.

Make-em, Take-em: This is not just a Spades rule, it is common sense. If you win a book, it is your responsibility to rack it. If you sit there contemplating or hesitating over your book, someone will take your shit, and just as in life, possession is nine-tenths of the law. You must be on point at all times and during all phases of the game. All you have in this world are your books and your partner. If someone touches your books, you have the right to do to them what you will. In the 1945 Supreme Court Case of Jenkins v. Johnson, the High Court absolved Calvin Jenkins of chopping off Lester “Nine Fingers” Johnson’s pinky finger after Lester reached for his book.

Dime or Boston: A dime” is when a team wins 10 of the 13 possible books. A Boston” is when a team wins 13 of the 13 possible books. If you hear either of these words it means you need to concentrate on that particular hand like you’re taking the S.A.T. to be admitted into heaven. If you or your partner bids a dime, you are about to humiliate your opponent. Likewise, having someone “bid a dime” or “run a Boston” on you is not only a sure loss, but the equivalent of being castrated. I once dated a fashion model who was in a print ad campaign for United Colors of Benetton, but she saw someone run a Boston on me at a house party and never looked at me the same.

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Set: The most disappointing thing in Spades and a valuable lesson—getting “set” means you bid too much, reached too high and failed. When one bids an amount of books and cannot make them all, the amount of the bid is subtracted from their score. Overbidding is the only way to lose points in Spades, but you can’t win if you underbid. If you are afraid of getting set, you shouldn’t partake in this activity. Just like life, however, getting set is not the end of the world. You just have to fight back.

*You should also familiarize yourself with the terms and rules for “Sandbagging,” “Going Blind” and “talking across the table.” Failure to do so might result in a defeat, or worse, the loss of a pinky finger.

Know your partner.

I cannot overemphasize this. Selecting a partner in Spades should be taken as seriously as choosing a husband or a wife. I proposed to my Spades partner James on a warm September evening at a church picnic, and we have been together ever since. Taking a partner is akin to putting another person’s life and Spades reputation in your hands, and should not be treated lightly. You will eventually have to learn the intricacies of eye contact, non-verbal cues and even a little light mind-reading together. The greatest Spades player in the world is nothing without a good partner, and an experienced partner can make a beginner look like a pro. Never take a random partner without watching them play at least one hand, and avoid jumping from partner to partner. Don’t be a Spades ho.

Never trust anyone.

A seasoned player holds the cards in such a way that doesn’t look paranoid, but ensures that no one else can see his hand. Watch the dealer, too, because he or she might stack the cards (even though a successful case of card-stacking has never been verified). Assume all your opponents are out to get you, and would stab you in the throat with a rusty Phillips head screwdriver if given the chance… because they would, if it meant they could stop you from “setting them.”

Leave your emotions at the door.

This is not a pastime for the sensitive, so if you are prone to having your feelings hurt, you should play jacks or double-dutch. If you lose, you will be instructed to “get your bitch ass up.” If you win it is only because you are a “lucky motherfucker.” Part of the beauty of Spades is the vitriolic shit-talking. I have been called a “punk bitch,” a “fuck nigga,” and “pussy motherfucker” all in one evening of card-playing, and that was by my partner! This is why I don’t play Spades with my mama anymore.

Know how to bid.

Like in life, Spades is not about which cards you get, it is about knowing what to do with the cards you are dealt. Bidding is the key to the game of Spades, and perhaps the biggest obstacle in bidding is the “possible.” How one bids the “possible” says everything about their character, self-esteem and interpersonal relationships. If you have three books, your partner has one and-a-possible, and you bid four, I assume you were bullied in elementary school or your dad abandoned you when you were young. If you use the term “strong possible” it means you don’t want your partner to expect too much from you and you are probably a middle child. If your partner has four books, you have four and-a-possible and you say, “Fuck it, let’s bid the dime,” I would be willing to bet your penis is larger than average.

Never, ever renege.

Whether it is because of a genuine error or a cheating tactic, don’t ever renege, period. You would rather call your grandmother a whore… at her funeral… as you’re giving the eulogy. The love of God and all the prayers of the righteous can’t save you from the scorn that accompanies reneging. If you or your partner happens to renege, your only recourse is to rack the book and put it in the middle of the other books you’ve won before anyone notices it. If someone does notice it, tell them the rules say they must pick out the exact book, then tell them they are wrong—even if they are right. Never admit to a renege. There are three important keys to winning a renege argument:

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  • Be loud: You have to get louder and more belligerent than the accuser. Don’t let them finish their sentences.
  • Be mad: You have to be madder than they are, too. Act appalled at the suggestion of the possibility that you reneged. Throw all the cards in the middle of the table. Accuse them of cheating, too. Call their mama a bitch. (I know it sounds harsh, but Spades life is a dog-eat-dog world.)
  • Calm down: Offer to replay the hand. When the game is over, apologize for being upset, and explain that you can get carried away. Don’t say you were wrong, though—even if you are asked about it 200 years later by a descendant of the person you cheated. If you renege, you owe the other team three books. It’s almost like handing over reparations.

I’m sure you get it now—never admit to a renege. Ever.


Michael Harriot is a poet, and host of the popular podcast The Black One and editor of the daily digital magazine NegusWhoRead (neguswhoread.com). He’s on Twitter.