Hello everyone! My name is Dan, I work at the Main Library, and I love games. In this series of posts, I’m going to be teaching you how to play some classic games that are easy to learn, fun to play, and quite possibly already in your home! Today, it’s another trick-taking game, with a few added wrinkles. Let’s learn about Spades!

Spades is a game played with a deck of cards and four people. You’ll probably also need some paper to keep track of scores. Unlike Hearts, where every player is out for themselves, Spades is a partnership game. With the players sitting around a card table, you are partners with the player sitting across the table from you. Get acquainted with your partner’s playing style, because you’re going to be winning or losing together!

First, choose a dealer to begin, and shuffle and deal out the entire deck. Each player should have 13 cards. Next, starting with the player to the dealer’s left, each player will bid the number of tricks they think they will take in the hand. This can be any number from 1 to 13 (zero is a special case, I’ll get to that in a moment). When each player has made their bid, play starts with the player to the dealer’s left leading a card.

In order to understand how much to bid, we need to know how to win tricks. The rules from Hearts still apply, but with a new wrinkle. In Spades, the suit of spades is a trump suit. This means that any spade will beat any non-spade, regardless of rank or whether it was led (but you still have to follow suit if possible). If multiple spades are played, the highest one wins. Here’s some examples.

In this case, the three of spades wins, beating the ace of diamonds! Of course, to be a legal play, that player would have to be out of diamonds.

Here, there was a series of attempts to trump, as everyone but the leading player was out of hearts. The ten of spades is the ultimate winner.

Now, let’s look at a sample hand. When thinking about what to bid, you ideally want to bid the exact number of tricks you end up taking, so you want to have a good idea of how strong your hand is. Let’s say this hand was dealt to you.

This hand looks pretty good! Not a lot of high cards, but a bunch of spades, and only one card each in diamonds and clubs, which is going to provide a lot of opportunities to win with a spade when those suits are led. I’d probably bid 5 here. Of course, bidding in Spades is more of an art than a science, but there are a few general rules:

  • An ace in a non-spades suit is generally going to win a trick, if you play it soon enough. Kings are a bit less likely, queens much less so. Also keep in mind when cards will have to be played. In the above example, the king of diamonds is very unlikely to win a trick, since it must be played if the ace of diamonds is led.
  • The more spades you have, the better, especially if you have no cards or only one in another suit.
  • The ace of spades is a guaranteed winner. If you’re lucky enough to have the ace and king of spades, you have two guaranteed tricks in your hand.
  • Think about what the other players have bid, if you are going after them. Remember, there are only 13 tricks total that can be taken! If the numbers aren’t adding up, someone is probably making a mistake. Double check and make sure it isn’t you!
  • Your bid will be added to your partner’s bid. You are trying to win that many tricks together, so you can come up short on your personal bid as long as your partner picks up the slack, or vice versa.

There is also one more option for a bid. If your hand seems quite weak and unlikely to win a trick, you can bid “Nil.” This is simply a bid that you, personally, will win zero tricks. (Your partner will try to reach their own bid, as usual.) This is a high-risk, high-reward play: if you successfully avoid any tricks, you’ll score a lot of points, but if you take even one, your team will find itself in a substantial hole.

When the hand is over, it’s time to score. Each partnership counts the number of tricks they won and sees if their bid was met. (To make this easier, make sure to separate each trick you win in some way.) If your bid was met, your team scores ten points per trick bid. Any extra tricks score one point each, and are called “sandbags” or “bags.” For example, if you bid 5 and your partner bid 2, and you won 8 tricks in total, your team would score 71 points: 10 points for each of the 7 bid (10*7=70) plus 1 for the sandbag. If you fail to meet the bid, you lose 10 points for each trick bid, regardless of how many tricks you ended up taking. If your team bid a total of 6 and only took 5, you lose 60 points. A successful nil bid is worth 100 points (in addition to the points that player’s partner gained/lost), and an unsuccessful nil attempt loses 100 points.

Having your bid be as accurate as possible is important, both because an accurate bid will score more points than an underbid, and because of the sandbag rule. If a team gets their tenth sandbag in a game (this is easy to keep track of, because it’s the ones place in your score), they lose 100 points, and their sandbag count starts over. You can suffer the sandbag penalty multiple times in the same game!

After scoring, the player to the dealer’s left becomes the new dealer, and another hand is played. The first team to reach 500 points wins, but as with Hearts, feel free to change this number to suit your preferred playing time.

There are also a number of Spades variants, some of which I’ll list here:

  • As in the Hearts variant, the player with the two of clubs leads that card to start the hand, regardless of their position at the table.
  • Again similar to a Hearts variant, spades may not be led until they have been “broken” by being played when another suit was led. This cuts down on frustrating situations where one player has a number of high spades and leads them one after another to bring out everybody’s spades.
  • Double nil: If both players in a partnership bid nil and both succeed, they will score double the points (400 instead of 200). If either or both players fail, there is no penalty.
  • Blind nil: an option for the daring or the desperate. A player can decide to bid nil before looking at their cards. They are allowed to pass one card to their partner after bidding, which is replaced by a card from their partner’s hand. If a blind nil bid is successful, it’s worth 200 points (and -200 if it fails).

I know this was a bit of a long read, but Spades is a rewarding game, and I really recommend putting in the time to learn it. Want to know more? Check out these resources from our collection!

Card Games

Shuffle and deal: 50 classic card games for any number of players

Ace of Spades by Mötorhead (Every card game needs a soundtrack, after all!)

Also, see last week’s post on Hearts. All of those books talk about Spades as well.

If there are any games you would like to see me cover in a future post, let me know in the comments or send me an email at dable@kckpl.org. Happy gaming!