Learn to Play the Card Game Spades

Spades is played quite widely in the USA, but does not seem to have spread to any other countries. It is a plain-trick game in which spades are always trumps. It is most often played as a partnership game by four players, but there are also versions for three and for two players.

The following rules rely originally on contributions from Theodore Hwa, Dennis J Barmore (4 player game) and Szu Kay Wong (3 player game). Many variations have been added, contributed by John Hay, Daniel Hines, and others.

Spades for Four Players

The four players are in fixed partnerships, with partners sitting opposite each other. Deal and play are clockwise.

Rank of Cards

A standard pack of 52 cards is used. The cards, in each suit, rank from highest to lowest: A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2.

The Deal

The first dealer is chosen at random, and the turn to deal rotates clockwise. The cards are shuffled and then dealt singly, in clockwise order beginning with the player on dealer’s left, until all 52 cards have been dealt and everyone has 13.

The Bidding

Each partnership must make a bid, which is the number of tricks they expect to take. In is important to realize that in Spades both sides’ bids stand (it is not like other bidding games in which only the higher bid counts). First the non-dealer’s side agrees on a bid. Each partner on that side communicates the amount of tricks they expect to take, based on their cards. A certain amount of unspecified bantering about "halves" and "maybes" is permitted, but not specific information about cards held. For example you are allowed to say "I know I can take 4 tricks, I might be able to take 6"; you are not allowed to say "I have a couple of high hearts and a singleton in clubs". The agreed upon bid is then written down. The other side then agrees on a bid in the same manner.

Nil is a declaration that that the player will not win any tricks during the play. Any single player may bid nil. The nil bidder’s partner will also bid the number of tricks to be taken by the partnership.

Blind nil may only be bid by a player whose side is losing by at least 100 points. It is a nil bid declared before a player looks at his cards. The bidder may exchange two cards with partner – the bidder discards two cards face down; partner picks them up and gives back two cards face-down in return.

The Play of the Hand

On the first trick, everyone must play their lowest club. A player who has no clubs must discard a diamond or a heart. No spades may be played to the trick. On this first trick it does not matter much in what order the four players play their cards – but if you want to be fussy then the holder of the 2 of clubs should lead, and the others play in clockwise order. The trick is won by the highest club played.

The player who won the first trick leads to the next. Any card except a spade may be led. Each player, in turn, clockwise, must follow suit if able; if unable to follow suit, the player may play any card. A trick containing a spade is won by the highest spade played; if no spade is played, the trick is won by the highest card of the suit led.

The player who wins a trick leads to the next. Spades may not be led until either

  • some player has played a spade (on the lead of another suit, of course), or
  • the leader has nothing but spades left in hand.

Playing the first spade is known as "breaking" spades.

Scoring

A side that takes at least as many tricks as its bid calls for receives a score equal to 10 times its bid. Additional tricks (overtricks) are worth an extra one point each.

Sandbagging rule: A side which (over several deals) accumulates ten or more overtricks has 100 points deducted from its score. Any overtricks beyond ten are carried over to the next cycle of ten overtricks – that is if they reached twenty overtricks they would lose another 100 points and so on. (Note: it is not necessary to keep track of overtricks separately as the cumulative number of overtricks taken appears as the final digit of the team’s score, if positive).

If a side does not make its bid, they lose 10 points for each trick they bid.

If a bid of nil is successful, the nil bidder’s side receives 50 points. This is in addition to the score won (or lost) by the partner of the nil bidder for tricks made. If a bid of nil fails – that is, the bidder takes at least one trick – the bidder’s side loses 50 points (but still receives any amount scored for the partner’s bid, and the tricks won by the nil bidder count towards making the partner’s bid).

A bid of blind nil scores twice as much as an ordinary nil – it wins 100 points if successful and loses 100 points if it fails.

The side which reaches 500 points first wins the game. If both sides reach 500 points in a single deal, the side with the higher score wins.

Variations of Spades for Four Players

Dennis J Barmore (sharksinc@aol.com) runs a mailing list for information about Spades, Bid Whist and Pinochle clubs and tournaments in the USA. He has contributed the following description of a variant which is widely played by African Americans. The rules are as in basic spades, but with the following differences:

  1. Cards: The game is played with a standard pack with two distinct jokers; the twos of clubs and hearts are removed from the pack leaving 52 cards. The two jokers are the highest trumps. If one is colouful and the other is plain, the colourful one is higher. If your pack has identical jokers, write "BIG" on one of them, and that one is higher. The third highest trump is the two of spades – so the trump suit ranks:
    big joker, small joker, 2, A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3.
    For the purpose of following suit, the jokers count as spades.
  2. Leading: After the bidding, the dealer leads to the first trick and may lead any card of any suit. Throughout the game, any card may be led to a trick. You do not have to wait for spades to be broken before leading them.
  3. Scoring: If a team makes fewer tricks than they bid, they score minus the value of the contract – for example if you bid 8 and lose you score -80. There is no extra score for undertricks.
  4. Bidding blind: There is no nil or blind nil bid, but a partnership may bid blind seven, provided neither of them has yet looked at their cards. This doubles the score to 140 if successful and -140 if not. If they make overtricks, these count one each as usual.
  5. In theory it is also possible to bid higher numbers blind for double the score: blind 8 is worth 160, blind 9 is 180 and so on. However, such bids will not be worthwhile, except possibly when they give you just enough points to win the game if successful.

Other variations

Here are some further variants, mostly contributed by Theodore Hwa. Ben Miller provided the information on No Trump and Double Nil.

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