Spades: Still Growing After 75 Years!


What's the most popular four-player card game in the United States? On college campuses, in the military, and on the Internet, the answer is the same: Spades. Over 100,000 people now play Spades online every day, more than all the online Bridge and Hearts players combined.

Spades is newer than most other popular card games, although its main features-partnerships, bidding, and trumps-derive from older games such as Bid whist, Bridge, Pinochle, and Euchre. George Coffin, a card game expert best known for his prolific Bridge writings, determined that Spades was introduced in Cincinnati between 1937 and 1939. From there it spread to other Midwest cities, college campuses, and the military, where it was played extensively during World War II. Since that time, it has continued to grow steadily, even as contract bridge-which was developed from auction bridge by Harold S. Vanderbilt in 1925-has declined in popularity in the United States during the past two decades.

The appeal of Spades lies in its combination of a simple bidding system, the opportunity for partnership play, and fast-paced action. Despite its deceptively simple rules - much simpler than those of Bridge, - the game of Spades requires months or even years of experience in order for its players to become accomplished. There is also fertile ground, here, for advanced technique. Having a good partner can make a big difference!

How to Play

The basic rules of Spades are relatively simple. There are many variations, however, and it will undoubtedly take some time before the game becomes standardized.

The preferred game is four-handed, with two competing partnerships. Partners sit across the table from each other.

A standard 52-card deck of playing cards is used. Aces are high, followed in rank by king, queen, jack, ten, and so on - down to the deuces (twos). To start, the deck is shuffled and dealt out completely, each player receiving 13 cards.

The object is to score the most points; usually, a limit of 500 points is set, so that the first team to reach 500 wins. A negative limit of -250 is also standard; a team whose score falls to -250 or below loses. In "live" tournament play, a game limit of 12 hands is used to control the time each round takes.

The Bidding

Beginning with the player to the left of the dealer and proceeding clockwise, each player makes a bid indicating the number of tricks (defined below) that he or she expects to take for that hand. There is only one round of bidding. In most instances, the total of the four bids adds up to less than 13, as players tend to be conservative. In general, each partnership aims to take the same number of tricks during the play of the hand as the total of their two bids.

"Nil," a bid of zero, is different from other bids in that it is an individual contract rather than simply part of a partnership bidding total (see "Scoring").

The Play

After the bidding, the player to the left of the dealer chooses any card except a spade and plays it faceup on the table. This card is the opening lead. In some circles, whoever has the deuce of clubs must lead it to start the first trick.

Each of the other players in turn, moving clockwise around the table, also plays one card, which must-if possible-be of the

same suit that was led. The four cards played constitute a trick, which is picked up by the winner of the trick and placed facedown on the table. The winner of the trick leads the first card to the next trick, and play continues until all 13 tricks have been completed.

A trick that contains no spades is won by the highest card of the suit originally led. Spades are always trump; therefore, any spade will beat any non-spade, regardless of rank. A trick containing more than one spade, of course, is won by the highest spade.

No player may lead a spade until spades have been "broken"-that is, until at least one spade has been played. There's one obvious exception: A player on lead who only has spades may (and must) lead one.


If a partnership takes at least as many tricks as it bids, it scores 10 points for every trick bid plus one point for every additional trick taken, if any. Except when there is a nil bid, it makes no difference whether individual partners make their individual bids; if one partner bids 2 and the other bids 4, and each of them takes three tricks for a total of six, they have made their combined bid of 6 and earn 60 points.

If a partnership takes fewer tricks than its combined bid, it loses 10 points for every trick bid. Bidding a total of 7 and taking anywhere from zero to six tricks would result in a score of -70. Making your team's bid is imperative, as a "Set" (defeat) will cost you points!

A nil bid is an individual contract to take no tricks. A nil bidder scores 100 points if successful, -100 if unsuccessful (regardless of how many tricks are taken). In either case, the nil bidder's partner scores separately on the hand, based on only the partner's bid and tricks taken only by the partner. Tricks taken by a nil bidder do not count toward his or her partner's total.

"Blind nil" (sometimes called "double nil") is a bid that should be reserved for desperate situations. It's a nil bid that a player makes before seeing his or her hand. If successful, it scores 200 points; if unsuccessful, -200. "Bags" (or "sandbags") are the single points scored for each trick taken in excess of what was bid. As a penalty for overly conservative bidding, an accumulation of 10 bags results in a penalty of 100 points.

On line Spades is an ideal way to play. There is no shuffling, dealing, or scoring. The computer does it for you!


Some groups prefer to play with the rule that spades can be led at any time. The Jokers are also used. Three handed "Cut throat" Spades has a large following, and appeals to those to those who like a non - partners game. Future columns will review other variations, and "live" tournaments.

Enjoy Spades and have fun!

Copyright 2000, 2012 by Joe Andrews.
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