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Articles by Joe Andrews

The Modern Game of Euchre
BID WHIST: A New and Improved Classic Card Game
Spades: Still Growing After Sixty Years
BARBU: The Card Game that's Seven Games in One

Spades: Still Growing After Sixty Years

by Joe Andrews

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 25,000 people now play spades online every day, more than all the online bridge and hearts players combined.

Spades is younger 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, for example-the game requires months or even years of experience in order for its players to become accomplished. There is also fertile ground for advanced technique. Currently, a national rating system that will allow anyone to find competitive games locally and regionally is being developed. Two major spades events are scheduled for the next few months; both will be held in conjunction with tournaments featuring other classic games, and both have guaranteed cash prizes:

* The 1999 National Spades Championship, November 1-3 at the Hyatt in Orlando, Florida, sponsored by Total Entertainment Network (TEN)


* The 2000 United States Open Spades Championship, April 22-25 at Harrah's in Las Vegas, Nevada; the Web address will be posted in November (to get on the mailing list, e-mail the author of this article at heartsmoon@aol.com).

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 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 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.

Scoring

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.

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.

Variations

Spades has a plethora of variations, a few of which are reviewed here. For more detailed information, visit www.pagat.com, or refer to the Advanced Edition of my book Win at Spades (published by Bonus Books, Inc. and reviewed in October 1999 GAMES).

Suicide

One member of each partnership must bid a nil each hand. Needless to say, this results in very long games. An amusing situation occurs when your partner makes a numerical bid, and you have to bid nil with the ace of spades!

Mirrors

Each player must bid a number equal to the number of spades in his or her hand. This variation is a lot of fun, especially if you don't want to strain your brain thinking about a proper bid. It also results in a lot of defeated contracts.

Homicide

The total bid must equal 14 tricks, ensuring that one of the teams will be set (fail to make its bid) every hand. As the last bidder, the dealer is required to make a bid that brings the total to 14. This bizarre variation became popular in the late 1970s.

Bad-em

Everyone is required to bid "one." That's it-a bid of one trick per player, for a total of four tricks and nine bags in every hand! It is a reverse form of the game in which avoiding tricks is a premium. Of course it's silly, but it's also an entertaining change of pace.

Playing on the Internet

The increasing popularity of the Internet has certainly expanded the horizons of card players everywhere. Now, any player with a computer (and modem) can play a good game of spades with quality opponents. All ranges of skill are represented at various sites. Most sites offer free play of spades and other classic card games-although before playing, it is always wise to look at the regulations, fee schedules (if any), and terms of access. Here are three of my favorite places to play spades:

Microsoft Internet Gaming Zone

MSN Gaming Zone. This is one of the oldest gaming sites on the Internet. The Classic Card Games are first-rate and free. Graphics are superb, the cards are easy to read, and the score is automatically maintained. You can chat with your opponents, or watch a game via a "kibitz" option. The playing "rooms" are categorized by skill level, and a ratings system allows players to gauge their relative strengths.

TEN

Excite Home Games (www.excite. com). Total Entertainment Network's site is nicely formatted and has an up-to-date design. You can play for free, and access is very easy. There are rooms for beginning, intermediate, and advanced players, as well as a ratings area. One outstanding feature is the "customizing" option, where players can determine the rules for their game from a menu of choices. This very progressive site is well worth exploring.

Yahoo!

(http://games.yahoo.com). This is another first-rate site with easy access, optional rules, and a good ratings system. The layout is quite attractive, and there is ample space for chatting. Levels of strength from novice to expert are identified to facilitate placement in the appropriate room. Beware: Lots of "sharks" swim about in the waters of the Advanced area!

Illustrative Hands

The following hands, which were played in actual events and also appear in Win at Spades, illustrate some of the tactics of spades.

Magic

Even David Copperfield would be impressed at how North and South make some of the winning cards in West's hand disappear.


It was a tournament semifinal, and the score stood East-West 442, North-South 382. As the final digits of the scores indicate, each side had two bags-no problem there. The bidding appeared to be normal, if a bit conservative. After South's reasonable opening bid of 3, West bid a very safe-looking 5 to make sure of his bid, figuring his partner would likely "balance in" with a bid of 1 to bring the partnership to the potential 60 more points needed for game. (Note that if West were to bid 6, East would still have to bid 1 to avoid making a nil bid, and so the partnership would have to take an extra trick.) North was tempted to bid nil, but feared the trump and diamond suits.

South led the king of hearts, West played the ace, and North ruffed (trumped) with the eight of spades. North shifted to a low club, and East hesitated before playing the 10. Correctly reading the hesitation as the presence of the king of clubs, South played the queen, taking a successful finesse. Now South led his three remaining heart winners in succession, allowing North to discard all three diamonds (West and East had to keep playing hearts.) Next South led the diamond 3, West played the ace, and North ruffed with the 9 of spades. After a club lead to South and a diamond return ruffed by the spade queen, North-South had taken the first eight tricks, and the "sure" East-West contract (and game) had failed.

Twin Nils

This entertaining hand was played in one of the Rated Rooms of the Zone.


Such lively bidding is worthy of discussion. The scores were East-West 333 and North-South 251, so bags were not an issue. Twin nils are infrequently bid and rarely made. Most players will not bid a nil if their partner has done so, since there is no way to "cover" for your partner by using your own trumps and high cards to help your partner avoid taking tricks. Nil bids by both partners often lead to one making and one failing, for a net gain of zero, and there is the risk of a major disaster if both bids fail.

South's nil was quite reasonable, with only a slight risk in the heart suit. West's bid of four was normal, although some players would stretch for a five bid with the decent five-card trump suit, a side ace, and a singleton. North's nil was truly a leap of faith, considering his four-card spade suit and the fact that no help could be given by his partner. East made an astute bid of 8, leaving just enough room for one of the nil bidders to fail.

South led the five of diamonds, West tried the 8, and South was relieved to see North able to duck with the 3. East won the trick with the ace and returned the 4 hopefully, but South played the deuce, West played the 7, and North discarded a club. West tried the jack of hearts, which collected the 10, 9, and 7, then went back to the 6 of diamonds. North threw his remaining club, East won with the king, and South threw the king of hearts. East now tried the five of hearts, which both South and North were able to duck, while West threw the ace of clubs. (Some kibitzers thought he should have trumped with the ace of spades and then led clubs for his partner to ruff, in order to make the 8 of spades more likely to take a trick; but West was reasonably hoping that North would have to take the heart trick.) Now East tried the three of clubs, but South was ready with another deuce and West had to win the trick as North threw the ace of hearts. West reached his partner's hand with his last diamond, and a very frustrated East now started to run the diamond suit in the hopes that North or South would have to ruff. But on the ninth trick, it was West who had to ruff, and did so with the ace, on which North cheerfully played the 8 of spades. West then led the 5 of spades-his one last hope-but East was forced to win, allowing South to safely play his 6. East-West went on to win all 13 tricks as North and South scored a very rare successful twin nil.

This article originally appeared in Games Magazine, August 2000, and is reprinted by permission. Subscribe to Games Magazine.

Joe Andrews is the author of five books on card games and two music books, including Win at Whist (Bonus Books, 2001) and Music, Music, Music (Pro-Star Publishers, Inc., 2002). He has previously written articles for GAMES on the card games Spades, Euchre, and Bid Whist.