Spades is a trick-taking card game invented and popularized in the United States. This is a traditional American pastime based on older trick-taking games like whist. Originally played in private games well outside the realm of the casino, you can now participate in real money spades tournaments and regular weekly games at poker rooms all over the country.
Spades has benefited from the spread of the consumer internet. The first platforms to offer this regionally popular partnership game to a global audience were the big names at the time, AOL, Yahoo, and Prodigy. These days, you can play spades online for free at any number of websites. You can also play and win with real money at an increasing number of real money online casinos.
Learning how to play spades and win real money is all just a matter of gaining a little bit of knowledge then jumping in and gaining real-world experience.
The Rules of Spades
Us gaming nerds will tell you that spades is a “plain-trick” game. That puts spades directly in the family tree of card games like euchre, whist, and Oh Hell, all of which were developed, spread, and popularized in the USA before eventually spreading all over the world. Below is detailed information about the game’s rules and how it is played.
Let’s start with the basic premise of the game—spades are always the trump suit. That means in any comparison of card values in the game, a spade will always outrank a card of any other suit.
A standard 52-card deck is used to play spades. The cards rank (high to low): A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, and finally 2. Suits are also given a hierarchy, as in other trick-taking card contests.
Number of Players
Spades is designed for four players. Popular variations of the game allow for play between two, three, six, or even eight players. In the standard game of spades, the game’s four players play in two fixed partnerships.
All play (including the initial deal) moves clockwise around the table. Partners sit across from one another on opposite sides of the playing table.
The first dealer of the game can be chosen at random; it is also common to choose the first deal by a cutting of the cards. The deal moves clockwise, like all gameplay.
To start the game, the cards are shuffled and dealt one at a time (again, clockwise), starting with the player immediately to the dealer’s left side. The dealer deals out the deck, leaving each player with 13 cards.
Once cards are dealt, players examine their hand to determine how to bid. Spades bidding is not as complex as some trick-taking games but requires some study and practice to perfect.
In spades, all four players bid on the number of rounds (known as “tricks”) they expect to win. A team’s total bid is a combination of both partner’s bids. The team must then collect that number of tricks together in order to score points. Bidding strategy is a big part of winning real money with spades; it’s covered in the strategy section below.
Bidding begins to the dealer’s left. Everyone bids between 0 and 13 tricks. A 0 bid is the same as passing. These are known as “nil” bids, and they’re difficult to complete.
A successful nil bid will earn a partnership bonus points for success, but also a penalty should their nil bid fail. The partner of the player who bids nil should still hit their bid total.
Under many forms of house spades rules, you can bid “blind nil” in order to score 200 points all at once. In order to score that high, the player isn’t allowed to see their cards before making this bid. Many variations of the game require a team be down by at least 200 points before a nil bid can be made.
Playing a Hand
Play starts with the player to the dealer’s left. This player can lead any card except a spade in the first trick. Play moves clockwise around the table. Players must follow suit if they can. If a player is unable to follow suit, he can play any card.
Like in other trump-style games, the trump suit (spades) can’t be played until certain circumstances have been met. In spades, the trump suit must be “broken”—that is, it must be played by someone after the lead of a different suit. Another circumstance that breaks spades is when a trick leader has nothing but spades in their hand and can’t make a different play.
Scoring is based on bidding, bonuses, and penalties. A score is determined for each team after each round of play. Teams can score a wide range of points, from -330 to +330, and in many different increments.
- Teams that earn at least as many tricks as they bid earn a score equal to ten times their bid. Tricks won beyond the number they bid are called overtricks (or sometimes “sandbags”) and are worth one extra point each. Here’s an example: A team bids three tricks and they win four. Their score for that round is 31, or 10 x 3 + 1 “sandbag.”
- Teams that fall short of their bid lose 10 points for each trick they failed to win. Here’s an example: If a team bid five tricks but only won four, their score for that round would be -10.
- Nil bids earn 100 points for their team, in addition to whatever score their partner earned by making or missing his bid. A successful blind nil bet will earn you 200 points; an unsuccessful one would lose you the same 200 points. Remember that a nil bettor’s partner must still meet their bid. Here’s an example: A team bid nil and three tricks, and both partners succeed. Their score for that round is 130 points—100 for the nil win and 3 x 10 points for the other partner’s successful bid.
- The winner of the game is the first team to reach 500 points. In the rare event that both sides reach 500 points after the same round, the team with the higher score is automatically declared the winner.
How to Win Real Money at Spades
Good spades play requires a combination of game knowledge, lots of experience, a little card-counting, a sprinkling of psychology, and impeccable bidding strategy. Below are a few tips to get even amateur gamblers ready to win more at real money spades games and tournaments.
Spades Bidding Tactics
On its face, the bidding system of Spades is simple enough. If you are able to bid exactly the number of tricks you will take, and your partner can always do the same, you’ll never lose. If precision bidding were that easy, nobody would play the game. Making precise spades bids is a good foundation for playing strategically.
The most important factor in placing a bid is your team’s score relative to your opponent’s. Early in the game, when teams are tied or still somewhat close in total points, aggressive bidding and generally aggressive play makes the most sense. Establishing a lead early allows you to play more conservatively later in the game.
However, as you approach a total of 500 points, it’s time to change your bidding style. If you’re within 100 points of the goal line, you should bid conservatively. This is especially true if you’ve acquired some sandbags along the way.
Bidding strategy is more complicated than that. But new players should avoid certain rules of thumb that have stuck to the game over the years. Ignore the advice to “bid the number of spades in your hand,” a blunt instrument that won’t get you very far against real cash money spades players. The tips below engage in further discussion of bidding strategy from different angles.
Counting Tricks in Spades
Your goal when you bid should be to earn the most points that the hand you’re dealt can earn – to maximize your points. This is especially true in the early game. That means bidding every likely-to-win trick as well as one or two possible-win tricks. Counting tricks is what separates good spades players from great ones.
So, how is it done? By learning to quickly survey your hand. It may help if you arrange your hand so that your cards are grouped by suit and from low to high, or high to low, whatever suits you.
- Aces and kings are definite tricks (provided you have at least one card in a supporting position).
- Queens are complicated. If you have an ace and king to support, count them as definite trick; otherwise, they can be counted as possible-win tricks.
- Jacks are only possible wins unless you have the entire royal family in support.
This strategy works well, except in the case of an unusual or uneven distribution of cards, which isn’t a factor you can prepare for or prevent, especially when you’re just learning to play the game.
How should players evaluate their spades in terms of trick-winning? Spades should generally be considered more reliable winners, since they are the game’s fixed trump suit. If you hold more than three spades in your hand, you can count any face card as a definite.
Be aware that counting spades as tricks can be risky, sometimes due to that uneven card distribution thing. A popular trick-counting rule of thumb tells players to count every spade they possess beyond three as a definite trick.
Playing Spades “From the Hole”
Play spades for any length of time and you’ll quickly become familiar with what spades players call “the hole.” Being down by 100 points or more is called the hole because teams begin to feel they’ll never recover from their deficit.
Being in the hole is the perfect time to begin bidding “nil” or “blind nil” in a desperate attempt to gain an advantage. This is a viable strategy, but one that fails more often than it succeeds.
Instead of long-odds nil wagers, consider trying to set your opponent by depriving them of tricks, or sandbagging them by gifting them tricks beyond their bids.
Beginning spades players playing real-money games should seriously consider this, not just because it makes the game more interesting, but because you’ll learn more about setting strategy while gaining that all-valuable spades experience. By avoiding nil bids, you also avoid failed nil bids, costly mistakes which make your hole deeper.
Some common ways used to set opponents – trump everything, even aces. There’s no penalty for failing to trump-win a trick. Some players find success in making very high bids, pushing their opponents into uncertainty about their own bidding. You can do the same with very low bids, at the risk of earning sandbags for your trouble.
Spades has elements of luck, but it is very much a game of skill and panache. Although beginners can play the game with proficient players, they perform better when educated on the ins and outs of the game. Many strategies may be employed in the game of Spades, including maximizing or minimizing trick taking, making desperation plays, and finessing.
Like most popular casino games, spades has many variations which allow players to tailor the game to suit their own tastes. Spades is a highly competitive game that requires precision in play but allows for spectacular improvisation.
The rules are simple. The scoring is simple. But as soon as you play in your first real game, or begin to play spades for cash, you’ll find that a lifetime isn’t long enough to master this trick-taking contest.