By Neal Taparia - 8/2/2023
Spades is a popular card game that combines strategy, skill, and a bit of luck. Originating from the Whist family, including games like Euchre and Hearts, Spades requires careful planning and cooperation between partners.
This article will serve as your ultimate guide to mastering the gameplay, understanding the rules, and learning the nuances of this trick-taking card game.
What you’ll need:
Length: 60-90 minutes
Difficulty: Easy, but can take years to master
Trump ranks: Spades are always the trump suit
Card ranks (high to low): Ace, King, Queen, Jack, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2
The object of Spades is to score the highest number of points by accurately predicting the number of tricks your team will win in each round. Every round round, you and your partner earn points based on your combined bids. The game ends when a team reaches a predetermined number of points, often set at 500.
In some scoring variations (for shorter games), the number of points required to win is 250, or the winning condition may also include a 200-point lead by one team/player. Some teams choose to play for a set number of rounds (for instance, 8 rounds takes about an hour), or a specific amount of time.
How do you win at Spades? To win at the Spades card game, you’ll need to learn how to bid accurately to earn the maximum points possible in each round. You should bid just enough for your team to meet their combined bid (contract) without going over by more than one or two winning tricks in a single round.
Here's what you’ll need to understand to win at Spades:
While there is a degree of luck in the cards you're dealt, Spades is primarily a game of skill. By mastering the art of accurate bidding, effective communication with your partner, and strategic gameplay, you can improve your chances of winning.
Setting up a game of Spades is straightforward and requires minimal equipment. To start, you will need a standard 52-card deck and a way to keep score — usually, a pen and paper will do just fine. You can also download and print our PDF scoring sheet!
However, the number of players can alter the setup slightly. While the traditional Spades game is designed for four players in teams of two, there are variations for two, three, or five-player games as well.
Here's how to set up a game of Spades depending on the number of players.
A classic Spades game involves four players split into two teams.
Teammates sit across from each other so they can't see each other's cards. The first dealer is chosen at random (often by choosing cards from the top of the deck until the first person pulls a Spade). The dealer role moves to the left with each new round.
The dealer shuffles the cards and deals them face down, one at a time, until each player has 13 cards.
Most online Spades games are designed in this classic 4-player structure.
In a game of Spades with 2 people, the primary change from a traditional four-player game is that there is no dealer. Instead, the deck is shuffled and placed face-down in the center of the players.
The first player picks up the top card of the deck and chooses whether or not to keep it. If they keep the card, they immediately discard the next card from the deck in a face-up discard pile. If they discard the first card they pick up, they must pick up the next card from the deck and add it to their hand.
This alternates between both players until each player has a hand of 13 cards. The discard pile with the remaining 26 cards is set aside and will not be used.
In addition to this setup change, the second player (the person who did not select the first card for their hand) leads the first trick.
In a three-player variation of Spades, the gameplay remains the same, but with a few adjustments to deal with the lack of a partner.
The dealer shuffles the deck and deals each player 17 cards. The remaining card is not used and stays face down for the entirety of the round. Each player then bids on their own and plays for themselves.
Remember, if you’re playing with three people, you’re bidding on a total of 17 total tricks, not 13.
For a five-player Spades game, there are two common variations.
The first one is similar to the three-player game, where everyone plays for themselves. The dealer deals each player 10 cards.
In the second variation, there's a rotating "loner" player, while the other four continue to play in teams of two. The loner's score is separate, and the player with the highest score at the end wins.
Variations of Spades with 6 or more players get more complex but often involve more than 2 teams or teams of more 3 or more players.
Spades is a card game that consists of several rounds, where players bid and take turns playing cards to win tricks. The game's structure is simple once you understand the basic rules.
Let's break down each step to make it easier to grasp.
The game starts with the dealer, who shuffles the deck of cards and distributes cards one at a time until each player has a hand of 13. The dealer changes with each round, moving to the left.
In an online game of Spades, the first dealer is usually the human player.
After everyone has their cards, the bidding phase begins. Starting with the person to the left of the dealer, each player predicts or "bids" the number of tricks they believe their team can win in that round.
A trick is a set of four cards, one from each player, with the highest card winning the trick.
Both members of your team must successfully meet the number of tricks you both bid on combined (known as your “contract”) to avoid losing points.
A player bids nil if they believe they won't win any tricks in the round. Successfully achieving a nil bid can yield high points, but failing comes with penalties. (We cover specifics on bidding nil in more detail in the “rules and violations” section below.)
The player to the dealer’s left leads the first trick. The game continues clockwise, with each player playing a card. The next cards must be played following the suit of the first card.
In online games, the human player is often always chosen as the first player per round. This is different than in person games, in which the dealer and first player are different.
The objective is to win the trick by playing the highest card in the leading suit. For instance, if the first player plays a 5 of Hearts, and the other cards played in that trick are the 10 of Hearts, 4 of Hearts, and Ace of Hearts, the player who plays the Ace wins that trick.
However, if a player cannot follow suit, they can play a card of any other suit. If they choose to play a Spade, they may trump the trick and will win that trick unless another player puts down a higher Spade card.
The first time in a round that someone plays a Spade because they cannot follow suit is known as “breaking Spades.” Spades may not lead a trick until they have been broken.
A round ends when all players have played their 13 cards and all tricks have been won.
The game continues for as many rounds as the players agree upon, or until the first team reaches a predefined score, often 500 points.
Remember, Spades is not just about winning tricks, but also about accurate bidding and cooperation with your teammate.
The standard rules of a game of Spades are as follows:
Violating the rules (reneging) can occur inadvertently, especially for new players. Here are a few ways a player might break the rules:
If you’re playing online, the website you’re playing on will typically keep score. To keep score with pen and paper, try our handy printable PDF for scoring Spades. It’s even got a reminder of how scoring works right on the page!
Winning tricks earns you points, but there are also other ways to gain — and lose — points. Here’s a complete list points and penalties in a game of Spades:
|Winning a trick within your bid||10 per trick bid||Each trick a team wins that aligns with their bid is worth 10 points. For instance, if your team bids 5 tricks and wins exactly 5, your team earns 50 points.|
|Overtricks (up to 9; also called bags or overbooks)||1 per bag||Each trick won beyond the team's bid becomes a “bag” or “overtrick,” adding an extra point to the team's score for that round. For example, winning 6 tricks when you bid 5 earns your team 51 points.|
|Successful Nil Bid (single player)||100||If a player successfully bids “nil” after seeing their hand, meaning they win no tricks during a round, their team is awarded 100 bonus points.|
|Successful Blind Nil Bid (single player)||200||If a player bids “nil” before seeing their hand and wins no tricks during that round, their team gains 200 bonus points.|
|Successful Double Nil Bid (both players)||400||Both players on a team may bid “nil” in a single round after seeing their hands. If neither player wins a trick that round, the team gets 400 points. This rule variant is only allowed if agreed to by all players beforehand.|
|Successful Double Blind Nil Bid (both players)||800 (game)||Both players on a team may bid “nil” in a single round before seeing their hands. To gain 800 points (and win the game), neither player may win a single trick. This rule variant is only allowed if agreed to by all players beforehand.|
|Underbidding (Penalty)||-10 per trick bid||Once a team collects 10 overtricks or “bags,” they get a 100-point penalty. This means you must be strategic in the number of tricks your team wins each round. This is sometimes called “bagging out,” and may occur multiple times in a single game.|
|Sandbag (10 overtricks/bags) (Penalty)||-100||Once a team collects 10 overtricks or “bags,” they get a 100-point penalty. This means you must be strategic in the number of tricks your team wins each round. This is sometimes called “bagging out,” and may occur multiple times in a single game.|
|Failure to Follow Suit (Penalty)||All round points awarded to the opposing team||If a player reneges by not following the lead suit even when they have a matching card and is caught, all points for that round are given to the other team.|
|Leading with a Spade Before Spades is Broken (Penalty)||All round points awarded to the opposing team||If a player reneges by leading a turn with a Spade suit before Spades has been broken, all points for that round are given to the other team.|
|Failed Nil Bid (Penalty)||-100||If a player bids “nil” but wins at least one trick, they subtract 100 points from their team's score.|
|Failed Blind Nil Bid (Penalty)||-200||If a player bids “blind nil” but wins a trick, a 200-point penalty is applied.|
|Failed Double Nil Bid (Penalty)||-400||If both players on a team bid “nil” but one of them wins a trick, the team receives a 400-point penalty.|
|Failed Blind Double Nil Bid (Penalty)||-800 (game loss)||In the rare case that two players on a team bid “nil” before seeing their cards but win at least a single trick, they get a penalty of 800 points and lose the game.|
Developing a solid strategy is key to succeeding in Spades. Just like any card game, while the elements of luck and randomness play a role, employing smart tactics can increase your chances of winning.
Let's dive into some strategies used by top Spades players that you can incorporate into your gameplay.
The first step to formulating a strategy is to thoroughly understand your hand. Examine the cards you've been dealt and determine whether you have a high number of a particular suit, especially Spades, or if you have many high-ranking cards like Kings and Aces.
A balanced hand, with a good mix of cards from every suit and a range of rankings, can give you a lot of flexibility when it comes to bidding and playing.
If you end up with the highest card (or cards) in your hand, you’ll be able to confidently bid on trick you literally can’t lose. For instance, if you hold the Ace, King, and Queen of Spades, you can bid 3 and can’t win fewer than that, even if the rest of your cards are low cards of other suits.
Bidding is an art in Spades, and it can make or break your game. Look at your hand and try to estimate the number of tricks you're likely to win. Underbidding and failing to meet your contract leads to lost points, but overbidding and winning overtricks can cause you to miss out on potential points and sandbagging penalties.
The key is to balance optimism with realism. World-class players also consider their partner's bid and their own hand to anticipate the total number of tricks their team could win.
Remember, Spades is a game of partnership. You're not playing alone, so make sure to work with your partner. Although you can't verbally communicate during the game, you can give cues through the cards you play and how you bid.
Experienced players often develop subtle communication methods, such as leading with a particular suit or card, to indicate the strength of their hand.
If you have a strong hand, it's advantageous to maintain control of the game. Playing higher cards allows you to win tricks and guide the flow of gameplay. However, be mindful not to deplete your hand of high cards too early, as you may need them in the later stages of the round.
A good defense is often the best offense in card games. If you're dealt a weak hand, consider adopting a defensive strategy. This could involve trying to “cut” your opponents’ intended tricks by playing a higher card of the same suit or using your Spades strategically to win certain tricks.
Spades are the highest suit in the game and are your secret weapon. The best Spades players know the value of saving Spades until later in the game, particularly if they can use them to win crucial tricks or to “cut” when they have no cards left in the suit that has been led.
Here’s a look at one online game and the strategy to a winning round.
In this example online round, our player bid 4. This hand is heavy on Spades, suggesting they may be able to win several tricks, but has several low cards within that suit (and no guaranteed wins, such as with the Ace of Spades).
Their partner, Harriet, bid 3 tricks, meaning the team together must win 7 tricks (3 to Harriet and 4 to our player) to avoid a point penalty.
Our player leads this trick with their highest card other than Spades, with a King of Diamonds. Unfortunately, they do not win the trick as they are outplayed by the Ace of Spades.
In this case, our player went with their lowest Spades card. As the final person to place a card and unable to follow suit, they knew that any Spade would take the trick (no use in wasting a higher-value card).
In this online game of Spades, the “Spades Broken” notice appears to indicate anyone may now lead a trick with a Spade. Our player then plays their lowest Diamond card in an effort to get rid of that suit. Once they’re out of Diamonds, they can trump any lead diamond card with a Spade.
Because Harriet (our partner) played the single highest trump card on her next leading round, our player should play their lowest-value Spade, a 5. They must play a Spade, but shouldn’t waste a high-value card since they can’t win and their team will already take the trick.
Our player has a choice to make here: Allow their partner to take the trick and deplete their own Diamond cards, or win the hand by playing a 6 of Spades.
In this case, they choose to let Harriet win her final required trick of the round.
Their choice paid off! Harriet leads the next hand, probably motivated by our player’s last choice of a 10 of Diamonds, with a low-value Diamond card. With just a 6 of Spades, our player is likely to win this trick.
Next, they play their remaining lowest Spade card. The goal of this choice is to bleed other players of remaining Spades, and to find out if Harriet has any remaining (she doesn’t). In this case, our player loses the trick but gets Cleopatra to play the Jack of Spades.
As Harriet played her Ace of Spades and our player has the King and 10 of that suit, we know we need to get Albert or Cleopatra to play their Queen of Spades. After that, our player is guaranteed to win the hands for which they play the 10 and King of Spades.
A couple of turns later, our player has the choice to try winning a hand led by Harriet with the 10 of Spades, hoping Albert either still has a Heart in his hand or does not have the Queen of Spades.
Albert playing a 5 of Diamonds tells us that he both has no more Hearts and that he is not holding the Queen of Spades. By elimination, we can assume Cleopatra holds the Queen of Spades.
Our secondary goal here is now to prevent Cleopatra from winning another trick to meet her contract. This may not be possible, and the next trick is taken by that player.
While our player doesn’t prevent Cleopatra from winning the second trick she needed to win, they do win the final hand with their guaranteed King of Spades.
Our player and Harriet bid a total of 7 and took 8, offering 10 points per bid won (70 points) and a single point for the bag over your bid, for a total of 71 points in that round.
The game of Spades is believed to have been invented in the United States during the late 1930s. The original creator’s name is unknown.
Spades’ roots tie it to the Whist family of card games, which includes popular names like Bridge and Hearts. It was initially popularized in the Midwest region of the United States, and from there, the game rapidly gained traction across the nation.
American soldiers in World War II were particularly drawn to Spades, given its strategic depth, simplicity, and portability. It served as a means of relaxation and bonding during difficult times.
Over the years, Spades continued to captivate different communities, becoming a staple in settings as diverse as college dorms and family game nights.
The game also enjoys significant popularity within the Black community, where it is a common feature at social gatherings like family reunions and barbecues.
The cultural fabric of this community cherishes Spades as more than just a game — it's a traditional pastime that fosters connection and friendly rivalry. Despite its mysterious origins, Spades' widespread appeal and timeless charm remain indisputable.
Yes, you can throw off (discard) in Spades even if you have a Spade. However, you should note that Spades are not usually played unless a Spade has been used to lead a trick or you're out of the suit that has been led.
Remember, Spades are considered the highest suit, and once a Spade is played, the suit of the trick changes to Spades.
Playing a few practice hands with friends or online can also help beginners get a better grasp of the game.
Spades can be turned into a fun drinking game with a few simple rule adjustments:
Always drink responsibly, even when playing Spades.
Spades can seem complex at first, especially with its unique bidding and scoring system. However, once you get the hang of the basic rules, it's not overly difficult. The game involves both luck and strategy, and part of the fun is improving your skills over time.
So, while it might be challenging in the beginning, it's not necessarily harder than many other popular card games. Plus, the challenge is part of what makes it such a rewarding and engaging game to play!