If there is one recreational activity that defines black America’s unique ethnological experience that we commonly call “the culture,” then it would have to be the card competition known as spades.*
*I thought playing the tambourine was the definitive black activity until my late teens, when I first saw The Monkees and discovered that white people are allowed to both own and play the only percussion instrument officially endorsed by the Holy Ghost. I haven’t looked it up yet, but I’d bet Davey Jones doesn’t even have his choir director’s license. He probably bought it from a heathen on the lucrative underground tambourine white market.
Wikipedia calls spades a “trick-taking card game devised in the United States in the 1930s” but that’s definitely wrong. First of all, spades is not a game. It is a skills contest that requires complex permutative calculations while winning a “game” only requires luck. Old black men who carry pocket knives do not play games. When gladiators fought to the death, it was not a “game.” When Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, they were technically playing a “game,” but few people know that that entire dispute was about Hamilton’s refusal to admit to a renege during the Constitutional Convention.
Spades is not a game.
Secondly, spades actually predates all of recorded history. Ancient Sumerian carvings depict a four-person contest where one player is clearly running a Boston (which is where the city’s name originated). And when archaeologists excavated the secret rooms in the Egyptian pyramids, they found that members of the royal courts were buried with a hand of 13 cards in each sarcophagus.
The Pharaoh always had the Big Joker.
For years, The Root was asked to create a tutorial for our spades-illiterate readers but—for a number of reasons—we have never answered the call. The first reason was that we simply assumed that it already existed. However, after looking at Bicycle playing cards’ official tutorial, we were shocked to discover that most of the spades-related instructions were sorely lacking the black perspective. First of all, they refer to “books” as “tricks.” What the fuck is a trick? I suspect whoever wrote that also gave The Monkees a tambourine.
The biggest reason that we resisted offering a spades tutorial was that we weren’t sure it was possible. Everyone at The Root knows how to play spades but no one could specifically remember being taught. I erroneously assumed every black person was born with the innate ability to play spades, season chicken and hit the exact notes on Frankie Beverly’s wail in “Before I Let Go.”
Well, we have a trick for your ass.
We’re gonna teach you how to play spades.
While this tutorial will not make you a “spades player,” it will teach you the basics of the black version of spades (which is a different version than the Caucasian version. White Spades is a game).**
**A white person once told me they “enjoyed” playing spades. Spades is not for “enjoyment.” Spades is about dominance. It is a conduit for shit-talking. It’s exciting and scary. Then again, white people love scary shit like bungee-jumping and hang-gliding. Come to think about it, spades is black people’s version of bungee-jumping—You might get smashed or you might end up flying.
This is for all the people who apparently grew up without cousins. This is for all the suburban kids who didn’t have anyone to ask them to run to the store and buy Kool 100s in the soft pack. With practice, hard work and someone to call you a “sorry motherfucker who should have stayed in the corner of yo’ daddy’s wrinkled nutsack,” you too can become an actual spades player. And—if you are really diligent, maybe someday you will be lucky enough to find the one thing we are all searching for:
A true “partner.”
There are a few things you will need to play spades.
1. Two pairs of partners: For the sake of this tutorial, we will assume the most popular negro configuration—a four-person game. But you can’t just choose any four people because—unlike most other barbecue-related recreational activities—spades requires teamwork, communication and an equal level of skill from both members of each team.
Meshing well with a partner is the most important aspect of the game. Part of what makes spades such a difficult game to learn is that one great spades player can’t compensate for their teammate’s lack of knowledge. If I played a mixed doubles tennis match with Serena Williams, we could probably defeat any other team in the world. But the greatest spades player in the universe is completely irrelevant without a partner who meshes well with their spades sensibilities. Because of this, very few people will even think of partnering with a novice.
2. Playing cards: Bicycle playing cards are the official playing cards of black America. One should only play with off-brand cards when it is totally necessary. And if you consider this endorsement a breach of journalistic ethics, you should know that almost every brand of American playing cards is owned and distributed by one company—The United States Playing Card Company. I don’t know why, but it still matters.
3. Music: I don’t think it is possible to play spades without music. I tried once in the late 1980s and quickly stopped after I began experiencing what doctors now call “renege-induced vertigo.” As long as three of the players agree on the music, the specific genre does not matter. One player will always disagree on the music. That player is probably going to win.
4. Electricity: You’re probably thinking: “Of course you need light to play spades,” but the summer outdoor spades season does not require electric lights. Electricity is only needed to keep score. If a person has electricity, that means they receive an electric bill. And, after years of laboratory testing, the National Association of Spades Activities (the real NASA) determined that the best medium for recording spades scores was the back of an envelope that previously contained the second notice for an overdue light bill.
The writing utensil can come from anywhere but preliminary studies show that the best ink comes from a pen that was at the bottom of a church lady’s purse that has been used to write down scriptures during three consecutive Bible study classes.
5. A table: I know this seems obvious, but this is a very important aspect of playing spades. And, while it sounds counterintuitive, a card table is not a sufficient playing surface for spades because the standard card table does not provide enough heft for the black version of this game.
Spades should always be played on a kitchen or a dining room table, even if the game takes place outside. (Picnic tables have little slits and holes which impede the racking of books.) However, even when a dining room table is used, spades should never be played in an actual dining room—only in a kitchen, a living room or an outside location—unless you want your dining room to smell like Black & Milds for a week.***
***Even if no one smokes, after three games of spades, there will be the scent of Black & Milds in the air. NASA is still trying to figure out why.
5. Food and/or drink: Because spades is very labor-intensive, it requires food. Wings, meatballs, Ro-Tel or fried fish are all very good spades dishes. One should, however, make sure that any food served during the match is sauceless, as it could make the cards sticky.
Brown liquor should be served at a spades game but gin is also allowed under the international black rules. All beer should be domestic.
Having gathered your materials, you probably think you’re ready to play. Not so fast, my friend. You are only at the stage called “‘bout to play spades,” which precedes the “finna play” stage.
Before an evening of spade-ing commences, there are decisions that must be made. The most important rule one must know is that the host of the spades location is the sole decider of all competition rules—but it is not their responsibility to let you know them. That’s on you. While there is an infinite number of rule variations, we will only cover the basics here.
Entering the game: Competitive spades playing is organized by the same rules as black barbershops and pickup basketball games—it is the potential player’s responsibility to determine who’s up to play and inform everyone within a 200-foot radius that you have “next.”
You are obligated to find your own partner. However, if your turn comes up and you or your partner are not around, you have approximately 39 seconds before you lose your spot. You must sit down across from your partner and begin to play.
Dealing: In most places, the winner of the previous game gets to deal, after which the deal rotates clockwise. In other places, the cards are shuffled and one card is dealt to each player before every game. The player with the highest card wins. In other places, the deal rotates clockwise every hand, regardless of the winner. The most important thing to know about dealing is that if you mess up for any reason, the deal automatically goes to the next person. Each person receives 13 cards. The person to the left of the dealer always has the option of cutting the cards. If they choose not to cut them, they must still touch the deck.
Score: There are two ways to score spades. The first is by scoring according to bidding (which we will discuss later). The second method—the “no-bid rules”—is usually only used when there is no light bill available to keep score on. While this simpler method removes the complexity of bidding from the game (I told you we’d talk about bidding later!), it also requires the players to keep scores in their heads and agree with each other, which can lead to fights.
Most inside-based spades games go to 500 while most outside games go to 350. No-bid games are quicker and usually end at seven. Some people “keep overs” while others only score the number of books bid. (Nigga, didn’t I just say we were gonna talk about bidding tomorrow?)
Winners versus losers: Winners stay at the table while losers get up. However, in some competitions, a player who had “next” has the option of choosing one of the losers as a partner. A person who wins can call a loser any disparaging nickname they choose and the loser must keep quiet.
Game stoppers: Make sure you ask which instances will render a hand invalid or automatically end the game. Although they vary from location to location, the seven main game-stoppers are:
- A pound on the first hand ends the game.
- A Boston at any time ends the game.
- Setting an opponent three times ends the game.
- A hand with no Trump cards ends the hand, next person deals.
- A hand with no trump cards or face cards ends the hand, next person deals.
- A fight temporarily delays the game until the main antagonist gets a refill for everyone whose liquor was spilled.
- Running out of liquor ends the game.
House hierarchy: OK, I know I’ve already said that certain aspects of the game were “important,” but the rank of the cards is really the one rule that you must make sure that you are aware of.
As with most card games, the rank of the cards is—from high to low—A (high), K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2... Usually. From there, the house rules determine the rank, which is defined by the following terms:
- Joker***, Joker, Deuce, Deuce: From high to low—Big Joker (high), Little Joker, deuce of diamonds, deuce of spades, A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2. Notice, in this configuration, there are 16 trump cards and the 2 of clubs is the only non-trump deuce (and is therefore called the “bitch nigga”).
- Joker, Joker, Deuce of Spades: From high to low—Big Joker (high), Little Joker, deuce of spades, A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2
- Joker, Joker, Ace: From high to low—Big Joker (high), Little Joker, A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2
- Ace high: From high to low—A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2. Because this configuration removes both Jokers from the deck, leaving only 13 trump cards, this is also the most difficult way to play spades. This version is usually only played by old Ques, people who have spent time in prison or people who played in the band at an HBCU. You don’t want to play this way.
***A brief word about Jokers: Perhaps the greatest dispute in black culture is the debate over which one is the “Big Joker.” While we have already issued a ruling on this matter, house rules determine this on a case-by-case basis. Although some households will actually write “Big” on the designated Big Joker, this is one of the few rules where it is OK to ask for clarity without looking like a novice.
This ends our first lesson. Tomorrow, we learn the terminology, the
white people’s official rules and how to bid.
Yep, we finna play spades.