Illustration for article titled How to Play Black Spades, Part 2: The Glossary
Illustration: Sam Wooley (G/O Media)
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Welcome back to The Root University’s tutorial on how to play spades.

As we discussed earlier, this guide will not make you a great spades player. Its intended purpose is to introduce you to the basic structure of the game and prevent your relatives at the next family reunion from looking at you like you farted during Lift Every Voice and Sing” when you confess that you don’t know how to play spades. If you are actually using this guide to learn how to play spades, you should be aware that there is a difference between knowing how to play spades and being a spades player.

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Becoming a licensed “spades player” requires at least 100 hours of playing time, including 10 consecutive games without a renege. You must also obtain 3 references, including at least one from a certified uncle who carries a white “face rag” in his back pocket (a hand towel across his shoulder is also acceptable). Until you obtain those credentials, you should refrain from joining a regular spades game until you have sharpened your skills to an acceptable level.

I know you’re thinking: “How do I learn how to play spades without playing spades?” Well, that’s actually the definitive negro philosophical question. Unlike our white counterparts, black people already know the answer to “which came first—the chicken or the egg?”

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The egg.

Breakfast comes before dinner.

Anyway, before we get into gameplay, there are a few terms that you should know, or you’ll have no idea what people are talking about.

For the sake of clarification, we will use examples that you are likely to hear from your partner during your first few games.

The Spades Dictionary

Terminology is very important in spades. So we have created a comprehensive glossary for all your spade endeavors.

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Bid: How many books a person expects to make.

Bidding is the essence of the sport. It doesn’t matter how well you count cards, strategize suits or how great your hand is, if you can’t bid, you can’t win. And, while spades is characterized by talking shit to one’s opponent, bidding poorly is one of the few loopholes that permit a player to disparage their partner.

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Example: If my partner wasn’t a sorry motherfucker who bid like he was in the Showcase Showdown on Prices Right (which is the correct pronunciation during a spades game), we wouldn’t have lost!

Big Dog: The highest card in the deck.

Unless you are playing “Ace High,” the Big Joker is usually the Big Dog. Some players often affix the Big Dog to their forehead. Because this requires a small amount of saliva, we don’t recommend doing this in the age of coronavirus.

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Example: I can’t believe my partner had the big dog and only bid five! Are you the feds?

Blind: To bid before one receives their cards.

Because it is such a risky move, “blind” bids are worth double the points. However, most people only allow a team to bid a blind when they are down by 100 points or more.

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Example: We gon’ bid a blind seven because my partner is the feds.

Book: The collected four cards played in a turn.

Winning books is the entire point of spades. In white spades, books are called “tricks.” No one knows why, but I suspect they find it hard to believe that black people can make books. They probably thought it was a trick.

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Example: We could’ve made eight books if my partner wasn’t scared.

Board: The minimum number of books a team is allowed to bid. 

In most spades games, board is four books, which means you must bid (and make) four books every hand. There are some high-level games, however, where board is five. At this stage of your spades development, you are not ready for this. If you discover yourself in a game where board is five, you should get up, gather your belongings, and tell them you don’t need that kind of pressure in your life. One of the most common spades bluff lines of all time is: “If you don’t bid board, you’re set. IF YOU DON’T BID BOARD, YOU’RE SET! “

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Example: My partner is so terrible, I’m just hoping to make board.

Boston: When one team wins all 13 books.

A Boston is significant because it means a team won every possible book in the hand. It requires a great hand, remarkable skill and flawless execution. As we discussed earlier, some house rules dictate that a team that bids and makes a Boston automatically wins the game.

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On June 19, 1992, at the second table from the rear of Auburn University’s War Eagle Cafeteria, I actually bid and made a blind Boston. You may have heard about it. I was drunkenly celebrating into the wee hours of the morning so I didn’t see it, but I’m sure they talked about it on SportsCenter.

Example: My partner is so fucking bad that they ‘bout to run a Boston on us and we can’t do anything about it.

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Cut: Playing a spade to win a book that was led by another suit.

If someone leads with hearts and you play a spade, you won the book by “cutting” hearts. Although we aren’t getting into strategy, good spades players not only remember which suit every player is cutting, they can also look at the cards played by an opponent and tell which suit a player will be cutting in the future. The best players can simply look at their hand and know which suits will be cut before a single card is played.

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Example: I know this motherfucker ain’t cutting hearts! Oh, y’all bout to be set!

Dime: When a team bids 10 books.

It is only a “dime” if you bid it, otherwise, it is just 10 books. And, while the proper terminology for a team who only gets four books is “making board,” one doesn’t “make” a dime or a Boston—you “run a dime.” Because board is four and there are only 13 possible books in a hand, a team who runs a dime automatically sets the other team.

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Alternate names include a “pound,” a “tenderoni” and—according to the Economic Policy Institutea “white man’s penny.”

Example: I want to run a dime but my partner counts like Cookie Monster after the edibles kick in.

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Hand: The portion of the game consisting of a deal, playing all 13 cards, counting the books and writing down the score.

I know this might sound confusing, but the collection of cards one receives in a deal is also called a “hand.” Also, a hand is a part of the arm. And a synonym for help. And a euphemism for “applause.” That’s the great thing about spades. It doesn’t make any sense but it still makes sense.

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Example: My hand was so bad on the last hand that I needed my partner to give me a hand. I gotta hand it to him—he came through with the big dog. I’ll be better next hand.

Kitty: A stupid idea.

A kitty is an overly complex way of making the game easier and harder at the same time. You don’t need to know what this. People who play with kittys (also the proper spelling in spades-speak) shouldn’t be allowed to play spades. They really wanna play “Go Fish,” but won’t admit it.

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Example: Y’all playing with a kitty? Nah, I’m out.

Lead/Led: To play the first card in a turn.

If the lead is on you, then you play the first card. One can’t lead with spades unless another player has already played one during a previous turn.

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Example: Why are you leading with hearts when you know he’s cutting? Are you trying to lose? That’s it, I’m calling the police.

Motherfucker: Anyone who plays spades

If you play spades, you might as well face it—someone is gonna call you a motherfucker. That’s why I don’t believe that motherfucker is a bad word. If there is a heaven, then there is a spades tournament every day. And if they have a spades tournament, you can bet Harriet Tubman called Maya Angelou a “bitch-ass, poem-saying motherfucker” when Maya was cutting hearts right out of the gate. I bet Maya quietly told her that she stuck the big Joker to her forehead and said:

Although I don’t have a lot of face cards,

You still won’t make me cry

I know you want to set me

And wonder where the big Joker lies

I say,

It’s in the way I walked that Queen

The way I smacked that ace,

You know I’m still spades tight

I’m bout to make you screw your face

If you wonder who I am

The score is all you need to see.

I may be a motherfucker...

Then Maya stuck the big Joker to her forehead and said:

“Phenomenal spades player, that me.”

Example: I just gave you one, motherfucker.

Nigga: Same as Motherfucker.

People are going to throw the n-word around at every spades game. Someone once pulled out a knife and called me a “bitch-ass motherfucker” just because I said they reneged. I thought I was gonna get stabbed and it took two people to break it up.

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I don’t know why my grandmama be acting like that:

Example: Really, nigga?

Overs: The number of books you made above what you bid.

Overs are also called “bags.” Some people don’t score overs and only count the books you bid. When you have more than 10 overs in any game, you automatically lose 100 points, which is why it’s important to bid correctly.

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Example: This nigga has so many overs the cops are gonna charge you with hoarding. Alexa, play “Overjoyed” by Stevie Wonder!

Puppytoes: What people who play with kittys call the suit known as clubs.

Don’t ever say this.

Examples: Did you just say the “three of puppytoes?” I hope the police arrive soon so I can tell them you’re trespassing.

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Pound: See “Dime.”

Possible: A book that you are likely to make but are not sure about bidding.

“Possibles” are only relevant during bidding because it allows two teammates to make a decision on how many books they will bid. In your case, your teammate will be making this decision and probably won’t count your possible. Possibles are divided into three self-explanatory categories: Weak possibles, strong possibles and “I’m-so-good-I-can-make-this-Jack-walk.”

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Example: I have three and a possible and my partner has three and a possible. Sounds like eight to me!

Rack: To collect the books.

Each team decides its own racking protocol. Some teams designate the captain as the racker. Some give that task to the subservient player while others determine that each player racks their own books. Because one should never touch a book you didn’t win, if you rack a book, you are assumed to have won it. However, one of the unwritten rules of spades says if you are sly enough to rack a book you didn’t win, it’s yours. (Well, I guess that rule is written, now).

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Although many of the rules vary, there is only one universally accepted way to rack books in black spades:

Illustration for article titled How to Play Black Spades, Part 2: The Glossary
Photo: Michael Harriot
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Example: Rack the books since you’re not doing anything else. And hurry up before the cops get here.

Reading the Board: Applying strategy by evaluating the cards that have been played in a hand versus the cards you are holding.

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Although expert-level spades gurus can read the board and make on-the-fly decisions like Peyton Manning reads a defense, even a novice can read the board. For instance, if you are holding a lone Jack of hearts after everyone has played two each in a Joker-Joker-Deuce game, you should automatically know that at least one player will be cutting next time hearts lead. Now, suppose you won that previous turn with a king of hearts and your teammate played a queen? That should inform you that your partner is cutting and you should lead with hearts.

See? You just read the board.

Example: Are you reading the board? Why did you switch suits after you just watched me throw out the Queen? The cops are gonna arrest your ass!

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Renege: To play a suit other than the one that lead while still holding a card of the lead suit, whether it is intentional or not.

In black spades, an opponent who catches a renege is entitled to three books. But there are so many rules surrounding a reneging incident that each episode quickly evolves into a Supreme Court case. First, until the book has officially been racked, the renege is only a mistake. Then, the renege whistleblower must turn over the exact book that involves the renege without any outside help. If the accuser turns over the wrong book, the renege accusal becomes invalid and may even owe the reneger a book, according to some house rules. If the whistleblower turns over the right book, the reneger has the right to appeal by asking the accuser to prove which card each player played. If the reneger is convicted but doesn’t have three books, they must pay it during the next hand. Reneging is one of the lowest things you can do in black spades. Yet, somehow, the reneger is always the one who ends up mad.

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Example: You’re the one who reneged. Why are you mad? Don’t be a reneger with attitude.

Sandbagging: Intentionally or unintentionally bidding low. Also called “underbidding.”

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Sandbagging is only revealed when a team has an excessive amount of “bags.” In most games, once a team’s collective number of bags reaches ten, 100 points are deducted from the sandbagging team’s score.

Example: You bid 3 and made 6 all by yourself. Why do you keep sandbagging?

Set: When a team fails to make the number of books they bid.

Being set is what motivates some people to renege, being set is one of the most humiliating things in all of blackdom. I once dated someone who watched me get set on a hand where I bid board. Even though she said she broke up with me to date a future NFL player who she is still married to, I still think she left me because she once saw me get set when I bid board.

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Also, I don’t quite know what it means that white people’s name for getting set is “breaking contract.” But I know it means something.

Example: Officer, My partner told me he knew how to play spades but my team has been set three times. That’s gotta be a law against that! Making false statements to a spades Partner? Gross Negligence? Perjury? Something!

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Suicide: Bidding a blind ten.

Although the result is 200 points, this is a desperate move.

Did I mention I did it once?

Example: I’m gonna bid a blind ten since that’s what I essentially did by choosing you as a partner.

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Talking Across the Board: Unauthorized talking to one’s partner about the game to let them know what to do.

Sometimes talking across the board doesn’t involve talking. Sometimes it is a look or a signal. Sometimes it is surreptitiously letting a partner know which card to play or how many cards of a certain suit you have left.

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Example: Officer, can’t you at least detain him for talking across the board? He said He gave his love to four strippers he met at three different shake joints, but only gave them three rings. I know that meant he had four hearts three clubs and one diamond!

Underbid: See “sandbagging.”

Walk: When a lower card unexpectedly wins a book.

Walking a queen is a moderate achievement but sometimes, if you read the board right, you can even walk a Jack or a ten.

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Example: Sir, since he let my nine of clubs walk just now, I do not going to press charges.


Study these terms because they will be on the final exam. And in spades, every game is a final exam.

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Tomorrow we play spades.

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.

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