Entertainment & Culture
The Incomplete Guide To Spades… and Life

By Michael Harriot

Whether it is the back of a college cafeteria, a bachelor party or a Black cookout (not a barbecue, because barbecues are different from “cookouts”), no activity solidifies the bonds  of melanated people like a game of Spades. Wikipedia claims Spades is a member of the “Whist” family of card games and was invented in the 1930’s but the game actually predates all recorded history. Some researchers whose names I haven’t made up yet, speculate that ancient Sub-Saharan African tribes chose their kings from Spades tournaments 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… and the Pharaoh always had the Big Joker.

NegusWhoRead would like to explain the lesser-known intricacies and give important tips to the novices seeking to expand their understanding of Spades to a masters level, because Spades is not a card game–it is a metaphor for life.

Know The Rules – We cannot give a thorough explanation of the rules because winning at Spades is like giving a woman an orgasm–you should know the basics but every time will be different depending on whom you’re with. The one steadfast commandment is that the house makes the rules. To be a consistent player you must be flexible enough to handle the infinite number of variations. The key is knowing the rules before you play the game. If they are playing with jokers, ask them to show you each one. In some houses they will write on the card which one is which. If they use the deuce of diamonds and/or deuce of spades as a trump card, make sure you find out which is higher. You can’t win if you don’t know the rules, and losing is no fun. Remember, Spades is not about fun, it is about winning. If you want to have fun, play Uno.

Know The Lingo – Spades comes with a particularly interesting set of Jargon that you need to know if you want to succeed:

  1. Joker, Joker, Deuce... – This designates the order of the most important cards. King High, no Jokers is the truest form of the game usually only played by old Black men who carry pocketknives. If you hear this, you should know that these people aren’t fucking around. If your Spades game is not strong don’t even bother sitting down to play king high, because not only is your card-playing reputation at stake, but so is your manhood. If you find a group who plays with Jokers, they are still pretty serious. People who play Joker-Joker-Ace don’t have time for your bullshit and if you slip up, you could possibly be ostracized for life. No woman will date a man who screws up at a Spades game.  Also, if you are ever approached by a woman during a Spades game and says you should “play with the kitty,” she is not offering you sex. She is insulting your manhood by suggesting you play in a Spades game with remedial, kindergarten rules.
  2. Make-em, Take-em – This is not just a Spades rule, it is a principle of life. If you win a book, it is your responsibility to rack it. Spades is life. If you sit there contemplating or hesitating, someone will take your shit, and just like life, possession is 9/10ths of the law. You must be on point at all times and during all phases of the game. All you have in this world is your books and your partner. If someone touches your books, you have the right to do to them what you will. In the 1945 Supreme Court Case of Jenkins v Johnson the High Court absolved Calvin Jenkins of chopping off Lester “Smooth Hands” Johnson’s pinky finger after Lester reached for his book.
  3. Dime or Boston – If you hear either of these words it means you need to concentrate on that particular hand like you’re taking the S.A.T. to be admitted into heaven. If you or your partner bids a dime, you are about to humiliate your opponent. Likewise, having someone bid a dime or “run a Boston” on you is not only a sure loss, but the equivalent of being castrated. I once dated a chocolate fashion model who was in a print ad campaign for United Colors of Benetton, but she saw someone run a Boston on me at a house party and never looked at me the same.
  4. Set – The most disappointing thing in Spades… and life. Getting “set” means you bid too much, reached too high and failed. If you are afraid of getting set, you shouldn’t partake in this sport (yes, if golf, bowling and poker are, then Spades is also a sport. I’ve been lobbying for years for ESPN to host a World Series of Spades). Just like life, however, getting set is not the end of the world. You just have to fight back.

Know Your Partner – I cannot overemphasize this. Selecting a partner in Spades should be taken as seriously as choosing a husband or a wife. I proposed to my Spades partner James on a warm September evening at a church picnic and we have been together ever since. Taking a partner is akin to putting another person’s life and Spades reputation in your hands and should not be taken lightly. You will eventually have to learn the intricacies of eye contact, non-verbal cues and even a little light mind-reading. Never take a random partner without watching them play at least one hand, and avoid jumping from partner to partner. Don’t be a Spades ho.

Never Trust Anyone – A seasoned player holds the cards in such a way that doesn’t look paranoid, but ensures that no one else can see his hand. Watch the dealer, too because they might stack the cards, although a successful case of card-stacking has never been verified. Make sure you cut the cards an odd number of times. Assume all your opponents are out to get you, and would stab you in the throat with a rusty Phillips head screwdriver if given the chance… because they would, if it meant they could stop you from “setting them.”

Leave Your Emotions at the Door – This is not a pastime for the sensitive, so if you are prone to having your feelings hurt, you should play jacks or double-dutch. If you win, you will be instructed to “get your bitch ass up.” If you lose it is only because you are a “lucky motherfucker.” Part of the beauty of Spades is the vitriolic shit-talking. I have been called a “punk bitch,” a “fuck nigga” and “pussy motherfucker” all in one evening of card-playing, and that was by my partner! That’s why I don’t play Spades with my mama any more.

Know How To Bid – Like life, Spades is not about which cards you get, it is about knowing what to do with the cards you are dealt. Bidding is the key to the game of Spades, and perhaps the biggest obstacle in bidding is the “possible.” How one bids the “possible” says everything about their character, self-esteem and interpersonal relationships. If you have three books, your partner has one and-a-possible, and you bid four, I assume you were bullied in elementary school or your dad abandoned you when you were young.. If you use the term “strong possible” it means you don’t want your partner to expect too much from you and you are probably a middle child. If your partner has four books, you have four and-a-possible and you say “fuck it, let’s bid the dime,” I would be willing to bet your penis is larger than average.

Never, Ever Renege – Don’t renege man. You would rather call your grandmother a whore… At her funeral… as you’re giving the eulogy. The love of God and all the prayers of the righteous can’t save you from the scorn that accompanies reneging. If you or your partner happens to renege, your only recourse is to rack the book and put it in the middle of the other books you’ve won before anyone notices it. If someone does notice it, tell them the rules say they must pick out the exact book, then tell them they are wrong–even if they are right. Never admit to a renege. There are 3 keys to winning a renege argument:

  1. Be loud – you have to get louder and more belligerent than the accuser. Don’t let them finish their sentences.
  2. Be mad – You have to be madder than they are. Act appalled at the suggestion of the possibility that you reneged. Throw all the cards in the middle of the table. Accuse them of cheating, too. Call their mama a bitch (I know it sounds harsh, but Spades life is a dog-eat-dog world).
  3. Calm down – Offer to replay the hand. When the game is over, apologize for being upset, and explain that you can get carried away. Don’t say you were wrong, though–even if you are asked about it 20 years later by your priest during your deathbed confession. Never admit to a renege.



About the author

Michael Harriot is a renowned spoken word poet, the host of The Black One podcast and the editor-in-chief of NegusWhoRead. He is perpetually just getting warmed up because he has no chill. He is on Instagram and twitter as @michaelharriot

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