Grasping the Basics of Spades

Spades is traditionally a game for four players, played in partnership (with the partners sitting opposite each other). The players take turns playing out one card from their hands clockwise around the table. You must play a card in whichever suit is played first (or led) if you can, which is called following suit. The four cards played constitute a unit of play called a trick. The objective of Spades is for your partnership to accurately estimate the strength of your hands in the bidding, and then in the play to take as close to your estimate of tricks as you can.

The cards rank from ace (high) down to 2 (low). If you decide to play without adding in any wrinkles, ranking the cards is no big deal.

Making the deal

The dealer distributes the deck card by card, face-down to each player, so that everyone has a 13-card hand. The deal moves clockwise around the table for each new hand.

The object is to win as many tricks as possible. However, after each hand is dealt (and before play begins), each of the four players must estimate how many tricks he or she will win. This estimate is called a bid, and your bid can include opting for no tricks or up to 13 tricks.

Although both sides of a partnership join freely in the bidding, this auction isn’t competitive — both sides get to make a bid and then pursue their targets (unlike some games, in which only one side gets to make a bid, and the other side is totally occupied with stopping them).

Each player independently names a number, and then each side chases its own specific number of tricks, the total of the two players’ bids. If your side succeeds, you get points; if you fail to meet your target, you are penalized.

If you make more tricks than you bid during the auction, you’re also penalized, though not as seriously as you are if you fail to meet your side’s target. (Overtricks are known as bags.) The trade-off between valuing your hand correctly in the bidding and making your contract exactly (rather than making too many tricks or making too few tricks) is a very fine line. All these factors make Spades a fascinating game.

Your first duty for the partnership is to try to make at least as many tricks as you bid. As a secondary objective, provided you secure the first one, you try to avoid making too many overtricks. However, in most cases, you are happy to make overtricks if doing so sets your opponents.

Finishing the game

You play until someone wins the rubber. Each rubber is made up of several hands, on which either side can record a positive or negative score. Usually, the first side to get to 500 points wins the rubber. If both sides go past the winning post of 500 points on the same hand, the higher score wins. You can also play the game to 250 or even to 300 or 400 points. Make sure you agree in advance!

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