Spades strategy guide
Spades is a trick-taking card game that has proved popular with people of all ages across the world. To be able to enjoy the game socially with friends, a beginner only needs to have a good grasp of the rules and gameplay. Players can often master these basic aspects of Spades, which are explained on the Spades article, in as few as two or three games.
Beyond the basics, there are also a great many techniques and strategies for the curious or the competitively-inclined to explore. Some may focus on helping the player's team to make their bid, while others may concentrate on techniques to force the opposition to fail theirs. A few may even be purely to unnerve and gain the psychological advantage over the opponent. The only limit to such strategies is the imagination - even seemingly crazy choices, such as nilling with an ace of spades, are not unheard of! Advanced strategies will help to improve a player's game in the long run, but they may also help a pirate to raise their spades standing and even draw out a steady-yet-profitable flow of Pieces of Eight. This guide presents a number of viable strategies for a player to consider incorporating into their game.
Unfortunately, there is no magic one-strategy-fits-all solution that can turn any player into a master spades player overnight (not even this tutorial can do that). Instead, the player must learn which strategy to apply to which scenario. While it is possible that the player is a very talented mathematician or a computer (and thus could be taught to pick a strategy purely using game theory and statistics), the majority of players will find it much easier (and more fun!) if they learn to do this by practicing.
Finally, while this guide is aimed primarily toward the casual player who is looking to improve his or her game, it is also hoped that this guide might prove a useful reference for experienced players too. Even though the latter's knowledge of Spades may run deeper than the former's, every player still has the potential to become much better than he or she already is. Given enough time, a casual player who remains open to new strategies and ideas will invariably overtake the experienced player who claims to know it all already.
"...I reasoned thus with myself: I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know."
- Socrates - Plato: Apology, Crito, and Phaedo of Socrates. (Project Gutenberg, 2004)
Basic bidding strategy
Bidding is the core skill to spades. The basics of counting winners is intuitive to anyone who has played a card game before. However, bidding correctly every time requires many hours of play and recognizing the many subtleties to reading hands.
|This is the basic strategy to bidding and will yield you fairly accurate results. Counting is when you look at your hand in a vacuum and count how many high cards you have.
In the image to the left, counting the honors would give a bid of 4. However, counting Queens is usually not a good idea. With 1 or 2 cards in the suit, the Queen is likely to be overtaken. With more, it is likely to be ruffed (trumped).
|In Spades, there is one suit that is more powerful than all others: Spades. When spades are played in a trick (either lead or off suit) the highest spade will win. This means that a lowly deuce of spades will take out someone's non-spade Ace. Many times, your hand will have no honors (therefore a 0 by straight counting) but will have enough trump to warrant a bid.
By counting only, we have 4 tricks. But we're going to take our strategy to the next level and consider what trump we and other people have. A good rule of thumb is to only bid Aces and Kings. Very often, a player will be short suited and trump on the third lead of a suit, turning your winner Q into a loser. So we're tossing that trick out of the window. We only have one Ace though, this means that every subsequent play of Diamonds can be won with a trump. So we'll add 1 to our bid, since we can ruff subsequent diamonds. 2 tricks would be risky, as we do not want to ruff our partner's K or Q. This gives us a grand total of 4 to bid on this hand.
|Analyzing the number of cards you have in each suit will help you bid much more accurately and, in many circumstances, will keep you from being set or allow you to ruff your opponent into a set. On the most basic strategy level, length in a suit increases the chance of another person being short or void in that corresponding suit. This would lead to a devaluing of your Honor cards. While having K, A in the same suit will usually garner 2 tricks, having 2, 3, 6, 10, K, A will often times garner one trick before trump is played. As a rule of thumb, don't bid K's when you have 5 or more in that suit. Always bid Aces.
The exception to this is spades, of course -- the longer you are in spades the better. Having no cards in a non-trump suit makes your spades stronger as well, since you can trump on any trick played in that suit. Conversely, a "balanced hand", with at least three cards in it of every suit, is weak because it your opportunities for playing trumps are limited. As a rule of thumb, you can bid one trick for every spade over your first three. So if you have five spades, add two to your bid. Advanced players use an imbalance in one or more suits to their advantage.
In this hand I am short in two suits, have an average distribution in one and am long in another. Also, I notice my opponent's bid: 1. A bid of 1 usually means they hold an Honor spade or an Ace with no ducking room. We can also assume that she is short on spades, having no more than 2 spades (2 spades of any value + an honor results in a minimum bid of 2). This means that there are most likely 8 spades distributed between the other two bidders, with only one honor among them (We hold 2 and the player to our right likely holds one). With our shortness in 2 suits, and disproportionate power in Spades, we bid 4, expecting to hit a ruff. The result of the hand was a 8-4 contract with my partner and I taking 10 because Marthe was void in Hearts and cashed in on each of her spades.
As you can see, overbidding a long-suit can be just as tactically sound as under-bidding one. Remember to read all of the signs available to you and maximize your point earning!
The Nil, the only bid that can have entire books devoted to it. The strategy and choosing of this bid often makes or breaks the winners. In professional play, the bid is valued at 100 points, however here on Y!PP it is valued at 50.
Playing nils is the exact opposite of how you play a regular bid. The object of a nil is to not take any tricks. By taking no tricks, you are awarded with a nice score. In fact, the score is so nice that many players choose to Nil in lieu of a 1 or 2 bid. However, finding a nil out of a 2 bid is a risky proposition, and only experienced players should go for it.
Nils are most successful when you have no honor cards. However, there are a multitude of situations where having honor cards is not a factor. If you have 3 or more low or mid cards in addition to your honors, then you will likely survive the bid. If you are void or short in a suit, you will likely have a chance to sluff the honors on the off suit.
Many biddable hands can be made into nils, I have found it more useful when deciding to nil to look for things that will break the bid:
- You have 4 or more spades.
- You have the A or K of spades.
- You have a solo honor card in any suit
If your hand lacks any of those, then it is possible to nil. It is up to the player to decide if the risk is worth the reward.
Blind nil is similar to normal nil. The exceptions are:
- You can only bid blind nil when you are at least 100 points down.
- You do not see what cards you have before making your bid.
- After bidding blind nil, you and your partner will swap two cards. This will allow you to drop any sure winners (such as the Ace of Spades), and improve your chances of making the bid.
A successful blind nil scores 100 points. A failed blind nil will subtract 100 points. It is therefore generally a good idea to bid it when possible. It is very rare for a Blind Nil to fail.
Bidding blind nil when two or three other players have made very low bids can be risky. Somebody has to have the high cards and that person is probably you! If most of the honor cards are in your hidden hand, even the ability to trade two cards may not save you.
Covering a nil
If your partner has declared a Nil bid, the responsibility is on you to see it through! Nil hands are generally very easy to play. Covering a nil is much tougher. Some tips:
- Your main responsibility on the hand is to make sure your partner makes their nil bid. Don't worry about your bid (Unless it is 5+), bags, or the opponent's bid.
- When you are leading, play as high as possible so that your partner can toss cards underneath. Play leads from your strongest suit, as well. For example: if you have the A-2 of diamonds and the Q-10-9-6 of clubs, it is often a better idea to lead the queen and save the Ace for a diamond lead by your opponents.
- PAY ATTENTION to what your partner plays! Know when they've gone out of a suit so that you can lead that suit and let them discard high cards of another suit. Also, pay attention to their highest card in a suit. If you lead the Ace of hearts and they play an 8 of hearts underneath it, that implies that you can safely lead anything from a King through a 7 in hearts.
- Let your opponents do the heavy lifting, whenever possible. There are times when you will want to play high to take the lead, but for the most part, whenever your opponents cover your partner, take that opportunity to throw away your lowest card in that suit so you don't get stuck playing it later. Many a nil has been broken by a partner who did not take the opportunity to rid himself of a 2 and then was later forced to lead it.
- Save your spades, if possible, for situations where your partner is stuck with the high card in a suit that you do not have any of yourself.
Playing against a nil
It is important to know how to cover your partner when they bid Nil, but it is just as important to know how to play against a Nil to give you the maximum chance of setting them. Most of the times, it is the opponents who give the Nil bidder the Nil by poor play. There are many ways to play against a Nil, with the two most aggressive being:
- Setting the Nil
- Setting the covering bid
When trying to set a Nil, the overall bid should be at most 11. Play low if possible before the Nil bidder, and as high as possible after, unless the Nil bidder plays a high card (8+) in which case duck with as high a card as possible. Look at what the Nil bidder discards. If after an A the discard is a K, then remember to lead that suit whenever possible. However, if after an A the discard is low, try to avoid the suit. Also, if after a few tricks the A or K hasn't come down, chances are the Nil bidder has it, in which case lead the suit!
If your partnership thinks the Nil bidder has a few spades, or 1-2 high spades, you should be ruffing as high as possible whenever possible, unless the Nil bidder can play a spade after you. This would leave the Nil bidder's partner unable to ruff without putting the Nil bid in serious risk.
When trying to set the covering bid, it is important to remember that you normally need to switch to setting the Nil halfway in the hand. This strategy should be done with bids totalling 10 or more, as you do not want to bag too much. Also, with a covering bid of 1 or 2, this strategy isn't the best.
Lead with middle cards, such as Jacks and 10s, which you did not plan on winning with. This is especially true when going before the covering player. If the card is able to run (The covering bidder would not know whether to go over it, risking the nil, or duck, risking the bid) then carry on. This will get you the extra trick or 2 to set the bid. Since Nils are only 50 points here, the set is worth a lot more, since a high bid means the Nil bidder most likely has a very easy Nil. If, however, the card gets overtaken, try and set the Nil unless the Nil bidder has no high cards in the suit.
It is also worth noting that the nil bidder will normally be trying to protect the nil at all costs. If it is not possible to set the contract or fail the nil, then use the opportunity to give the covering player a generous helping of overtricks!
Awareness of your partner
If your partner bids before you do, make sure and consider their bid when making yours. For example, if your partner has bid eight tricks, they have an exceptionally good hand, and are probably counting on winning tricks that you might also be counting on winning. Lower your bid.
Likewise, if your partner bids blind nil, raise your bid by one or two tricks to account for the cards coming your way. Indeed, if your partner bids nil at all, generally it's a good idea to inflate your bid a bit since your opponents will likely try and "break" their nil, allowing you to win tricks with cards that normally wouldn't generate any points, if you play it properly.
Play for the set
Beginning players, in general, worry about two things: making their bid and avoiding bags. Obviously, both of those are good things to do, but it leads to a very passive, defensive style of play.
More experienced players will aim to set their opponents whenever it would give the setting team an advantage. The rationale is simple: if your opponents have bid even a low 5 tricks, setting them costs them 100 points (the 50 they would have made and the 50 they will be docked for the set). As you can see, almost any amount of overtricks, even at an eventual cost of 9 points apiece, will be worth it to make the set.
Even though a set is worth its weight (and more) in overtricks, in practice it is not always a good idea to attempt a set when the total number of tricks bid on the table is 10 or less. This is due to the sheer number of overtricks a team might accrue in a short period of time. In that case, an alternative tactic would be to aim to take the bid exactly and give the remaining overtricks to the opponent.
It is worth being aware of what the point difference could be in the following round or two. This is to avoid, for instance, allowing the opposing team to end up with just over 100 points (the necessary threshold to obtain a blind nil). This scenario tempts fate in a number of ways, since the opposing team might be able to score the lead in the next round, or may well draw level. In both cases the overtricks which were taken in order to set the opponent are now just penalties for the setting team. A better strategy would be to set such that the opponents remain 40-70 points behind.
This is a very obvious strategy. Since bags cost 9 points each (10 bags means 10 points gained, 100 lost), it should be obvious that these should be avoided. However, in most Spades games to around 300, there will not be enough hands for you to be bagged, therefore, in all hands with 11 or more tricks bid, go for the set! Extra bags generally mean extra points, resulting in 1 less trick to win the game. It is only when playing to 500+ that avoiding bags would be a good idea.
Avoiding bags sounds simple, but is much harder in practice. What if you don't make your bid? The general principle is to duck everything, and playing the highest card possible when your partner would win a trick. It is still VERY IMPORTANT that you make your bid! Bagging would cost you 100 points, at most once per 500 point game (If you get bagged more, consider bidding tighter). Getting set for most hands would cost close to, or more than that. Therefore, if you are not sure if you will make your bid, get it first then discard. Experience will teach a lot more: when to discard winners before making the bid, when to play high because your partner is likely to have to take the trick anyway.
In games to 300, assuming an average point score of 60 per round, 5 hands may be played. As a general guide, therefore, one or two overtricks per hand is an acceptable. Care must be taken once the bags total around 5 or 6, as the opponents may begin to give tricks away in order to sandbag the team.
Void suits and "crossfire"
A sign that a player is void in a suit is when he or she plays an unexpectedly high card in some situation. For instance, a king follows an ace, or the player leads a queen, on the first or second trick of that suit. If it is highly likely that the player intends to take tricks (i.e. they are not trying to sandbag the opponent or fail their bid deliberately) then a partner should follow-up with a card in that suit when possible. There are two possible reasons for this play:
- The player is void in the suit, in which case they will play a spade and possibly win the trick.
- He or she has a collection of sequential face cards, e.g. QKA, in which case a face card will be played and they will possibly win the trick.
A "crossfire", also known as a "crossruff", is a lucky break when you and your partner have each run out of a different suit early in the hand. Lead the suit your partner is out of, and he can take the trick with a low spade (that otherwise would not have won a trick). Return the favor by sending your partner a lead in the suit your partner is out of so they can do the same, and repeat the "crossfire" pattern until your opponents are able to stop you! The additional tricks gained by a crossruff will often be enough to set your unlucky opponents!
"Second hand low, third hand high"
Using a spade to take a trick in second position (right after the lead) is rarely a good move. It leaves you open for the third player to take the trick with a higher spade, thus rendering one of your trump cards useless. Unless you know you have a winning card in the suit, it's a good idea to drop a low card in the second seat so that you're not wasting a potential winner that will just be beaten by your opponent.
If it is possible for the second player to exceed the lead's spade and not compromise the likelihood of taking their bid, then that higher spade should be played. For example, an 8 of spades is followed by a 9 of spades, where the second player holds 79QK. After the 8 has been played there is no difference between the 7 and the 9, thus the player may as well play the 9. This places pressure on the opponent to produce a higher trump.
Conversely, in third position you generally want to play to win the trick unless your partner led an unbeatable card. At best, you take the trick, and at worst, you force the fourth player to blow a high card.
Not covering a nil
If the opposing team has bid very high, you may be better off breaking the nil.
- Example from actual play: North bid nil and South bid 4. West and East bid a combined 9. During the hand, West and East tried to set North with diamonds. South had run out of diamonds early and had a few spades but chose to not protect his partner.
South realized that he was very likely to cover the 4 bid but was extremely unlikely to take a fifth trick. Allowing the nil to be broken would deny East and West a crucial trick. He played a heart instead of a spade and his partner's nil was broken. The conserved spade was used to win a later trick.
By the end of the hand, East and West had 8 tricks, North had a broken nil and South had 4 tricks. North and South lost only 10 points (-50 for the broken nil and +40 for the 4 bid) but East and West lost a crushing 90 points. If South had played the hand conventionally, the hand would have been tied 90-90. Deliberately failing to cover the nil yielded a powerful 80 point advantage.
In general, is a good idea for teams to bid tightly, or in other words to take the number of tricks they think they can take. Additionally, it is important to minimise the difference between 13 and the sum of the two teams' non-nil bids, to avoid the possibility of sandbagging. However, an occasional deliberate overbid or underbid may help to set or sandbag the opposing team. It can also confuse the opponent, which may lead to poor play on their part. Manipulating bids in this way is roughly analogous to bluffing in poker, in which a player may bet high on poor cards or bet low on winners. In spades, however, co-ordinating this is much more difficult as a team because partners cannot communicate.
A team could choose to underbid in order to force an opponent to take sandbags. This works particularly well when the opponent is covering a nil, as he or she is forced to play high cards to protect the nil. If the opposing team tend to bid such that all 13 tricks are accounted for, an underbid may also be used to entice them to bid more optimistically. It may then be possible to set the opposing team at the cost of a few bags. Whether this is done early in the game, or right at the end, this kind of tactical play can shake the opponents' confidence, resulting in the opponents making less optimistic bids throughout the remainder of the game. This leaves the setting team the option of upping their bid by one or two in some of the rounds that follow.
Overbidding also has its uses. For instance, an opposing team may be bidding conservatively, leaving a 2 or 3 point buffer between the total bid and 13. In this case a player may decide to bid optimistically and run the risk of being set. If they are successful in making this bid, the team gains a few extra points and gives the opponents a good reason to reflect on their bidding strategy.
A team could utilize both overbidding and underbidding in order to keep their score 40-70 points ahead of the opponent's score. This is a frustrating advantage for the leading team to have, as the opponents cannot obtain the blind nil without purposely reducing their bid. Should the bid be low enough to allow them to blind nil on the next turn, the leading team may be able to give the opponents a number of bags. In this way, even though the lagging team may catch up more or less after a blind nil, they run a greater risk of sandbagging after that. To counter this, the opposing team can to bid tight such that they have the highest score possible in the next round on which they can blind nil, and they should also try to discard as many bags as possible.
A game may reach the stage where there are two people nilling, one on each team. These two nillers will be positioned adjacent to one another. At this point, the player with the cover-hand who plays their card just before the first nil player is in a weak position. The other covering player can use this to his or her advantage by making the weak player cover both nils if desired - plus taking a good many bags. To force the weak player to cover nils, play a low card in a suit that the opponent's nil is likely to be weaker in than the nil you are protecting.
This is an aggressive and risky tactic, and must be applied with caution. Some players in the weak spot will not rise to the bait and will put their own nil at risk in trying to fail your partner's. As with poker, profile your opponents to determine what you can get away with. If a person seems risk averse, then it may be possible to exploit this technique. Since a player covering a blind nil will know a little about the contents of that blind nil hand, it is recommended that this tactic is not used when one nil is a blind nil.
Trust your partner
After playing several games with a partner, it is possible to build up an idea of their ability to bid and cover nils. It is important to trust your partner with these kinds of tasks; if a partner declares they will take four tricks, they can probably manage to take four tricks. Letting the partner do this decreases the number of overtricks the team is likely to accrue during the round.
Be nice to your partner - without them it is not possible to win! Typing "good job partner!" (shorthand: "gjp") lets them know that they have done well and it creates a sense of good-will between the two team players.
Putting the opponent under pressure
- Related: Gamesmanship
This involves applying psychological pressure to the opponent, and is widespread at high levels of play in many games. Tactics over the years in other puzzles have included the wearing of expensive hats in swordfighting, and the use of expensive colors in swords and mugs. Players might also use the chat to their advantage, such as calling out "oops, my luck is endless" on winning a hefty sum of PoE on a poker table. Some of these extend to spades; partners might wear elaborate matching hats to intimidate opponents, and regular spades partners might even pay for one of the pirates to be renamed to increase the intimidation factor. Another sneaky tactic might be to inform the opponents that you are tired and may be underperforming a little - whereby they might seek to take advantage of your perceived lack of concentration!
Note that the above examples given are mild and generally harmless; pirates should be friendly, and not do anything to violate the terms of service. Conduct such as timewasting, spamming or offensive language is not encouraged and may in some cases be bannable.
- Bags, Overtrick, Overage Point - The number of tricks a team wins over their combined bid.
- Bag Set, Sandbagging - A team accruing 10 bags loses 100 points. Sandbag may also mean to attempt to make the other team sandbag.
- (to) Break Nil - Force an opponent who has bid nil or blind nil to win a trick, typically by leading a low card and forcing them to play a higher one due to lack of other cards in their hand.
- (to) Break Spades - Play a spade as a trump when void in the lead suit.
- (to) Cash In - Use a card to win a trick, especially by ruffing.
- Contract, Team Bid - The combined individual bids of the team. For scoring purposes this excludes bonus points awarded for nils and blind nils.
- Control - After winning a trick, a player is given control. They are allowed to play any suit except spades if it is not broken yet.
- High Cards, Honor Cards - J, Q, K, A.
- Lead Suit - The suit of the first card played in a trick. Players must play a card of the same suit unless they are void.
- Long Suit - 4 or more cards in a given suit.
- Low Cards - 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.
- Mid Cards - 7, 8, 9, 10.
- Nil - A special bid where a player says they will not win any tricks.
- Nil set - When a Nil bid wins a trick.
- Ruff - To take a trick with a spade when spades were not led.
- Set - When a team does not make its contract. Also used as a verb, "to set" meaning to prevent the other team making its contract.
- Short Suit - 1 or 2 cards in a suit.
- Sluff, Slough - To play an unwanted card on an off suit or when it loses to a higher valued card.
- Strong Suit - A large proportion of high cards in a suit.
- Trick - A round of playing, consisting of one card from each of the four players.
- Trump - In trick-taking games, a suit whose cards are higher than any card from a non-trump suit. In spades, the spades suit is always trump, so the highest spade in a trick always wins.
- Winner, Counter - A card that is likely to win a trick.
- Void - Having no cards of a particular suit.