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Spades Strategy: How to Win at Spades: Tips, Tricks & Tactics

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Spades Strategy: How to Win

Spades is a great trick-taking game and it’s even better when you win more often. If you love Spades but realize your Spades strategy is leaving points on the table, this is the page for you!

Not one of the simplest card games, there are lots of subtleties to top level Spades play that are too complicated to cover here, so the following Spades strategies & principles won’t make you an expert. But they will take you beyond the beginner stage and make you very hard to beat.

General Spades Strategy

The first thing to get straight is our priorities, which beginners are sometimes confused on. In order, the priorities are:

  • Making your bid
  • Setting your opponent (causing them to fail to make their bid)
  • Avoiding bags (overtricks)

Casual players sometimes make avoiding bags their first priority, which is getting things backwards. Why is this the last priority? It becomes plain when we look at the consequences of each.

The difference between making your bid and failing it is huge. If your bid is 6, making it is +60 and failing it is -60. That’s a difference of 120 points after the hand. Against careful opponents, failing your bid once could be enough to lose the game.

The importance of making your bid also shows the huge value in setting your opponent. Putting them 120 points lower than they would have been is a big advantage. If your side is careful, setting them once could be enough to win you the game.

Compare these two outcomes to the consequences of avoiding bags. A bag scores 1 point, and, after accumulating ten of them, will result in a loss of 100, meaning they’ll cost you about -9 points each. You’ll lose 100 points for a net loss of 91 points (100 minus the 9 points you received for the bags). You’ll also score the points for your bid on the hand that pushes you over the ten bag limit, which reduces the damage to your score. (-100 penalty offset by a successful 50 point bid results in a loss of 50 points on the hand)

Another thing to consider is the strong possibility that you won’t get a second bag penalty during a game, assuming you even get one. Often, a game will end before a second penalty, which means the second round of bags don’t cost you anything. Of course, this assumes you’re not accumulating them quickly. We’ll look at how to limit our bag accumulation under bidding strategy.

As you can see, avoiding bags is important, but we should never be so cautious that we fail our own bid or miss an opportunity to set our opponents.

Spades Bidding Strategy

The first thing we have control over is our bid. Bidding accurately will maximize the points we’ll score and limit the bags we’ll accrue. Here are 2 simple steps we can take to come to an accurate number.

Step 1: In the spades suit, count 1 point each for the Ace, King & Queen (A, K & Q). If you’re holding more than three spades, count 1 point for each spade over the third. For example, if your ♠’s are A, Q, 9, 7 you would count 3 (one each for the A & Q, and 1 for the fourth spade) Counting 1 for each spade after the third applies regardless of what cards they are. (holding 2, 3, 4, 5 in ♠’s is worth 1)

Step 2: Count 1 point for each A & K of the other suits. For example, added to the ♠’s above you hold ♣ Q, 10, 6/ ♥ K, 5, 4, 2/ ♦ A, J. You would count 2 more (one each for the K♥ & A♦)

Further Spades Bidding Strategies

Steps 1 & 2 are perfectly straightforward and sticking to them will serve you well. If you’ve played any Spades, though, you know that tricks are often won by other cards as well. So, there are a few other factors that could warrant an adjustment to your bid:

  • Cuts
  • Suit length
  • Extra trick potential
  • Bidding position

You have an opportunity to cut—to trump that suit when you run out—if your hand has two or less of a particular suit. This works best when you’re holding three spades and hold one or none of a suit. It becomes a toss up when you’re holding two of a suit or four or more spades, because remember, you’ve already added 1 to your bid for every spade over three.

Just as being short on a suit can change things, having excessive suit length can too. If you hold six cards in a suit, winning a trick with the K is questionable, and there’s a small chance your A will get cut. With seven, the K is definitely out and the chances of losing the A to a cut go up again. Being conservative in this situation is usually best.

A hand might also have the potential for an extra trick due to the presence of Qs & Js or consecutive medium cards. If you’re going to increase your bid based on potential, it’s safer to have potential in a few places, not just one.

Your bidding position can also be considered. Position matters because bidders have unequal information. First position has the least while last position has the most, having heard all the other bids. In general:

  • First position, having the least information, bids slightly conservatively.
  • Second position bids normally, knowing their partner in last position gets the final say.
  • Third position also bids slightly conservatively, but, having heard their partner’s bid, might be more aggressive if they indicated a strong hand.
  • Fourth position, having the most information, has the option of adjusting his bid up to raise the total table bid if it’s low (8 or less), or adjusting his normal bid down if it would make it 13. A table total of 12 leaves a little room to avoid a set.

Is There a 10 for 200?

It’s fairly common to play with a 10 for 200 rule (10 tricks wins 200 points instead of the usual 100). If you’re in third or fourth position and your partner has bid 6 or higher, look closely to see if your hand justifies raising the total to 10.

Strategy for Bidding Nil in Spades

One of the great things about Spades, adding to its complexity and interest, is the Nil bid—saying you won’t win any tricks at all. Unlike some card games where getting dealt a poor hand is undoubtedly bad, in Spades a bad hand could be worth 100 points. It comes with considerable risk, as a failed Nil is -100.

How do you decide if you should bid Nil? Assuming you don’t have any cards that make it impossible (A or combination K & Q of ♠s), the main considerations are how many spades you have, which ones, and whether you have enough low card protection in your suits.

The cutoff for spades is five. If you hold five or more your chances of making a Nil bid are terrible. Four is borderline and three or less is what we’re looking for.

If you’re holding the K or Q of spades your chances of a successful Nil are terrible. The J is the cutoff card.

After that, you need low card protection. If your other two spades are the 7 & 8 your chances aren’t great. If your opponent leads a spade, you could get stuck winning with the 7. Compare that to holding the 3 & 7 where you know you’ll be safe for two rounds of spades.

In the regular suits the main thing is low card protection. Holding an A or K in another suit doesn’t mean you can’t make a Nil bid. If you’re holding three lower cards to protect the higher ones you should be safe in that suit. If you have two lower cards and then higher ones it’s still possible but your chances are worse.

How much risk you’re willing to take on a Nil bid will be greatly influenced by the score. If the game is close or you’re leading, don’t risk losing 100 points with a questionable Nil bid. If you’re really behind and don’t have much time to catch up, a riskier Nil bid might be your only chance to win.

Did Your Opponent Bid Nil?

If you’re bidding after an opponent’s Nil bid, you also have an opportunity to make a Nil bid yourself. A hand that was questionable before is stronger now, because one of your opponents won’t be offering any resistance.

Spades Strategy: How to Play Your Cards

There’s lots of analysis that can go into figuring out which cards are best to play in each position. We’re not going to get too bogged down in that here. Rather, we’ll try to stick to some basic guidelines. As you use them and see how they work, you can refine your strategy further.

First Position: The most common beginner tendency to correct when playing first is leading with an A. It’s best not to do this. Leading the A takes the uncertainty out of the suit. Whoever holds the K now knows they have the top card. (The exception is if you hold both the A & K; lead one then the other and win both tricks). By letting someone else lead this suit, you give your partnership the chance to win two tricks, possibly three, instead of just one.

Some strong leads for first position include:

  • A if also holding the K
  • Top card of a three-card sequence or near sequence (the top card of any three-card sequence from K, Q, J, 10, 9 or with a one-space gap like Q, J, 9)
  • A low card from a suit with a Q high card
  • A suit you only have one or two cards in if you need to cut to make your bid

Second Position: The second player generally plays low, not trying to win the trick.

Third Position: The third player plays high, trying to win the trick or at least make it difficult for the fourth position.

Fourth Position: This player wins the trick if possible.

Should You Ever Lead Spades?

Some amateur players claim you should never lead a spade, and otherwise it’s generally frowned upon. Your partner might even be annoyed that you’ve drawn a spade unnecessarily (it seems) from them.

But leading spades is the best strategy when you have a lot of spades (5 or more) or your side has the majority of the spades. Obviously, you know for sure if you have 5 or more, but you have to guess if your partner is long on spades. If you see lots of As & Ks played by your opponents and you hold any as well, you know your partner’s bid was likely based on multiple spades.

High or Low Table Bid

Another thing to be aware of is how high the total bid is. If the table bid is 10 or less, you know there will be extra bags. You don’t want to throw any tricks away, as if you bid Nil; remember, your first priority is to make your bid. But you can make a point of only winning the tricks you counted in your bid. Once you see that your side is safe, you can actively avoid taking tricks.

If the table bid is 11 or higher (especially 12 or 13) it’s best not to worry too much about avoiding bags. You’ll be better served by playing to set your opponent.

Partner’s Tricks

Pay attention to how your partner’s luck is holding out. If they catch a bad break and end up getting cut (trumped) on an A or K, they’ve just lost one of the tricks they counted in their bid. Try to make it up if you can. Don’t play to avoid bags; act like your bid is now 1 higher.

Did Your Opponent Bid Nil?

When defending a Nil bid, the priority is to prevent it. The difference between making and failing a Nil bid is 200 points (+100 compared to -100).

I hope this look at Spades strategy and how to win at Spades has been helpful.

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