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  Spades Tips and Strategies




Spades Column of the Month -- May 2005




By Joe Andrews




The Great Debate:
Bidding Systems, Carding Signals, Partnership Agreements, and Alerts

The game of Bridge has been played for nearly one hundred years, and has featured the use of various bidding and carding systems for decades. In Bridge, you must "alert" your opponents whenever your side makes an unusual bid, lead, or discarding signal. How can this be applied and enforced in the game Spades, and what constitutes an “alertable” situation?

If a Spades partnership is willing to take the time to develop a rapport and a Bridge-style convention repertoire, is this cheating? Spades has been an internet phenomenon for approximately ten years. However, there has been very little growth in the live Spades arena. To the best of my knowledge, only The Spades Connection and Grand Prix tournaments have been able to sustain scheduled semi-annual or annual live events. Furthermore, there is no official Spades governing body for rules, and no alerting procedure for the use of conventions or special applications. As time goes by, more and more pairs are developing their own bidding language and other agreements. It will be many years before this issue can be resolved, and a very long time before regularly scheduled live Spades events will become reality in most areas.

Now, we will look at two examples of special Partnership agreements and the way that a game can be affected.

The "Big 5" Bid, created by R. DeNino and H. Carney in the late 1990's, is a useful application which encourages certain Nil bids. It was first mentioned in my original Spades book (1998). If you bid BEFORE your partner, AND you have a range of 4 - 6 probable tricks in your hand INCLUDING the Ace or King of spades, a call of 5 encourages a Nil bid from your partner. The Big 5 is most effective when a partner who is contemplating a Nil bid has the King or Queen of spades, and no other dangerous cards in his hand. Suffice to say, a bid of 5 AFTER partner has bid has no special meaning other than a desire to take five tricks.

A "high-low" signal is a another useful tool to have in your Spades bag. The deuce through the Jack of the side suits (not trump) applies. For example, you hold the nine and three of clubs. The Ace of clubs is led, and you drop the nine. Then the King of clubs is played, and you drop the three (in that order). You are promising that you can trump the third round of clubs. The high-low discard application has been used by Bridge players for more nearly a century, and is a standard signal.

Please do not confuse legitimate carding signals with obvious physical signals such as eye blinking, hair scratching, finger movement, body language, groaning, banging of cards on the table, etc. There is no place in any card game for such primitive and blatant displays of cheating.



Now we will look at one of the most controversial hands I have ever seen. It occurred in a live Spades tournament in Atlanta, GA during the Fall of 2002.

In a game with a score of 353 - 324 in favor of North/South and with the East player dealing, North picked up this collection:



 K 2

 Q J 9 7 4 2

 7 6 3

 7 2



South (his partner) opened up this collection:



 A J 10 3

 A K 3

 K Q 9 5

 10 8



With first bid, and four tricks a shoo-in, South bid 5. (In live events, the first bid and the opening lead is to the left of the dealer.) West came in with a call of 3, and North bid Nil. After all, he and his partner were employing the Big 5 convention. The King of spades was no longer a problem. A lot of North players who were not familiar with the Big 5 may have declined a Nil bid, especially in such a close game. East bid three to close out the auction. South selected the King of diamonds for an opening lead. West played the Jack, North dropped his seven spot, and East was happy to win the Ace. The four of clubs then hit the table, as South deposited the ten, West had an easy play of the Jack, and North let go of the seven spot. West continued with clubs as he played the three. This was ducked by the deuce, and once again, East won another Ace. South completed his high-low with the eight, as North carefully noted the play in the club suit. A shift to the heart five was won by South's Ace. The Queen of diamonds waltzed through, and the nine of diamonds was trumped by West's nine of spades.

Next came the play of the hand (and the tournament): the five of clubs. Noting that his partner had echoed in clubs (to show exactly two of the suit), North made the rather flamboyant play of the King of spades! After a very discernable pause, East played the club Queen, and South won this trick with the spade Ace! I cannot report the exact words of the East/West team; you may rest assured that they were quite upset. When I arrived at the table, and the growling had barely subsided, it was revealed to me that North/South were using the Big 5 convention, and were also using the standard high-low carding system to give count in side suits. Suffice to say, there was no ruling that I could have made. The East player suggested that North should have alerted the fact that South held the spade Ace. The hand was never finished, and the East/West pair left the table. The forfeit was immaterial as the hand was cold for 150 points, and game.

Were North/South cheating? Is the use of conventions and standard carding applications illegal? We just covered this topic. In the above example, should North have really halted the bidding and alerted the opponents to the fact that his partner's bid included the Ace or King of Spades? Should South have alerted the opponents that his play of the ten and eight of clubs promised exactly two clubs? How would we handle reverse Nil signals, Rusinow leads, suit preference leads, "attitude leads", "MUD" (middle, up, down discards), and so on? The use of convention cards and alerts in the game of Spades is not practical and would be difficult to enforce, especially in online play. HOWEVER, I do agree that players who employ various bridge-style card signaling systems and bidding applications have a big advantage over those who do not employ these gadgets.

Any thoughts on this? Send your comments to



Card-Counting Software
By John Galt Strichman, author of "How Not To Lose At Spades"

I believe that those of us who love MSN Games have an obligation to do whatever we can to insure the long-term health of our gaming environment. In that respect, we Spaders have a problem that, if allowed to grow, could forever damage what has always been the preeminent Spading site on The Internet. This problem is the use of card-counting software. The use of such programs (which throughout a hand progressively identify which cards have already been played and which ones remain outstanding) is becoming more and more prevalent in MSN Games. These programs are supplied by third party vendors having nothing to do with MSN Games, and who are beyond the control of the MSN organization.

MSN Games is a prime target for such vendors due to its size and stature among the gaming community. I thought of various ways to word the following statement, and finally decided to just say it as-is. Although many who use these programs may not realize it, the use of such software constitutes cheating. This is not a statement of opinion, it is simply a statement of fact. There is not one recognized expert in the field who would claim otherwise. Online Spading is supposed to simulate playing Spades at a table. At no live event -- or serious kitchen table game for that matter -- would a player be allowed to keep track of which cards have been played and which have not by use of any tool other than his memory. A player would never be allowed, for example, to write down on a piece of paper which cards are played as a hand unfolds. Neither would he or she be permitted to use any sort of electronic device to record such information. Card-counting using one's memory is a critical aspect of playing Spades. The truth is, as my age has advanced, I have lost some ability in this area, and my game suffers as a result. I wish that this was not the case, but it is. Using some software to do this memorizing for me would not make me a better Spades player, it would simply give me an unfair advantage over opponents who were not using a similar program.

If you use one of these card-counting programs, please stop doing so. If you are a member of a Spades club which condones the use of these programs, your club is playing unfairly. If you host tournaments and do not explicitly prohibit the use of these programs (assuming that you know of their existance), you are encouraging the behavior and contributing to the problem. By the way, if you run across someone who believes that there is nothing wrong with using one of these programs, ask that player how frequently he or she voluntarily informs the opponents about using the software. The reason that players don't offer this admission is because they know that it would not be looked kindly upon by the opps. If you need to hide something about the way that you play Spades, you are not playing Spades, you are simply damaging the environment for those who do.

A game site can be only as healthy as is the perception of fair and honest play there. Let's all do what we can to maintain the integrity of MSN Games Spading, and do whatever we can to keep our site a great place to enjoy the best of all card games.



Got Game? - Come to The World Series Spades Team Challenge

The Grand Prix World Series of Spades - Team Challenge
Cleveland, OH  Sept. 16-18, 2005

Grand Prix Tournaments

In addition to the Spades pairs main event, we are also having a Team Challenge! Several sites are sending players, and we will be tracking the results of all of their games. There are some great players who excel at Internet competition. If you are an MSN Games Spades regular and would like to receive an invite for the World Series, please send an e-mail to Show the world that Spades at MSN Games rules!

See you next month!