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  Spades Tips and Strategies




Spades Column of the Month -- November 2003




By Joe Andrews




The "Big Five" Bidding Convention

Herm Carney and Roger Denino are very accomplished players who participated in the first two "live" Spades tourneys (Indianapolis, IN, 1998 and 1999). Two of their innovative contributions to the game are the "Big 5 Bid", and “Nil Reverse Signal". Both of these conventions have been featured (and properly credited to their "inventors”) in both of my Spades books.  This month, I will review the "Big 5 Bid".

The purpose of the "Big 5" Convention is to inform your partner (via the bid of 5) that you hold the Ace or King of Spades. To begin with, your hand must have a range of four to six tricks, and secondly, your bid must precede the bid of your partner. Both of these requirements are absolutely necessary. This is a perfectly legal system somewhat similar (in principle) to the Conventions which are used in the game of Bridge (eg.  "Stayman", "Blackwood", "Jacoby" etc.)  Please refer to final comments at the end of the article. If you know (in 3rd or 4th seat) that your partner holds one or both of the top trump, then you might be able to bid a borderline Nil much more comfortably, especially if you hold the Queen or Jack of spades and no other club, diamond or heart suit potential winners. Examples of  trump suit holdings which could be covered  from the "Big 5" Convention are:  K, Q, J, or 10 singleton; K  x ; Q x ; J x ; and K x x; Q x x , and  J x x.  (Four Spade Nils with an honor card are out of the question!) The "x" cards in the potential Nil hand must be lower than the seven spot, as  holdings such as K 8, Q 9 7, J 10 7 etc. are very suspect. Often, the second highest spade in the Nil hand becomes vulnerable, if experienced defenders embark on a cross-ruffing campaign, or are able to jettison their high trump behind the Nil bidder. You cannot realistically expect your partner to cover TWO bad trump for you.

Seasoned players will not use this Convention if their hand has a covering weakness. For example, if you hold either of these two sample hands (in first or second seat position), the "Big 5" bid is most applicable:



 A 8 3

 Q 9 6

 K Q J

 A J 7




 K 10 4

 A K 3

 Q J 9

 K 9 3 2




You have full or partial cover for all four suits, and 4-6 tricks. (Of course, the opponents may drop a ton of bags on you, as well). Now let's check these hands:


 A 8 3

 5 4 2

 K Q J

 A Q 7


 K 10 4

 A K 3

 5 4 3

 K Q J  3





The shape is similar; however, in each hand there is a red suit weakness. If the opponents attack hearts in the first hand or diamonds in the second hand, and your partner cannot duck at least two rounds, there could be trouble here. Thus, the "Big 5" Bid" should be used only if the score encourages your partner to bid Nil.

Hands which have voids or middle/high singletons in a plain suit, as well as the proper trump holding, are much more appropriate for the Convention.

There is a lot of controversy about the "Big 5." Some players will say it is a form of "table talk," and constitutes a private agreement. However, until the game of Spades has an Official National governing organization (it does NOT as of this writing), and guidelines for "alert able" bids are clearly defined, the use of any bidding or card signaling applications remain perfectly legal. Conventions are not to be confused with "live" event crude systems, which include blatant body language, hesitations,  positioning pencils on the table,  holding cards in a certain manner, banging cards on the table to show pleasure with a suit played, etc.  Next month will feature a section about Nil Reverse Signals.






John Galt Returns

My good friend, and fellow Spades author, John Galt Strichman, has just released his new, improved and updated edition of "How Not To Lose At Spades"; Copyright 2003.  Check out his Web Site at  The following article is excerpted from the new book:

Control Your Aggression
It is hard to generalize too much about the game of Spades, but one thing that can be said is that the average Spades player does not play aggressively enough.

If an experienced player plays a game with a less traveled partner whom he doesn't know, more often than not, if they lose, it is because the less experienced pard plays too conservatively - passing up setting opportunities while worrying about bags.

When talking about aggressive/conservative play, however, It is important to discriminate between bidding and playing.

Some players contend that aggressive bidding is required in order to win at Spades, but this is simply wrong.  This is macho Spades but not winning Spades.

Games are not normally won as a result of squeezing an additional 10 points out of a hand here or there, but as a result of superior strategy - placing your team, near the end of the game, in the best possible position to win the game.

Further, winning play often requires you to substantially underbid your hand, such as when sitting 4th and looking at your pard and East having bid Nil.  Often, in that situation, you want to stick West in the lead and keep him there for as long as possible.

In my book I stress that proper bidding requires bidding such that you have control and flexibility to manage the hand as play unfolds.  Sometimes you want to take fewer tricks than you bid, and sometimes more.  Aggressive bidding precludes such control and flexibility.

The correct approach, in short, is to bid conservatively and play aggressively.  Most Spades losses are caused, not by bag penalties, but by sets.  This does not mean that a successful player does not need to know how to play a bagging game, but that that approach should be used only when the risk/reward situation of the game calls for it.

Aggressive play can take several forms, but by far the most important aspect of aggressive play concerns trump management - in particular, the practice of leading Spades in order to either weaken the opps' hands or establish a long side-suit holding.

Trump management could probably take up an entire new book, but there are several generalities which, if taken to heart, will go a long way to helping any player move up to the next level.

On most hands, one team will have a stronger position in trump than will the other.  Almost always, if the stronger positioned team wants to set the opps on the hand, aggressively leading Spades at some point, usually earlier than later, will maximize the likelihood of the set.

Some guidelines for leading (pulling) Spades are as follows:
"If your partner appears to have a strong Spade holding (5 or more), you should try to break Spades as early in the hand as possible.  You don't want your pard to waste one of his Spades by trumping in early.  He needs to save his Spades in order to maintain or regain control later in the hand when his long side-suit has been established.  As such, his Spades should generally be used on rounds where Spades are being pulled from the opps so that he will have enough trump left to regain control of the hand at a later point.

“If you believe that your pard has the Spade Ace and you have the King or Queen and a small Spade, lead your King or Queen first.  This allows the process of pulling trump to continue without you eventually winding up in the lead with no more Spades to lead.  It is very useful for your partner to know where the outstanding Spade honors are, and by showing him what you have it makes it easier for him to establish a plan for playing out the rest of the hand.

“In general you do not want to lead Spades through your partner if he is in a position of weakness (e.g., if he needs 1 more trick to make his bid or if East is sitting behind him with a strong hand).

"You do want to lead Spades through your pard if East is sitting behind him with a weak hand.  A specific example of this type of situation occurs so frequently that I have included it in the just released 2nd edition of my book.  I call it:.

The Trump Sandwich
Of the numerous specific situations which call for a more advanced approach for pulling trump, one is misplayed probably more so than any other, and this situation is described below.

You are in the lead with 4 tricks to go, and the Ace, King, and Queen of Spades are still outstanding.  What Spade should you lead?




North 5/3


West 4/3


East 1/1


South 3/2










   2 9 10 J




If you do not lead the Jack, you are making a mistake.

Mistake 41
When you want to pin West's high Spade between you and your partner, if you do not lead your highest Spade which is still lower than the one you are trying to pin, you are forcing your partner into the lead, allowing West to escape with his Spade honor, and you and your pard are losing more Spades games than you should.

In this example, chances are your pard has 2 of the 3 missing Spade honors.  If West has the King, it is very possible that you can pin his King between your honors and your pard's Ace.  You need to offer your pard a finessing attempt by leading the Jack here.

If you lead the Jack and West plays low, your pard can let your card ride, assuming/hoping that East does not have the King (East bid only 1 and has already taken a trick).  If you were to lead the 9, or even worse the 2, your partner would not be able to take the risk that East had neither the 10 nor the Jack, and have to play at least his Queen.

The resulting damage is that your pard would then be in the lead and be stuck leading into West's King, and the chances of setting the opps would be gone unless the King was unprotected and your pard was able to pull it by leading the Ace.

If you lead the Jack and it goes around the table, next lead the 10 for the same reason.  Most often, West will eventually have to cover your lead and watch his King become the filler in a trump sandwich.

“One important thing to remember is that you should not lead Spades for no reason.  Often, players will lead trump simply because they have no idea what else to lead, and this usually is a recipe for disaster.

As you play over the next few weeks, watch to see how successful partnerships wreak havoc on the opps by frequently leading Spades.

If you can learn to play, not out of fear, but with controlled aggression, you will become known as one of these havoc wreakers.

Good luck and Happy Spading!

--------------------**HAPPY THANKSGIVING TO ALL**-------------------------------