17 simple secrets to Spades, designed to help beginner and intermediate players raise their winning percentage
Note that these tips are focused on regular spades, however, many of these concepts will help with alternate spades formats too.
  1. Before playing your first card of the hand, add up all the bids on the table to determine the total table bid.
    1. If the total table bid is 12 or higher, play to take every trick you can until you have set your opponents.
    2. If the table bid is 10 or lower, be selective in the tricks you take, there is not as much urgency to secure your bid. Save low cards to get out of the lead. Dump your mid-high cards under opponent’s tricks, not your lowest! Do not get carried away, opponents can still set you on a 10 bid and that is still a bad thing.
    3. If the table bid is 11, do not avoid any tricks early, even if it means winning a trick you were not counting on taking. As the hand evolves, either make adjustments later for bag avoidance or play for extra tricks and try and set the opponents. Giving up tricks early in the hand with the plan to “avoid bags” will often cause you to go set. Sometimes the Aces and Kings you based your bid on get taken from you later.
  2. Don’t get set. Spades strategy is all about risk versus reward. Getting set is the largest risk in spades. Focus more on what can go wrong, not what can go right. When your team gets set, it is a double penalty. You not only receive the set penalty, you also miss out on the points you would have received if you made your bid by playing the hand differently or bidding less in the first place. Getting set on any bid is much more expensive than taking a couple bags. Your team can take 19 bags and only lose 100 points (plus you get +19 for the bags, so just -81). If you get set just one time, odds are it is costing your team 100 points or more! When you take bags you protect your team’s bid and also sometimes set your opponents. It is almost always better to take bags then get set.
  3. Follow the score. If you are going to invest your time into playing the game and working with a partner, make the most of it. When you get close to the final score / final hand and the game is close, take some extra time with your bids to see what is necessary to win the game. Some situations can be very complex but many are quite simply a matter of quick addition. If you have a three trick hand but the score says you need to bid 4 to have a chance to win, follow the score.
  4. Spades is a TEAM game. There is no such thing as “my bid and your bid”. Once the bids are in, you now have a TEAM responsibility for total tricks bid. If you partner loses an A or a K, assume you will need to try to take an extra trick to make up for it. When your partner’s card is the top card, don’t take the trick! Your job is to make the TEAM bid, not your bid. Unless it is a situation to play and avoid bags, take tricks the opponents are winning, not ones your pard is winning. I regularly see players blame their pards for “not making their bid”, when, in fact, it was actually the player casting the blame that misplayed the hand. Don’t let this be you. If you want to play Spades without a partner, there is a version called “Cutthroat Spades” and that may be better suited for you.
  5. When you bid after your partner and you partner has bid 1 or NIL, adjust your bid! If you partner has bid 1, assume he will take ZERO. Be prepared to bid 1 lower and take an extra trick during the hand to protect your team from being set. If your partner bids NIL, make room in your bid so you can make covering the NIL the priority. Your ability to take tricks is greatly hindered when you don’t have a partner to help you navigate the hand because he is NIL. Additionally, you may need to sacrifice tricks, like leading out a King, just to provide adequate cover.
  6. If you are ahead by around 100+ points, do not NIL unless you feel it’s almost impossible for you to be set or if your partner has bid 5 or more and the NIL is still very good. The most common way that beginner players lose games when they are winning is by making poor risk decisions with the lead. You must adjust your risk tolerance to the score if you want to maximize your success rate. The larger your lead and the later you are in the game, the less risk you should take.
  7. Forget the term bid your hand. There is no magical guide that says what a hand is worth. Spades bidding is subjective and there are dozens of influencing factors that can be applied to the logic in bidding a single hand. Here are a few key principles to bidding you should consider.
    1. The larger your lead, the more conservative your bids should be.
    2. The further you are behind, the more aggressive your bids can be (especially when it comes to NILs).
    3. The higher the total team bid, the more risk you are taking on. For example, your partner bids first and bids 4. You are third to bid and your hand looks like a 5 bid. If you bid 5, you will sometimes find out you and your partner are counting on winning the same tricks, what is called overlap. When you and your partner both have big hands, it’s generally smarter to bid conservatively. Getting set on a big hand can be a huge swing on the scoreboard. Imagine your team bid of 4+5 is 9 and you go set by one trick. You now have scored -90. Had you bid conservative and bid 4, you would have scored +80. That is 170 points total swing!
  8. Forget the term bag game. When you think players are playing a bag game, it’s usually because you are playing against superior players that are able to direct the bags your way. Advanced players do not play to bag you, they play to set you. But, because they are advanced players, when they can’t set you, they instead bag you and they do it very well. Just play your game and do the best you can with what you are dealt.
  9. Never give up until the game is a guaranteed loss. It never ceases to amaze me when I see opponents resign on hand 4 or 5 of a game because they are down a few hundred points. It shocks me even more when opponents resign on the final hand of a hand-limit game and it’s still mathematically possible for them to win. Giving up too early will never help you win a game. You’re reading this because you want to increase your win percentage, so stop resigning!
  10. Do not bid more than is needed to secure a win for the game. Unless there is a significant bag issue, bid the minimum. This is part of that errant bid your hand mentality that says if I have four tricks, I must bid four. Do not fall in this trap! If you only need two to win and your opponents cannot out-bid you, bid 2. Anything more is unnecessary risk. The quickest way to give away a win is by taking unnecessary risks.
  11. When playing an 11 or higher bid, you should follow the third-seat high rule. If your partner leads low, it’s your responsibility to play high (typically your highest, but at least high enough to force the opponents to play high if they want to win the trick). Remember, you have 13 more cards across from you that you cannot see. If you play your K and lose it to the A, you may be setting up your partner’s Q. But if you don’t lay your K and the opponents win the trick on a 9, you’re probably still going to lose your K and you’ve just given the opponents a cheap trick.
  12. Follow SpadesQuiz’s Rule of 12. If you are the last player to bid, be very careful bidding the table to 12 or more. Most Spades table bids are 10 or 11. When the bids total 12+, it means the hand is likely to have some unpredictable results. Thankfully, as last bid you have been given a crystal ball into the future and can plan to protect your team. So if you follow the rule, you are only allowed to bid the table to 12 when you have one full extra trick above what you bid. Exception: if you are trailing in score and need to set the opponents to get back in the game, it’s okay to bid table to 12+ to encourage a passive partner to play for set.
  13. Be careful when you bid cut tricks. It is quite common to win tricks in Spades by trumping if you are void in a side suit. However, these tricks can be hard to predict. Sometimes your opponent is also void and is trumping over you. Sometimes your partner has the big cards and trumping-in would mean taking your partner’s trick. And sometimes, your opponents take away your spades by leading spades before you get a chance to cut the tricks you planned on winning. It’s okay to bid on cut tricks, but do so cautiously.
  14. Use this simple guideline from Spades book author Joe Andrews to help estimate how many tricks you will likely take with a long spade suit. If you have six or more spades, take the total number of spades you have and subtract three. Now add +1 for the AS, KS or QS if you have them in your hand. For example, the hand KQ86532 spades = 7 spades. 7-3 = 4. +1 for the King, +1 for the Queen = 6 expected tricks in the spades suit. Note that you should adjust your bid based on different risk factors such as score, bidding position, other bids on table, strength/weakness of the rest of your hand etc.
  15. Use the Last Trick feature. This is free information, look at it after every play. Using this tool will help you track cards better by giving you more time to see them all. If you’re really lucky, often the information you are looking for was on the previous trick and is sitting right there for you. This is especially valuable when covering a partner’s NIL.
  16. Try and play every card with a purpose, especially when you are selecting a card to lead from your hand. Imagine you are a military general and each card is one of your soldiers that you are sending into battle. If there is no battle plan, what are the chances they will bring you home a victory? In Spades, you communicate with your partner through your cards, the more logical and deliberate your play, the more information they can correctly receive.
  17. Try to avoid these common NIL bidding mistakes unless you are truly in a desperate situation:
    1. Bidding NIL with a suit that has an A and two or fewer other cards, for example A32.
    2. Bidding NIL with a suit that has three cards with the lowest card being a 7 or higher (example J87)
    3. Bidding NIL with three or more spades and the lowest is the 6 or higher (example 976 spades)
    4. Bidding NIL with a stand-alone K or a Kx (king with only one other card). Note that K32 is often more dangerous than it looks as well, but it is not unreasonable, especially if you have a short suit or your partner has made a high bid.
    5. Bidding NIL with 4 or more spades. 5+ spade NILs are only for the most rare and desperate of times. 4 spades NILs can be acceptable but require very specific attributes. To keep it simple, it’s typically best not to NIL with 4 spades unless your partner has made a very high bid of 5 or more and you also hold the 2 of spades and at least one more of the 5,4, or 3 of spades.
    6. Be extra cautious when you NIL if your partner has made a low bid of 1 or 2, especially when bidding NIL with troublesome spades.
    7. Bidding NIL with the K of spades is very dangerous. There is only a 33.3% chance your partner has the cover card you need. There is a time and place for bidding NIL with the K of spades but it is very rare.
    8. Avoid NILs with two spades which are above an 8. (example J93 spades). Unless your partner has made a high bid or you are very desperate, this is a very dangerous NIL.
About the author
Dan Hoffenberg aka SpadesQuiz is the founder of SpadesQuiz Facebook Group, an advanced spades strategy e-learning group. He consistently wins greater than 70% of the Spades games he plays. For questions, comments or corrections please email to SpadesQuiz@gmail.com
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