Spades: Fundamental Tactics
I, being a 'Spades Enthusiast' rather than a professional; love to watch live online spades games and to integrate a variety of habits of random players around the globe of a wide range in playing strength. In a nutshell, this content is useful for any player who usually gets belittled as a 'poor player' by others. One fine day, Bill told me "Although they need tournament games, most online players don't have gathered adequate experience and/or trusting the partner to do so." Opposing to writing down a strategy guide (well, if you need one of those, Internet has many already), I will provide you with a list of key factors regarding the gameplay. Good news is you are the one connecting the dots to make your playing strategy! :-)
Very common conventions such as fundamental bidding guide and scoring is not included because I can certainly bet all-in that you have already read those stuff over and over. I may also publish a fully explained bidding guide for designated partners which also features many tactics for any player when I get blessed with a great vacation (say it for a week). ;-)
1. Zeroth Rule
"You have to always trust your partner with their bids."
Yup, I cant emphasize how important this is. You are a half of your team and your partner is the only one to help your team from the other players than you: no exceptions, keep faith. Never try to 'help the partner to make her bid by taking additional tricks' which more often than not disrupting her plans of her hand and result in unneeded bags. A possible exception would when you observe a certain trick of partner (say A or K) being trumped. Also never take unintended tricks when you see your partner sloughing high cards.
2. Your leads speak
Not to be confused with the high-low signal explained later.
If you lead a trick with a low card (say 2-5), you are 'telling' your partner you have some (but not very) high ranks of that suit. A lead of a middle card (say 6-9) implies that you have a weak suit. Leading with a 10 or higher is known as a honor lead which is explained down the line (section 6).
3. The total bid says how you may play
In a relatively balanced hand, the total number of bids add up to 11 (yes, despite of there are 13 tricks in each hand).
If the total bid is less than 10, colloquially known as 'bagging hands', your play becomes tricky because more often its not the cards that you count make the tricks. Imagine this hand ♥ Q2 ♣ AJ54 ♦ AQ653 ♠ 93 and with a bid 2, you are the first to lead. You cannot bid any hearts, but in this instance the Q may win an unintended trick. To get rid of your doubts and make your hand more certain, you should lead with Q of hearts. In the case it takes a trick, you may slough the Ace of diamonds provided that you can duck all diamond tricks. There is a possible exception explained later in the '31st rule' section.
Hands with a total bid more than 11 are tight, and if it is 14 one team gets set. In rare cases with 14+ total bids, either or both teams are vulnerable to sets assuming all bids are reasonable. These hands should be played very aggressively. Being aggressive is not cutting every possible trick, but playing high cards to cover your RHO and to give as many signals to partner as you can. Suppose the situation with your team bid is 5 and that of opponents is 8 with a 6 by RHO. You possess the QK doubleton of spades and a singleton 8 of diamonds. If the game started with two diamond tricks and you break spades with either trump: the opponents will deplete all trumps by leading them and your team would be the first to exhaust of spades and the team to take a set bid.
4. Avoid the Opening Flare
Suppose you got this hand and bid 3 from the first seat.
♥ AJ743 ♣ A874 ♦ A3 ♠ 32
Do not play all three aces back to back at the start of the hand. Doing so will acknowledge your opponents that your hand is exhausted and play their game freely. As you would be unable to give the leads that your partner needs, your team gets vulnerable for the set just because of your 'opening flare'. Suggested play to this hand is to start with the diamond ace followed by three of diamonds.
5. High-Low method
If you have a doubleton of a non-spade suit, playing the higher of the two in the first trick and the lower in second indicates that you would anticipate your partner to lead that suit again (for trumping or sloughing a medium card that otherwise cause a bag). This method may not be followed if your doubleton contains either a Queen or a King.
Improtant spin-off: If you play the Ace in the first trick of a non-spade suit and immediately lead a number card of the same suit, you are declaring that you are void of that suit.
6. Second seat low - Third seat high
Not to be confused with the previous section.
Bridge players are very familiar with this concept. Playing a low card from a second seat may allow the partner to win the trick without playing her highest card if the third player is weak in that suit. Similarly, the third seat play high to prevent the 4th seat winning cheap tricks.
Exception: Honor leads
If you are second to play and your RHO leads with a J, you should play the Q if you have it, but not K or A. If your RHO plays a Q, you should play the K but not the A. Always cover a honor card with the immediate high honor if you have it. This tactic allows you to win two tricks with higher certainty if you have a three card suit AQ-x: similarly more strength in KJ doubleton after Ace has been played.
7. The 31st Rule
If your partner is the third seat of the deal, made a 1 bid and played middle or high cards in the first 2-3 tricks: it means "I suggest we should set the opponents whatever it takes."
8. Show your trumps (spade suit only)
If your partner has a bid of 6 or more, you have only two trumps in your hand (suppose Jack and 4) and partner led with the A of spades; throw your J instead of the low card. In this instance, your partner is looking for high trumps and show what you got as your J is not going to win a trick otherwise.
9. When not to bid Nil
Unless you are desperate in a no pass game, do not bid Nil if your hand satisfies any of these.
- You have a balanced hand (three or four cards from all suits and majority are medium cards). It is a bad idea to bid Nil for this example hand.
♥ J95 ♣ QT7 ♦ QJ83 ♠ 542
- You have a singleton honor card.
- You have a doubleton K.
- You have a three card suit including A without a singleton in any other non trump suit.
- You have more than three spades (even they are 234 and 5). Even though you might consider a 4 spade nil (less stronger than J high) if your partner has a 6+ bid before you.
Before you read the last but best of all...
Your team is 465 and their team is 496 in score and you get ♥ AK9732 ♣ 853 ♦ J9 ♠ A4. Your partner bids 2 and RHO bids 3. Make your bid before reading the suggested answer.
The opponents can have a safe winning score with your LHO bidding four tricks less than you (i.e. if you bid 5, LHO needs only 1 to overbid your score). Considering the bids in front of you and your hand, you can infer that your LHO has a safe bid 4 hand or even stronger which makes setting opponents not a viable option. With high strength in their hand, bagging them out is difficult because the LHO can safely declare a conservative hand with no bags with a bid that add up the total to 10 (which is also secures their victory). The only way for salvage is to outbid them.
The suggested bid is Nil (despite of being impossible with the Ace of Spades). With that bid, you declare a possible majestic score of 580+. The only two options remaining for the LHO would be either to bid Nil which is a near certainty to be doomed (as well) or to bid 7 to square the possible outcome of scorecard. If LHO decided not to Nil, you can safely forget your Nil bid and play to the set where you might get 'another chance'. Underbidding their hand with the intention of setting your nil may cost them the overbooks penalty.
10. When it comes to last, always bid to WIN
I have seen hundreds of games being played perfectly but dropping the soap with one last mediocre bid. There are three options to consider: setting the other team, bagging out the other team or outbidding their score. Always consider these three options in the given order, as also explained in the example above.
If you are in the last seat and want to set the opponent team, make you bid win which the total adds up to 14. Suppose your team score is 434 for that of theirs is 485. Your LHO starts bidding with 2, your partner bids 1 and your RHO bids 4. What is your bid with this hand ♥ A9 ♣ K4 ♦ Q743 ♠ AQ872 ? Even it looks like a 5 bid hand, in this instance your bid should be 7. The reason is, if you need to win the game, you should try for 8 tricks, not any less.
Take this example where your team is 451 and other team is 479 and you are dealt with ♥ A9 ♣ K4 ♦ Q743 ♠ AQ872. Your LHO starts bidding with 2, your partner bids 1 and your RHO bids 4. In this score, there is a spawn bagging out opportunity compared to the previous score sheet. This time, the suggested the bid is 4 and to take tricks with the ♥ A ♣ K ♠ AQ. If you lose your trick with the club K, it is not difficult to target a trumping trick from a middle spade. You should not trump tricks otherwise which will put the bag load back on you.
If you want to show a Nil to win from the third or fourth seat, do it even if you have a lone Ace or even Ace of spades to give a twist. Let them sweat to their game (which they are consistently doing) rather than offering the game with a submissive final bid. Never underbid in a possible final hand of a game.