Black History Month: Why don’t we teach the game of Spades?

Spades

Man, I wish somebody would sneak a peek at my cards like this during a game of spades. That is so not allowed especially when I am coming for that head.

Some lessons can not be taught. And apparently in Black culture, according to last year’s Twitter conversation, spades is one such lesson. Though my father taught me the card games of gin, gin rummy, tunk and blackjack, he never did teach me spades. I always thought he remained silent on the game because it’s a four-player affair and he and I seldom played cards with anyone else. But, in hindsight, I’m not sure he would have taught me spades even if we had another couple with whom to play. I happened to learn this favorite trash-talking, house party, backyard cookout, holiday downtime card game right before my first year of college in New Orleans. And even then, no one specifically informed me of the rules or strategies of the game. The terminology of the game (ie. Going Board, Sandbagging, Reneging, Books, Joker-Joker-Deuce-Ace, etc.) was never specifically taught to me either.

I’ll explain how I came to learn how to “spank that ass” in Spades later.

But first,  why are we even into this game so hot and heavy anyway? As per PlayingCardDecks.com, no soul actually knows how the modern deck of cards came to be or where playing cards came from in the first place. China? India? Egypt? Anyone’s guess. However, the earliest documented record of playing cards, their suits, and the games that can be played with them appears in a European manuscript from 1377. And as cards are portable and social and eventually became cheaper to make and possess, cards and their popularity spread.

As for the game of Spades itself, RulesofSpades.com states:

Spades is thought to have originated in the Midwestern United States (perhaps Cincinnati, Ohio) in the late 1930s. It was said to have been invented by college students who enjoyed both Whist and Bridge. They were looking for a fast-paced game that was competitive and strategic. The game slowly spread to other college campuses in the Midwest, but the game did not really take off until the dramatic events of the Second World War brought so much of America’s youth into the military. Because the game was portable, could be played by small groups, and could often be played in less than twenty minutes, its popularity mushroomed.

Now, I know that you have to be a Black person of a certain age and experience to get down with whist and bridge—meaning that those are serious OG games. For example, my father definitely knows how to play both. BlackAmericaWeb.com had this to say about whist, bridge, spades and we folks of color in particular:

The card game of whist has been said to originate in Turkey and was brought to the states during slavery, although the Encyclopedia Britannica originates the game of whist to start in Europe in 1529 as the game “Trump”.  Black slaves weren’t allowed to read or write, but slave owners believed that the game of whist would help them count the cotton barrels and produce, so they were allowed to play. As the game evolved, so did the name – thus the birth of bid whist, spades and bridge.

As the years evolved, bid whist became a favorite among pullman porters on the railroad cars. The men were model citizens of the African American culture so many looked up to the practices of the prestigious sleeping car porters. The pullman porters adopted the ‘travel game phrases’ used to describe the plays of the game like ‘going all the way’ and ‘running a Boston’ when a team takes all the bids.

Considering that spades is said to have become a thing during a time when African-Americans were moving North and West in droves and hundreds of thousands served in the military during World War II, it was only a matter of time before we picked it up. I mean, c’mon. A game where the Black suit is the trump suit? Yeah, we’re definitely feeling that.

As for how I came to learn…

It happened on a Saturday in New Orleans on the third floor of Katharine Drexel Dormitory during the summer of 1996. About six of us soon-to-be freshmen ladies were in the kitchen trying to cull together a meal out of all our snacks because the cafeteria was closed. It was probably raining outside and I don’t think any of us had even bothered to change out of our pajamas. Nobody had a television and we didn’t feel like watching the one in the downstairs lobby with the old ornery dorm mothers. Someone suggested spades.

I said, “I’ve never played that game. I want to learn!” And maybe because I was bright-eyed and enthusiastic and they all knew I was Californian and there was also one other girl who did not know the game, none of them said: “You don’t know how to play Spades?!?!” or gave me too much crap about it.

Instead they directed each of us uninitiated to shadow someone at the table and pay attention.

“You’ll get it,” one girl said. And she was right. After about five hands, I got to take over for one of the girls and I played. And I even won more than a few times. As the year progressed, there were more opportunities to play and win and lose and develop my trash-talking prowess—which is both an integral part of the spades experience and truly an art form.

As I consider today’s Black cultural question, I reason that we don’t teach the game of spades, because like with so many things in the Black culture, there must first be a willingness to learn and an openness to receiving.  Mastery comes only with experience.

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