Does saying ‘play to win’ count as ‘talking across the board’? A discussion about spades, the card game of African America

OPINION: A debate at the intersection of two of Black America’s favorite pastimes—spades and arguing.

(Photo: William Whitehurst/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

You know how some people love a parade? Not me—I love a good argument. And I especially love a good argument that has no real, definitive answer and is entirely subjective, leaving all who indulge said argument to fight the good fight, for the actual, literal, sake of argument.

Spades has entered the chat. One of my favorite things about the game of spades is that so much of it is subjective and determined by who is playing and where you’re playing. For instance, some people believe the only proper way to set the hierarchy of trumps is Big Joker-Little Joker-2 of diamonds-2 of spades, and then following suit on down to the 3 of spades, or as it’s colloquially referred to Joker, Joker, Deuce, Deuce. This is how I grew up playing. I’ve also played with people who find this to be an absolute affront to their sensibilities.

I’ve been a part of and a party to actual arguments and spirited debates about which Joker is the “Big” one; is it the actual big picture Joker or the one that says “guarantee” on it (thus being a guaranteed book)? Now many new card manufacturers of color tend to remove that guesswork altogether by removing the word “guarantee.” If you ask me, the first person to do that should definitely be in the running for a Nobel Peace Prize for attempting to quash substantive arguments in the Black diaspora—people play spades all over, ya know. (For a first-hand account of people doing just that, check out HBCUGo’s show, Spade A Spade).

There are many things to argue about in spades, but one thing that has no definitive answer—unless it’s blatantly obvious—is “talking across the board (table).” What is talking across the board? It is signaling or giving some sort of cue to your partner that would provide an advantage on the particular book or hand. For instance, let’s say your partner is mulling over what card to play to lead a book and you say something that makes him or her play a specific suit or card. Or let’s say that you decide to say out loud to everybody but nobody in particular, “I’m bleeding over here.” Well, that lets your partner (and your opposition) know that you have an abundance of Hearts and/or Diamonds, the suits that are red and most importantly what books you probably can’t win. The idea with spades is that you work out all of that talking without specifics during the bidding process. 

But what happens when somebody on the opposite team mutters a term that could be inspirational or could be a cue? Well, that my friends are the right question. Hence, a debate about “play to win.” 

So let’s say that you’re sitting across from your partner and you bid seven books but thus far you only have five with maybe three more to play. Everybody has played a card and your partner is clearly mulling the cards in their hand in that pensive, “do I take this book and risk one later or wait it out and hope it works out?” face. Every spades player knows that face and has seen it and probably made it a time or hundred. In your concern about what might transpire—potentially getting set, ie. not getting enough books to satisfy your bid—you might fidget and/or utter to your partner, “play to win!”

Now, there is a school of thought that thinks this is talking across the board and a call to your partner to be aggressive and go for the jugular. This is both frowned upon and grounds for argument and aggressive chiding, quite possibly a fight if it happens enough. Except, you don’t really know what cards your partner has unless you’re just THAT good at remembering both what books have been won and with which cards and what’s left out there. It could be a rallying cry—a reminder to your partner why you’re there in the first place, to win! Saying “play to win” doesn’t give him any more information about what’s in anybody’s hand than saying “fish ain’t bitin’.” Actually, that sounds like it would be more of a clue and clear talking across the board.

Thing is, I’ve seen people get up-in-arms about folks saying “play to win” and situationally, perhaps it could be. I definitely understand frowning upon it but you can’t take anybody’s books for it—taking three books is a penalty in spades for reneging, sandbagging and/or talking across the board if you manage to convincingly convict somebody of the latter transgression and they agree to said conviction. And again, without any real game-related penalty, the only true penalty is a fight and who wants to do that while playing spades?

I feel like saying “play to win” really is just annoying because it sounds like talking across the board but is really hard to prove as talking across the board. It doesn’t give any specifics and really every single person at the spades table is literally playing to win. It’s a reminder as much as it’s a call to action. But is a call to action that doubles as the point of the game really talking across the board? I’m not sure. See, there is no definitive answer here. 

Meanwhile, what I’ve seen happen tons of times and done myself is this. Let’s say six books have been played. Your team has bid 9 and their team has gone board (4) and they have two books and you have four. There are 7 books left out there. But you look down at your hand and you realize you have the big and little Jokers, the 2 of spades, the Ace, King and Jack. Basically, you realize in that moment that you’re about to set (prevent them from getting their bid) them and you do that thing that all spades players learn to do early: you take their heart. You stand up and you slam the lowest spade you have that you know will win. And then you basically milk every player of their spades on each book…WHILE STANDING.

Is this not literally the same thing as—but more egregious—talking across the board? Standing up and slamming a card on the table lets your partner know that a rout is about to happen. It just so happens to also let the opposition players know, too. They’re usually just so dejected that everybody lets it go OR ends up fighting. I’ve never seen anybody police that behavior as “talking across the board.” And I’m not calling for it now. 

I realize that my stance could be seen as controversial and perhaps even thrown in my face at some point and used against me in which case I will have to sit and deal with it, but that, my friends, is the beauty of spades. Everything is on the table at all times, but I motion that saying “play to win” is not talking across the table. 

African America, what say ye?

Panama Jackson

Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest) but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said “Unknown” (Blackest).

Make sure you check out the Dear Culture podcast every Thursday on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, where I’ll be hosting some of the Blackest conversations known to humankind. You might not leave the convo with an afro, but you’ll definitely be looking for your Afro Sheen! Listen to Dear Culture on TheGrio’s app; download here.

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