Don’t know how to play Spades? These Black Harvard Business School students can school you!

Students behind the Harvard Business School’s Spades clinic sat down with theGrio to discuss the clinic, the game, and how to learn to play.

As well known as the card game Spades is among most Black Americans, there are many Black folks who have no clue how to play. There’s always some variation of the same story as to why: older generations are often too engrossed in the game to explain gameplay to the younger set. 

Understanding the need for a safe space to learn the game, two Black Harvard Business School Students created exactly that for their peers. Alliyah Gary and Chelsea Grain Jefferson, two second-year Harvard Business School students, hosted a Spades clinic (with a free-for-all worksheet!) for their fellow students just before the Thanksgiving holiday. 

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The game of Spades might be a dying tradition among Black Americans. (Photo credit: Adobe Stock)

According to Gary, the idea arose during an Africa Business Club retreat, during which discussions turned to “the different things that make Black culture so beautiful.” Given how diverse the Black community is within Harvard Business School, which spans Black folks from around the world, they were searching for a way to “share the different nuances of our culture.” 

For Grain Jefferson, a self-described “activity girlie” at functions who always carries a pack of cards with her to social events, people are always asking her to teach them to play Spades.  

She said, “So it just felt really organic to say, ‘OK, we could probably do this at scale, and there are plenty of other things that we probably should be teaching.’” 

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(Left to right) Chelsea Grain Jefferson and Alliyah Gary pose during the Spades clinic in matching velour sweatsuits. (Photo courtesy of Chelsea Grain Jefferson)

With days before Thanksgiving, the inaugural Spades clinic went off without a hitch. In matching velour sweatsuits, Gary and Grain Jefferson hosted 50 of their peers, with Gary, a seasoned Spades player, teaching. To round out the experience, they served Caribbean food catered by a Black-owned business and taught the history of the game against a soundtrack of Black music.

“Beyond just teaching the art of Spades, we were really intentional about celebrating the Blackness that is a part of Spades,” Gary said.  

Footage of the Spades clinic went viral when it hit social media, proving, as Gary and Grain Jefferson learned, that not knowing how to play is a pervasive social problem within the Black community. For some, it feels as if Spades is in jeopardy of disappearing as a time-honored cultural tradition. 

“This is one of the few intergenerational activities and experiences that you can really share with your parents or grandparents or aunts and uncles,” Grain Jefferson noted. 

By and large, the reception online has been overwhelmingly positive. On TikTok in particular, Grain Jefferson said she noticed how commenters have really opened up about their despair in not knowing how to play the game. On Instagram, it’s a mix of encouragement and commiseration. Meanwhile, folks have been a bit more critical on X, formerly known as Twitter. Some have questioned whether Spades should be gatekept from other cultures entirely, rhetoric Grain Jefferson said she doesn’t agree with. 

“There were some very divisive comments and messages I saw, and I think that’s really emblematic of why a lot of people aren’t learning and why the tradition’s dying a bit,” Grain Jefferson said, adding, “People are so protective over the idea of it, and then it just stays with the people who already know it. I think the loss in that is that connection we have to the next generation of folks who really have the opportunity to keep our traditions alive.”

She also doesn’t agree with the idea that the clinic should be turned into a business opportunity. 

“In my opinion, you shouldn’t put a price on the culture like that,” she said. 

Nevertheless, when asked if they would produce the clinic again, both Gary and Grain Jefferson gave a resounding “yes!” In the meantime, the two offer advice to anyone who may still be sitting on the sidelines during family games this holiday season.

Grain said a very low-pressure way to get started learning is to make use of internet Spades. There are various apps and online games, she said, that can really help improve one’s skills. 

“That way, one day you can hustle your whole family and be like, ‘Yeah, no, I’m a beginner,’ and then you’re crushing it because you’ve been playing internet Spades for like two hours a night for a week,” she said. 

Ultimately, Gary said, “Practice makes perfect,” advising us not to retreat from the family game. 

“Keep sitting at the table,” she said. “Don’t let the trash talk get to you. And just remember to have fun. Like, above all else, it really is just a way to build community and really bridge the gap intergenerationally.” 

Kay Wicker is a lifestyle writer for theGrio covering health, wellness, travel, beauty, fashion, and the myriad ways Black people live and enjoy their lives. She has previously created content for magazines, newspapers, and digital brands. 

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