Wednesday, April 30, 2014

spades card game strategy - never trump your partner?

Last night, I attended another live, in-person card game session. We started out to play Spades. It turned out that my partner was new to the game, so it was decided to play a few rounds open-handed, so we could explain the rules and a bit of strategy. This turned out to be an interesting exercise.
Spades game, first hand, East leads. I'm playing the King and the Ace is still out there.
The initial hand is shown in the photo above. The dealer is North. I am South, and I bid 2. I did this despite the fact that I had a fairly strong set of spades. My thought process went like this in developing my bid:

  • I have a lot of clubs, almost 50% of the clubs at the table. I can't count on the King of clubs winning a trick; it will very likely be trumped. So I won't include that in my bid.
  • My diamond and hearts cards are useless.
  • I may not be able to create a void very early in the game. I felt uncomfortable assuming that my one of my high spades would not be trumped by the Ace at some point.
  • My best bet seemed to be aiming low, and dumping a couple high cards where possible. I figured that with a bid of 2, I might wind up with one bag if I took tricks with all of my spades cards. I thought that I'd pretty easily be able to dump the King of clubs.
Notice the total of all bids is 9! That leaves 4 bags on the table. After all bids were made, I was sure I'd make my bid, and definitely did not want to take a trick with the King of clubs.

The game started with East playing the 4 of clubs. With this play, it seemed unlikely to me that East was holding the Ace of clubs. I figured the Ace must be held by West or by my partner, North.

Whoever had the Ace was probably counting on using it to take a trick. I decided I would dump my King now. If my West opponent had the Ace, they would probably feel compelled to use it in order to make their bid. If my partner had the Ace, they would surely play it even though it meant trumping me. Anyone who plays a King in the first round must know that it will very likely be taken. My partner should realize that I knew that, and that I must be trying to dump my King. Especially seeing how many bags were at the table, it should be clear I was trying to get rid of a high card which might lead to a bag.

It turned out that my partner was holding the Ace of clubs. Since we were playing open-handed, my opponents both advised my partner not to trump me ("never trump your partner")... when in fact I wanted that to happen!

When I explained to the table my reasoning for playing the King, both of my opponents disagreed. They told me that if they were my partner, they would never overtrump me if they had the Ace - instead they would let me take the trick (in this case, this would likely lead to me earning at least one bag).

This kind of surprised me. In Spades, when there are so many bags on the table, it makes more sense to try to load the other team with all the bags, rather than to try to set them. So, I would try to take as few tricks as possible. I would assume my partner was aware that playing a King when the Ace has not yet been played would almost certainly lead to it being taken, and would therefore feel no need to refrain from trumping the King.

I am curious to know what other people think ... Do you just never trump your partner unless you have no choice? Or do you sometimes trump when it seems clear that they haven't planned on taking the trick?


Anonymous said...

You asked for an opinion so here is mine. I would NEVER trump my partners trick. If my partner has the trick won with a lower card I let them take the trick. My reason is because I never know if, or when, one of my tricks will be trumped by our opponent. A sure trick is always a positive to me. And I cannot worry about taking bags when our contract has not yet been made. Only then will I avoid any tricks that I'm able to avoid. You eventually will lose the game if you and your partner are double taking tricks.

Anonymous said...

Hi Marya, this is Tracy. I totally agree with the anonymous person. I would never take my partners trick. That is one of the biggest reasons why I pushed and like the no bags game. But also I look at your reason for not bidding the king to me that is wrong also. If you would have had 6 clubs then I would not have bid the king. Five or under I would bid it.

Marya said...

Interesting responses! Looks like I might be just confusing or frustrating my partners when I throw out high cards. I'll be reconsidering my strategy!

Mark Larson said...

I disagree with “you should never a take a trick that partner has won on the table”. However, with a new player, my advice would be “goal #1 is for the team to make its bid” so let the King ride. I think it’s important for a new player to learn bidding and making the team bid first before worrying about playing to minimize bags (especially on the first trick).

There’s a lot of information missing (like what West played, what North holds in Clubs besides the Ace, and the other card North is counting on for her bid). If I’m North holding the Ace and I see 5-K led on a 9 table, I’m thinking “East started with 1-2 Clubs and wants to trump a Club lead later” and “partner either had KQ and wants to make sure only one is good OR partner was forced to play the K and is now out”. (How much I weight one or the other depends on how long my Clubs are and what West played.) If you have the K on top of a long suit, I figure you’ll wait to throw that out later after people have stopped leading Clubs.

So, my most likely play as North is to take the first trick with the Ace and lead a Club back. If East had two, you get to make your Queen good; if East trumps, your KQ wasn’t going to yield a trick anyway. If it’s the case that you had a singleton K, you’ll get to trump second even if East is out. I don’t think you intended for the K to be a signal to partner to “please lead another Club”, but that’s the way I read it.

You don’t need to make it so complicated for partner on the first trick. The King of Clubs (Clubs in general) is not a high risk for overtricks. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to pitch the King. East is probably going to trump the second or third Club trick and the way you bid means you could even pitch the King of Clubs on the third Heart trick. Once the 5 is led, you know that only the 2-3 are out lower than your 4-6, so those two low ones are almost sure losers. If you wanted to be really safe, you could pitch the 6 Clubs here but the 9 is probably safe too (as you say, the Ace is likely to take the first trick and then you’d have 4-6-8-K with only 2-3-7 in the five Clubs remaining out there). Especially with a 9 table bid, I like the 9 Clubs play here as it signals to partner “I’m trying not to get stuck with middling Clubs”. That and the Club opener should be enough to get partner to switch to a different suit after taking the Ace.

Your real bag risk comes from the third Spade, which you acknowledge in the post. However, I think your reasoning about the King of Clubs and bidding low is flawed. A King in a 5-card suit will make about 70% of the time, so it’s worth bidding on unless some other game situation calls for you to be conservative.

I think “never take partner’s trick” is bad advice, but “focus on making your team’s bid” is good advice for new players. I also think “keep decisions simple for your partner” is good advice, so if you can avoid putting your partner in the position of having to do unexpected things (like taking a King winner), your team will probably have more success in the long run.

Thanks for the interesting post, it made me think about a lot of aspects of game play.

Marya said...

Thanks for that analysis, Mark!

There’s a lot of information missing (like what West played, what North holds in Clubs besides the Ace, and the other card North is counting on for her bid).

Note that when I decided to play my King, I didn't have that info, and I played the King as if I didn't know what was out there. It turned out that West played a fairly low club card, and North had the Ace of clubs. I don't recall the rest of their hand.

Also, when I made my initial bid, I only knew that East had bid 3. I bid conservatively, figuring it was possible that one of the other players was actually void in clubs to start with, or at least could be void after a single round of clubs. Having bid 2 initially, and then seeing how many bags were on the table, I was now in the mode of "avoid bags at all costs."

“keep decisions simple for your partner” is good advice, so if you can avoid putting your partner in the position of having to do unexpected things (like taking a King winner), your team will probably have more success in the long run

That makes sense; I could easily have thrown out a low club to avoid taking a trick, and counted on discarding the King later in the game. I will probably do this kind of thing in the future.

I have played games where our opponents frequently bid low with the strategy to bag us. The first few times this happened, I was surprised to take tricks with low cards like a Jack or 10 or even 9.

So usually if there are that many bags on the table, I'm not concerned about making our bid - it seems obvious we will. The opponents would have to take many bags to set us, and the "reward" for setting us back would not be high; they might be just as damaged by the bags they take to succeed... chances are they will just try to offload bags on us. Then the round is about which team can avoid the bags.

Anonymous said...

I thought trump was a spade, but in any case if I were your p I would have assumed the king was your only club.... opening with the king would have just been confusing as all hell. Don't listen to any advise based on this situation because although sometimes you do trump your p and sometimes you don't this situation falls outside of any that you will encounter, that is if you have learned anything from this... BW

Bill-Bob said...

I agree with you totally.
That said, I would probably hold the K on the first trick thinking that I could dump it later.
In general if the total bid is below 10 your team would not set your opponents so might as well bag em.
I might have bid 3 on that hand but your logic for 2 makes sense.

Bill Bob

innercitysrvvr said...

One of the most frustrating things I come across is that bag play skill seems to be the most misunderstood, undeveloped, and unappreciated of the skills you need to become an above average Spades player. The "I never trump my partner" crowd is just as bad as the "I always play for the set" crowd. Against these players a bag set or two during the course of a game is almost a foregone conclusion. In the Op's example, her p is new to the game. Let's assume a game with 4 players that consider themselves at least of average skill. My team's objective should be to end the first hand with a 4-0 score in bags. The same strategy should apply in a 3 bag hand. The greater risk is getting bagged than not making your bid. In fact if I was West and held the Ace, I would play under. If West/East took 5 bags to set our 4 that would be bad business...for them! In the above scenario what happens too often is the King makes a trick and so does the Ace. This creates a situation where you are now defending against a bag because you didn't count the King. The same kind player that didn't cover your King also lets your 10h or Jd walk. So I am North and you play the King here is simple reasoning applied to tactics: If my P counted the King, then she wouldn't have played it with the Ace still lurking out there. Its a 4 bag hand, she couldn't be more obvious that I should kill her King. Remember a bag set costs you 100 points. All other things being equal, I like my chances against a team that spots me 100 points. innercitysrvvr

Marya said...

My team's objective should be to end the first hand with a 4-0 score in bags.

My inclination is to respond that my team's #1 objective is to make sure they make their bid. That being said, I tend not to aim for setting the opponents unless the total bid is 11 or more. And not always then - it depends on my partner, and how the cards play out.

In the above scenario, is it "okay" for us to be set back -40, if the opponents can do it? You would not be concerned by this? Yes, the opponents will take 5 extra bags. This could be a problem in the future, but our -40 is an immediate problem.

Remember a bag set costs you 100 points

Technically, you could say that it costs you 90 points. Remember, you do get a point for each bag taken. By the time you've taken 10, you'll get 10 extra points added to your score. It can help. Whereas getting set never helps your score.

It's true that it is usually very hard to set the opponent if the total bid is 9 or 10. Trying to do so is likely to just earn you a few bags, and nothing else, so usually there's not much point.

Anyway... these days, I would probably not play my king of clubs. With a total of 9 bid, I'd probably just keep trying to duck every trick that I could manage. I'd expect to get bags because my middle cards would wind up taking tricks while other people were ducking them.