A World of Black Intimacy at the Card Table

Credit…Illustration by Jon Key

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A World of Black Intimacy at the Card Table

For the poet Hanif Abdurraqib, playing spades with his friends is about so much more than the game.

Credit…Illustration by Jon Key

  • Feb. 24, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

Somewhere on the road between Oxford, Miss., and Tuscaloosa, Ala., my homie Jerriod looks at the cards fanned out in his hands. For anyone who has played enough games of spades and lost enough games of spades, it is known that you watch the moment directly after your opponent picks up their cards and assesses them. Some people sit stone-faced, staring at what they’ve got and nodding slowly, as if it could be anything. Some people make grand gestures about what it is they don’t have and how bad the next few minutes of hand-playing are going to be. The more dramatic, the bigger the potential for a lie: The person who throws an arm over his eyes or pats away fake brow sweat while exclaiming something to his partner like “I don’t know how we’re going to make it out of this one. I’m going to need you to carry me.”

We are among a group of 12 poets and peers, taking part in a weeklong fellowship that is requiring us to engage with the American South. Many of us have roots here, but the relationship is less tactile now, because a majority of us have scattered ourselves across the country in our adulthood. The days on the trip involve long, hot walks through paths lined with tree branches drooping under the weight of their own exhaustion. Sitting on porches of old homes and scowling at war monuments. The nights involve readings of our work for the communities we’ve landed in and engaging in panel discussions with one another. In between, we joke and swap stories and debate music and, of course, make threats about how dangerous we are with a handful of cards.

During this particular game of spades, we’re in a white van speeding through various shades of barren Southern landscape, and I am partnered with Nate. Nate is from Chicago and probably better than I am at spades, though it isn’t ever worth saying that out loud. And it certainly isn’t worth saying now, as we are careering toward a certain loss. Nate and I are vastly different spades players: him, often operating at the edge of risks that seem unlikely to pay off until they do at the very last moment. And me, calculating, taking every possible card into account and agonizing over the exact number of tricks to be taken before setting down safe bids. Because of this, Nate and I are usually foes in this game, two players on opposite teams during most get-togethers. But today, in a twist, we have ended up as teammates. In a van with no table, we make our own playing surface out of the van’s leather seats. The cards jump around on the slick leather seats, and we lean haphazardly over the rows to throw down our offerings into the pile. We are hovering in each other’s space — too close and not nearly close enough.

I see my friends best when I can see them during a game of spades. How, in their playing, they become the parts of their personalities that I most envy. Nate, with his devil-may-care instincts worn outside his body. Jerriod, with his quiet confidence. Danez, the fourth player in the game, tucked into the corner of a seat, shouting out the kind of quick-fire jokes we know will unfurl when inhibition is cast aside. The kind of jokes that send us tucking our cards into our chests and taking a break to laugh while Danez pushes the joke further.

The windows in this old van barely open, so the sweat begins to soak through our clothing. Nate dabs away the beads gathering at his forehead while I lean back to catch some of the stifling, humid air coming through the tiny sliver of open window. But the heat doesn’t mean a thing when the company is this good. To open these windows and let the outside world blow away a layer of our sweaty, laugh-soaked, echoing glory would make us too generous and too foolish. Better to let it stay where we can savor it all ourselves. Where every portion of it overflows and rests at our feet, an embarrassment of riches. Let the high cotton we speed past stay unpicked, if it means those who might be tasked with picking it get to remain inside and look at a good hand they were dealt and pretend it is a bad one.

And what I meant to tell you, before you indulged the reckless swelling of my heart, was about the moment when Jerriod, beloved and largely silent, looked upon his hand. One of the last hands of the game, a game he spent not talking much and hiding behind his low hat and his always immaculate beard. In the few seconds after I skimmed my hand and realized that it was, once again, entirely worthless to the cause, I watched Jerriod spread his cards real wide, the smile across his face matching their width. And in the silence of the van, without speaking, Jerriod took out his cellphone, turned the camera on and snapped a photo of the cards before him. After a split second of confusion, he shrugged and mumbled, “This hand so good that if I didn’t take a picture, wouldn’t nobody believe it.”

And there we go, set off to laughing again, and slapping the leather seats and covering our faces with our bad hands, full of bad cards, as the van speeds into the open arms of the Alabama border.

Oh, friends — I most love who you become when there are cards in your hands. How limitless our love for one another can be with our guards down. When the first bit of trash talk rattles the chest and then gives permission for more, and more, and more until the talking of trash, too, is a type of romance. Anyone worthy of being taken down is worthy of hearing all the ways they are being taken down. I meet my enemies with silence and my friends with a symphony of insults, or jokes that cut just deep enough for people to see them momentarily but not so deep as to leave a scar. Dearest siblings, even in an ass-whupping, there’s no place else I’d rather be.

“Joy” is such a flimsy feel-good word. I’m talking instead about what can be wrestled from otherwise-uncomfortable circumstances and be repurposed, anywhere a flat surface can be fashioned. I want a gift like this at every entry to every unfamiliar place.

Credit…Illustration by Jon Key

Like the history of Black people in America, spades was born under one set of circumstances, but it came to life under another.

It is hard to say who first introduced the game to the world, but in my own mind’s invention, I’d like to think this person wore a low hat and chewed vigorously on something from the earth. There is no real history of the game but for loose ideas around time and place. The writer and card-game scholar George Coffin traced the origins of spades back to late 1930s Cincinnati. The game is shrouded in mystery. Searching the internet, I find that it may have burst up from the dorm rooms of college students, who came up on whist, a game that rose to prominence in the 19th century and relied on simple methods and ideas: a partnership with another player, a hierarchy of cards and the ability to take tricks based on that hierarchy. These college students improved on some of the minor functions of whist in an attempt to keep the game moving, because they often had limited time to play it. The bidding system in spades is somewhat basic, though the stakes involved are high. The action is quick, and players must pay close attention. If you slip up, then you slip up, and there are penalties dished out for your slipping up.

First seen as a regional game played primarily by young people of the era, spades grabbed national and international hold during times of war. When some of those young spades players from Ohio became soldiers in World War II, the game evolved on battlefields and in barracks. Much of the general appeal of the game crossed over: It was fun and fast, rooted in the type of tactical strategy that might also serve a soldier during battle conditions. It was a game that could be interrupted and returned to at a moment’s notice. If something popped off, soldiers could lay the cards down and run toward whatever they were called to run toward, in hopes that they would all return later to complete the match.

In the version of spades that I grew up with, played with the 52 standard cards in a deck, the ace of spades is the most fortunate of cards. The one that promises at least one way out for you and your team. If you have the ace of spades and nothing else, you can be confident that you will bring at least one trick home. There will be some glory at the end of it all, no matter what other useless weeds may sprout out of a hand, how many red fours and sixes bloom from the interior. After a hand is dealt in a game of spades, there are few feelings like sifting through the bouquet of unspectacular pasteboards until the ace of spades appears.

It might bear mentioning, though, that depending on how you play spades, and where you’re from, that li’l ace of spades might not mean a thing. On the East Side of Columbus, Ohio, the ace might be the high card, but if you go a few blocks north, those folks might take the red twos out of the pack and get the jokers into the mix. Travel in some other direction, and someone might play joker-joker-deuce-ace, and then what are you going to do but pray you get dealt some card other than that ace of spades? But then someone might scrap the jokers altogether and play deuces high, when the two of spades is the high card, and then the two of diamonds, the two of clubs and the two of hearts all get run before you get to your ace, so you might as well just set it on fire if you get it.

Some would say there are as many ways to play spades as there are Black people playing it. I’m sure this is not true, but I still don’t sit down at a table I’ve never been to without asking about the house rules. In some cribs, a person might not care if you and your partner have full coded conversations across whatever kind of table has been set up. But in others, even the slightest hint of table talk means you’re falling into debt, two tricks or more, depending on how egregious the offense. In Atlanta in 2016, some older folks didn’t appreciate my slick attempts at feeding thinly veiled metaphors to my partner to tip her off to what was in my hand, and so they took two books the first time and then four the next, until my partner finally threw up her arms midgame and snapped, “Will you shut the hell up” — which cost us two more books.

There is no real consistency to house rules other than the fact that you don’t question someone else’s house rules. It feels, in effect, like questioning an ancestor or elder. Someone who most likely is not there in earthly form but who taught the game in a very particular way and demanded that it be played that way. The spades player must be versatile and willing to go with any rules laid down, even if they seem absurd or unfair or entirely whimsical. If the game is being played in mixed company in some neutral location like a hotel room or a basement bar, the house rules defer to whoever is from the place where the game is being played, or whoever has some kin from somewhere closest to wherever the game is being played. There is no governing body that makes it like this, only a code of honor among the people playing. Once, in Virginia, someone I was playing with tried to trace family roots to Charlottesville just to place deuces high when no one else wanted to.

What strikes me as most in line with the American experience when it comes to spades, though, is the shifting value of a card’s worth. How the red twos can be either dispensable or invaluable, depending on what city the game is being played in. How the ace of spades can be a symbol of ultimate power or a source of anxiety, depending on who is holding it and what borders the players are sitting within. I like a people to be nothing if not malleable. A people who can open their nearly bare cupboards and pantries and still find their way to a meal for a week, or a people who can choose not to code-switch and still get the job. Because of the transitory nature of the earliest days of spades, it makes sense that spades has so many different iterations, with nowhere to trace them to. Soldiers came back from war and taught the game to people who taught the game to people. Along the line, things were tweaked, new challenges were added and now there is a card game in which the worth of a card in your hand swings wildly depending on where you’ve taken a seat.

What strikes me as most in line with the American experience when it comes to spades, though, is the shifting value of a card’s worth.

It might also bear mentioning that I have had more than enough money in my pockets in cities where I’ve still managed to be invisible. For example: in the middle of Texas, where the host at the restaurant nervously looked back toward some empty booths before looking at my road-weary attire of sweatpants and an old band T-shirt and said that there were just no tables for me at the moment. Everything was reserved, and I’d have to wait at least two hours, but potentially more. Or: In New Haven, Conn., where I had been living for well over a year, I returned from a run to meet my mailman at the door of my apartment as he was preparing to place my mail in the slot. When I told him I lived in the apartment and could take it, he looked at me skeptically and insisted that I pick it up after he locked the slot again. When I protested, he slammed the mail door shut and locked it. I am not particularly sad, or angry, about incidents like these, but I have been thinking about what it is for a person to shift in worth depending on who might be doing the looking and in what city they are doing the looking. And so of course I love a game in which a card’s value can change depending on which ancestor whispered some rules to another one.

Spades isn’t a game distant enough in history to pick up this many fluid iterations, and yet here we are. I most like to think that someone was dealt a losing hand one too many times, and then changed the rules to suit those bad hands. All of a sudden, a hand saddled with twos is a type of royalty. I play my game with the ace high because I just happen to be from a place where the people don’t like to complicate a good thing as long as it stays good. Or, I’m from a place where if the people are lucky, they can live a life happily ignored without shaking anyone else’s foundation. When people ask what I like so much about being from the Midwest, I get to tell them: I know the architecture of the wind. I know the violence it blows in and out. I like to keep my survival as simple as I can.

The argument I hear offered up from time to time is that spades, like poker, relies not entirely on what you have but on what you can trick people into believing you have. I nod gently at this revelation but also know the major difference is that in poker, there is a choice to opt out if what you have in your hand doesn’t suit your comfort level. With this in mind, spades is a game that rests somewhere between skill and bravado — of hyping yourself up even if you know your kingdom will crumble with each hand playing out.

I am maybe not the best spades player in the world because I am the youngest of four, which (in my case) means that I cannot conceal the excitement that comes with having some small bit of power over an outcome. I cannot conceal the joy of anticipation that comes with wanting to open my palms, draw someone close and share something I believe to be miraculous.

I am trying to summon a specific type of feeling here. The one that can best be described by the summer I earned my driver’s license and by the car that arrived the day after. I was the last of my four siblings to get either, having spent so many of my teenage years in cars with them, their own music blaring out of the speakers while I was forbidden to suggest or even hint at suggesting a song selection. I outfitted my car with a cheap stereo system within days of owning it and incessantly asked my older siblings, all of them home for their summer breaks, if I could be the one to drive them somewhere, no matter how short the trip. I’d sometimes park in the driveway behind their cars, so that if they had to leave, I could suggest that I just take them where they needed to go, because I’d have to move my car anyway. All of these transparent attempts failed, of course. But it was the constant ache of wanting to invite my older and cooler siblings into my version of a world they’d already been living in on their own terms. I was bubbling over with excitement, wanting to turn up the volume in my own car with my own hands.

And this is why I throw that tricky ace of spades too early in every game. Or why, if I am dealt enough spades, I’ll cut other cards early and often, sometimes throwing off a teammate’s more sound strategy. I’m giving away all my secrets here, writing about a game in which everything is a secret and then nothing is. Spades is not always a game for those of us who had to grow up proving ourselves to the more hip or more apathetic people in our lives. Every good hand is an opportunity to gain some ground on a past moment of flying uncomfortably under the radar. To drown out the moments when your music rattled out of the open doors of a car, and no one came to join you.

So yes, the secret is out, and I am not great at spades. I am a fine player, probably the same as you or most of the people you know. I have rarely been the best player in the room, but I am always the player in the room most willing to play. I don’t want to win as much as I want to draw a game out, long and loud. I want the rematches for losses I’ve endured, knowing another loss is around the corner. Bring me the people who can only kind of play and might lie to grab a seat at a table full of old friends. Those may be my people more than anyone else, the ones I’d try to lift with me to an unlikely victory while the jokes rain down at our expense.

There is a type of love in that — how I’ve been carried by someone who adored me too much to allow me to look foolish. How, even when the van ride through the South ended, I looked at Jerriod and Nate and Danez and made them promise that we’d have a rematch later, even after a long and hot day that was unfolding into a long and hot night. How I knew we’d all drag ourselves out of a bar or out of a bed that night for the sake of rebuilding the moment from a few hours past, before it grew too distant in our memories.

Credit…Illustration by Jon Key

The Black people I know let some cultural things slide from our skinfolk, even if we sigh while doing it or throw a hand in the air and laugh loud enough for the laugh to catch on with the other people around a table. Yeah, your cousin can’t cook worth a damn, but at least she can play the dozens. Yeah, your little nephew never quite grew into any dance moves, but the boy sure looks as if he might be able to hoop.

But for whatever reason, there is little scorn like the scorn of not being able to play spades, though I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps because it is an easy skill to pick up — one that comes, largely, with watching and paying attention. Or having someone who loves you show you the ropes. Because it’s a card game, and so many of the Black people I know learned card games at the feet of an elder, not to know your way around spades can seem like a reflection of your entire lineage. It is never that serious, of course. But the tells of the person who can’t play spades but doesn’t want to admit it are among my favorite subtleties of the game: the player who, upon receiving a first hand, sets the cards down on a table, looks around nervously and then opens a sentence with “OK, so just to clarify. …”

Or the person who loudly announces how long it has been since he has played, before the game even starts. He hasn’t played since high school, or college, and he has played only a few times, but he remembers the rules. Or at least most of the rules. He is certain he can recall a good portion of the rules. The important ones.

I’ve been the spades partner to these people many times, and I imagine that I get stuck with them because I’m forgiving and perhaps too kind as a partner in spades. When a partner makes a glaring mistake, I insist that we’ll get it back, even after the score tally tips firmly out of our favor. I think of this as a kind of foolish clemency, understanding that the wrong kind of mistake made at the wrong kind of table can lead to a spiral of ridicule that pushes a player into never wanting to play the game again or leads to a questioning of the stability of his or her own identity. I’m not saying that I have made myself a savior of sorts, taking loss after loss with a smile for the benefit of wayward souls who never knew the game all that well or at all. But I am saying that sometimes the game is just a conduit for something greater, or a window into a more vital community. And I suppose I can live with a less-than-stellar win-loss record if it means that I don’t overturn the tables every time partners of mine make an error that might suggest they have no idea what they’re doing but wanted to be close to where the laughter and the table slapping and the swift talk was coming from.

I have intentionally not dug my feet too deep in the explaining of the nuances of spades here, but to “renege” on something is an expression that has universal roots outside the game. In spades, to renege is a cardinal sin, but a sin that is easy to commit if you are the distracted type or the anxious type or the overzealous type. The thing with spades is that there is an order to things. You can’t just throw down whatever card you want, whenever you want. The suits on the table must be strictly adhered to. If a player, say, throws down a spade when diamonds are in play — and he or she has a diamond resting in his hand — that is going to cost when the misdeed is figured out. Eventually. It could be the next rotation of diamonds being played, or it could be the end of the game. And what it might cost varies. Some people confiscate four tricks, some even more than that. It is the kind of sin that can kick the legs out from under a pretty strong game. And it can happen so quickly, if one player briefly pulls his or her eyes to something beyond the game and looks back to the table after more than two cards have been played. In a life riddled with mistakes, it is the one I have avoided, just because of the sheer anxiety of what making it would mean.

Once, inside an old pal’s mom’s condo near the big suburban mall, making the mistake meant a spider web of glass stretching across a wide-screen television on a Friday night in ’03, when most of us boys were too boring and too broke to do anything but try and call some girls and then break out the stack of cards when they didn’t pick up. My pal’s mom was out of town, but that didn’t mean anything to us except for the fact that some of us could drink the beer stashed under the sink and play spades the way we sometimes saw the old heads play it: loud and drunk, cursing every movement of the game.

Sometimes the game is just a conduit for something greater, or a window into a more vital community.

Another friend and I were partners, playing a tense game against two players, one of whom reneged. I could tell the exact moment he reneged, because he confidently threw a spade down to cut my ace of hearts, but then looked back at his hand with a sense of dread slowly washing over his face. The game was close, and he’d become far too excited about the prospect of stealing one precious trick away from us. By the time hearts came back around, the offending player, defeated, laid down an eight. My teammate, who had been helping himself to the warm beer from under the sink, leapt out of his seat, pointing furiously at the table and yelling: “Yo, nigga! Yo! You tried to slide like you ain’t have hearts a few hands ago! Nah, nigga! Nah!” The offender could not protest what we all knew, the homies who were once bystanders now crowding around the table as the accuser took a handful of already-won tricks from the losing team’s pile while yelling: “We take six where I’m from! We taking six! Game over!”

I am not sure if it was the impending doom of loss, or the ambitions raised by the steadily cracking cans of cheap beer, or if it was the fact that none of the girls we knew answered our phone calls, but I remember the moment when the losing teammates wrestled each other to the ground while they threw lunging punches at each other, missing wildly each time. And there was my pal, the host, joining the fray to split up the brawl, which, by this point, resembled one of those cartoon tornadoes of arms and legs. Everything else was a blur until the exact moment when the cluster of boys collided with the entertainment center and the television resting atop it trembled a bit before beginning its long descent to the ground.

And in the months after we all pooled our money to pay my pal’s mom, and even after we had to find a new spot to hang, I most remember the laughter that drowned the walls as we all sat, out of breath, on the floor next to the shattered television screen. I remember the deck of cards scattered on the ground, and I remember my teammate, composed as if none of this ever happened, picking up the cards slowly and shouting out, “Who got next?”

In that night from a long time ago, when my crew and I were too poor to do anything but stay inside with some cards and whatever was in the fridge, I do remember playing spades until the clouds brightened with the promise of a coming sun. I do remember someone I love falling asleep with his face on the table, among the pile of cards. And I do remember the moment when he woke, there was a single card stuck to the edge of his forehead. I never looked to see, but I told myself whatever card it was, it had to be the lucky one. House rules.


Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, an essayist and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. He last wrote about Gillian Welch and David Rawlings for the magazine. Jon Key is a writer, designer and painter in Brooklyn whose work focuses on the South, Blackness, queerness and family.

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