With a rich history, card games foster community and kinship in Black communities
Get ready, Los Angeles…all those summer days we longed for in the cold and wet are finally here. Staples of the cookouts coming to a backyard near you: your uncle’s famous barbecue; the Electric Slide on repeat; your sibs, cousins and friends cutting up and—arguably, where the magic happens—at the card table.
Love, Peace & Spades
There’s a growing scene in Los Angeles of folks coming together to play Spades.
In March, I attended a game night run by Love, Peace & Spades, a group created by Kevin Clark, and developed in partnership with Fred McNeill, Jr., Camille Davis, Eliyannah Yisrael and Jamilah Lemieux. “Their mission is to build a safe, inclusive, and healing space for intergenerational communion through music, tech, education, and play,” according to the group’s website. A DJ, an emcee and stage lights gave the lobby of Koreatown’s The LINE LA hotel a clubby feel without the sticky floor and shoulder-to-shoulder sweaty bodies. Friends grooved to the music, clustered around tables to play Uno, dominoes and of course, Spades.
After a bite to eat, my friend and I pulled up to a card table with another duo for “Spades School,” a crash course for newbies like us who hadn’t grown up playing and had never learned. One of the strangers who joined us was semi-familiar with the rules. He gave the rest of us a quick primer while we waited for our instructor, a veteran player.
Once Spades School was in session, I was taken aback by the tsunami of information washing over me all at once: Four players with 13 cards each…player left of the dealer bids first…Bids, tricks and matching suits. Ace is high and Spades is always the trump suit. Say what, now!? By the end of two rounds, I can’t say I understood the rules well enough to play again on my own, but I did walk away with a comprehension of Spades as a game of numbers and strategy. And, the friendly faces I met around the card table, who didn’t make me feel like an outsider or ashamed for being ignorant, made me feel encouraged enough to try again someday. I left feeling pumped up with confidence, that with a few more game nights I would—maybe? hopefully?—be strategizing like a professional.
When shame comes into play
Uno, chess, dominoes, Blackjack, Bid Whist and Spades have been go-to pastimes since what seems like forever. Gameplay brought Black folks together in the Antebellum South, according to legal scholar Robert M. Jarvis. For those that were able to play in secret, friendships developed between people who may not have otherwise come together. But, games were also associated with gambling, an offense punishable under the slave codes. Slave masters believed gambling led those they enslaved to “forget their place,” to plan rebellions and plot crimes. Gambling was illegal because the last thing slaveholders wanted were blurred lines between the classes as a result of the relationships built during games.
Moreover, the association of gameplay with gambling within the Black community is a major reason many younger folks today don’t know how to play. Though this isn’t the case for everyone, some Black kids weren’t allowed to learn how to play Spades or other card games because elders believed it promoted gambling, or was even sinful.
Exclusion from such an integral part of Black people’s communal gatherings can feel like a missing connection to Black culture and community. Throughout my life, I’ve been called both “too Black” and “not Black enough.” For the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, finding this community game night that’s a judgement-free zone helped me find a sense of belonging that I haven’t always experienced.
Camille Davis, creative lead and director of business development for Love, Peace & Spades, described her own insecurities playing Spades, as a self-identified dominoes apologist and the daughter of a mom devoted to Spades. “I was like, ‘I can’t hang at no Spades table.’ [But,] there is a large community of Black people who don’t know how to play Spades. And, not only is it OK, but we can remedy that.”
Love, Peace & Spades, she said, is staffed by kind veteran instructors who know the game like “the back of their hand.” The group is all about “community in a casual setting” featuring a “celebrative pastime with Black people.” The media needs to show more Black people “doing what we do,” Davis explained. “And nine times out of 10 that’s just having a good time with each other.”
It is important to note that the strong community Love, Peace & Spades has built didn’t happen overnight. It’s been more than six months since the concept was developed to not just attract Black people but all people. According to creator Clark, much of the energy that went into organizing the game night came from “[creating] something to do when there’s nothing to do.”
Beyond game nights and cookouts
Spades now extends beyond family gatherings and community game nights; Spades has gone pro. Spades was added as a championship sport in 2019 by the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, the oldest historically-Black sports conference. Comedian Clint Coley developed the competition show, The World Series of Spades. And, you may have even seen Dwayne Wade host a Spades tournament during the NBA’s 2020 All-Star Weekend.
So, how can you get in on the action and learn how to play?
Learn to play Spades
Love, Peace & Spades is a monthly game night for people who enjoy classic Black family heirlooms like Uno, Bid Whist, Tunk (or Tonk), dominoes and, of course, Spades. LP&S created ‘Spades School,’ a curriculum-based experience for novice and intermediate players meant to address the emotional traumas many have experienced in the past.
Next game night:
June 7 at The LINE LA hotel, 6-11 p.m. :: 3515 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90010
By Aaron Parker, $2.99
Learning how to play Spades should not be a long boring read. This e-book provides a very clean breakdown of the most important concepts you need to understand when learning how to play the game with supporting videos for a visual overview of certain concepts.
ONLINE (and FREE!)
YouTube has many tutorials to teach complete beginners how to play at no cost. Here are some recommendations to get you started:
Correction May 31, 2023 3:05 p.m.: This story initially read Love, Peace & Spades had existed for six years. At the time of publication, the groups had been around for more than six months. We regret the error.