Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Playing Spades in the Army

The other day I found an article entitled "A Caucasian's Guide to Spades" on Deadspin.com - or a subsite of Deadspin, whatever constitutes Deadspin these days.

It's been a long time since I played Spades. A really long time. At least 10 years. I think the last time I played was at a college party in my apartment complex in Tallahassee. If I remember right, in one of my neighboring apartments was a group of African-American students. I was cool with them and they had a party and invited me over. In the apartment were a few people playing Spades. When I said I played, I was invited into the game when one person left. After a few games, and a few wins, I made a few new friends and was given the nickname "White Mike" - as to differentiate me from the African-American guy also named Mike in the apartment. I guess he had first dibs on the name.

But that was acceptance. I wasn't "Neighbor Guy" or "Dude from over there". My Spades ability had given me a name.

Not bad considering I hadn't played for years before that.

I learned how to play Spades in the Army. I remember the first time I saw people play was at the National Training Center in California in Fall 1996. I had only been in my unit for a few months and was still trying to find my place.

My section sergeant at the time was a combat veteran named Sergeant Wallace. He was in the 82nd Airborne during Operation Desert Shield before coming to the 1st Cavalry Division. These were days before everyone was deployed and everyone had a combat patch. In my unit, combat experience was rare. SFC Wallace, an African-American, was also a good Spades player.

(Side memory: two words of advice I will always remember from that sergeant were: "Mean what you say and say what you mean." and "Be who you is, because if you is who ain't, you ain't who you is.". I think those are words to live by.)

While the article mentions a lot of the social nuances of Spades, it does not mention how to survive as a beginner. And that's tough. Because if you screw up, you will never sit at the table again. Especially if you are white. You are done. Don't come back.

If I remember those days 20 years ago, I made a few mistakes, but figured out the hang of it. But this line from the article is dead right:
The greatest Spades player in the world is nothing without a good partner, and an experienced partner can make a beginner look like a pro.
The article is also correct in that Spades teaches you confidence. Never underbid, because you look like an idiot if you bid low, but score big. But also, if you say you got your books, you better get your books. Say what you mean, mean what you say.

There were plenty of games where SFC Wallace carried me. There were times when other people carried me. There were times when my team lost. There were times my rookie skills won a few games. And there were times when we lost because of me. I don't remember them, but there had to be. Maybe.

The article is also absolutely correct about trash-talking. Absolutely. Although I don't remember specific name calling, there was a lot of "what you got?", "you ain't got nothing", and psychological intimidation such as your opponent putting the card they are going to play on the table face down before you played your card. In other words, the card you are about to play doesn't matter to them. In another trash-talking moment, I remember SFC Wallace jumping from the table, smacking someone in the forehead with the winning card, slamming it on the table, and ending the game.

That's how I learned how to play Spades.

Looking back, I don't remember playing Spades in either international deployment - either in Bosnia on active duty or in Afghanistan as a contractor. Military people have to still be playing Spades somewhere. It's part of their heritage. I think troops were playing while waiting to board Washington's boat across the Delaware and they were most definitely playing before the battle of Gettysburg.

Michael Harriot's article on Spades was a fun walk down memory lane. Maybe sometime soon I can find some folks playing Spades, wait for one of them to go to the bathroom, slide into the game, and be called "White Mike" again.

Be who you is, because if you is who you ain't, you ain't who you is.