Lakeisha Starkes has been playing spades since she learned it from her mother at a young age. The game of taking “tricks” or “books,” similar to bridge, can get intense.
“You gotta know how to play your cards, and you gotta know your books, or you might get hurt,” laughed Starkes while at Brooklyn Bowl Philadelphia, waiting for the premiere screening of The World Series of Spades.
She came with her friend, Cheyanne Hunter, who is not a player. She finds the game intimidating.
“Very much so. Like she said, if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s going to get intense,” said Hunter. “You’re either in or you’re out. And I’m out. Like, all the way out.”
The World Series of Spades, now in its second season, is a tournament streaming on the Caffeine online platform, wherein 16 players, or eight partner teams, compete in a seven-episode elimination contest to determine a final pair of champions. The season features celebrity players like rappers Rapsody, Problem, and Yo-Yo.
The champions win bragging rights and a championship belt, just like boxing or wrestling.
The show leans into that association with full-contact fighting sports. Its action is filled with arguments, joking, bragging, and accusations. There is so much banter during play, the shouting crosstalk is often hard to follow.
That highly reactive style of emotional play is what its creator, comedian Clint Coley, was going for.
“Unfortunately, spades brings out, sometimes, the worst in us,” said Coley. “Here’s the thing: In poker, you’re playing the long game. Don’t forget: Out of 20 hands, you may only play two. In spades, every hand has something on the line. It’s outsmarting each other. That’s why people take it so seriously.”
“That’s why I say, ‘Oh, this got to be on TV,’” he said.
Coley grew up in Philadelphia’s Olney neighborhood, where he learned to play spades from his father. But he was never taught. Spades is rarely taught to children, rather it is absorbed.
“Especially Black people, we don’t want to teach people how to play spades. You got to learn on your own,” said Coley. “So I didn’t ask. I observed my father play it. One day he didn’t have a partner. I was like, ‘Yo, I got this.’ He’s like, ‘Yo, if you mess up, I’m a beat your ass.’”
True to spades braggadocio, Coley says he is now an unbeatable player. Since season one was released in September 2020, he says people ask him every day to teach them to play. He has never done so.
In the show, Coley does not play, but acts as referee. He says he does not need to prove he is a champion.
“I don’t need to anymore. I’m not retired, but I don’t need to,” he said. “I don’t have anything to play for. I say that very arrogantly to anybody who reads this article and thinks that they can beat me: You can’t.”
Alycyn Roye believes differently. She came to the Brooklyn Bowl on Thursday night for the watch party of the first episode of season two, but felt she should have been a contestant on the show.
“I have several people that, when we watched the first season, we were like, ‘I know we would have done better than that.’ I know we’d have beat all that. We’d beat all of them,” she said. “With all the smack talking and everything, it would have been great.”
Roye plays Philly-style Spades, known as Joker Joker Deuce Deuce, where the wildcards are the jokers, the two of diamonds, and the two of spades.
“That’s how it is like up north, as opposed to when you go down south, they don’t play with the deuce of diamonds,” she said. “You learn how to do it wherever you are.”
At one point during play, Coley as referee was challenged by one of the players, Rapsody, about a call he made. While consulting over a nuance of the rules with a backstage producer in his earpiece, Rapsody called him out.
“Who’s the Wizard of Oz back there?’ she snapped, thumbing toward backstage.
“First of all, this is a Black show,” Coley said. “The Wizard of Oz is not back there. The Wiz is back there. It’s Richard Pryor.”
Arguing over the rules, or outright flaunting them, is part of the attraction for Ciara Lambert, a fan of the first season of World Series of Spades who came to the Brooklyn Bowl for the second season.
“I love the way they cheat,” said Lambert. “It’s really good. It’s really about partners, but you’re not allowed to talk across the board. So I saw one partner show the other partner their hand for like two seconds and turned it back over. I love to watch the cheating.”
Although now based in Los Angeles, Coley premieres his World Series in Philly because this is still home. It’s where he started doing stand-up, and where he learned spades.
The show is, in part, a tribute to his father.
“My spades partner is my father. He passed away during COVID. Same thing with my grandmother, in the same month,” said Coley. “The show was really an ode to my dad. I wanted to make something that reminded me of him. That’s what this is.”
The show’s first season was self-produced on a shoestring budget with a set of borrowed furniture. With a new production partner, Macro, the second season was made with significantly more money.
“We had a set built. We had a bar named after my mom on the set. It has artwork and things that really reminded me of Philly,” said Coley. “There’s a lot of Philly on that set. That’s where the money went.”
Saturdays just got more interesting.