Waiting games: Some 49ers play cards to stay competitive

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SANTA CLARA — The 49ers won’t play a football game this weekend.

They’ll play mind games instead.

Next weekend, the 49ers will play a very important playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, the Philadelphia Eagles or the Minnesota Vikings — the 49ers won’t know which team they’ll face until Sunday evening.

In the meantime, the 49ers players will practice, rest and play spades in the locker room. These activities aren’t unique to the 49ers. Lots of players play card games in their downtime, but not many play them in the locker room. And not many play spades, according to veteran defensive tackle Sheldon Day.

The 49ers host the NFL’s only underground spades game.

Most NFL locker rooms don’t have space for card games. That’s because there are roughly 60 lockers and 60 chairs crammed into one room, which essentially is a dressing room for a war game. The players aren’t supposed to make themselves feel comfortable. They’re supposed to put on their armor and go to the battlefield.

Baseball has clubhouses, not locker rooms. Clubhouses have chairs, tables, sofas, recliners, cards, newspapers, soda, gum, anything to make baseball players feel at home.

The 49ers are the rare NFL team with a clubhouse. They have leather chairs and short tables in the middle of the room. Every day, an equipment manager leaves a red deck of cards on a table for the players. And every day, a group including Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Deebo Samuel, Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida, Ronald Blair and Sheldon Day sits in those leather chairs and plays spades.

“We started in 2015,” Armstead said. “It was me, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Ian Williams and Tramaine Brock. We’ve been playing ever since. We play on the plane. We play all the time and other guys hop in.”

The players say the game has nothing to do with football. “It’s just a way to pass the time,” Armstead said. But the reason they like spades and the reason they like football are the same.

“It’s a team game,” Armstead said. “You have partners and you have to read each other and play off each other.”

Armstead’s partner is Day, who considers himself the best spades player in the group. He’s a spades philosopher. Call him the Socrates of spades. “It builds camaraderie,” Day said. “It’s a family game. It has been passed on for generations. You play with your teammates and it helps grow connections and bonds. Honestly, it’s a trash-talking thing we enjoy.”

Here are the rules: Four players play at a time and there are two teams of two. Each player receives 13 cards and may look only at his own. When the game starts, the players play one card per turn. Those four cards constitute a “book.”

“Basically, the highest card wins the book,” Mostert said. “And the highest spade always wins. You want to try to get 13 books, but you can’t get all 13, so you have to guess how many you and your partner can accumulate.”

Meaning the game involves non-verbal communication. Before the game starts, the players look at their hands and communicate in code with their partners how strong or weak their hands are. The code could be a glance or a phrase only the partners understand, like the code words football players use at the line of scrimmage.

“One of the best spades players is Deebo,” Day said. “He makes you anticipate cards he doesn’t have. He plays mind games.”

Each team makes a bid — meaning how many books they think they’ll win. If a team bids five books and wins five books, it gets 50 points — 10 for each correct bid. If a team bids five books and wins six, it gets 51 points — 10 for the correct bids and just one for the extra book. But if a team bids five books and wins only four, it loses 10 points. Bidding is the hardest part of the game.

“Me and Arik, we’ll bid only five books to make the other team bid higher,” Day said. “Once they bid higher, then we’ll say, ‘We think we can get a couple more,’ and we’ll up our bid to seven books. Next time we bid, people will second-guess themselves.”

Day and Armstead want to keep their opponents on their heels, just like during a football game when they’re rushing the quarterback.

“My dad also taught me that sometimes you want to overbook,” Day said, meaning place an outrageously high bid. “Then you scare your opponents, and they won’t play their cards the way they should, and ultimately won’t get the books they would have gotten.”

Mind games. Just like when they fake a blitz and the quarterback throws the ball too soon out of sheer panic.

The 49ers play spades purely for the fun of it, for the intellectual challenge of outsmarting an opponent, and for the chance to gloat in his face after every turn. Just like football.

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