BRIDGE
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How to Play Bridge

In this section, we’re going to teach you how to play bridge. Taking you from the basics to some more advanced techniques, this guide should help you start ahead of the competition when you play your first game of bridge.

SHUFFLING AND DEALING

Before the game starts, a cut takes place to determine who plays with who (unless the players have agreed on a partner beforehand). The two players with the highest-ranking cards become a pair, which means the remaining players become a pair. Once this process is complete, another cut takes place and the person showing the highest card becomes the first dealer.

During a game of live bridge, a standard 52-card deck (jokers removed) is shuffled and dealt at the table. In general, the cards are shuffled by the player on the dealer’s left and then passed to the player on the dealer’s right who cuts the deck. Once the deck has been returned to the dealer, they give each player a card in turn, starting with the person on their left. This process continues in a clockwise fashion until each player has 13 cards. (In duplicate bridge, the cards are pre-dealt by a computer).

If you play bridge online, the shuffling and dealing side of the game won’t really be an issue because everything will be controlled by the site’s software. It is important to note, however, that the software used will be something known as a random number generator (RNG), which basically ensures that the distribution of cards is always fair and random.

THE BASICS OF BIDDING

At its core, bridge is a game of bidding, so you need to know the basics before you sit down and play. At its most basic level, the bid is your way of showing the strength of your hand. For example, if you hand five high ranking clubs, you might bid 4♣. When you do this, you’re basically saying: “I think I can win four tricks involving clubs, so I want the contract to be set at 4.” Assuming you win the contract and then win the required number of tricks before your opponents stop you, you’ll win the contract.

However, it’s important to note that players don’t always reveal the true strength of their hand during a bid. This is an integral skill in the game. Moreover, you need to note that six is always applied to the number you declare. So, if you declare 4♣ you would have to win 10 tricks (6 + 4) in order to scoop the game.

In practice, the bid gets under way after the deal described in the previous section has taken place. When everyone has their cards, the first player to make a bid is the dealer. The bidding then moves in a clockwise manner and comes to a stop when there have been three consecutive passes. During the bidding, each player has the option to bid or pass. If they make a bid, their offering must outrank any previous bid made. Eventually, the player that makes the highest bid wins the contract for their side. This player becomes known as the declarer and their partner becomes the dummy. Conversely, the opposing team becomes known as the defenders.

The player marked as the declarer is the player who will have set the trump suit with their bid, and the lowest bid possible is 1♣. The reason this is the lowest bid is because card values apply and suits are ranked in the following way from lowest to highest:

Clubs ♣
Hearts
Spades ♠
Diamonds ♦
No Trumo (NT)

So, in any given game, both the number (Ace = highest, 2 = lowest) and the suit determine a card’s overall value. However, if a trump suit has been nominated, this always take precedent. For example, if three players laid high ranking spades, but the trump suit was clubs, a player could win the trick even if they laid the 2♣.

Finally, it’s also possible to double an opponent’s contract by using the red “X” card. Additionally, if your side has already been doubled, you can redouble using the blue “XX” card. Doubling basically means that points awarded are doubled if the declarer completes their contract. However, if they fail, the defenders increase their points by a greater margin.

There are two basic bidding theories:
One for the UK and one for the US.

Bidding systems

Beyond the general rules of bidding, there are two main systems used depending on where you are in the world or the type of rules you’ve established:

ACOL – The system typically used in the UK, the ACOL system uses a four-card major dynamic.

Standard American – Typically used in the US, the American Standard system uses a five-card major dynamic.

The main differences between the two bidding systems are:

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As the definition suggests, the minimum length (i.e. number of cards of one suit you have) for opening 1 or 1♠ (known as the major suits) is five cards in Standard American. In contrast, the minimum length in the ACOL system is four. The one caveat is that an opening bid of 1♣ or 1 in Standard American may only be a three-card suit. In ACOL it guarantees a four-card suit
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• The point count required for a 1NT opening in Standard American is 15-17. However, in ACOL it is 12-14

THE BASICS OF BRIDGE PLAY

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The player to declarer’s left makes an opening lead, after which declarer’s partner (known as the dummy) places all their cards face up on the table. The dummy must also arrange their hand into suits. At this point, the declarer can use both their own cards and the dummy’s. In contrast, the defender must choose their own cards.
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If any hand is able to “follow suit” (i.e. match the suit first laid), they must do so. If you can’t follow suit, this is known as a revoke and incurs penalty tricks being awarded to the other side. If you have no remaining cards in the lead suit led, you may play any other cards you choose from your hand to contribute to this trick.
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The trick is won by the side contributing the highest card of the lead suit. The exception to this is when a player has trumped the suit. This is when a player, who must hold no cards in the suit led, contributes a trump to the trick. The trump suit out-ranks every other suit and is established during the initial bid.
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Once all thirteen tricks have been played (i.e. because players have 13 cards each and lay one per trick), the number of wins per side is added together. If the declarer meets the contract (i.e. the number of tricks they declared they could win during the bid), they win. If, however, the defenders stop the declarer from winning the required number of tricks, they win.


ADVANCED BIDDING AND CONVENTIONS

Bridge players make use of what is known as conventions during the bidding. This is where the suit bid has a codified meaning that does not imply the suit they just called. In essence, it’s an in-game language where certain card suits are used as signals to a partner.

Clearly these conventions need to be defined and understood between the two players involved. The two most common conventions used are Stayman and Blackwood, which are the only ones allowed during a game of rubber bridge.

The Stayman Convention: This system is used after an opening bid of 1NT. At this point, a call of 2♣ is Stayman. Although the club is used as a signal, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the responder holds clubs. In reality, what someone is actually asking their partner is whether they hold four cards in either major suit (spades and hearts). If they do have four, they call the major. However, if they don’t, they respond with 2.

The Blackwood Convention: This used when a side is heading for slam. A call of 4NT is one player asking their partner how many aces they hold. The responses are 5♣= 0 or 4, 5= 1, 5= 2, 5♠= 3.

Did you know?
Margaret Thatcher played bridge

ADVANCED TECHNIQUES: DECLARER PLAY

If you’ve got the basics of bridge down pat and you’re comfortable with how to play, here are a few advanced tips to help improve your game:

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Always have a plan before the first trick. Don’t play immediately from the dummy position, even when there is no choice to be made. Analyze the opening lead, think about how the bidding went down, look at the final contract and examine the dummy carefully
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If you are in a trump contract, your default play is to draw trumps. However, there are some exceptions to this rule:
  • If you wish to make use of the trumps with a shorter length in order to “ruff” (i.e. trump) the loser
  • If you need to play the hand on a cross-ruff
  • If you need your entries to one hand or the other in order to establish a side suit
  • If none of these apply, you should draw trumps straight away, before the opponents can ruff your winners
If none of these apply, you should draw trumps straight away, before the opponents can ruff your winners.
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If you’re in a “no trump” contract, your default play is to establish your longest suit. Always remember that it doesn’t matter which tricks you take, as long as you make the right number to fulfil your contract as the declarer

ADVANCED TECHNIQUES: DEFENSIVE PLAY

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During the opening lead, you should…
If you are defending a “no trump” contract, your default move is to lead the fourth highest of your longest and strongest suit. However, the exceptions to this rule are:
  • If you have an honour cards (i.e. the A, K, Q and J of any suit are known as honour cards) and you have a sequence such as K, Q, J or Q, J, 10, you should lead the highest card of the sequence. This tells your partner what you hold and is a fast way to establishing the smaller cards in the suit, once the missing honor(s) are driven out
  • If the suit has been bid strongly by declarer or defender, you may decide to choose a different suit; especially if there is one unbid suit, or a suit bid by your partner
If you are defending against a suit contract, you have the following options:
  • A singleton is often a good lead. If partner holds the ace, or a fast entry elsewhere, you will be able to ruff the next round before the declarer has had a chance to draw your trumps
  • As with “no trump” contracts, an honour sequence is always a good lead. It establishes tricks in that suit without giving away any trick that the declarer may not have been entitled to. If the declarer wins the trick in a suit that you have led with the ace, that does not mean it was a bad lead. In fact, the opposite may be true. The declarer would always have made that ace in any case, and you will have gone some way to establishing the lower cards in the suit for your side
  • Leading with a trump card can be a solid move in the right situation. This doesn’t often happen, since it is known to be the suit of choice for the declaring side. However, there are some situations when a trump lead can be an effective form of defense. This main situation where this might happen is when the auction suggests that the declarer may be looking to make extra tricks by ruffing with shorter trumps. A common scenario here is when the declarer shows two suits in the auction, but the dummy leaves the declarer in their second (possibly shorter) suit
  • If you are defending against a “no trump” contract, you should continue to establish your long suit each time you gain the lead. Don’t switch suits unless the suit lead is clearly hopeless for your side, and don’t be tempted to cash your aces
  • If you are defending a trump contract, you may be looking to take ruffs. Your default as the defender sitting over the dummy is to return your partner’s lead, unless you have a better plan
  • Finally, don’t reject leading a suit just because you can see that you won’t win the next trick with it. Play the long game and remember it doesn’t matter which tricks you take - it only matters how many you’ve taken at the end
If you can follow the basics and keep these advanced plays in mind, you should be well on your way to become an ace bridge player.

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