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Contract bridge

Contract bridge, more usually known as Bridge, is a trick-taking card game for four players who form two partnerships, or "sides". The partners on each side sit opposite one another. Game play is in two phases: bidding and playing.


History and Forms of the Game

A number of card games similar to whist can be traced all the way back to the early 16th century. They were all trick-taking games with a variety of minor variations. Whist became the dominant form, and enjoyed a loyal following for centuries.

The first game known as bridge was created by the twin innovations of exposing one hand during play and allowing the dealer to choose a trump suit. (According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word bridge is the English pronunciation of biritch, an older name of the game of unknown Middle Eastern origin; the oldest known rule book, from 1886, calls it "Biritch, or Russian Whist" . The OED reports speculation that the word may come from a Turkish term bir-üç, or "one-three", supposedly referring to the one exposed and three concealed hands.) This game, known today by the retronyms bridge-whist and straight bridge, became popular in the United States and the UK in the 1890s.

In 1904, the practice caught hold of using an auction phase to determine which player would designate the trump suit and have the privilege of playing with his partner's hand exposed. This variation was known as auction bridge.

The modern game of contract bridge was the result of innovations to auction bridge made by Harold Stirling Vanderbilt and others. Vanderbilt wrote down his rules in 1925, and within a few years contract bridge had become the dominant form of the game. It has supplanted all other forms of the game, including auction bridge, so that "bridge" is now synonymous with "contract bridge".

The basic form of contract bridge retains from its predecessor games, all the way back to whist, the fact that four players compete, two against two, until one side has won two games. The resulting unit is called a rubber and hence this form of play is commonly known by the retronym "rubber bridge". For those who dislike its indefinite duration, there is also a variant called four-deal bridge or Chicago.

In duplicate bridge, on the other hand, eight or more players compete at a time (most often in pairs, sometimes in teams of four or as individuals), normally playing a pre-set number of deals. In duplicate, the same deals are played more than once, and players win by outscoring their competitors with the same cards. This is implemented by placing the played cards in a container with four compartments, called a board, and passing it on to the next table. Computer-dealt hands may be used, allowing the same deal to be played at many tables, even at multiple locations.

While there is no reliable data on the number of people who play rubber bridge at home, it is generally accepted that most serious players play duplicate. It is the only form of the game at bridge tournaments and the usual form at bridge clubs. In recent years, duplicate bridge on the Internet has also become significant. Individuals can join a game from their home (or workplace!) and need not even be in the same country as their partner or opponents.


The game is played with one complete deck of 52 cards; one player is the dealer.

In rubber bridge, after the shuffle, the dealer hands out all the cards clockwise one at a time, starting with his left-hand opponent and ending with himself. At the same time, for convenience, the dealer's partner is usually shuffling a second deck, ready for use on the following deal. The deal rotates clockwise, so the dealer's left-hand opponent will deal next.

In duplicate, one player is designated as "dealer" on each particular board, but this is only for purposes of the auction and does not affect the actual dealing. The cards may be manually shuffled and dealt as in rubber bridge, but by any player; if this is done, it happens only once at the start of a session or match. Where computer-dealt hands are used, dealing machines (which may read either the standard markings, or bar codes added to each card) may be used to assemble the hands ready to be placed in the boards. It is also common for the movement to be arranged so that none of the players play all the boards; then at the start of play, each one may be given to players who will not play it, together with a printed record of the deal, and they assemble the hands.

The auction

The dealer makes the first call, and the bidding continues clockwise until three players in rotation have passed after any call. A call is any bid, a pass, a double or a redouble. (However, the word "bid" is often used informally in place of "call".)

When a player has the turn to bid, he may do any one of the following:

  1. Make a new bid,
  2. Pass,
  3. Double if the last preceding bid was made by the opponents, or
  4. Redouble a bid that has been doubled by the opponent.

A bid must include a number of odd tricks (from one to seven) and a denomination. Odd tricks are the tricks that a partnership proposes to take in excess of six (known as book). A denomination is any suit or notrump specified in a bid.

Each bid must supersede the last preceding bid by naming a greater number of tricks in any denomination, or by naming the same number of tricks in a higher ranking denomination. The rank of the denominations in descending order is notrump, spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs.

The auction ends when there have been three passes following a bid (or double or redouble). The last bid becomes the contract. The player in the partnership that made this final bid who first bid the denomination of that bid (suit or notrump) will be the declarer.

When, in a deal, all four players have passed without there being a bid, the deal is scored as a zero and the cards are passed on to the next dealer.

Bidding systems and conventions

A pair is allowed to try to pass information about their hands, but this is restricted in two ways:

  • Information may only be passed by the calls made and the cards played, not by anything else.
  • All information must be fully explained to the opponents.

Thus, one may have all kinds of meanings for bids, as long as they are told to the opponents. However, the meanings that one can have for various bids are sometimes restricted at tournaments.

The meaning of the various bids in a partnership are called that partnership's bidding system. There exist a number of different bidding systems, such as Goren, Acol, Standard American, and Precision Club.

Bids, Doubles, Redoubles, and even Passes can be either natural or conventional.

A natural suit bid is one that implies some length in the suit bid. For example, an opening bid of one spade, showing at least 5 cards in spades (and nothing about any other suit lengths), would be natural.

A conventional suit bid provides information unrelated to the suit named. For example, an opening bid of one club, showing 16 or more points, but saying nothing about how many clubs are held, would be conventional.

A natural notrump bid is one that implies either no particularly long suit, or simply a desire to play the hand with no trumps.

A conventional notrump bid does neither. The most common examples of conventional notrump bids are the Unusual notrump (showing length in 2 unbid suits) and the Blackwood convention.

A natural double (also called penalty) is one that implies an intent to defend and defeat the current contract.

A conventional double is one that conveys some other meaning. The most common example of a conventional double is the Takeout double of a low-level bid, implying support for the unbid suits and asking partner to choose one of them.

There are many conventions. Some of the most famous are Stayman, Jacoby transfers and Blackwood.

The decision as to how high and what suit to bid is fundamental to the game, but broadly it will depend on how highly one values one's hand. There are a number of techniques used for this. The most basic is the Milton Work point count. This can be augmented by other guidelines such as losing trick count, law of total tricks or Zar Points.

The play of the hand

The player from the pair that won the bidding (that is, the pair that is going to play the contract), who was the first to make a bid in the suit of the final contract (who is thus either the player bidding the final contract or his partner), is called the declarer. His partner is called the dummy.

Play to the first trick starts with the player to the left of the declarer. After the first card has been played, the dummy lays his cards open on the table. These cards are from then on played by the declarer, who tells the dummy which card is to be played whenever it is the dummy's turn to play on a trick.

Apart from this, the play is just like other trick-taking games - the player who took the previous trick leads to the next one (if the declarer took the trick in dummy, he has to play from dummy on the next trick, if he took the trick in his own hand, he has to play from his own hand). Whether there is a trump suit, and if so, which suit it is, has been decided during bidding.

Techniques in the play of the hand

Terence Reese, a prolific author of bridge books, points out that there are only four ways of taking a trick, and two of these are very easy

  • playing a high card that no one else can beat
  • trumping an opponent's high card
  • establishing long cards (the last cards in a suit will take tricks if the opponents don't have the suit and are unable to trump)
  • playing for the opponents' high cards to be in a particular position (if their ace is in front of your king, your king may take a trick)

All trick-taking techniques in bridge can be reduced to one of these four methods.

The optimum play of the cards can require much thought and experience, and is too complicated to describe in a short article. However, some basic ideas of probability may be considered:

Some of the most important probabilities have to do with the position of high cards.

  • The probability that a given opponent holds one particular card, e.g. the king: 50%
  • The probability that a given opponent holds two particular cards, e.g. the king and the queen: approximately 25%
  • The probability that a given opponent holds at least one of two particular cards, e.g. the king or the queen: approximately 75%

When developing long cards, it is important to know the likelihood that the opponents' cards in the suit are evenly divided between them. Generally speaking, if they hold an even number of cards, they are unlikely to be exactly divided; if the opponents have an odd number in the suit, the cards will probably be divided as evenly as possible. For example, if declarer and dummy have eight trumps between them, the opponents' trumps are probably (68% chance) divided 3-2 (one opponent with three trumps, the other with two) and trumps can be drawn in three rounds. If declarer is trying to play with a seven card trump suit, it is more likely that the outstanding trumps are divided 4-2 (48%) than that the cards are evenly divided 3-3 between the opponents (36%).

Basic techniques by declarer

When new to the game, a player should be familiar with these strategies for playing the hand:

Advanced techniques by declarer

Someone who plays regularly in tournaments should be familiar with these concepts:

Basic techniques by defenders

  • opening lead
  • when to lead trump

Advanced techniques by defenders

  • avoiding an endplay or squeeze
  • counting the hand (tracking the distibution of suits and high cards in the unseen hands using inferences from the bidding and play)
  • opening lead - using information from auction
  • signaling
  • uppercut

Duplicate Bridge

Main article: duplicate bridge

Like all other card games, the score in bridge depends on one's cards. To diminish this effect, and increase the element of skill, in clubs and tournaments one's score is not looked at on its own, but compared to that of others who played the same deals. There are two major systems: Pairs and teams games.

Scoring - Rubber Bridge

In friendly play, one generally plays rubber bridge. In rubber bridge, extra points are scored for winning a rubber, which means getting to a game (100 points) twice. There are two types of points: Points below the line and points above the line. Only points below the line count towards a game.

Score for making

If the declarer makes his contract, the number bid, multiplied by a suit-dependent multiplier, is scored below the line. Any overtricks, again multiplied by the suit-dependent multiplier, are scored above the line.

The multiplier is 20 for clubs and diamond (the minor suits), and 30 for hearts and spades (the major suits). For No Trump, the multiplier is also 30, but with an added 10 points below the line.


bid: 2 clubs, made 9 tricks: 40 (2×20) points below, 20 (1×20) above the line.
bid: 4 hearts, made 10 tricks: 120 (4×30) points below, 0 (0×30) above the line.
bid: 4 no trump, made 11 tricks: 130 (4×30+10) points below, 30 (1×30) above the line.

Game and rubber

If the score of a partnership below the line equals or exceeds 100 points (either at once or taken together with what already was below the line), the partnership is said to have scored a game, and all scores below the line are turned into scores above the line. Thus making game takes five tricks in a minor suit, four in a major suit, or three in No Trump (or some combination of partial scores).

The first partnership that wins two games wins the rubber. They score a 700 point bonus if they won in two games, or 500 points if their opponents also made a game.

Vulnerability and slam bonus

A partnership that has already made a game is called vulnerable, which is of importance for the slam bonus and for the downtricks.

If a player bids and makes a contract of 6 in something (i.e. wins all but one trick), he is said to have made a small slam. This gives a bonus (above the line) of 500 points when not vulnerable, and 750 points when vulnerable. If a player bids and makes a contract of 7 in something (thus scoring all the tricks), he is said to have made a grand slam. This gives a bonus of 1000 points when not vulnerable, and 1500 points when vulnerable.


If a pair goes down, their opponents score points above the line. If the pair is not vulnerable, their opponents get 50 points per undertrick, if it is vulnerable 100 points per undertrick.


If a pair is doubled, and makes their contract, they get double points for all tricks bid, while overtricks score extra - 100 points per overtrick if not vulnerable, 200 points if vulnerable. Furthermore, the pair gets 50 points bonus 'for the insult'. All these values are doubled again if the contract was redoubled. The slam bonuses are not influenced by a double, nor are the rubber bonuses - although the latter are of course influenced by the fact that there are more scores below the line, and thus games are reached faster.

If a pair is doubled and goes down, the penalty (points to the other pair) are as follows:

  • If the pair is not vulnerable, 100 for the first downtrick, 200 for the second and third, and 300 for each subsequent downtrick.
  • If the pair is vulnerable, 200 for the first downtrick, and 300 for each following one.

These scores are also doubled again if the contract was redoubled.

Footnote - Recent scoring changes

If you read old Bridge books, you may notice some differences in the scoring rules.

The undertrick penalty when doubled, not vulnerable, used to be 100 for the first undertrick and 200 for each subsequent. This was changed because it was too easy to sacrifice against a grand slam. A vulnerable grand slam is worth 1500 (slam bonus) + 500 (game bonus) + 210 (major suit trick score) = 2210. Down 11, doubled not vulnerable, used to be 2100, a profitable sacrifice.

Also, the "insult bonus" for making a redoubled contract used to be only 50. This was changed to 100, so that playing 5 of a minor, redoubled, making an overtrick, is always worth more than an undoubled small slam.

Scoring - Duplicate Bridge

In duplicate bridge, which is what is normally played in a club or tournament, each hand is scored by itself, and not as part of a rubber. This changes (and simplifies) the scoring as described above.

In duplicate bridge, if the required number of tricks for the contract has been made, the pair gets a number of points for the tricks bid and the overtricks as described above (20 per trick above 6 in clubs/diamonds, 30 per trick in hearts/spades, 30 per trick plus 10 bonus in No Trump, possibly doubled or redoubled). If the number actually bid is enough to score 100 points or more, a game has been made, which scores 300 when not vulnerable and 500 when vulnerable. If it is lower, the score is not carried over to the next hand, but there is a 'part score' bonus of 50 points.

The bonus for slam, the bonus 'for the insult' and the scores for downtricks and doubled overtricks are the same as described above.

In duplicate bridge, in every series of four deals, the vulnerabilities of 'all vulnerable', 'none vulnerable', 'vulnerable against not vulnerable' and 'not vulnerable against vulnerable' will all occur once, in a predetermined order.

Bidding boxes and bidding screens

In tournaments, "bidding boxes" are frequently used. A bidding box is a box of cards, each bearing the name of one of the legal calls in bridge. A player wishing to make a call displays the appropriate card from the box, rather than making a verbal declaration. This prevents unauthorized information from being conveyed via voice inflection. In top national and international events, "bidding screens" are used. These are diagonal screens which are placed across the table, preventing a player from seeing his partner during the game.

Bridge on the internet

There are several free and some subscription-based servers available for playing bridge on the internet. OKBridge is the oldest of the internet Bridge services; players of all standards, from beginners to world champions may be found playing there. The American Contract Bridge League, the English Bridge Union and the Dutch Bridge Union also have Internet Bridge services. Yahoo! Games also has several online Rubber Bridge rooms.

Among the free servers, Bridge Base On-line is notable for enforcing a high standard of ethics. Many world-class players may be found there.

There are many advantages to playing Bridge online:

  • The ability to choose when you play.
  • The ability to choose your opponents. In a club game, you may be forced to play against pairs that are much weaker, rude, or much stronger. Playing online, you can play against opponents of nearly equal ability.
  • Most serves offer an accurate player rating system. The ACBL and EBU masterpoints systems give credit for how much one has played rather than how well; most online systems have a rating system which attempts to measure one's ability without regard to the number of games played.
  • There are fewer restrictions on which conventions one is allowed to use.
  • It is easier to police cheating online, since there is an accurate record of every deal. Intentional cheating, such as calling your partner on the telephone, is easier, but there is much less unethical behavior, such as making inferences from partner's tone of voice.
  • A detailed record of every hand may be kept, so complaints can usually be resolved properly.
  • It is impossible to make an illegal play by accident, as the software won't accept a play or call which does not conform to the rules.

The main disadvantage to playing online is that bridge is a social game, and many people play because they enjoy the social atmosphere of the bridge club.

Definitions of common terms

(move this section to a separate page? and expand to include definitions)

  • trump
  • ruff
  • dummy reversal
  • crossruff
  • finesse
  • bid - a declaration of <number> <denomination> (suit or no trump) that generally indicates the number of tricks the bidder believes their partnership can win; certain bids can also be used for special meanings using a variety of conventions
  • pass - player declines to bid for that turn
  • call - any bid, pass, double, or redouble
  • major suit - hearts and spades
  • minor suit - clubs and diamonds
  • slam - bidding for and taking twelve tricks is a "small slam", bidding for and taking all thirteen is a "grand slam"
  • game - 100 points (or more) bid and made
  • rubber - scoring two games before the other side scores two
  • double - a call that increases penalties for failing to make a contract; also provides a bonus for making - a player can only double a contract bid by the opposition
  • redouble - a call that essentially doubles the penalties and bonuses of a previous double - a player can only redouble a contract bid by their side which has been doubled by the opposition
  • declarer - the person on the partnership which wins the contract who plays the hand; the declarer is the first player in the partnership to call the final denomination
  • dummy - the partner of the declarer, whose hand is placed on the table and played by the declarer
  • defenders - the partners that are not the declarer and his/her partner
  • board - a device that keeps each player's cards separate for duplicate bridge
  • no trump - when a hand is played without a trump suit, or a proposal to play without trumps
  • ACBL - American Contract Bridge League
  • EBU - English Bridge Union, the official organising body of bridge in England
  • director - referee
  • lead - playing the first card to a trick, thus dictating the suit others must play if able
  • revoke - failing to follow suit (as required) when you are able to do so
  • lead out of turn - playing a card when it was another player's turn to lead
  • vulnerable - see the sections on scoring, above
  • partscore - A contract below the level that earns a game bonus
  • signal - Special system of giving meanings to cards played by defenders in order to direct defense.

External links

Last updated: 05-07-2005 09:33:00
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04