Bridge

A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO THE GAME

There is now the enjoyable prospect of social bridge face-to-face.  This article is intended as a broad introduction targeted at those who might like to take the game up; and follow this link for a quick review of on-line bridge options, for both novices and experienced players. Words in italics are terms with specialised meanings, defined in the text.

 

Most of us have played whist at some point in our lives. It’s a very old game – at least five hundred years ago, the word ‘trump’ (from the French tromper, to defeat) came into use to describe a key development in it, even though the first known book codifying the rules dates only from the eighteenth century. The idea was that one suit would be nominated in rotation to triumph over the rest. A trick comprises four cards played in sequence, won by the strongest card on display, and a game is made up of 13 tricks. The player on the dealer’s left leads first and may play any card. Each player clock-wise in turn plays a card, following suit if possible. If a player cannot follow suit, she may play any card. For each subsequent trick, the player who won the preceding trick has the right to lead. The rules are simple: you and your partner (who sits opposite you) try to win more tricks than your opponents. The game can be played socially or competitively and has spawned many variants. The name ‘bridge’ is believed to be derived from a Russian word, which described one of them.

 

Contract Bridge (the title initially used to differentiate it from earlier and simpler versions) evolved around the turn of the 20th century in North America. Bridge differs from whist in two key ways: first, the card-play is preceded by a bidding auction in which each bid must top any prior one, and the first positive bid must be to take at least seven tricks. If all four players pass, the hand is re-dealt. The suits are ranked in alphabetical order, each topped by a bid of no-trumps, which as its name suggests, is a contract without any trump suit. It is abbreviated to NT, and the four suits plus NT are referred to as the five denominations. So if the last bid was to take say eight tricks in hearts, it is outbid by a later player venturing to take eight too in spades or NT; but since hearts outrank both diamonds and clubs, she must bid to take at least nine tricks in those suits. The first six tricks accrued by the winning side attract no score; and in bridge-speak a bid of One Club means a commitment to try to take one scoring trick (i.e., seven in all); and it is outranked by a bid of One Diamond and so on all the way to Seven spades and finally Seven NT. That’s a very rare bird to see. The person on the side winning the auction who first mentioned the denomination of play is called the declarer.

The second difference is that after the first card is led by the player sitting on the left of declarer (unlike whist where the lead rotates with the deal), the second hand is placed face-up for the other three players to see. It is called the dummy, because it is played by declarer, not the partner. So, other than on that first lead, play is made with sight of half the outstanding cards.

 

It was very quickly apparent that there had to be some agreed meanings attached to bids, and that they were in effect a conversation with very few words to describe a very large potential number of hands. And that bidding process rested on an explicit and commonly understood basis for evaluating your hand. The two objectives are to measure the hand’s trick-taking potential, and its ability to limit losers. These are not simply the opposite sides of the same coin. Take these two hands for example, assuming spades are trumps and a club is led.
Hand 1
AKQJ104
AQ943
J2
Hand 2
AKQJ104
AJ94
Q32
I hope you can see fairly readily that Hand 1 is considerably stronger, even though the two share the same range of high and low cards. But look a bit deeper: Hand 1 is stronger for two separate reasons. Having only two diamonds, it will not lose any more tricks than that in the suit thanks to the long trumps; and having five hearts including some attractive high cards rather than Hand 2’s four, it will be much easier to generate a winner or winners from the long cards in the suit. I’d rate it about one to two tricks stronger. (Note, though, that if Hand 1’s hearts were A9432 and diamonds QJ, it would maybe be worth an extra trick half the time).There are some sophisticated hand evaluation systems that claim to measure these differences precisely but for most bridge players, me included, they are too complex. For that reason all but a handful of world-class players are better-off sticking to a simpler evaluation which starts with a numerical assessment of high-card power, then makes adjustments reflecting the length of the longest suit (or suits), and the shape of the hand.
High card strength is usually measured by counting each Ace as four points, King as three, Queen as two and Jack as one. There are thus 40 high card points (HCP) on offer, and on average each hand will have ten of them. The original rule-of-thumb was that a hand needed to contain 13 HCP to open, and more than that to venture into NT. That was because players knew from experience that unless you could limit your losers (and without a trump suit that’s harder) your winners had a bad habit of being engulfed by those held by opponents. NT contracts typically need 21-22 HCP between the hands to win seven tricks, 23-24 to win eight, and 25 or more to win nine. You must remember though that this is a guide, not a guarantee. An instance of this, which can occur fairly frequently, is where one hand has a real powerhouse but partner is very weak. For example, opener and partner pick up the following:

 

Hand 3
Opener
Partner
AKQ
J109876
AQJ
32
A5432
Q6
KQ
J102
That’s very nice indeed, 25 HCP opposite 4. But if this hand is played in NT, it will rarely make more than eight tricks, losing a top club, the King of Hearts, and three diamonds. It makes ten to twelve tricks in spades of course but who, holding dummy’s hand, is going to disagree with a partner bidding their socks off in NT? This may be an extreme example, but it contains a much broader truth. If you had to rely solely upon face-cards to take your nine tricks against any lead, the minimum to get the job done is several more than 25. Quite a few 29-point, and some 30-point, combinations will struggle to take nine tricks. The reason that the benchmark is lower is that with an NT distribution, high cards perform another function: they stop opponents from developing length winners until you have developed and cashed yours. What they have done is to allow you the time to make the extra. And you won’t do that without the trick-taking potential of lower cards. The higher the spots, and the more you have in the suit, the easier that is.
In a suit contract, a third factor, shape, comes into play. Imagine, for example, that your hand contains only three suits: five spades, five hearts and three diamonds. A 5-5-3-0 distribution happens about once in every 110 hands you pick up. That’s a liability in NT, because the opponents can put you under pressure by leading the void suit. You can’t trump it, and have to discard potentially helpful cards. In a suit contract, by contrast, the void – especially in a suit bid by opponents – is a source of strength, because their high cards can be beaten by your low trumps. Here are a few examples to underline the importance of these factors.
Hand 4: which of these is the best suit, assuming you need five tricks for your NT contract?
A: AKQJ2     B: AKQ432    C: AKQJ9    D: AQJ1032    E: AQJ5432
Believe it or not you can work this out quite quickly from first principles, and you don’t need to be a whizz-kid at probability theory. But to do so you need to turn the problem on its head. Instead of wondering how to quantify the chances of success, consider the conditions for failure. In fact, you can quickly see that none of these hands can guarantee five tricks, and all may fail if one opponent holds five cards in the suit. But set down how they fail.

 

Fails if one opponent holds five cards from
Which include
Suit A
8
any five
Suit B
7
any five
Suit C
8
the ten and any four
Suit D
7
the king and any four
Suit E
6
the king and any four
I hope you can readily see that C beats A while D beats B, because the added requirement that the five opposing cards include one in particular makes C and D less likely. So we are left with C, D and E. Think about the analogous situation of tossing a coin. If I asked you to land heads five times, would you prefer six, seven or eight attempts? So even though it lacks the high-card power of the other two, E beats D (thus B) which beats C (plus A). I am not suggesting incidentally that you sit down and do this laborious task every time you are faced with a choice of what to bid: but just to take the key message that both high-card strength and length are important, and that one assists the other with the top cards preventing the opponents winning tricks while shortening their holdings so that your lesser cards become winners.

 

If you have read these paragraphs and are comfortable, try something a bit trickier – here.