Online Bridge

ONLINE BRIDGE: PLAY AND TUITION

It has been possible to play bridge online for at least 30 years, but the medium has really come into its own since the pandemic hit in early 2020, with at least four large-scale operations providing a platform for play among friends or in a competitive environment, and at least two offer opportunities for practice and tuition. Yet many bridge players have yet to embrace it – many because of unfamiliarity with the medium. So with face-to-face tuition off the agenda for the next few months at least, on-line opportunities are all that can be safely considered, and there is plenty in the rest of the article that will be of interest to beginners and the more experienced alike.

FAMILIARISATION AND TUITION FOR BEGINNERS (AND OTHERS)

If you are going to try online bridge for the first time, you will be faced with the challenge of learning the keyboard skills, because each system has its own set of operating procedures, and as a beginner you need to do that before moving on to the greater task of learning something about the game. In either case, if you are not a confident web browser I recommend that you try to build your skills up playing solo, rather than diving into live play. For that, the best platform I’ve come across is BridgeBase Online (BBO). This is a US operator, the oldest and by far the largest operator in the field. Enrolment is free at https://www.bridgebase.com/ and once registered you have access to a large number of playing and training options. Once you enrol, you can choose from a menu that includes ‘solitaire’ or ‘practice’. With the first, you bid a hand together with three robots and then play the contract that ensues, either in an endless stream of deals, or in a fixed set of four boards. You will get a running score and an indication of how you rank against everyone else playing that day – usually more than 15,000 people! This is unfortunately a medium where the robots only play Standard American, and so must you in bidding; but by hovering the cursor over the bids made (or for yourself, those you might make), the computer will tell you what they mean. The standard is good in that the robots don’t make mistakes; so this is better for playing skills than bidding system practice. Or if you just want to study card-play technique more intensively, choose ‘practice’ then ‘Bridge Master’. This will offer you five skill levels from beginner through intermediate to advanced, expert and world-class. My advice is to start at the bottom, and take your time over each one you encounter! Each stream will pose a problem to be overcome in a contract already determined by the computer, with the bidding shown, and you as declarer. When (if) you fail, the computer will explain card-by-card how the hand should have been played. Indeed, you should read the explanation anyway after trying out your idea successfully, because it will show you why maybe you weren’t lucky at all. As a registered user, you have a permanent record of your successes and failures; I have found it challenging and useful. You can go back and replay hands that you failed upon too in a later session.

Once you feel confident enough with the medium, you can then move on to play with friends or strangers if you feel sufficiently confident; or you might prefer tuition with a skilled teacher. There are any number of bridge professionals who will offer one-to-one coaching, and some who offer a predetermined series of training exercises to build your skills: the best-known figure in this field is Andrew Robson, but while his publications are very cheap the cost of supervised play is not! My recommendation is that you should stick to low-cost options at first, and buy as a first step his ‘The Times Beginner’s Guide to Bridge: A practical guide on how to play and master bridge’. You can get it online from Amazon as a Kindle edition for £4.99. Print editions are a little more expensive; you can get cheaper second-hand copies, but at that price it hardly seems worth the risk of getting a damaged or annotated one.

There is also at least one local teacher, Pauline Smyth, whose day job is at Mid-Cheshire College and who plays at Middlewich Bridge Club. She is currently planning to run online sessions and can be contacted at: mpaulinesmyth@googlemail.com or by text/mobile on 078 1078 5372.

In normal times, I’d recommend anyone wanting to embark on the game to browse the internet to find their nearest club, and check whether they offer tuition or beginners’ classes. Many don’t because there is a group that runs more bridge sessions than any other organisation: the University of the Third Age (U3A). Most U3A groups run beginners’ and Improvers’ classes every year – but of course all of these are on hold. One local club does have an excellent programme for beginners though: Newcastle Bridge Club, whose website is at https://www.bridgewebs.com/cgi-bin/bwom/bw.cgi?club=nulbc&pid=display_home&sessid=26695479732433. Until lockdown 1, the club offered training and tuition sessions each week, and the Friday afternoon playing session was operated on a handicap basis to encourage the inexperienced to try out the competitive forms of the game. The Friday session should be seen as a second step, though, despite the claim on the website that it is suitable for beginners: I’d suggest that the more accurate description would be comparative beginner. At present, alas, the club is restricted to playing on-line only once a week on Tuesdays; but one nice innovation is that each week’s session is followed by a Zoom videoconference led by a knowledgeable player who identifies and talks through the teaching points that came up when the hands were actually played: all are welcome but again it might be better to see this as something to aspire to after some self-tuition or supervised teaching geared to your needs.

PLAYING OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE MORE EXPERIENCED

I have encountered four large-scale bridge platforms available to UK players. In addition to BBO the others are; Bridge Club Live (BCL); Stepbridge; and Real Bridge.

BBO is a US-based system mainly geared to US bidding systems. It is free to join and is the main platform for bridge matches offered by the English Bridge Union and the majority of bridge clubs in England that are active on-line. There is a regular (thrice-weekly) competitive match arranged by a group called Cheshire Clubs UK, which is currently free to enter. Despite the name, the competitions are open to all; but the organisers are all based in local bridge clubs. These are well run, and very friendly. In common with other platforms, the system allows players to review each hand afterwards and to compare their play with that of others who played it (sometimes a chastening experience).

BCL is a subscription platform organised in ‘rooms’ each of which offers a different form of play, either social or competitive; and twice a week there are supervised teaching sessions led by a trained tutor. There are limited opportunities to play as a guest or trial member, and no robots or solitaire play. In comparison with playing in a bridge club, it is hardly expensive (under £2 a week), and being UK-based it is more Acol-friendly. Both it and BBO suffer on occasion from capacity or network issues that can occasionally slow things down but these are a minor niggle. If your internet connection is slow or iffy, you will probably find this a problem at busy times. Early to mid-evening is worst so you might prefer to practice in the mornings (the USA is asleep then) or to play in the afternoons. I am no technology expert but those among my playing circle who are insist that BCL is the technically better system; but that in itself is less important than the playing experience. It does not for example replicate a local bridge-club duplicate competition very well, whereas BBO does this really well. It does though offer other forms of play which are excellent. I had never played a Swiss Pairs competition – in effect a league-table that operates on the ladder principle – until lockdown 1, and I like the format a lot.

These two platforms are best for playing casual or social bridge. So, my recommendation is that for beginners, start with BBO. It’s free, accessible, and good for solo practice. It’s good too for a regular group of four who want to play together: you can choose a relaxed format and set up a table limited to just you and the named other three. It’s less useful for a pair looking to play in a mainly-Acol environment. For that, alas, the more expensive BCL option is better – but at under £2 a week for an annual fee it is not really expensive. There, too, there is a casual bridge option which several of my bridge-club colleagues play in several times a week.

The final two platforms are more geared to replicating club competitive bridge.

Stepbridge originated as the online shop-front for bridge in Holland, and has been adopted as the preferred platform for Welsh bridge. WBU members can get their competitive play scores loaded to their national ranking record, as is the case for EBU players in BBO-recognised competitions. It does not have nearly as many frills as the larger sites, and most play seems geared to a weekly cycle of competitions. Both I and my regular partner did not see it as sufficiently better than the rest to warrant changing from BBO plus BCL.

Real Bridge is the new kid on the block, and it is the most technically adventurous, offering a virtual club experience via videoconferencing. You can chat to and see each player (but not their cards of course) and all the conversations are heard by the four of you. An alliance of local clubs in Cheshire is looking hard at this as a replacement for BBO where, so it is suggested, charging may become the standard practice. The catch is that while the introductory period will be free, charging will follow. Again though in comparison with the cost of weekly table money to play in a club, the fee scale is low, and you don’t have to venture out in the rain on dark nights! I have had a practice session on this system, and I was very favourably impressed. This has been the view of others who have given it a try.

The jury is still out though: there has to be the worry that the more technology that’s required, the more there is to go wrong, and it is too early to say whether capacity issues will arise as demand takes off. The upside of a more social experience is however a positive that is unavailable from the other formats under competitive play conditions. I expect that Nantwich BC will adopt Real Bridge if enough other local clubs agree; but I suspect that Newcastle BC will not, as their BBO weekly sessions are reasonably well patronised.