How to Play Bridge


Contract Bridge took off as an international rage in the 1930s and is considered today by many to be the ultimate card game. Even those who have been playing for decades still find room to learn. In this article, we will cover the basics of Contract Bridge, including bidding, playing, and scorekeeping. After you understand the rules for Contract Bridge, you can learn some of the variations like Auction Bridge, Honeymoon Bridge, Reverse Bridge, and Three-Handed Bridge. Let's begin with the rules of bidding in Contract Bridge:

Number of players: Four, playing as two pairs, with partners facing each other. Tradition refers to the pairs as North-South and East-West.

Object: Following an auction, to score points by taking tricks during the play and to eventually win a rubber of two games.

The cards: Each deal requires a regular 52-card deck. It's customary to keep a second pack ready for the next hand.

To play: After all the cards have been dealt out, dealer begins the auction (also called the bidding). When the bidding is over, the play of the hand starts. The play comprises 13 tricks in all.

Understanding the bidding: Most games with auctions or bids use a brief and simple procedure. Bridge is special in allowing players to have a creative and complex auction.

Contract bridge is considered by many to be the ultimate card game.

In the diagrammed deal, West deals and passes, and North opens the bidding 1.
East passes. South bids 2
. West passes. North bids 3 and, after East passes,
South bids 6
. This is a bid to take 12 out of the 13 tricks on the hand,
which South expects to happen. The next three players all pass. South, the first
to bid
s for the winning bidders, becomes declarer at a contract of 6.

In Bridge, players on both sides bid for their side's right to choose the trump suit or to play the hand at NT (no-trump). The dealer starts the bidding. A bid is a number 1-7 plus a suit (, , , , or NT). The number, added to six, indicates how many tricks your side is to take with the suit bid as trumps.
Each time it's your turn, you may bid or pass (make no bid). Simply put, if you can manage to win the bid at a suit in which your side has more cards than the other side has, it will greatly help in winning tricks.

Useful Bridge Terms
Here's a quick reference for some of the card language you will find in this article.

Auction: bidding for number of tricks to be taken in the game

Contract: number of tricks declarer must take to satisfy his or her bid

Declarer: winner of the auction, the player who tries to make the contract

Dummy: declarer's partner; the dummy hand is laid face up on the table

Double: in the auction a bid to double the score or the penalties if a contract is made or set

Major: a heart or spade card

Minor: a diamond or club card

Not vulnerable: a side that has not won a game yet in a rubber.

Overcall: a bid made after opponents have opened the bidding

Raise: a bid in a suit that partner has already bid

Rebid: your second bid

Redouble: doubling a double

Response: your call in the auction when your partner has opened the bidding

Rubber: two games

Ruff: to trump


Set: to defeat a contract

Singleton: just one card of a suit

Table: the dummy

Undertricks: number of tricks the declaring side falls short of the contract

Void: no cards in a suit

Vulnerable: a side that has won a game in a rubber

For a complete listing of card terminology,
click here.

The lowest bid, 1, is a contract your side would fulfill by taking at least 7 tricks with clubs as trumps. Similarly, 1 indicates 7 tricks with diamonds as trumps; 3 means 9 tricks with diamonds as trumps; 3 NT means 9 tricks with no suit as trumps.

The bidding can start with any opening bid. During the auction, players in turn may pass or bid (or in frequent cases, may double or redouble). Each new bid must be higher than the previous bid. The new bid may be in a higher-ranking suit without increasing the number of tricks:
s rank lowest, followed by , , , and NT. The easiest way to remember the suit ranking is that the four suits rank alphabetically, and NT ranks the highest of all. (In Bridge, s and s are called majors; s and s are called minors). Or, if you go to a higher number of tricks, you can bid in any suit or NT.

The auction ends as soon as three players in a row pass. The last bid becomes the final contract. Whichever partner first bid the winning trump suit is called the declarer. (In the hand above, South becomes the declarer because he bid
s before North). By the way, don't let any other player see your cards during the auction.

Double and redouble: If your opponent has made the most recent bid, at your turn you may double (just say the word "double"). This means you double the stakes, i.e., if you make your contract, you win double the number of points -- your risk is also correspondingly greater. Either opponent can then redouble. Three passes end every auction, so it's quite possible for the final contract to be doubled or redoubled, increasing the score.


Bidding Strategies: When you are first learning to play bridge, determining what to bid can be confusing. As you continue to play, you will quickly learn that making an intelligent bid is key to winning the game. It will take a lot of practice to understand all the nuances of bidding, and we won't get into any of the fine points here -- whole books have been written about bidding strategies!  However, to help you get started, here are some basic guidelines to help you develop your bidding skills.

Arrange your hand according to suit. Now assign points to your cards in the following way: Aces, 4 points; kings, 3 points; queens, 2 points; jacks, 1 point; singleton (only one card in a suit), 1 point; void (no cards in a suit), 2 points. Add up your points.
Now look at your cards to determine which is your strongest suit. To bid a suit as trump, you'll want to have 4-5 of the suit with a minimum of 1-2 high cards. If you have 16-18 points and a fairly even distribution of cards in each suit, you may consider bidding no trump.

The general rule of thumb is to open a bid (to bid first on your team) only if you have 13 or more points. Of course, it's a different story if your partner has already bid because he is signaling to you that he already has sufficient points to open. In that case he is asking you if you can support his suit or if you have another suit you'd like to introduce. In answering your partner's opening bid, you should have at least 6-8 points to support his suit and 8-10 if you're introducing a new suit. On the other hand, if your partner has passed and you don't have 13 points, it may be wise for you to pass as well.

As you and your partner bid back and forth, try to ascertain how many points you have as a team. For instance, if you believe that your partner's points and your points combine to total 28 or more, you should have enough to take a bid of 4. For a bid of 6, 33 points should suffice, and for a bid of 7 (a "grand slam"), you should have 36 points between you. There are numerous other point-counting conventions, but these cover some of the essentials.

Of course, every rule has some exceptions, and you must also pay attention to your opponents' bidding. You may find that they're bidding a suit that is particularly strong in your hand. Then you have to decide, based on what your partner has bid and your own points, whether it would be a better strategy to allow your opponents' bid to go through and try to set them or try to win the contract yourself and thus earn game points.

Now that you understand the rules and strategies for the auction portion of Contract Bridge, you're ready to read about playing the hand.

Contract Bridge Play

Once the bidding portion of Contract Bridge has been completed, the play of the hand begins. Let's look at the rules of play:

The play of the hand:
The player at declarer's left (in the sample hand below, West) will choose the card to lead to the first trick. This is called the opening lead. Once the opening lead is made, the dummy hand, (that of declarer's partner, here North), is placed on the table. The declarer's partner is now functionally out of the round, as this hand is now played by the declarer. South rearranges the dummy hand to show trumps (
s) on the left, as illustrated here:

Once the opening card has been played, the declarer's partner (the dummy) lays down his hand.

When it is dummy's turn to play, declarer selects the card to be played and plays it
or asks dummy to play what the declarer selects. Each hand in playing to a trick
 must follow with a card of the suit led, but lacking that suit may play any card.
Whichever hand wins a trick will lead any card to the next trick.

Once the opening card has been led, each player must follow suit if able. Should you be deficient in the suit led, you are free to play any other card, including trump. High trump or highest card in the suit led wins the trick. The winner of each trick leads to the next. If the trick is won by a card from the dummy┬╣s hand (or "board"), the next trick must be led from the board.
 
The first time trump is played, trump is said to be broken. Only after trump has been broken may anyone lead with a trump -- unless they have no other suits available.
 
Here is a sample round using the hands introduced on the first page:
  • West begins by leading the 5. South wins East's J with the A.

  • At tricks two and three, South cashes (takes short tricks) his A and K, and discovers that the defense will win a trick with the Q (meaning that West threw out their J and 2, leaving the Q in reserve for later use).

  • South continues at the fourth trick by leading the 3 to dummy's K.

  • South leads 3 to the dummy's K.

  • South next leads the 10, West puts on the Q, but South trumps it in dummy with dummy's remaining trump.

  • Except for West's high , South will win all the tricks and the contract succeeds.

In this Contract Bridge hand, South has won the bid with 6 hearts.

This is the sample Bridge hand shown earlier.

Now that you've read about the bidding and playing of a hand, you'll need to learn about keeping score. Let's take a look at the Contract Bridge socring system on the next page.

Contract Bridge Scoring

The bidding and play of Contract Bridge were covered on the first two pages. Now you will learn the rules of keeping score, which can take some getting used to:

Scoring: After the tricks have been played, it is clear whether the declarer made the contract (i.e., took at least the number of tricks bid for) or, instead, went down. If the contract is made, the declaring side scores according to the table below. If you make a contract of 6, it's called a small slam; a grand slam is a made contract of 7 bids. Both slams receive bonuses. If you win six or seven tricks but did not bid that number; you are not credited with a slam.

In Contract Bridge, you are assigned points according to the contract suit and amount.

These are the scores allotted "below the line" for contracts that have been won.

If the contract goes down, the other side scores points for undertricks, that is, the number of tricks the declaring side falls short of the contract (see chart below).

If the contract goes down, the other side scores points for the undertricks according to the original contract.

If the contract goes down, the other side scores points
 for undertricks according to the chart above.

Rubber Bridge scoring: When one side has scored two games, it wins the rubber. A game means 100 points in tricks bid for (and won) according to the scoring table above. It's quite possible to bid and make game on a single deal: For example, 3 NT scores 100 points, and successful contracts of 4, 4, 5, and 5 also count at least 100 points. Alternatively, you can earn game in a series of deals whose final contracts end at a lower bidding level; these are called part-scores or partials. For example, you might bid and make 2 on one hand (40 points), and on the next hand you might bid and make 2 (60 points). The two added together equal 100 points, enough for game.

A side that has scored one game is vulnerable, so if both sides have a game both are vulnerable. A side that hasn't scored a game yet is not vulnerable. When defenders defeat, or set, a contract, they earn greater points whenever the other side is vulnerable. Score for the winning side is also increased when the final contract is doubled or redoubled. Note: Extra tricks (overtricks) made at any contract do not count toward game.

Scoring above and below the line: Both sides usually keep score, either on a preprinted Bridge score pad, or else just by drawing lines in a cross.

In Contract Bridge, you need to score 100 points below the line to make a game.

Contract scores are separated from
 undertrick,overtrick and bonus
points by a line.

Points toward game go below the line, while all other points, including bonuses and overtricks, score above the line. In the diagram to the right, E-W bid 1NT and made 2NT, scoring 40 below the line and 30 above for the overtrick. Then N-S bid 4 and made 120. To show that a game was won, an additional line was added under that score. E-W's 40 part-score, by the way, is wiped out, E-W earn the points but both sides start fresh earning 100 trick points toward the next game. N-S then bid 3 but went down one vulnerable, earning E-W 100 above the line. Finally, N-S bid and made 6 (in the hand shown), scoring 180 below the line in trick score, 750 above the line for vulnerable small slam bonus, and 700 more points above the line for winning a rubber two games to none. In this instance, the total rubber score is N-S 1,750, E-W 170.

Below is a list of scoring for bonuses and overtricks.

In Contract Bridge, bonus points are scored for honors and overtricks.

Overtricks, honors and other additional bonus points.

Tips and strategy: Remembering the cards played is one key to improving your play. This will occur over time. As a start, make sure to notice and remember the first time someone doesn't follow
to a trick. It also helps to develop an ease with the number 13. That's the number of cards in a suit, the number or cards each player is dealt, and the number of tricks in the play.

More books have been written on Bridge than on any other card game, so go to the library or bookstore and explore the bidding styles and tips for good card-play.

Contract Bridge is a complex game with many layers of strategy, but once you get the hang of it, you can play it for life. On the next page, we'll introduce you some variations -- Auction Bridge, Honeymoon Bridge, Reverse Bridge and Three-Handed Bridge.

Auction, Honeymoon, Reverse and Three-Handed Bridge

You now have a good idea how to play Contract Bridge, the most popular version of bridge. Let's take a look at some other bridge variations -- Auction, Honeymoon, Reverse and Three-Handed Bridge:

Auction Bridge

Auction Bridge had its heyday from about 1900 to 1930, before yielding to Contract Bridge.

Number of players: Four

Object: To score points. In Auction Bridge, if you take enough tricks, you score game and slam bonuses without regard to how high the bidding ended.

The cards: Regular pack 52-card deck.

To play: The auction, procedure of play, and rules of play are already described in Contract Bridge on the first page of this article. Only the scoring changes in Auction Bridge.

Scoring: Auction Bridge underwent several scoring changes, and this is the final version. A rubber ends when one side scores two games. Game is 30 points in trick-score:
,, , , and NT score 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 points per trick, scored below the line. When one side reaches 30, both sides start anew on the next game. Winning the rubber (two games) earns a 250-point bonus.

Winning 12 of 13 tricks earns a 50-point small slam bonus, and winning all 13 tricks (a grand slam) receives a 100-point reward. Making doubled or redoubled contracts doubles or redoubles the trick-score. Overtricks (extra tricks made) at a doubled contract count 50 each, and redoubled overtricks are 100 each. Failing to make a contract costs 50 per trick undoubled, 100 doubled, and 200 redoubled. Bonuses are given to hands that contain any of the following: 3 of top 5 honors (A, K, Q, J, and 10 of trump) or 3 aces at NT (may be divided between hands), 30 points; 4 honors or 4 aces at NT (divided), 40 points; 5 trump honors divided, 50 points; 4 trump honors in one hand, 80 points; 4 trump honors in one hand, with 5th in partner's hand, 90 points; 4 aces in one hand (at NT), 100 points; 5 honors in one hand, 100 points.

Tips: The bidding in Auction is less sophisticated than in Contract Bridge, since the main idea is to buy the contract at a low level. But you might not have found the best suit for your side.

Look to take as many tricks as you can, since the possibility of winning a game or slam is alive on every hand.

Honeymoon Bridge

This is one of the most popular two-player Bridge variants.

Number of Players: Two

To play: This is a great game for honeymooners and other couples. Players sit next to (not opposite) each other. Dealer deals out four hands, including a dummy hand for each player. Deal each dummy hand as follows: First, deal out two rows of three cards face down. Then place one card face up on top of each face-down card. Deal the last card face up next to the rows.

Bid as in normal Bridge, except that a single pass ends the auction. The play goes this way, with each player controlling the cards played from the partner/dummy hand across the table: The hand at declarer's left makes the opening lead. Players select the cards played only from among the exposed cards in their dummy hands. After the trick is finished, turn up any uncovered card in their dummy. Any newly revealed card may now be played.

Reverse Bridge

This four-handed game turns all the rules upside-down!

To play: Rules and play are as in regular Bridge, but the object is entirely the opposite: You try to force opponents to take the tricks for the bid you make. So, if your side wins a final contract of 4
, your job is to get your opponents to take at least 10 of 13 tricks with s as trumps. You get the score for any contract you force the opponents to make.

Strategy: Instead of saving the high cards your side holds to play on different tricks, as in regular Bridge, you'll play as high a card as you can that you think will still lose a trick. When your side does take a trick, try to put high cards on it from both hands so that you can save your losing cards to help you later in the hand!

Three-Handed Bridge

Waiting for a fourth player to show up, lots of folks have sought ways for only three players to enjoy Bridge. Though no method comes close to the real thing, here's one way to have some fun.

Number of players: Three

To play: Deal out four hands, with the fourth hand (which will become a dummy) left on the table opposite the dealer with four cards turned up. Players will bid for the right to become declarer opposite the dummy on the table, and play out the contract against the two other players, who will defend.

Dealer begins the bidding, and the final contract is agreed to after two passes. Shift places, if needed, to bring declarer opposite the dummy hand.

After the opening lead, turn up the face-down dummy cards to let declarer see the dummy before planning a line of play.

Scoring: The scoring is the same as in Contract Bridge, but it can get a little complicated keeping track of three scores. A contract may be doubled and redoubled, but that applies to the scores of only the two players involved. The third scores for an undoubled contract.


You've learned how to play two variations on four-handed bridge as well as versions for two and three players. Now there's no limit to developing your bridge skills -- you'll be an impressive player before you know it!