Phases of a Game of Bridge

To understand the phrases of bridge, you must remember that bridge is a partnership game —you don’t score points individually, you score points as a team. Each hand of bridge is divided into four phases, which always occur in the same order:

  1. The deal

  2. The bidding

  3. The play

  4. The scoring

Bridge Phase 1: The deal

The game starts with each player seated facing his or her partner. The cards are shuffled and placed on the table face down. Each player selects a card, and the one who picks the highest card deals the first hand, but not before the player to the dealer’s left cuts the cards. (After each hand, the deal rotates to the left so one person doesn’t get stuck doing all the dealing.)

The cards are dealt one at a time, starting with the player to the dealer’s left and moving in a clockwise rotation until each player has 13 cards (you deal the entire deck of cards).

Wait until the dealer distributes all the cards before you pick up your hand. That’s bridge etiquette. When each player has 13 cards, pick up and sort your hand, using the following tips:

  • You can sort the cards in any number of ways, but consider sorting your cards into the four suits for easy reference.

  • Alternate your black suits (clubs and spades) with your red suits (diamonds and hearts) so that you don’t confuse a black card for another black card, or a red card for another red card. It’s a bit disconcerting to think you’re playing a heart, only to see a diamond come floating out of your hand.

  • Hold your cards back, way back, so only you can see them. It’s difficult to be a winning bridge player when your opponents can see your hand.

Bridge Phase 2: The bidding for tricks

Bidding in bridge can be compared to an auction. The auctioneer tells you what the minimum bid is, and the first bid starts from that point or higher. Each successive bid must be higher than the last, until someone bids so high that everyone else wants out. When you want out of the bidding in bridge, you say “Pass.” After three consecutive players say “Pass,” the bidding is over. However, if you pass and someone else makes a bid, just as at an auction, you can reenter the bidding.

In bridge, you don’t bid for cars, art treasures, or precious gems; you bid for something really valuable — tricks. The four players each place a card face up on the table, and the highest card in the suit that has been led takes the trick. Because each player has 13 cards, 13 tricks must be fought over and won in each hand.

Think of bidding as an estimation of how many of those 13 tricks your side (or their side) thinks it can take. The bidding starts with the dealer and moves to his left in a clockwise rotation. Each player gets a chance to bid. The least you can bid is for seven tricks, and the maximum you can bid is for all 13. A player can either bid or pass at his turn.

The last bid (the one followed by three passes) is called the final contract, which is simply the number of tricks that the bidding team must take to score points.

Bridge Phase 3: The play of the hand

After the bidding for tricks, the play begins. Either your team or the other team makes the final bid. Say that you make the final bid — for nine tricks. Therefore, your goal is to win at least nine tricks in the hand.

If you take nine (or more) tricks, your team scores points. If you take fewer than nine tricks, you’re penalized, and your opponents score points.

The opening lead and the dummy

After the bidding determines who the declarer is (the one who plays the hand), that person’s partner becomes the dummy (no offense intended). The person to the declarer’s left (West, assuming that you’re South) leads, or puts down, the first card (called the opening lead) face up in the middle of the table. The opening lead can be any card of West’s choosing.

When the opening lead lands on the table, the game really begins to roll. The next person to play is the dummy — but instead of playing a card, the dummy puts her hand face up on the table in four neat vertical rows, one row for each suit, and then bows out of the action entirely. After she puts down her cards, she says and does nothing, leaving the other three people to play the rest of the hand. Ever heard of the Sphinx?

The 13 cards that the dummy puts down are also called the dummy. Yes, the dummy puts down the dummy. Because the dummy (meaning the player) is no longer involved in the action, each time it’s the dummy’s turn to play, you, the declarer, must physically take a card from the dummy (meaning the dummy player’s hand) and put it in the middle of the table. In addition, you must play a card from your own hand when it’s your turn.

The fact that the declarer gets stuck with playing all the team’s cards while the dummy is off munching on snacks may seem a bit unfair. But you do have an advantage over the defenders: You get to see your partner’s cards before you play, which allows you to plan a strategy of how to win those nine tricks (or however many tricks you need to make the final contract).

Following suit

The opening lead determines which suit the other three players must play. Each of the players must follow suit, meaning that they must play a card in the suit that’s led if they have one. For example, pretend that the opening lead is a heart. Down comes the dummy, and you (and everyone else at the table) can see the dummy’s hearts, as well as your own hearts. Because you must play the same suit that’s led if you have one, you have to play a heart, any heart that you want, from the dummy. You place the heart of your choice face up on the table and wait for your right-hand opponent (East, assuming that the dummy is North) to play a heart. After she plays a heart, you play a heart from your hand. Voilà: Four hearts now sit on the table. A trick! Whoever has played the highest heart takes the trick.

What if a player doesn’t have a card in the suit that has been led? Then, and only then, can a player choose a card, any card, from another suit and play it, which is called a discard. When you discard, you’re literally throwing away your card, knowing that it’s worthless because it’s not in the proper suit. A discard can never win a trick.

In general, you discard worthless cards that can’t take tricks, saving good-looking cards that may take tricks later. Sometimes, however, the bidding designates a trump suit (think wild cards). In that case, when a suit is led and you don’t have it, you can discard from another suit or take the trick with a trump card.

If you can follow suit, you must. If you have a card in the suit that’s been led but you play a card in another suit by mistake, you revoke. Not good; if you’re detected, penalties may be involved. Don’t worry, though — everybody revokes once in a while.

Playing defense

Approximately 25 percent of the time, you’ll be the declarer; 25 percent of the time, you’ll be the dummy; and the remaining 50 percent of the time, you’ll be on defense! You need to have a good idea of which card to lead in the first trick and how to continue after you see the dummy. You want to be able to take all the tricks your side has coming. Remember, defenders can’t see each other’s hands so they have to use signals (yes, legal ones) to tell partner what they have. They do this by making informative leads and discards that announce to partner (and the declarer) what they have in the suit they are playing.

Winning and stacking tricks

The player who plays the highest card in the suit that has been led wins the trick. That player sweeps up the four cards and puts them in a neat stack, face down, a little off to the side. The declarer “keeps house” for his team by stacking tricks into piles so anyone can see how many tricks that team has won. The defender (your opponent) who wins the first trick does the same for his or her side.

The player who takes the first trick leads first, or plays the first card, to the second trick. That person can lead any card in any suit desired, and the other three players must follow suit if they can.

The play continues until all 13 tricks have been played. After you play to the last trick, each team counts up the number of tricks it has won.

Bridge Phase 4: The scoring

After the smoke clears and the tricks are counted, you know soon enough whether the declarer’s team made its contract. You then register the score.

Play continues until one team bids and makes two game contracts, which is called winning a rubber. When the rubber is over, everyone can go home or start playing another rubber. If you play tennis, think of winning a rubber as winning a set, not necessarily the match.

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