Playing Bridge in Four Acts
First and foremost, Bridge is a partnership game; you swim together and you sink together. Your opponents are in the same boat. In Bridge, you don’t score points individually — you score points as a team. Each hand of Bridge is divided into four acts, which occur in the same order:
Act 1: Dealing
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 whoever picks the highest card deals the first hand. The four cards on the table are returned to the deck, the deck is reshuffled, and the player to the dealer’s right cuts the cards and returns them to the dealer. (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.
Wait until the dealer distributes all the cards before you pick up your hand. That’s Bridge etiquette lesson number one. 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 we recommend sorting your cards into the four suits.
- Alternate your black suits (clubs and spades) with your red suits (diamonds and hearts) so you don’t confuse a black spade for a black club or a red diamond for a red heart. 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. Think vertically. Winning at Bridge is difficult when your opponents can see your hand.
Act 2: 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. If nobody makes an opening bid and all four players pass consecutively, the bidding is over, the hand is reshuffled and redealt, and a new auction begins.
In real-life auctions, people often bid for silly things, such as John F. Kennedy’s golf clubs or Andy Warhol’s cookie jars. In Bridge, you bid for something really valuable — tricks. The whole game revolves around tricks.
Four people each place a card face up on the table, and the highest card in the suit that has been led takes the trick. The player who takes the trick collects the four cards, puts them face down in a neat pile, and leads to the next trick. Because each player has 13 cards, 13 tricks are fought over and won or lost on 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, and a player can either bid or pass when his turn rolls around. The least you can bid is for seven tricks, and the maximum you can bid is for all 13. The bidding goes around and around the table, with each player either bidding or passing until three players in a row say “Pass.
The last bid (the one followed by three passes) is called the final contract. No, that’s not something the mafia puts out on you. It’s simply the number of tricks that the bidding team must take to score points.
Act 3: Playing the hand
After the bidding for tricks is over, the play begins. Either your team or the other team makes the final bid. Assume that your team makes the final bid for nine tricks. Therefore, your goal is to win at least nine of the 13 possible tricks.
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. The players to the declarer’s left and right are considered the defenders. The West player (assuming that you’re South) leads, or puts down the first card face up in the middle of the table. That first card is called the opening lead, and it 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 13 cards face up on the table in four neat vertical columns starting with the highest card, one column for each suit, and then bows out of the action entirely. After she puts down her cards (also called the dummy), she says and does nothing, leaving the other three people to play the rest of the hand. The dummy always puts down the dummy. What a game!
Because the dummy 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 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 both hands 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).
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 was led if they have one. For example, pretend that the opening lead from West 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 is led if you have a card in that suit, you have to play a heart, any heart 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. The first trick of the game! Whoever has played the highest heart takes the trick. One trick down and only 12 to go — you’re on a roll!
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. This move is called a discard. When you discard, you’re literally throwing away a card from another 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 either discard from another suit or take the trick by playing a card from the trump suit.
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.
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 to 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, trying to defeat the contract. For example, if your opponents bid for nine tricks, you need at least five tricks to defeat the contract. Think of taking five tricks as your goal. Remember, defenders can’t see each other’s hands, so they have to use signals (legal ones) to tell their partner what they have. They do this by making informative leads and discards that announce to the 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 everyone 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.
Act 4: Scoring, and then continuing
After the smoke clears and the tricks are counted, you know soon enough whether the declarer’s team made its contract (that is, took at least the number of tricks they have contracted for). The score is then registered.
After the hand has been scored, the deal moves one player to the left. So if South dealt the first hand, West is now the dealer. Then North deals the next hand, then East, and then the deal reverts back to South.