Contract Bridge

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Bridge is a card game for four players, traditionally played by little old ladies whilst waiting for afternoon tea, but there are also many thriving university bridge clubs and an annual student bridge festival in the UK. The aim of a 'hand' of bridge is to bid a contract, which says how many tricks you will take and which suit will be trumps, and then to take those tricks (or 'make the contract') in the card play. You don't have to do this on your own against the three other players, rather you and the person opposite you are a 'partnership' and work together to either make your contract or take the opposition's contract down. Points are then scored depending on how well you did. These can be recorded to get an overall idea of who did well, or simply ignored.

If we're getting too technical for you, have a look at the card game entry to find out about tricks and trumps and other useful terms.

A hand of contract bridge is divided into two stages: the auction and the card play. These are here described in reverse order, since some understanding of the latter is necessary in order to see the point of the former. After both these, scoring and tactics will be discussed.

The Basics

Before we start on the card play, though, let's make sure you understood the basics.


Bridge is played by four players, designated North, South, East and West. North and South are partners, meaning they sit opposite each other and work together. The same goes for East and West. Partners do not get to see each other's cards1 and any communication except that mentioned below is against the rules.

The Deal

The normal pack of 52 cards is used. Thirteen cards are dealt to each player (meaning the entire pack is used), the cards a player has are known as that player's hand. If you've got a spare pack, the dealer's partner can shuffle it and pass it to the player on his right (dealer's left), who will deal the next hand. Some players will also insist that the player on dealer's right should cut the pack once before the deal.

The Contract

The contract is what connects the auction and the card play. At the end of the auction, one of players will have 'declared' a contract, which will be something like 'One spade', 'Five diamonds' or 'Two no-trumps redoubled'. These are written '1S', '5D' and '3NT XX' respectively.

The first part of the contract indicates the number of tricks declarer and declarer's partner (known as dummy, for reasons to be explained later) need to make. You may be thinking, 'One trick? Dead easy!' but it doesn't work like that: you will need to take seven tricks2. Likewise, 'two' means eight tricks and so on up to 'seven', which means that all 13 tricks must be taken3.

The second part indicates what trumps will be, with 'no trumps' meaning there aren't any. If the contract was well bid, the choice of trumps will favour declarer (and dummy). If not, well it's not unknown for the defence to win every trick.

The contract may also have a third part, either 'doubled' or 'redoubled', which will be mentioned in bidding below.

The Card Play

The defender on declarers left leads. This can be a very tactical part of the game, as the auction will probably have given the player some idea of the holdings (what cards everyone has).

After the lead, dummy puts his hand on the table. Yes, that's right, face up, so everyone can see what he or she has got. Dummy does not actually decide which of his own cards to play; declarer does (I told you there was a reason for the name 'dummy'). Generally dummy's job is either to play the cards declarer tells him to or to go to the bar4.

Play continues, as in many card games, clockwise until each player has played a card. All players must follow suit if possible and the highest card of that suit wins (Ace is high, by the way) unless a trump is played, then the highest trump wins. Playing a trump when another suit was led is known as 'ruffing'. Whoever wins that trick then has to lead the next card. If declarer wins with a card from his hand, he must then play a card from his hand and if he wins with a card from the dummy's hand then he must play a card from dummy.

Often, players will place the cards they play in front of them instead of throwing them onto one pile in the middle. After each trick the cards are turned over and placed in a line with the cards from previous tricks. To keep track of who's won how many tricks, if you or your partner win the trick, you should place the card you played the right way up and if the opposition won, it should be on its side. The hand can be discussed later or possibly passed to another so the longer four players for them to play.

When all the cards have been played, we see who won and who lost. Obviously, declarer wins if the contract is made and the defenders win if not. There is a standard way of scoring hands, which players can keep track of.


The Auction

Clearly, what you want from the auction is for you or partner to have declared a contract you'll make, so you might think a low contract is good. Well, not necessarily, because you score a lot more points if you bid and make a 'game' contract than if you bid lower and still make as many points. Game contracts are:

  • Three (or more) no trumps
  • Four of a major suit (hearts or spades)
  • Five of a minor (diamonds or clubs)

The bonuses for these are so good that players will go for a game contract with only a 50-50 or less chance of making.

Even better than game is a slam (six or seven, remember?). It is generally advisable to go for a slam only if it has a very good chance of making.


The general idea is that players name a contract they think they may have a chance of making until no-one will bid any higher, but what counts as higher? A higher number beats a lower number, unsurprisingly, but also the suits have an order: Clubs are the lowest, then diamonds, hearts, spades5 and finally no trumps is the highest. A player who does not wish to bid can pass (also called 'no bid') and if a bid is followed by three passes, then that bid is the contract. A player who has passed can still bid later on.

A player may think the contract his opponents have bid is unlikely to make, either because they bid badly or because he has an unlikely collection of cards which could put something of a spanner in the works. For example a long suit may enable a player to take more tricks than might be otherwise expected, especially if it is the trump suit or the bid is for no trumps, and having a void (no cards in a suit) or singleton (one card6 may allow him to ruff in. In this case the player will often double (represented by an X). However, either declarer or his partner may be confident in the contract, in which case they will probably redouble (XX). Alternatively, any other bid that is high enough may be made. Note that for a doubled contract to be declared, the double must be followed by three passes, so whoever's bid was doubled will get a chance to bid something else. The same goes for a redouble.

In order to ensure the right contract is bid (and any communication other than bidding is not allowed), players have developed systems to indicate to their partners what cards they hold.

Bidding Systems

We will firstly consider ACOL, which is the most common system in the UK. Other systems share many of the same features.

Counting points

A basic method of determining the strength of a hand is by assigning it a points value based on the high cards held thus:

  • For each ace you hold, count four points
  • For each king, three
  • For each queen, two
  • For each jack, one

Beginners are often told to add points for long suits, voids and singletons, but experienced players not do that, but simply take such other features of the hand into account when bidding.


1Unless you're playing over the Internet and the two of you are in the same room, whilst your opponents are in a different continent.2Leaving the opposition with six, so you just have the majority3This is called a 'Grand Slam'. A contract at the six level (ie twelve tricks) is a 'Small Slam'.4Or if there is more than one table playing bridge there may be a 'revolving dummy', so he goes to another group to make up the numbers5This is in alphabetical order.6See if you can guess what a 'doubleton' is.

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