What IS this Game “Bridge”?
Bridge is often called the most intellectually stimulating game in the world, and the most popular card game in the world. While both may be a slight exaggeration, I would submit that it is most definitely intellectually stimulating, a challenging game played by millions, with a world-wide network of clubs, leagues, and federations, with hundreds of sponsored tournaments each year. But, what is bridge?
Bridge is a card game for 4 players, played with a full deck of 52 playing cards (excluding jokers). Each player is dealt 13 cards, which remain hidden initially.
Bridge is also a partnership game, meaning that the four players, organized into two teams (called “pairs”) sit at a table, with partners facing one another across the table. Players are named according to the cardinal compass points, so one player is North, followed clockwise around the table by East, South, and West. The North player is partner to the South player, and East is partner to West.
Bridge is a trick taking game, meaning that players play a card in order each round (each round is called a “trick”), and one player will win that trick according to the rules of the game.
Bridge is a bidding game, meaning that prior to the play of the hand, players make bids that describe their hands and commit their partnership to taking a certain number of the 13 possible tricks.
Bidding in bridge STARTS at a commitment to take more than half the possible tricks, so the minimum bid at the “1 level” is actually committing the partnership can take 7 tricks. In bridge parlance, the first six tricks are called the “book”; only tricks above the “book” are bid, and only those tricks count for scoring purposes.
Bridge has several varieties, but we are focusing on the type of bridge sanctioned for tournament play, called “Duplicate Bridge”. In Duplicate Bridge, every hand is played by many, if not all, pairs. Each pair’s score on a hand is compared to all other pairs who played the same hand, and ranked from best to worst. The best performing pair on a given hand earns the maximum ‘matchpoints’, then each one below earns successively fewer matchpoints; the worst-performing pair earns zero matchpoints. This method of scoring removes all elements of luck – the cards you play will be the same cards everybody else plays. Your ‘session score’ is then the cumulative matchpoints earned on the individual hands. So, in duplicate bridge, getting a positive score is not enough; you must get the BEST score. And, oddly enough, sometimes a negative score is the best score.
One last point: Duplicate bridge is an endurance sport. It is, in fact, the only card game given consideration by the International Olympic Committee as a possible Olympic sport. It was a granted “demonstration sport” status in the 2002 Winter games, but it was never chosen as a competitive event. The World Bridge Federation is, however, a recognized sporting federation by the IOC. During a typical bridge tournament, you will play several sessions per day, each session consisting of dozens of hands. Imagine solving difficult puzzles, quickly, one after another, in competition with some of the best minds on the planet. THAT is competitive bridge!
What is “Principled” Bridge?
Bridge is typically taught as a set of rather loosely connected bidding rules and conventions, with a few maxims about how to play the cards in a given situation. A lot is thrown at the student, with precious little effort given to try to tie it all together into a coherent whole. As a result, those with the better ability to memorize are considered the best students. But I am not convinced that they destined to be the best bridge players.
What characteristics describe the best bridge players? They have sharpened their skills by playing duplicate bridge. A LOT of duplicate bridge. Enough to recognize certain patterns and associate them with outcomes. Because they understand some fundamental bidding principles, they are comfortable using a wide variety of bidding systems and conventions, and more importantly, know when and how to use each one, masterfully matching bids to the situation. And they are observant; this may be their greatest strength. Their ability to see to the bidding, watch for visual ‘tells’ in their opponents, and count cards leads them to do things that to novices seem like magic.
But it is not magic. It is just very skilled bridge. And one day we will get there. The journey begins here.
How Then, Shall We Learn?
I propose that the best way to learn bridge is the same way that students learn a new subject in school – in a structured, reasoned manner where to goal is for the student to understand how to deduce the correct bid from a small set of underlying principles. Starting with “first principles” makes it easy to understand any bidding system or convention.
This book will teach the Standard American bidding system, along with the 2-over-1 variant, and a number of ‘aligned’ conventions that arise naturally out of the basic principles of bidding. Those principles are all derived from the imperative to get the best possible score for a given hand; that score may be positive or negative, but as long as it is the best score for your partnership for that hand, you will be successful.
The “first principles” of bridge are:
Lock into the Highest Scoring Contract
Limit Bids and Knowing Who’s Boss
The Principle of Preserving the Minimum Rebid
The Law of Total Tricks
The Principle of Fast Arrival
Shape over Strength
These are the "Jedi Principles" that will guide us as we learn this amazing game. More to follow, so stay tuned!