The Basic Rules of Contract Bridge

Bridge Base Online logo

The Basic Rules of Contract Bridge

From the BBO Prime Column
By Alex J. Coyne

[Download The Basic Rules of Contract Bridge in PDF]

One of the most persistent myths about bridge is that it’s hard to learn.

If you take a look at the extensive rule compendiums that characterize games like Dungeons & Dragons or Magic: The Gathering, bridge is no harder to learn than the ins and outs of these. In fact, Magic: The Gathering is one of the most complex card games out there (at least according to Guinness World Records).

The basic rules of bridge can be explained to anyone in a few minutes: Intricacies like bidding can be learned over time.

If you’re introducing a new player with no background in trick-taking, here’s a quick condensed version of the most basic bridge rules: Of course, feel free to share this piece with anyone who might be in need of it.

What’s Bridge?

First, a quick explanation of the game from the ground up. Here’s what bridge is for anyone who doesn’t know it yet in the most simple terms possible.

– Bridge is played by two-player partnerships or teams.
– The game is played clockwise.
– One player takes the role of Declarer, while the other takes the role of Dummy.
– The Dummy has to place their cards face up after the first card has been placed.
– Each player receives 13 cards.
– There are 13 possible “tricks” in every game of bridge.
– Players first “bid” for a contract, then play cards to win “tricks” from their hand to reach their team’s contract
– A game of bridge takes place in 3 different stages: Bidding, Play and Scoring.

Bidding and Tricks

Tricks and bidding are some of the most vital bridge concepts.

If you’ve played games like poker or blackjack before, the concept of bidding and tricks is likely new; if you’ve played games like Go Fish or Snap in all its varieties, you’re a little more familiar with the concept of a trick – also called a “pack” in some games.

– Bidding chooses the contract for your game and it says how many “tricks” you think your team can get and in which suit.
– Bidding names a number between 1 and 7 and a suit (like Hearts, Spades or No Trump) to become the contract.
– The chosen number of the final bid is added to the number 6. This is because the top allowable bid number (7) added to 6 makes up the total number of possible 13 tricks in the game.
– A bid of two hearts means you expect to win eight tricks with Hearts as the trump suit.
– A bid of five spades means you expect to win eleven tricks with Spades as the trump suit.
– A bid can also say “Pass”, “Double” or “Redouble.”
– When enough players say “Pass”, the Contract for the game has been set.
– The winner of a “trick” gets to place the next “opening card” for the rest to follow suit.

Suit Rankings, Trumps and No Trump (NT)

Trumps and No Trumps: Alien to many card players, but also pretty easy to explain in a few minutes. For anyone more used to trading cards, liken this to the Blue-Eyes White Dragon or Egyptian God cards. Trump suits have the potential to boot anything else off the playing field.

– The trump suit is the card suit chosen in your contract. This is the “strongest” suit for the remainder of the game, and cards in your chosen Trump suit can always “outrank” cards in other suit for tricks.
– No Trump means there is no trump or “strongest” suit for the game, and the suit rankings are as normal.
– Suits are ranked as…

– No Trump (NT)
– Spades
– Hearts
– Diamonds
– Clubs

The Hand Basics

A poker game relies on the “strength” of the cards in your hand. Having (H) AKQJ10 in your hand is a Royal Flush, and having a pair of Aces is good. Bridge works the same way.

In bridge, the “strength” of your hand is calculated by looking at your Honor Cards, Suit Distribution and Suit Strength.

– Honor Cards are the AKQJ cards in each suit.
– Suit Distribution means which suits you have the most or least cards in.
– Suit Strength means which suit is the strongest, calculated with High Card Points (HCPs).

High Card Points

Some players have different ways of counting up their High Card Points. Here’s the way I picked up first, which is luckily what most other players have come to consider standard.

– Aces are worth 4.
– Kings are worth 3.
– Queens are worth 2.
– Jacks are worth 1.

The strength of your hand according to High Card Points tells you what to bid and play.

Bidding Conventions

Players will also hear about Bidding Conventions or Bidding Systems.

These are specific ways to bid according to suit strength and high card points, worked out between partnerships before the game.

There are many, including Standard American Yellow Card (SAYC), Stayman and Blackwood.

Beginners are often scared by the complexity of bidding conventions first. Accept that you’ll learn this over time and don’t worry too much about this during your first few months playing bridge.

Lost in Play? Good Opening or Lead Cards

Source: The Bridge World – Lesson 9

What cards are good ones to put down – and what the heck do you make of your hand? Common questions for anyone learning bridge.

One of the best and most appropriate guides I’ve found is from The Bridge World’s compendium of online lessons – Lesson 9 is the one relating to bidding.

Of course, players are encouraged to read the whole thing, but here’s a summary for printing out, sticking on your wall and referring back to. Take notes: These are simple moves and openers that should make sense to anyone within the context of their first or hundredth game.

Here are quick suggestions for good opening or lead cards to win tricks with, quoted from The Bridge World’s ninth lesson. You should lead…

  • …the top card from a doubleton. (8 5 or A 3)

  • …the King from any combination including an Ace-King (A K 10 7 3).

  • …the King from any combination including a King-Queen (K Q 7 2) for a quick winner.

  • …the top card from solid or nearly solid honor sequences (from Q J 10 6 or Q J 9 5 lead the Queen and from J 10 9 8 3 or J 10 8 7 lead the Jack).

  • …the top card from a three-card holding with no honors (9 8 7 or 6 3 2).

  • …low from three cards including one or more honors that do not form a sequence (from D Q 10 6 lead the lowest)

  • …the fourth best card from four-card or longer suits with no solid or nearly-solid honor sequence). With Q J 5 3, 10 9 6 3, K J 5 3 2 or 9 8 7 3, lead the three-spot; with J 9 7 5 3 2, lead the five.

  • Usually, don’t under-lead an ace.

  • Lead the top of an interior sequence: With (SP) K J 10 9 4, the King is not part of the sequence without the Queen, but you do have an interior sequence in J 10 9, lead the Jack.

Bridge Scoring

There are several ways to score a bridge game. It’s recommended to learn standard Rubber Bridge Scoring first. See ACBL: Rubber Bridge Scoring for more information.

Terms like undertricks, overtricks, penalties, vulnerable. rubber and game – as well as how to tally up how many tricks each team has taken – can be as overwhelming to beginners as the bidding process itself.

Beginners can rely on the use of either online bridge play or scoring apps to help them keep score. Similar apps and programs have existed for trading card game scorekeeping, and they exist for bridge, too.

Some More Basic Bridge Terms

Source: ACBL Bridge Terminology

While there are many more, here are some basic bridge terms you’ll encounter as a beginning player. (These were taken from the ACBL’s bridge terminology page – and of course,
it’s again recommended that you mouse over to the link and read the whole thing!)

The first six tricks – e.g. “making book”. Overtricks are ones past these.

The player who makes the final, decided bid that becomes the Contract is the Declarer, while their partner is the Dummy.

A suit that holds two cards.

To deliberately avoid winning a trick.

To take tricks with lower-ranking Honor Cards when opponents might hold higher.

Follow Suit
To play the next card in the suit that was led – e.g. following a heart with a heart.

(1) Forcing another player to lose a trick or sacrifice a card, (2) Forcing a partner’s bid.

Master Card
The highest-ranking current card in play.

Winning a trick in a non-led suit.

One card in a suit, as opposed to doubleton.

The tricks that don’t make up your contract.

To lead with a lower card when you have a higher-ranking option.