Bridge for Beginners

I suppose it started as an antidote to my dad’s chess playing.  He played at county level for Cheshire and was always keen for me to play, like father like son.  Frankly I never had the patience for chess.  It was so often a slow, lingering death played out over hours, so finding an alternative suitable to my brain computing faculties seemed the obvious answer.

It came in the 6th form at school, when my mate Martin and I used to love joining in the lunchtime card playing sessions in the chemistry lab.  Not poker for money, but usually canasta (a great game in its own right) and bridge.  Admittedly it was pretty rudimentary bridge, since we knew the mechanics but not any bidding systems, but it was a start and I felt from early on that I had an aptitude that went way beyond chess.  What I liked about it was fairly easy to spot:

  • As a whist-based game it was very easy to learn, but as the cliche has it, takes a lifetime to master.  However, you can play and enjoy at any level you like.
  • As a partnership game, it requires excellent mutual understanding and with another person to do well.  Fascinating to watch partnerships disintegrate when it goes badly – they do say that married couples should never play together – quickest route to divorce!!
  • The combination of technique and psychology, whereby you can indeed play the man as well as the ball.  Etiquette demands that you stay poker-faced and are never ungentlemanly, but pressurising the opponents mentally is definitely part of the game.
  • Unlike chess, a hand is over quickly and even if you screw it up totally it can be forgotten as you move on to the next one.

My dad, hearing that I was interested in the game, suggested Martin and I go along to a local club with a friend of his who played both chess and bridge, Ron Tilley.  Ron was a retired teacher, possibly in his late 60s and a wily old character.  He encouraged us to come along to the club, helped us with the basics of the ACOL bidding system and how duplicate worked (a means of orchestrating every pair playing most other pairs and comparing performance against everyone in the room – a bit like a tea dance with baize-topped tables and playing cards!), and was delighted when we started beating many of the old-timers populating the club in those days.

More than that, I began to go with Ron to other clubs and on weekend tournaments at hotels in various locations (Brighton, Buxton, Harrogate, many more), where people would gather and be locked in an airless room for hours at a time in then hope of winning silverware.  Think Ron and I once came 5th out of about 120 highly competitive pairs in one of these competitions, but that was about as good as it got.

Since then I played almost everywhere I lived, though on several occasions it got too much.  There is a decidedly addictive quality to bridge, such that it can take over your whole life and much of your time.  On some occasions it was easier to give it up for a while and focus on other things, until I felt ready to go back.  Currently I’m on an extended leave of absence, since Amateur Dramatics took over as my principle hobby, and doing both that and bridge would have been utterly impossible.

However, I do keep it up through computer games and an iPhone app called Baron Bridge (it’s now much better than this review suggests btw!!)  You can also play online bridge against opponents anywhere in the world, though in truth as a partnership game you can’t build any of the rapport or mutual understanding essential to good bridge playing that way.  It truly does need face to face contact, and is therefore the ideal social game!

My dad never really “got” bridge, nor ever thought of it in the same league as chess.  Shame, because in many ways it requires a great deal of concentration and skill.  Much of the science comes in bidding systems, some of which are incredibly complex, artificial and sophisticated, though in truth you don’t need the complexity to play a normal social game of rubber bridge at home.

Like an arms race, many of the conventions developed as an antidote to the conventions played by opponents, so the higher the level the more obscure it can sometimes appear.  That said, at club level bridge bidding is still pretty natural and easy to follow – and by the laws of the game you are entitled both to see the opponents’ system and to ask questions before the first card is played in anger.  Sometimes it’s better not to ask though – it’s usually obvious when they have completely misunderstood one another and ended up in a contract other than the one they should arrived at.

The objective of bidding is to arrive at a contract (which will be to score between 7 and 13 tricks with a trump suit (ie. clubs, diamonds, hearts or spaces being the “boss” suit)  or no trumps.  You get extra points for achieving a “game” score (3 no trumps, 4 hearts or spades, 5 clubs or diamonds) or a “slam” (6 or 7 of anything), so the temptation is always to bid to those levels if you feel you have a realistic chance of making them.  The penalties for failing to do so can be severe, though it also depends which variety of bridge you’re playing.  Do the bidding well and you will score optimum points for getting the right contract at the right level, or punishing the opponents if they have misjudged.

The bidding conventions that help you arrive at the perfect contract are increasingly sophisticated tools in your armoury, but usually it comes down to your judgement and your assessment of your partner’s hand, which in the face of opposition interference bidding can be very difficult.  There is a judgement call to make on whether they are bluffing, in which case you choose to double for penalties, or if they are trying to stop you reaching a high-scoring contract then to continue undeterred and reach your optimum score.  Therein lies the endless fascination!

That done, it then plays exactly like a partnership whist game with the objective of winning the most tricks, a trick being all four hands playing a card on the table, following suit if at all possible.  Really easy to understand the principles, but the reward comes from doing it well – and that takes patient practice over a long period. Some people will always play badly, but just enjoy doing so for the social interaction and the thrill of playing – who needs more?  You can be as ambitious as you want to be!

A minute to learn, a lifetime to master, so the saying goes.

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