Apr 01 2009

Do You Play Bridge?

I’ve gotten sort of fascinated by the card game bridge lately.  We learned a lot of card games when I was a kid—euchre, pinochle, rummy, canasta, Crazy Eights—but never bridge.  I’d looked at the rules in Hoyle a few times, but there’s so much more to bridge than the rules that that was a little like trying to learn how a car runs by studying a fender.  At the library sale last spring, I happened to pick up a couple of Charles Goren’s books on bridge from the early 1960s, when he was a champion of the game.  It turns out his methods are somewhat out of date now, but he did a good job of explaining the basics, and I was able to go from there to newer books that cover the more modern methods most partnerships use today.

There’s the sticking point: partnerships.  A major part of success at bridge is being able to use the standard bids like 1♣ or 2 to tell your partner things about your hand.  For example, say my partner starts the bidding with 1 and I respond with 4♣.  For most people, the 1 bid means my partner has at least five hearts, and 13-21 high card points (Ace=4, King=3, Queen=2, Jack=1), more or less.  So we’re probably on the same page there.  But if we’re using “preemptive jump raises,” my 4♣ bid means, “I have a whole bunch of clubs and nothing else; please pass and let me play with clubs as trump and hope we can squeak out 10 tricks.”  If we’re using “splinter bids,” the 4♣ bid means, “I have good support for your hearts and only 0-1 clubs, and I think we may have a potential slam (12-13 tricks) here.  What do you think?”  In that case, the bidding would continue as we explored further.  If my partner and I haven’t discussed in advance what a double jump raise like that means, we may be going in opposite directions on it and end up taking a beating on that hand.

Many different systems for exchanging all those messages have developed over the years, and though most people use similar methods for the simpler opening bids, on big slam-type hands the available methods get more complicated and varied.  Unless you play with the same partner all the time, you almost have to be able to use all the different systems, so you’ll be able to “communicate” with any partner you happen to be matched up with.

That’s if you want always to be able to get the best score, anyway.  If you don’t mind getting confused sometimes and going down a few tricks, or settling for a medium score on a hand that could have been huge, you can probably get away with the basics.  But the rare slam-potential hands are the really fun ones, if a partnership can make them happen.  (A slam is when you take 12 tricks; a grand slam is taking all 13.)

So I haven’t played with real people yet; just the computer and occasionally the pretend people who live inside it.  At least I understand now why people call bridge the chess of card games.  It has that kind of depth.  All the cards are in use on every hand, which means there’s less luck involved than in a game like poker.  Also, one hand (the dummy) goes face up on the table during the play of each hand, so every player can see half the cards: the dummy and the cards in his own hand.  That decreases the luck factor even more, and increases the strategic options.

There’s a special kind of bridge called “duplicate” that’s commonly played in clubs and tournaments, which reduces the luck even more.  Special boards are used to hold the cards, and after the first deal the cards from each table are carefully collected and moved to the next table in a set pattern, and the same hands are played again.  That way, partnerships are scored against other partnerships who played the exact same cards, so there’s really no luck factor at all (unless you drew your partner’s name out of a hat).  It’s all very orderly and logical and appeals to me tremendously.  I picked up a book on duplicate bridge strategy, and found out there are even more bidding variations that people use in duplicate!  I haven’t played a game this complicated since D&D in high school, and that involves making up your own rules.

So now I’m studying up on duplicate little by little.  I know I’m probably way too worried about getting it exactly right: lots of people used to play bridge as a social game, and they couldn’t have memorized all these systems.  Blondie and Dagwood used to play, and he’s certainly no genius.  Maybe after the pool season is over and I’ve done some more reading on these duplicate methods, I’ll head down to the Senior Center and see if I can hold my own.

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