Thoughts on Bridge

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett playing bridge @ Flickr taken by E. M. B.

The photo above depicts Warren Buffett and Bill Gates at a bridge event in Omaha, Nebraska in 2006. They were spending an afternoon playing bridge, an intellectually challenging and quite enjoyable card game that only requires you to have a deck of cards, three friends to play with, a pencil and a pad to keep score, and a sharp mind. It’s also been a closet passion of mine for many years, though I rarely have as many opportunities to play as I would like.

What’s Bridge?
Bridge (short for contract bridge) is a trick-taking card game like countless others out there. It’s similar in a lot of ways to games like hearts, spades, pitch, 500, euchre, and so on – any of those can be a great substitute for bridge, but bridge is the most widely played game of the lot and perhaps the most interesting from a strategic standpoint. Rather than just explaining the rules in my own language, take a look at Wikipedia’s detailed entry on bridge, or you can try playing bridge online at Yahoo! (I play on there occasionally as “trenttsd,” especially on lazy afternoons when the kids are napping, but I’m not exactly a strong adept and I’d rather play it face to face so I can read people).

Bridge is usually a game best learned from someone who already knows how to play, but in most social situations, you can just choose any trick-taking game that at least a couple people at the table know. For instance, with my own family, a pitch variation is often played, and my in-laws play a version of 500 (which is only a slight variation on bridge), and in each case I learned from playing with and against family members and friends.

Five Reasons to Spend an Afternoon Playing Bridge (or Another Card Game)
A card game like bridge is one of the most frugal ways you can spend a lazy afternoon. Here’s why.

It’s practically free You just need a deck of cards and a pen and pad to keep score on. No equipment, no anything – just the cards, the score pad, and the people. That’s almost no cost at all.

It makes you think Trick-taking games are deeply mentally engaging. You have to keep track of the state of the game, read other players, formulate a strategy, try to understand your opponent’s strategy (and often your partner’s), and make a play that takes into account all of this. That forces you to be mentally sharp to play well at all.

It’s inherently social Four people sitting around a table playing cards is a social situation. You get to interact with people and can often develop interesting conversations while the game is being played. Once, over a card game, my partner (who I didn’t know well) taught me a great deal about the business of building an organic farm – fascinating conversation.

It can take as little or as much time as you want You can just play one quick game and be done with it in just a half an hour, or you can burn the entire afternoon and evening playing, keeping it fresh by rotating partners and players. It can expand or contract to fill the time as you need it.

It can be played in pretty much any situation with any four people (provided they’re willing to learn) All you really need are the cards, the score sheet, and enough space to lay the cards down. Thus, it works in countless situations: lazy afternoons at home, camping, family reunions, or about anything else you can conceive of.

The next time you’re bored and itching to do something, call up some friends and bust out a pack of cards. You’ll have a fun afternoon and it will scarcely cost you a dime.

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  1. Michael says:

    I have been anticipating your bridge article and expecting it to be very popular, but this is disappointing. You could have said much more than you did.

  2. K says:

    I have more trouble with bridge than I do with other trick taking games because bridge players are very hung up on the rules. I usually just bid based on how many tricks I think I can take but when playing online I get nasty comments from people when I open with 12 instead of 13 or something like that.

  3. cheri says:

    Games are a wonderful form of entertainment. You are so right, it is free, sociable, and a nice way to spend an evening,etc. We also have potlucks with friends, or go to a matinee to save $$. We have also started a mini garden of vegetables, and are planning a couple of fruit trees. Living in Florida allows this to be profitable for us. I look at this blog daily. Nine out of ten times it is highly informative. I have shared with others about this site. Trent, keep up the good work.

  4. Frugal Dad says:

    I’ve never learned to play bridge, though I did enjoy playing card games with my grandfather growing up. He taught me poker (against my mother’s wishes, I might add), gin rummy, and a few others. He also taught me how to play chess and backgammon. We spent many summer afternoons playing a game or two and sharing conversation.

  5. Daniel says:

    I’ve never learned how to play bridge, but I have spent many an hour playing spades – although I haven’t done so recently. You’re quite correct about cards being social by nature. All games, really, are social by nature. Solitaire is the only game that isn’t. In the past 15 or 20 years, with the advent of computer and video games, we’ve seen an explosion of “single player” games – something that simply didn’t exist until the 1980’s. That curve is starting to come back as more and more games go online where you can again play against human beings. Hopefully we’ll come back to games being a social activity rather than another way to isolate ourselves.

  6. Kate says:

    I’m so glad you wrote this! My grandparents were die-hard bridge players and my regret is that I didn’t learn from them while they were alive. Is it useful to first learn in the “single player” games and then branch out to the traditional game or should I just look for a bridge class somewhere?

  7. Anne K says:

    My parents were involved in a bridge club for years, before we moved. I still remember afternoons playing with kids I didn’t know while waiting for Mom playing bridge. When the family moved in 1980 to the (boondocks) new house in the country, my parents couldn’t find anyone to play with. My husband knows how to play. Thanks for your post, Trent, I’ve suggested to my husband that the next time he’s bored to tears at my parents’ house, the four of us should play bridge so I can learn.

  8. BethBeth says:

    Once a week my friend comes to my house, we share in the dinner making duties & expense and then play either card games or dice games. The website pagat.com is a great site for game instructions. We really enjoy these get togethers.

  9. Mike T says:

    I’ve been thinking lately about poker as a surprisingly frugal hobby.

    It shares a lot of the same positives as other card games (highly strategic, reading people and actions), and when played with friends, is a zero-sum game. All the money going into the prize pool is getting paid back to the players.

    Best of all, if you’re willing to practice and study, you can even start to turn a profit.

  10. Mister E says:

    I’ve never had anyone to teach me bridge but I sure do like a game of cribbage when I can find an opponent or 2.

  11. Funder says:

    Man, Trent, I’m so jealous of you. I *love* face-to-face bridge but I can’t get any of my friends these days interested in learning or playing. Sigh!

  12. Christopher says:

    K: It’s not the rules, it’s the conventions. Bidding based on how many tricks you think you can take is perfectly legal (though note that you’re bidding on how many tricks _over half_ you can take) but it will almost certainly end up losing to people who have a better developed strategy for bidding.

    This seems a bit detailed of a response, but I’m making it because many, many people make the same mistake you have and the post was on bridge.

    This may not be true of you, but most people I’ve met who bid based on the number of tricks they can take learned Spades before Bridge. That strategy works great in Spades but there are three very important differences in the games, all of which greatly change bidding:

    1) Bridge has multiple rounds of bidding. In Spades your first bid is also your last, so there’s no chance to negotiate with your partner. In Bridge you can keep bidding until you run out of room so you’re much better served describing your hand to your partner rather than just saying how many you think you can take alone.

    2) The highest bidder in Bridge gets to choose the trump suit. In Spades spades are always trump, this means there’s no point in wasting time on what you could take if something else were trump. In bridge if you win the contract you get to set the trump suit, so you need to figure out based on your partnership’s hands what suit gets you the most tricks. This again means it’s important that you tell your partner what your hand looks like so you can get the best fit between the two hands.

    3) Bridge is played by a partnership. Spades is scored by the two players together, but in Bridge one partner lays down his hand and lets the other play both. This makes it incredibly important that the final contract be a good agreement on trump suit and at the right level.

    Early bidding in bridge (and very late bidding if you’re an advanced player) is entirely about identifying your holdings to your partner so that the two of you can reach the best fitting contract. Lets say you had the following holdings:

    S: A J 2 S: K Q T 5 3
    H: A 9 4 3 H: K Q 2
    D: A 4 3 D: 2
    C: K 2 C: A Q 5 3

    Bidding based on how many tricks you can take
    one hand is 5 tricks in either hearts or clubs (which is fewer than half) and the other is maybe one over half is spades. You’ll likely end up with the contract since your opponents don’t have a single trick, but it will be a wussy 1 level contract (1 trick over half or 7). A decent partnership should be able to bid 10 tricks (or game) with that every time (and get an extra 300-500 points out of it). A great partnership will find out they have every trick with those hands every time (and get another 1000-1500 points).

    I realize bridge bidding is insanely complex coming from something like Spades, but I would highly recommend finding a willing teacher and learning at least basic bidding strategies if you want to play with any regularity. Something simple like natural bidding (bidding means you’ll take what you bid) but opening all 13+ HCP hands with 5 card majors and 16+ HCP evenly distributed NT would yield a vast improvement in your final contracts over bidding what you think you can take.

  13. Trent Trent says:

    “I have been anticipating your bridge article and expecting it to be very popular, but this is disappointing. You could have said much more than you did.”

    It was originally much longer, but good sense had me excise most of it. No one wants to hear boring anecdotes about great card plays I made with my family.

  14. junk mail man says:

    Pinochle is the real card game.

  15. Christopher says:

    The two hands in my earlier post got mangled by formatting lets try:

    S: A J 2
    H: A 9 4 3
    D: A 4 3
    C: K 2

    S: K Q T 5 3
    H: K Q 2
    D: 2
    C: A Q 5 3

    Also I left out that in Spades you have to take the number of tricks you bid, but in Bridge the two of you have to take that many over half. That’s a critical difference since you rarely have a hand so great you know you have 7 tricks by yourself, even if you have all 13 with your partner (as seen in the two hands above).

  16. Mrs. Micah says:

    I played a lot of Spades in college but never learned Bridge. I’m not very good at it but I’m quite good at rummy. Learning poker…which is quite frugal if you bet using non-monetary items. ;)

  17. Elizabeth says:

    Wow, memories just came flooding back. My grandparents were huge bridge players, always talking about their bridge club etc.

    Sadly, my grandmother developed dementia/Alzheimer’s. Which I never understood, because she did everything “right,” intellectually speaking. Read voraciously, played bridge and other card games, did puzzles often, walked daily.

  18. I enjoy poker for most of the same reasons, although poker has a much darker underbelly than bridge!

  19. that’s a great picture on this post.

  20. HebsFarm says:

    DH and I used to love playing 500 with his parents – we even adapted to the 5-handed version when Grandma came to visit – sadly, both Grandma and DH’s Dad have passed away, and we don’t have a fourth for cards anymore. Once I tried explaining small-town life to a big-city fella, when he said, What do you people do for entertainment??? I told him, “It’s simple. We play cards, we coach kids’ ball teams, and we go to each other’s houses, make ice cream, and then eat it.”

  21. Lauren says:

    Trent, do you play any of the German strategy board games like Settlers of Catan? They seem right up your alley.

  22. Trent Trent says:

    Lauren: yes, I do, but not as often as I’d like. My two year old doesn’t really seem to understand it and tries to eat the little houses. Our favorite game is actually Ticket to Ride: Europe.

  23. grapeshot says:

    You reminded me of a favorite childhood memory of mine. Our family often played cards together, usually on a Saturday or Sunday night. We played gin rummy, mostly, and we also had a German deck of cards which we used to play a Hungarian game called “zsir”. Looking back on those times, it’s absolutely true that not only did it not cost us anything to have that fun, but we all grew closer for playing together.

    As a former Michigander, I also learned to play euchre. Euchre is practically the state card game in Michigan. I remember working on a construction site one summer where everyone played it at lunch time. It’s simpler than bridge, but nonetheless requires some strategic thinking, and when played right, moves along at a fast clip.

    In my college years we lived through our long Michigan winters by playing cribbage and hearts. And, of course, the ubiquitous euchre. I now live in the cheesehead state, and here the locals play a game called sheepshead, which I’ve never heard about until moving here. Wisconsinites seem as passionate about their sheepshead as Michiganders are about euchre.

    Thanks for writing about this. Nowadays with gameboys and nintendos and wiis, not to mention freecell and World of Warcraft, we forget about the simple pleasures of sitting around the table face to face with friends and family and playing a card game. (Or one of the classic board games, for that matter.)

  24. Jillian says:

    I love card games and board games, but everyone just looks at me like I’m crazy if I ever suggest playing one. Maybe it’s just because they know I’ll beat them.

  25. NED says:

    Just out of curiosity, do you know who your partners are before you start bidding?

    A variation that my friends play is that the winner of the bid also gets to “pick” his partner: He calls out the card name, e.g. “Ace of Spades”, and the person holding that card is now his partner. However, the partner cannot declare himself until the called card is played. This makes for some interesting backstabbing with the bidder trying to figure out which of the 3 is his real partner.

  26. JFrance says:

    I’ve tried on multiple occasions to get into bridge, but I gave up on it as too complicated to be fun. “Ok, I have 14 points with such-and-such distribution so I bid this, partner answered that which means he must have between x and y points, so I can answer this or that…” Too much to memorize!

  27. JE says:

    I agree that board and card games are a great source of practically free entertainment. We get together with our friends every Friday night, cook dinner on a rotating basis, crack open a couple bottles of (“discount”) wine and play poker, 500, Risk, Monopoly, or some other game. Against the alternative (shelling out mucho dinero for restaurants, clubs, beers and babysitters), this ritual has probably saved hundreds over the past year.

  28. K says:

    Christopher – I understand that they are not rules but conventions, and I know enough to open only with the right number of points – I was just using that as an example. I get more hung up on the Blackwood convention and everything and people can get pretty nasty if you bid wrong even when you take 10 or 11 tricks. (I’m talking about online where you don’t know or see your partner). I mostly play 500, not spades, so I’m familiar with the different suit trumps, it just takes awhile to learn every single convention and most players don’t have a lot of patience.

  29. Christopher says:

    K: Ah, yeah, I can see that online. I apologize for assuming you meant opening the number of tricks you thought you could take (though maybe I helped somebody else). I actually gave up most online play several years ago for similar reasons. I would also get yelled at because my play didn’t follow how they thought I should be signaling, despite the fact that no system I’m aware of defines signals and I’ve never been given a proper signal chart from an online partner… I do play online but generally only with people I already know and with whom I have established partnership agreements.

    With respect to Blackwood, I can’t recommend Eddie Kantar’s book “Roman Keycard Blackwood: Slam Bidding for the 21st Century” highly enough, but if you don’t have established partners you’ll never get to use it because it’s extremely advanced. (He recommends, for instance, that 4 of a minor in most cases trigger blackwood to save bidding space. And he plays both 1430 and 3014 depending on the circumstances…)

  30. Leisureguy says:

    When I first moved to Iowa City in 1964, I got a job working on the ward at the U of Iowa Psych Hospital, which treated people in the area. One thing we did with depressed and isolated patients (I worked in the men’s ward, so often these were old farmers who had retired) was to play card games—and bridge was a popular one. We would teach the patients to play, and the engagement of their minds and the social interactions helped them a lot. One nurse told me that these guys had lacked any social contact or social mechanisms, and games of this sort were excellent therapy: thinking about the game and talking with the other players broke the cycle of isolation and depressive thought.

  31. Lisa says:

    42 is a domino game that is popular in Texas. It was a substitute for card games, which most people thought were immoral for a good part of the last century. It is a great deal of fun. Whenever my family gets together (sometimes even after funerals), we will break out the dominos. It may not completely take your mind off of your loss, but it does allow you to really concentrate on something else in the presence of people you love.

  32. Suzie says:

    I chose Bridge as a one term General Studies option, and it was awesome! I play on the internet a few times a month now, although I’m still not very good. It’s one of the best card games to play with friends.

  33. Catherine says:

    Yep, bridge sure worked for Lily Bart. ;)

  34. Kelly says:

    In the 1970’s we would make a blender of frozen drinks , put Cream on the Reel to Reel and play Spades . We never had much money , but we always had fun !!! We would finish the evening watching Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and a real funny” new” show called Saturday Night Live !!!

  35. Kelly says:

    I now go to a friends house every few weeks and we make a pitcher of a frozen beverage and play Wii bowling, tennis , golf,and pool . We laugh and have a great time . A little larger initial investment but still free fun with friends .

  36. amy o says:

    Bridge parties in the basement…fond memories. My sister and I stealing M-n-M’s out of the bowls on the cardtables… Somehow bridge never rubbed off on us. Euchre was the family game (probably because that was the game my mother’s family played). Euchre seems easier to teach to kids, and also a little more relaxed. My Aunt D used to get up and run around the table to put a “hex” on the other team…it’s good luck if your team is sitting the way the bathtub runs…sprouting points…right/nine/ten never get euchered…
    Lots of lore, lots of fun. One of the inexpensive ingredients in the homemade glue that holds families together:)

  37. felix says:

    Just to relate an amusing incident…

    A long time ago when I was still a college student some friends and I used to go to a nearby bridge centre every week to play. We weren’t that good but we played for fun, while there were some stuck-up people there who played just for the master points.

    So, one evening, a friend and I were playing in a duplicate bridge tournament. He opened 1NT one hand, while I had only 2 high card points, 6 hearts and a weird distribution. The woman to my left doubled and I went to 4H for some odd reason. The contract got doubled and my partner redoubled!

    To make a long story short, we got set by one, but the score sheet shows that every other team on their side make a contract, so we ended up with the most points. They got a little upset and called the judge on us.

    The judge told them we did nothing wrong because there’s no rule stopping me from answering with only 2HCP. The look on their face was priceless.

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