Bridge: Understanding the Importance of Bidding

Bidding determines the final contract for a hand. The pressure is on the partnership that gets (or buys) the final contract — that side has to win the number of tricks it contracts for. If the partnership fails to win that number of tricks, penalty points are scored by the opponents. If the partnership takes at least the number of tricks it has contracted for, it then scores points.

The declarer and the dummy for the hand: For the partnership that buys the final contract, the bidding determines who plays the hand for the partnership (the declarer) and who gets to watch (the dummy). See “Settling Who Plays the Hand” later in this chapter for details.

The number of tricks the partnership needs to make the final contract: Each bid is like a stepping stone to the number of tricks that a partnership thinks it can take. The goal of the partnership that buys the final contract is to take at least the number of tricks contracted for.

The trump suit (if the hand has one): Depending on the cards held by the partnership that winds up playing the hand, there may be a trump suit (or the bidding may end in a notrump contract).

Proper bidding also allows the partners to exchange information about the strength (the number of high-card points) and distribution of their cards. (See “Valuing the Strength of Your Hand” later in this chapter.) Through bidding, you and your partner can tell each other which long suits you have and perhaps in which suits you have honor cards (aces, kings, queens, jacks, and tens).

Based on the information exchanged during the bidding, the partnership has to decide how many tricks it thinks it can take. The partnership with the greater combined high-card strength usually winds up playing the hand. The declarer (the one who plays the hand) tries to take the number of tricks (or more) that his side has contracted for. The opponents, on the other hand, do their darndest to prevent the declarer from winning those tricks.

Partnerships exchange vital information about the makeup of their hands through a bidding system. Because you can’t tell your partner what you have in plain English, you have to use a legal Bridge bidding system. Think of it as a foreign language in which every bid you make carries some message. Although you can’t say to your partner, “Hey, partner, I have seven strong hearts but only one ace and one king,” an accurate bidding system can come close to describing such a hand.

The bidding (or auction) consists of only the permitted bids; you don’t get to describe your hand by using facial expressions, kicking your partner under the table, or punching him in the nose. Your partner must also understand the conventional significance of your bids to make sense of what you’re trying to communicate about your hand and to know how to respond properly.

Of course, everyone at the table hears your bid and everyone else’s bid at the table. No secrets are allowed. Your opponents are privy to the same information your bid tells your partner. Similarly, by listening to your opponents’ bidding, you get a feel for the cards that your opponents have (their strength and distribution). You can then use this information to your advantage when the play of the hand begins.

Bridge authorities agree that bidding is the most important aspect of the game. Using a simple system and making clear bids is the key to getting to the proper contract and racking up the points. Bidding incorrectly (giving your partner a bum steer) leads to lousy contracts, which, in turn, lets your opponents rack up the points when you fail to make your contract. Of course, you have to know how to take the tricks you contracted for, or else even the most beautiful contracts in the world lead nowhere.

Surveying the Stages of Bidding

The bidding begins after the cards have been shuffled and dealt. The players pick up their hands and assess their strength (see “Valuing the Strength of Your Hand” later in this chapter for details). In the following sections, we explain the different elements of the bidding process one step at a time. Concentrate on the mechanics of the process.

Opening the bidding

The player who deals the cards has the first opportunity to either make a bid or pass. The dealer looks at her hand; if she has sufficient strength, she makes a bid that begins to describe the strength (honor cards) and distribution (how the cards are divided). If she doesn’t have enough strength to make the first bid, called the opening bid, she can say pass (not considered a bid).

Being second in line

After the dealer bids or passes, the bidding continues in a clockwise rotation. The next player can take one of two actions (for now):

Make a bid higher than the dealer’s bid (assuming that the dealer makes an opening bid)


He can’t make a bid unless he bids higher than the dealer’s bid. See “Bidding suits in the proper order” later in this chapter for more information on determining whether one bid is higher than another bid. If you’ve ever attended an auction, you can see why bidding is sometimes referred to as an auction — each bid must outrank the previous one.

Responding to the opening bid

After the second player bids or passes, the bidding follows a clockwise rotation to the next player at the table, the dealer’s partner. After someone opens the bidding with something other than pass (it’s not necessarily the dealer), the partner of the opening bidder is called the responder.

If the dealer opens the bidding, the responder has a chance to make a bid, called a response. This bid begins to describe the strength and distribution of the responding hand. The partnership is looking for some suit in which they have eight or more cards together, called an eight-card fit. It may take a few bids to uncover an eight-card fit. Sometimes it doesn’t exist, which is a bummer. The responder also has the option to pass her partner’s opening bid, which communicates more information (albeit of a rather depressing nature) about the strength of her hand.

Buying the contract

The bidding continues clockwise around the table, with each player either making a bid higher than the last bid or passing. After a bid has been made, three successive passes ends the bidding. The partnership that makes the last bid has bought the contract and plays the hand, trying to take at least the number of tricks that corresponds to the final bid.

During the bidding, think of yourself as being in an “up-only” elevator that doesn’t stop until three of its passengers say “Stop!” (or, in this case, “Pass”) consecutively. Furthermore, this elevator has no down button! The only way you can stop from driving the elevator up is by saying “Pass” when it’s your turn to bid.

Passing a hand out

Note one special case that comes up once in a while during bidding. Sometimes no one wants to make an opening bid, as you can see in the following bidding sequence.

The hand has been passed out. Nobody wants to get on the elevator, not even on the lowly first floor! No player has a hand strong enough to open the bidding. When a hand is passed out, the cards are reshuffled and the same person deals again.

Looking At the Structure and the Rank of a Bid

Bridge bids have a legal ranking structure all their own. Remember that each new bid any player makes must outrank the previous one.

During the bidding, players call out their bids to communicate information about their hands. Each bid you make is supposed to begin painting a picture of your strength and distribution to help the partnership arrive at the best final contract. Of course, your partner is doing the same with the same goal in mind. Bridge is a partnership game.

In the following sections, you get acquainted with the look and feel of the bids you use to describe your hand to your partner.

Knowing what elements make a proper bid

A bid consists of two elements:

The suit: During the bidding you actually deal with five suits: spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs, and notrump. (Note this expanded meaning of a suit.)

The number of tricks you’re bidding for in that suit: You start with an automatic, unspoken six tricks, called a book, and build from there. For example a bid of one spade means you are contracting for 6 + 1 = 7 tricks.

When you make a bid, you don’t say, “I want to bid three in the spade suit.” Instead you simplify it: You say “three spades,” “four notrump,” “two diamonds,” and so on. When you see bids referred to in books (including the bids in this book), the bids are abbreviated to card number and suit symbol. For example, the written equivalent of the preceding bids looks like this: 3♠ (three spades), 4NT (four notrump), and 2♦ (two diamonds).

Each Bridge hand consists of exactly 13 tricks, and the minimum opening bid must be for at least 7 of those 13 tricks. Because each bid has an automatic six tricks built into it, a 1♥ bid actually says that if the bidding ends in 1♥ you have to take seven tricks with hearts trump, not just one trick. In other words, your Bridge elevator starts on the seventh floor.

The numbers associated with a bid correspond to bidding levels. Bids of 1♠, 1♥, 1♦, and 1♣ are called one-level bids. A bid that starts with a 3 is a three- level bid. The highest level is the seven level. (Doing a little math tells you that 7NT, 7♠, 7♥, 7♦, and 7♣ are the highest bids because 7 + 6 = 13.)

Bidding suits in the proper order

During the bidding, players can’t make a bid unless their bid is higher than the previous bid. In Bridge, two factors determine whether your bid is legal:

Which suit you’re bidding

How many tricks you’re bidding for in that suit

During the play of a hand, the rank of the suits has no significance. The rank of the suits matters only during the bidding and the scoring. The suits are ranked in the following order:

Notrump (NT): Notrump isn’t really a suit in the strictest sense of the word, but notrump is considered a suit! In fact, notrump is the highest suit you can bid. Notrump is the king of the hill when it comes to bidding — you can score the most points with notrump bids.

Spades (): Spades is the highest-ranking suit (just below notrump).

Hearts (): Hearts rank below spades; hearts and spades are referred to as the major suits because they’re worth more in the scoring

Diamonds (): Diamonds don’t carry as much weight; they outrank only clubs.

Clubs (): Clubs are the lowest suit on the totem pole. Diamonds and clubs are called the minor suits.

To remember the rank of the suits (excluding notrump), look at the first letter of each suit. The S in spades is higher (later) in the alphabet than the H in hearts, which is higher than the D in diamonds, which is higher than the C in clubs.

To see how the rank of the suits comes into play during the bidding, consider the following example. Assume that you are seated in the South position:

Suppose that you open the bidding with 1♥. Because the bidding goes clockwise, West has the next chance to bid. West doesn’t have to bid if he doesn’t want to; however, the most likely reason for not bidding is that West simply doesn’t have a strong enough hand. West can say “Pass” (which is not considered a bid).

However, if West wants to join in the fun, he must make some bid that is higher ranking than 1♥. For example, West can bid 1♠ or 1NT because both of these bids are higher ranking than a 1♥ bid. However, he can’t bid 1♣ or 1♦ because these suits are lower than the current heart bid.

On the other hand, if West wants to bid diamonds (a lower-ranking suit than hearts), West must bid at least 2♦ for his bid to be legal. That is, only by upping the level of the bid (from 1 to 2) can West make a legal bid in diamonds.

Making the final bid

When three consecutive passes follow a bid, the last bid is the final contract. The following issues are resolved when the bidding is over:

Whether the hand will be played in notrump or in a trump suit: If the final bid is in notrump, the hand will have no wild cards, or trump cards. If clubs, diamonds, spades, or hearts is named in the final bid, that suit is designated as the trump suit for the hand. For example, if the final bid is 4♥, the trump suit is hearts for that hand.

How many tricks need to be won: By automatically adding six to the number of the final bid, you know how many tricks you need to take. For example, if the final contract is the popular 3NT, the partnership needs to win nine tricks to make the contract (6 + 3 = 9).

Putting it all together in a sample bidding sequence

In the following example, you can see the bids each player makes during a sample bidding sequence. You don’t see the cards on which each player bases his or her bid — they aren’t important for now. Just follow the bidding around the table, noting how each bid is higher than the one before it. Assume that you’re in the South position.

After your opening 1♥ bid, West passes and your partner (North) bids 2♣. East joins in with a bid of 2♦, a bid that is higher than 2♣. When it’s your turn to bid again, you show support for your partner’s clubs by bidding 3♣. Then West comes to life and supports East’s diamonds by bidding 3♦. Your partner (don’t forget your partner) chimes in with 4♥, a bid that silences everybody. Both East and West decide to pass, just as they would at an auction when the bidding gets too rich for their blood.

It has been a somewhat lively auction, and your side has bought the contract with your partner’s 4♥ bid, which means you need to take ten tricks to make your contract. (Remember, a book — six tricks — is automatically added to the bid.) If you don’t make your contract, the opponents score penalty points and you get zilch. The final contract of 4♥ also designates hearts as the trump suit.

Keep in mind the following points about the bidding sequence:

Each bid made is higher ranking than the previous bid.

A player can pass on the first round and bid later (as West did), or a player can bid on the first round and pass later (as East did).

After a bid has been made and three players in a row pass, the bidding is over.

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