The basic rules of rubber bridge

One of the most persistent myths about bridge is that the game is hard to learn.

If you look at the extensive rule compendiums that characterize games like Dungeons & Dragons or Magic: The Gathering, bridge is no harder to learn than any of these popular tabletop games.

In fact, Magic: The Gathering is one of the most complex card games in existence (at least according to Guinness World Records).

The basic rules of bridge can be explained to anyone in just a few minutes. Advanced plays and things like bidding can be learned over time.

Here’s a quick and condensed version of the most basic rubber bridge rules.

What’s Bridge?

Bridge is a card game, played online and face-to-face by thousands of players in the world. Here’s a summary of the most basic bridge-playing facts:

Bridge is played by two-player partnerships or teams.

The game is played clockwise.

One team’s player takes the role of declarer, while the other assumes 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 & 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 notrump) 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 three players have passed, 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 & Notrumps (NT)

Trumps and Notrumps are alien to many card players, but also 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.

Notrump means there is no trump or “strongest” suit for the game, and the suit rankings are as normal.

Suits are ranked as:

Notrump (NT)

Spades

Hearts

Diamonds

Clubs

Bridge Hand Basics

A poker game relies on the “strength” of the cards in your hand. Having (H) A K Q J 10 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 A K Q J and 10 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).

Counting 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.

Bridge Scoring

There are several ways to score a bridge game. It’s recommended to learn standard rubber bridge scoring first. 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.

As above, so below

Rubber bridge is scored in two columns, marked WE and THEY. A horizontal line is drawn to separate these columns.

Tricks are scored below the line. Overtricks (bonuses) and undertricks (penalties) are scored above the line instead.

Scoring tricks

Minor suits (clubs and diamonds) are worth 20 per trick.

Major suits (spades and hearts) are worth 30 per trick.

Notrump contracts are worth 40 for the first trick, and 30 for the rest.

Doubled contracts

For doubled contracts, tricks are scored at doubled points. Doubled, redoubled contracts are scored at quadruple points.

A successful doubled contract gets the declarer team 50 points scored above the line. Redoubled contracts gain 100 points.

The grand slam

Winning 13 tricks out of 13 is called a Grand Slam.

It’s worth 1, 000 points (non-vulnerable), or 1, 500 points (vulnerable).

The little slam

Winning 12 tricks out of 13 is called a Little Slam.

It’s worth 500 points (non-vulnerable), or 750 points (vulnerable).

Overtricks

Overtricks are the tricks a team wins in excess of what they’ve bid.

Minor suit contracts (clubs and diamonds) are worth 20 points.

Major suit contracts (hearts and spades) or NT contracts are worth 30 points.

Overtricks (doubled or redoubled)

Overtricks are scored differently for contracts that are doubled or redoubled.

If non-vulnerable, doubled overtricks are worth 100 points.

If vulnerable, doubled overtricks are worth 200 points.

Redoubled overtricks are worth either 200 or 400 points for the non-vulnerable or vulnerable team.

Undertricks & Penalties (Non-vulnerable)

Undertricks are the penalties for when the declarer’s team scores less tricks than they bid. Opponents will score these points above the line (as a bonus).

Declarer’s vulnerability matters. If the declarer is non-vulnerable:

Each non-doubled undertrick is worth 50 points.

The first doubled undertrick is worth 100 points.

The second and third doubled undertricks are worth 200 points (each).

The fourth and next doubled undertricks are worth 300 points (each).

If redoubled, the penalties are worth x 2 points from the above.

Undertricks & Penalties (vulnerable)

Declarer’s vulnerability matters. If the declarer is vulnerable:

Each non-doubled undertrick is worth 100 points.

The first doubled undertrick is worth 200 points.

The second and third doubled undertricks are worth 300 points (each).

The fourth and next doubled undertricks are worth 300 points (each).

Again, if redoubled, the penalties are worth x 2 points from the above.

Honors bonuses

The deck’s honor cards are A K Q J and 10.

If one player has all five at the game’s end, it’s a 150 point honors bonus. Should the player’s hand contain four honor cards, it’s a 100 point bonus. For all four aces in one hand, a 150 point bonus is added.

Sometimes, bonuses for honors are optional.

Game & Rubber bonuses

Game means the first team to score 100+ points below the line.

Since rubbers are best of three, bonuses are involved for the victorious team.

Winning the rubber 2-to-0 is worth a 700 point rubber bonus.

Winning the rubber 2-to-1 is worth a 500 point rubber bonus.

For final scoring, the team with the highest score is the winner.

Some more basic bridge terms

While there are many more, here are some basic bridge terms you’ll encounter as a beginning player and what they mean.

  • Auction: The bidding phase.
  • Bid: A number (1 to 7), and a suit.
  • Book: The game’s first six tricks, called ‘making book”. Overtricks are tricks played beyond the initial six.
  • Contract: The result of the bidding phase. A contract is what the winning team has bid to achieve, with tricks and suit. When three players bid Pass, the game’s contract is set.
  • Chicago: A form of bridge, played with four deals instead of best-of-three.
  • Declarer: The player who makes the final contract bid becomes the declarer, while their partner becomes the dummy.
  • Double: A potential bid that doubles your potential score, but also potential penalties. Players can also redouble.
  • Doubleton: A suit with two cards.
  • Duck: The deliberate avoidance of a potential trick, usually for strategic reasons.
  • Dummy: The declarer’s partner, whose cards are placed face-up and played by the declarer.
  • Discard: Playing from another suit when you cannot follow.
  • Finesse: Winning a trick with a lower-ranking honor card.
  • Following Suit: Playing the next card in the same suit.
  • Forcing: Either forcing one player to lose their intended trick, or forcing another player’s bid.
  • Lead: The first card of a trick.
  • Master Card: The highest-ranking card in play.
  • Non-Vulnerable: The team who has not yet won a game within the rubber, important for scoring.
  • Opening Bid: The first bid.
  • Redouble: A potential bid that redoubles your potential score, but also potential penalties. Redoubles are bid after an opponent’s double, increasing the game’s risk.
  • Response: The secondary bid, made after a bridge partner has made the opening bid.
  • Rubber: A form of bridge, played as best-of-three.
  • Ruffing: Winning a trick in a non-led suit, also referred to as a “ruff”.
  • Singleton: A suit with one card.
  • Trump: Trumps function as the superior suit, when chosen. Notrump (or NT) is their opposite.
  • Overcall: A bid made after an opponent’s opening bid.
  • Overtricks: Tricks counted past “book.”
  • Underlead: Leading tricks with a low card, while you have a higher-ranking choice.
  • Undertricks: Tricks short of the game’s contract.
  • Void: Containing no cards in that suit within your hand.
  • Vulnerable: The team who has won at least one game in a rubber, important for scoring.