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Learning to play Contract Bridge

November 3, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

S and I have been learning how to play Contract Bridge. We’re friends with several retired women, and they’ve been kind (and patient) enough to teach us the fundamentals of the game.

It’s unlike any other game I’ve played. I’m not unfamiliar with trick-taking games: I grew up on Pinochle, love Hearts and Spades, play Oh Hell whenever I get the chance, like Pitch, enjoy the occasional game of 500, and so on. But Bridge is different.

It’s not that the bidder plays the dummy hand as well as his own, though that is interesting. It’s not that some suits are worth more than others. And it’s also not that every trick counts just one, though with my Pinochle background I do find that a little unsettling.

It’s the bidding. We’re learning standard American bidding, which is a “natural” system (as opposed to an “artificial” system). What this means is that you tend to bid suits that you actually want to play (with some exceptions), and you tend to base your bids on the strength of your hand (as opposed to bidding weak hands high).

I understand the value of the natural system, and I see merit also in the artificial approach.

What I’m having difficulty with, I think, is the cultural assumptions behind the bidding.

Most of the games I’m familiar with involve a fairly straight-ahead approach. In Pinochle, for example, you bid what you think your hand is worth, counting on your partner both to have at least some meld and to be able to take at least a couple tricks (depending, of course, on how they bid). But the function of the bidding in Pinochle is to either (a) get the bid or (b) bid up your opponents so you can set them. You communicate minimally with your partner and bid primarily on the strength of your own hand.

Bridge isn’t the exact opposite, but it’s close. In Bridge, bidding is more like a ritualized dance — the whole purpose of bidding (at least in the beginning) is communication. When you bid, you’re trying both to give information to your partner and get information from your partner. It doesn’t matter how great your hand is, in other words, it matters how well you communicate its strengths and weaknesses to the person sitting across from you.

And while this is undeniably cool, it feels almost like a lost cultural art, a holdover from an earlier time. It feels a little alien to me, somehow, as though the skills we are taught in our culture today don’t quite prepare us for a life of playing Bridge. In this world of video games and television, of movies and the internet, of cell phones and mp3 players and digital cameras, the subtle art of dancing is becoming … obsolete.

Granted, I’m just learning the game, so I may be a bit off base. But I can see, somehow, why Bridge is dying out (or, worse yet, becoming a specialist’s game) — it requires a set of skills most people of my generation simply don’t have the time or the patience to learn.

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