The Auction

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Every hand of bridge starts with a auction. The purpose of the bridge auction (or the bidding) in contract bridge is to determine which pair will play on offense (or, in bridge terms, will try to make a contract), and which pair will play on defense, trying to defeat or “set” a contract.

Eventually during the paying of the hand, all players will take turns playing one card at the time, so that in total 13 “tricks” (sets of four cards, one from each player) will be at stake. The highest card in the suit that was led wins the trick (unless one player was in position to trump it and take it with a trump card).

During the bridge auction, teams will try to take the offense and in effect place bets (or make predictions) that they can take at least more than half the tricks in the deck. This process is called the bidding or the auction. Since half of all the tracks would be 6.5 tricks and there are no half-tricks, the bidding or the auction starts with 7 tricks, which means a bid of One. Bidding One of the four suits (Spades, Hearts, Diamonds or Clubs) or No-Trump in effect means a prediction that the bidder and his or her partner will be able to take 7 tricks with that suit as trump (or with the absence of any trumps if the bid was in No-Trump).

On any bid, always add 6 to get the exact number of tricks that the bid or contract represents. In other words, a bid of Two Clubs means a prediction that the partnership can make 8 tricks (2+6) with Clubs as trump; a bid of 3 No-Trump means a prediction that the partnership can make 9 (3+6) tricks without anything being trump; and finally a bid of 7 Spades (very rare) means that the partnership predicts it can make all 13 tricks (7+6) as long as Spades are trump.

Bidding starts with the dealer of the hand and rotates clockwise. If all four players “Pass” the hand, then the cards are thrown in, the deck is reshuffled and the deal progresses clockwise to the next player in kitchen or Rubber bridge, but in duplicate bridge tournament, a so-called “pass-out” counts as a score and other pairs playing the same hand will get the chance to see if they think they can bid something on it.

The bidding is finished and the contract for the hand is determined when the next three players pass after the last bid. That’s when the playing of the hand commences.

At duplicate bridge tournaments, there are strict rules governing the bidding, and it is a good idea to apply those rules to friendly bridge games or “kitchen bridge” as well in preparation for participation in duplicate tournaments. Communication between partners (and opponents) may consist only of the following words – or cards to be shown from bidding boxes, since speaking is forbidden to prevent players from putting hidden meanings into the intonation of their voices:

  • pass
  • the numbers one through seven indicating the number of tricks that is being bid
  • the names of the suits (Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts and Spades, plus No-Trump), plus
  • the words “double” and “redouble” – or cards representing those bids.

The double

One of a pair of defenders may “double” a contract bid by the opposition to raise the stakes and significantly increase the penalty points for failing to make a contract. However, if the pair on offense makes the contract despite the double, its plus points increase as well. After a “double” by a defensive player, one of a pair of players on offense may also “redouble” the contract, in effect raising the stakes by a power of four, both for offense and defense. This is an extremely risky move, for both sides.

The words uttered during the auction or bidding may not be said with any special intonation or accompanied by hand or foot signals. Kicking a partner under the table during the auction is also prohibited. In world championship duplicate matches, this is also made physically impossible by partitions that stretch under the table to floor level and extend above the table to prevent partners from seeing each other’s facial expressions.

In duplicate tournaments, bids are made with cards pulled out of a bidding box. Each possible bid is represented by a card. Likewise, cards may not be put down on the table with extra gestures or histrionics such as slamming, throwing, flicking that could be interpreted as an attempt to convey extra information to a partner.

If an opponent does not understand a bid by a player seeking to be on offense, the opponent may ask the partner of the bidder what that bid means and the partner has to honestly answer the question. The purpose is open communication between all 4 players so everyone knows what’s going on — no secret signals.

Finding the right contract

The purpose of the bidding is to determine between the two partners as exactly as possible how many tricks they think they will be able to take during the playing of the hand. It is NOT to bid as low as possible, steal a contract by lowballing an estimate and then make a bunch of “overtricks.”

The aim of the game is to come as close as possible to the final prediction. This creates the balance between offense and defense – and, as a result, incentivizes both pairs to score the most possible points for their side.

How do you determine what’s the right “contract” in any hand?

There are many different bidding systems to help players determine this. These days there are many complicated bidding systems invented by master-level players from different countries, but we will first deal with the present-day “Standard American” system that can easily be followed by all beginners and intermediate players.

Here are some of the elements of that system. It is a point system, but these points do not mean anything for the final score. The points are merely a “mental crutch” to help players figure out what to bid. Once the playing starts, these points to help determine what to bid do not mean anything.

The points system to make the right bid

To be able to take tricks during the playing, it helps to have the high cards in the various suits. Therefore, any

Ace (always high in bridge, contrary to poker) is assigned a value of 4 points;

Kings are worth 3;

Queens are 2, and

Jacks are 1.

A singleton (having only one card in a suit) counts for 2 points, while a void (having no cards at all in a suit) counts for 4. These artificial “distribution points” are extremely valuable since a singleton usually means that after the suit has been played once, the player has an opportunity to take the second trick played in the suit with a trump. This singleton may be the equivalent of having a King in the suit. And a void means that the player may take the very first trick played in the suit with a trump, even “trumping” an opponent’s Ace.

However, it is not recommended to count artificial distribution points if they are in a suit which your own partner is bidding – in that case you’re not likely to be able to take advantage of your singleton or void. On the other hand, if the singleton or void is in a suit that one or both of the opponents are bidding, such distribution points will become extremely valuable.

Not counting artificial points due to distribution, there are a total of 40 high-card points in a deck. Therefore, since there are four players, having a 10-point hand would represent having an average hand.

Hence, in the modern aggressive bidding system, it is recommended that players open the bidding (or auction) if they have a minimum of 12 high-card points, which means he or she has a slightly better-than-average hand. (If the first two players have passed, to prevent the hand from being thrown in and having to be re-dealt (or everyone getting a zero in duplicate), it is permissible for the players in third and/or fourth position to open with as few as 11 high-card points.)

Here are the recommendations from the Standard American bidding system:

12 – 21 points

Bid One of a Major Suit (Spades or Hearts) if you have five of them, one Diamond or One Club, whichever is the longer/better suit if you do not have a five-card major suit.


15 – 17 points  and a No-Trump distribution, meaning no singletons or voids (nothing worse than a doubleton)

Bid One No Trump

20 – 21 points

Bid Two No-Trump, again no singletons or voids

22-24 points

Bid Two Clubs (artificial bid)

25 points-plus (and a balanced hand)

Bid 3 No-Trump (you’re unlikely to have singletons or voids with that point count)

The proper responses

The partner of the player who opens needs at least 6 points to respond (bid the next available bid in his or her own longest suit). This ensures that the partnership will have at least close to 20 points, or half the high-card points in the deck, which in most cases is a minimum requirement for playing any contract requiring the taking of more than half the tricks in the deck.

If a player opens with a stronger-than-minimum bid of One No-trump or higher, the partner needs only 5 points to support the opener if he or she has a five-card suit or some other feature raising the value of the hand. This at least ensures that the partnership will have more than half the high-card points in the deck.

No player may ever pass a 2 Clubs bid by a partner. Since the partner has more than half the high-card points in the deck in his or her own hand, he or she is not likely to need much support at all to play any hand and will likely want to explore the opportunity to play one of the higher contracts with bonus points. If the partner of the player who opens with a 2 Clubs bid has a suit of at least five cards, he or she should make a bid and find an opportunity to mention that suit regardless of points (probably after first indicating point count). The weakest answer to a 2 Clubs bid would be 2 Diamonds, which means no five-card suit and 0 to 4 high-card points.

If a player opens with a one-bid and his or her partner also has at least 12 points (in other words, he or she could have opened the bidding as well), then he or she can give at least two response bids in successive rounds, or perhaps even respond with a “jump” bid in a second round. A jump bid or a “double raise” does not take the next available bid in that suit, but goes one higher. For example: South opens with One Club and if West and East both pass as defenders and North has 14 points, North could bid One Heart on the first round, but jump to 3 Hearts on the second round (assuming partner made another bid, for example, One No-Trump), to indicate more than average support – and at least a five-card suit.

Pre-emptive bidding with weak hands

Players may also open the bidding with fewer than 12 high-card points if they have great length in a suit, which often compensates for lack of high-card strength if that suit can be established as the trump suit. This represents a reasonable attempt to “steal the bid” from the pair that has the most power, or at least make it difficult for them to determine an ideal contract.

There are two forms of such defensive bidding:

Hands with 5-11 points and a six-card suit in Diamonds, Hearts or Spades (but not Clubs) my open with a 2 bid in that suit – this is a so-called “weak 2” bid. The partner of the weak 2 opener should raise the bid to the Game level in that suit if he or she has opening points and no void in the trump suit. If he/she has fewer than opening points, just pass. Do not change suits on your partner unless you are sure that have at least a better six-card suit. (See also the bidding appendix for the “asking for a feature” and the Ogust bidding conventions.)

Hands with 6-11 points and seven-card length in any suit (including Clubs) may open at the 3 level in that suit, a so-called pre-emptive bid. Again, the partner of the pre-emptive opener should raise to Game in that suit if he or she has opening points. Responders should be even more hesitant to change suits on his/her partner who opens with a seven-card suit.

Defensive interference

In modern bridge both sides try to bid as aggressively as possible. After an opponent has opened, the defensive opponents do not necessarily immediately concede the auction for the contract without further competition. With as few as 8 high-card points, the first opponent to bid after one player had opened may issue a “simple overcall.”

For example: Someone opens 1 Club and the next player has 9 high-card points with 5 Spades. A One Spade bid is appropriate and if the partner of the Spade bidder also happens to have some Spades, they may well compete in the auction to the 2 or 3 level and be able to make a contract even with a minority of high-card points due to favorable distribution.

The sacrifice

Defensive bidding may even persist to the 5 level or higher. For example, If your opponents are vulnerable, they stand to earn 620 points from a 4 Spades or a 4 Hearts contract. But if on defense you have determined between you and your partner that you have long Diamonds (or Clubs), you may “sacrifice” in 5 Clubs.

If you go Down Two doubled but not vulnerable, you give up only 300 points, which is a much better result than letting them make 4 Spades for 620. Even Down 3 in this case would be only minus-500 and would still be a favourable score.

The art of sacrificing is one of the higher-level skills in bridge for which a thorough understanding of the scoring system is necessary.

(There are many different bidding conventions, both for offense and for defense, and at the end of this primer, some of the more common conventions are listed in an appendix.)

Game and Slam bonuses

There are bonus points attached to playing “Game” (scoring at least 100 points below the line in Rubber bridge), and to playing a “Slam.” A Small Slam means bidding and making 6, in other words taking all but one of the 13 available tricks; a Grand Slam means making and bidding all 13 tricks. Slams are difficult to achieve and therefore carry great rewards as well.

A “Game” can be achieved by bidding and making Three No-Trump (9 out of 13 tricks), Four Spades or Hearts (10 out of 13 tricks), or Five Diamonds or Clubs (11 out of 13 tricks). All these bids represent at least 100 points “below the line” for contracts bid and made in Rubber bridge. In duplicate tournament bridge, a Game is worth a bonus of 300 points if the pair was not vulnerable, 500 points if it was.

A rule of thumb is that a partnership will need a minimum of 25 high-card points (out of the 40 in the deck) to be able to play the easiest or lowest Game in 3 No-Trump, and a minimum of at least 29 out of 40 to be able to even think of the possibility of bidding a Small Slam.

Therefore, it is probably not wise to try for a contract that would be a “Game” unless both partners have an opening or something very close to it. Game, in Rubber bridge, can also be achieved by two (or more) partial scores. In other words, a partnership may make a contract of 2 Spades (60 points) in one hand and 2 Diamonds (40 points) in the next hand, which together will amount to one “Game” since the two partial scores add up to 100.

However, if the opposing partnership scores a “Game” of its own before the Game is completed with a second partial contract, then any partial score that the first pair had (also called a “leg” towards a Game) is wiped out and the first pair would have to start all over again to start building toward a “Game.”

A bridge “Rubber” ends when one pair scores two “Games” (a minimum of 100 points under the line, twice). A Rubber can be won two Games to zero (700 bonus points) or two Games to one (500 bonus points). A Game in an unfinished rubber counts for 300 bonus points.

To explore the opportunity of playing a Slam, one player in the partnership usually needs to have a stronger-than-average opening like a One No-Trump bid (minimum 15 points), and the partner needs to have an opening as well (minimum 12 points). Then the partnership may proceed to “ask for Aces (and Kings)” since at this point the possibility of making any Slam depends on missing no more than one Ace.

The “Four Clubs Convention” (also called Gerber) uses a bid of Four Clubs to ask for Aces. The reply is as follows: The very next bid, Four Diamonds, means 0 Aces; the next bid, Four Hearts, means 1 Ace; the next bid of Four Spades means 2 Aces, etc.

If the number of Kings is vital to the determination of the possibility of reaching a final Slam contract, the partner doing the asking will take the very next bid from the answer and that will mean: “How many Kings do you have?” In other words, a partner may ask for Aces with a bid of Four Clubs, and if the answer is Four Hearts (1 Ace), a bid of Four Spades (the very next bid) means asking for Kings. The answer is determined in the same fashion. The very next bid, Four No-Trump in this case, will mean 0 Kings, the next bid of Five Clubs will mean 1 King; Five Diamonds will mean 2 Kings, etc.

In another convention called Blackwood, 4 No-Trump bid means asking for Aces. The answer is at the 5 level, with Clubs, the lowest suit, meaning 0, Diamonds meaning 1, etc. In this convention, 5 No-Trump is used to ask for Kings and the answer, in the same fashion with Clubs meaning 0, is at the 6 level.

In both Rubber and duplicate bridge, a Small Slam is worth 500 bonus points if the pair is not vulnerable, and 750 if it is. A grand Slam is worth double – 1,000 points not vulnerable, and 1,500 vulnerable.

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