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Some years ago I tried to learn to play contract bridge with some friends and I never really understood the philosophy (for want of a better word) of bidding. It seemed as if we just had to learn a set of rules and apply them - e.g. if you have N points and a balanced hand, open with [whatever], if you're responding to your partner's bid of [whatever] do [something depending on your hand], etc. It was some effort to learn even the basic set of these rules, and it appeared (at the very basic level we were playing) as if the whole bidding process could have been done perfectly by an algorithm running on a computer (or your phone :))

As I understand it, in bridge competitions one is obliged to disclose which conventions you and your partner use, which also suggests to me that the intention is that your bids are an open and deterministic description of your hand.

So, with apologies for my naivety, my question is really where the skill lies in bidding well? Or to what extent is the interest largely later on in the game, when applying what was learned through the bidding in playing the hand?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Wikipedia says that any bridge bidding system is a well-defined form of legal table talk:

Each bidding system ascribes a meaning to every possible call by each member of a partnership, and presents a codified language which allows the players to exchange information about their card holdings.

That would seem to imply that there is no skill involved at all, but I think there's more to it than that. I used to be a casual reader of the bridge quizzes printed in our newspaper. They would tell stories of bridge tournaments where every table played the same hand, and different tables would arrive at slightly different contracts. As the commenters have pointed out, there is some flexibility within the bidding system. It's not an exact algorithm. While everyone knows what your bid theoretically means in the context of your hand, you and partner still need to use that knowledge effectively to arrive at the most profitable contract. The skill, therefore, is in correctly choosing the next bid, not in decoding the bids or deceiving your opponents.

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+1. The point of the codified bidding is to provide your partner with as much information as possible in a limited space... but the space is very limited. The 'algorithm' sometimes gives you several reasonable choices for next bid, depending on whether your and your partner's points are at the low / high end of the given bids... and which you choose decides what information your partner will have when play comes. –  Tynam Jan 8 '11 at 23:42
    
Thanks for the answer, @Kristo, and the helpful followup comment, @Tynam - I think the problem was that at the stage I got to in learning I didn't notice situations where there might be more than one possible next bid according to the bidding system. @Kristo: you imply this in your answer, but perhaps you could edit it to make it more explicit that bidding systems typically don't specify a unique next bid? –  Mark Longair Jan 9 '11 at 17:10
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I would suggest that, after the opening bid, most bids are open to a certain amount of "artistic licence"; certainly there are very few hands that have an objectively correct interpretation, in any bidding system. The scoreline is also relevant: what might be a correct bid if you need a slam to win the match might be a terrible bid if you need a partscore. (Assuming we're not playing duplicate of course.) I remember my own bidding style fluctuating based on whether my partner was an aggressive or cautious bidder! And there are many other possible factors... –  thesunneversets Jan 9 '11 at 21:07
    
@Mark, I've edited my answer slightly to try to roll in what you guys have suggested. –  Kristo Jan 9 '11 at 22:04
    
you're talking about duplicate bridge: my grandmother used to play in tournaments like that quite a lot. The idea was that playing identical hands took much of the luck out of the tournament, and usually the best players would have better results. As you say, it's really more about accurately estimating the best contract you and your partner can make, the best contract your opponents might make, and either approaching the former or disrupting the latter (or both). –  Dave DuPlantis Apr 8 '11 at 1:48
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I know I am a bit late, but there is a lot more to Bidding than just applying a set of rules.

There is this aspect of bidding called 'judgement' which does not depend on the bidding system you use, and this is where the skill and experience of better players shows. In fact, top players would claim that the system is immaterial (implying that it is judgement which is paramount). If I remember correctly, Bob Hamman once quoted that System is 3% of the game. When asked about this quote, he said, "Did I say that much?".

Here are some examples where you need to apply your judgement

  • Deciding what to open:

    Example: playing a standard American system and holding Kx, AKxx, Qxxxx, Kx. Most experts would open 1NT with this, even though 1NT shows a 'balanced' hand which this is not. The reason being that it becomes harder to handle in later bidding. What would you rebid if partner responds 1S?

  • Deciding where to pass/invite/bid game.

    Example: You hold AKxxx, x, AQTxx, xx. You bid 1S and partner raises to 2S, showing 6-9 points. Even though you only hold 19-22 points and you normally need 26 points for game, you ought to bid game (4S) here. (Some systems try to account for this by adding points for shortness).

  • Deciding the right suit to play in.

    Example, you hold xxx, Kxxx, Kxxx, Kx. Partner opens 1S showing 5+ spades, you raise to 2S and partner now bids 3H. Showing 4 or more hearts and inviting to game. You should bid 4H here. One, you accept the invite and two, a 4-4 fit usually plays better than an 5-3 fit.

Many times, you actually need to imagine how the play might go during the bidding itself (this is especially true when deciding whether to bid slam or not) and the rules don't help you much there. Then, there is skill in deciding whether to sacrifice over opponents contract, etc.

More evidence of this are the complaints most people have on BBO (an online site to play bridge) regarding the bidding by GIB, the robot. It should be easy for a computer to apply a set of rules...

So in short, No. :-)

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Thanks for your answer - it's nice to see some examples (and the mention of a real life bidding robot :)) –  Mark Longair Apr 27 '11 at 9:14
    
It is easy for a computer to apply a set of rules! The problem is that you have to specify the entire set of rules, complete with defaults and precedence ... and if you could specify the entire set of rules accurately, you wouldn't need a computer to do it. :) –  Dave DuPlantis Jun 15 '11 at 17:53
    
@Dave: True, one major problem is to precisely define every possible sequence. But, even the opening bids by GIB can sometimes be crazy (or not what a human would do). Rules for opening bids should be simple to code in I suppose. –  Aryabhata Jun 15 '11 at 18:04
    
I think it's the exceptions more than the rules that cause problems. It's trivial to count up high-card points; the challenges come when you start talking about part scores and fourth hand and such, and I think that gets back to your original point: bidding is more than just rules, and it's important to learn exceptions and reasons behind them as well. –  Dave DuPlantis Jun 15 '11 at 18:27
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@Dave: Multiple rules could apply at the same time and there need not be a fixed precedence order which will work everytime. And as the bidding sequence gets a bit complex, this becomes even more pronounced. I guess that is another way of saying it is hard to know when not to apply a rule (i.e. exceptions)... –  Aryabhata Jun 15 '11 at 18:59
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Yes, bidding was difficult for me to get my head around, at first, too. I liked the idea of sharing a system with my partner - but intuitively it seemed as if this should be secret information, to be kept from the opponents, to hopefully confound and overwhelm them. The fact that, if your opponents ask you "what did your partner's bid mean?", you are obliged to answer them honestly was initially alien.

Having said that: it's only your system that has to be revealed to your opponents. If they ask you "what did your partner's bid mean?", all you need to disclose is what partner's bid ought to mean, according to your system. If your partner is getting a little bit creative with his bidding, based on the complexities of a particular hand... well, there's no realistic way to keep the opponents informed of that. As a friend of mine was very fond of saying: "If you lie to one partner and two opponents, you've made a profit on the deal."

So fundamentally I don't see any problem with bidding systems being open information. There would be no glory in beating your opponents because they doubled you assuming your no trump bid was weak, when in reality it was strong. You have to work pretty hard to outsmart your opponents during the bidding sequence, which makes it all the sweeter when you manage to do it! But in the end, the actual play is more important, and that's where the opportunities to be deceitful (through falsecarding and such) really shine.

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+1 Thanks for the very interesting answer. I didn't realize that in tournaments one could ask about the meaning of bids as you go along! –  Mark Longair Jan 10 '11 at 9:00
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While you have to disclose your system to the opposition there is certainly skill in designing bids and systems in the first place, which of course any partnership is free to do.

the bidding space forms a fixed code-space in which you would like to communicate much more than you can, so there are trade-offs. Every conventional bid you add replaces a natural bid so the trick is to replace 'boring bids' with conventions which give you extra help in e.g. finding slams or games, as they are weighted much more than getting part games in the scoring.

Another thing to bear in mind is that your opponents aren't necessarily just going to sit there and let you bid to slam uninterrupted. There are numerous conventions for disrupting opponents bidding while not risking too much. The bidding space is potentially even more limited when your opponents bid as well.

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I'd say that bidding is a way of communicating with a partner.

I bid (and play) particularly well with a certain partner. She's aggressive, which means I know enough to pass or whatever, with a minimum, keep the bidding open with "intermediates" (and let her decide the final contract), and bid aggressively when I have "extras." And that's true even using "standard" systems.

Neither of us seem to do quite as well (relative to our abilities) with others.

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