I am a "developing" bridge player who has come to the conclusion that card reading/counting ability is the most important skill to learn; more than say, new bidding conventions.

There may be a precedent in chess, whereby a number of world champions were the best endgame players of their time, without being the best at the opening. (The endgame also "informs" middle game play.) The analogy would be that bidding is the opening, and cardreading is the endgame. After all, if you can "see" all the cards, you'll know how to play.

Were there any world class/world champion bridge players who were reputed to be the best card readers/counters of their time, even while having other skills (e.g. bidding) that were not top notch? A lot of the "glory" of world championships goes to new bidding styles, but could card reading be a "stealth" road to high level play?

  • 1
    Keep in mind that a lot of card reading information actually comes from the bidding itself, especially on defense.
    – ryanyuyu
    Commented Sep 12, 2018 at 3:26

3 Answers 3


I cannot emphasise enough that card-counting is the fundamental underlying skill for all others in Bridge. Until one has mastered counting every card, every hand, every session, until it has become both habitual and an obsession, one cannot even be considered a top-intermediate player. If you are not already counting the opponent's hands, the range of distributions and points possible, every time they call Pass, one cannot even be a competent bidder.

All advanced card-play techniques, including opening lead, are derivative of and dependent on accurate counting of the points and distribution around the table.

Further, if one has a demonstrated ability to count the hand, stronger players will take an interest in mentoring you and even having a game or two on occasion to check on your skill progression.

On your second point, you have confused "complexity of bidding system" with "accuracy of bidding system". Eric Rodwell and Jeff Meckstroth have been a regular partnership for nearly 30 years now (collectively known as Meckwell), and have an encyclopediac record of their bidding system (maintained by Rodwell) and are widely thought of as the best partnership in the world for much of that time.

By contrast the late Barry Crane played a very straightforward (and aggressive) Four-Card Majors system that any strong player could master in a matter of days. He in turn is regarded as the top Matchpoint player of all time.

Note that Crane's phenomenal success was achieved playing part-time (weekends only) while most of his competitors were able to play the full 5 days of most Regional tournaments. This may have influenced his desire for a simpler system, as he also played with more different partners.

  • Barry Crane's success reminds me of the story of the world backgammon champion who became so by specializing in backgames. Crane had a "different" system that worked for him and nullified the advantages of others when they were forced to meet him on his home ground.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Aug 5, 2023 at 1:16

There have been plenty of examples of experts who weren't top notch in bidding but absolutely brilliant in card play and did very well in international tournaments (citation needed though, unfortunately don't have any. Perhaps Martin Hoffman was one of them).

Bob Hamman has been known to say that the bidding system is 3%. Note, bidding judgement is quite important though (which if you look at it one way, is another aspect of cardplay).

Justin Lall has been known to say that even world class experts miss things at cardplay and if they didn't they would consistently win.

Being able to count the hand is an essential part of becoming a good player. If your goal is to be able to compete in international tournaments, you need to be competent at every aspect of the game. Trying to come up/be an expert at system and not be good enough at cardplay won't work.

  • I would go even further, and venture that every world class bridge player is superb at card-play, both as declarer and defender. After that, choice of bidding system becomes more a matter of style, and of which partners you most enjoy playing with: aggressive bidders choose aggressive systems, obsessive players choose precise systems. For many professionals most games are played with clients, and the bidding system in particular must be no more complex than is manageable by the client. Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 15:44
  • On occasion top partnerships such as Murray-Kehela develop where one partner is very aggressive and the other very obsessive. This is absolutely not incompatible with excellent results: Murray-Kehela were widely regarded as the third best partnership in the world through the height of the Italian Blue Team's success in the 1960's and 1970's, behind only Belladonna-Garozzo and Forquet with his partner of the month . Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 15:47

Generally world-class players have to be excellent at both, but there are certain players like Jeff Meckstroth and Joel Wooldridge who are particularly amazing card players. Two places to look for people with this skill are players (a) who do great at Matchpoints and less good at teams (as teams is more bidding-oriented), and (b) pro players who play across from clients. Their clients aren't capable of playing great bidding systems (or bidding accurately), so these pros don't get as much practice at top-flight bidding, and earn a lot of their money by playing the spots off of the cards. As an aside, in addition to card reading and counting, obfuscation is a huge part of world-class card play. When playing against these players, you often find yourself confronted by tough decisions. This is because they are forcing you to make choices before you know where all the cards are, or they have played cards in a way that makes it seem like they have something else.

  • the statement "(as teams is more bidding-oriented)" is blatantly false. Yes, teams is "more slam -bidding oriented"; but those hands are rare and match-points places extreme emphasis on accuracy in the far more numerous part-score auctions, and in particularly on the ability to double one-trick sets. I would argue that the latter is actually more challenging. Also, the mental strain of match-points bidding is greater, requiring more stamina even as there are no sessions off as in a 6-player team event. Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 15:51

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