When learning modern bidding (Standard American 5 card majors in my case), I noticed that the system's bidding techniques and common conventions described good ways of getting to a reasonable contract for most common types of hands very well, but seemed to miss with certain types of hands*. I also misbid a number of hands that experienced players at the table said were likely to end up in the wrong contract using my bidding system, and that that was okay.

Why do experienced bridge players think it is okay for a bidding system to generally result in poor contracts for certain types of hands*, urging beginning to intermediate players to delay learning how to bid these types of hands until they have much more experience?

  • Examples of "certain types of hands" include strong hands such as very long suits (9+ cards), 2 voids, seeming slam potential despite missing an Ace, etc. But also weak hands that intuitively seem to have potentially good pre-emptive value despite not falling into traditional weak 2 or weak 3 types of hands.
  • Note that this question was inspired by the following question about bidding hands with suits of extreme length, and is an attempt to make it into a clear and distinct question, appropriate for a FAQ (It is truly a question I had when learning bidding and I wish I had learned the answer much, much earlier than I actually did): boardgames.stackexchange.com/questions/6240/…
    – Joe Golton
    Jan 22, 2012 at 22:03
  • I'm curious as to what these "certain types of hands" are. Hands that really don't come up very often? Obviously you don't worry about those until you've mastered the actual meat and drink of Bridge play. (There are hands like 4-4-4-1 splits that are tricky to bid correctly that obviously do come up, but they don't come up often enough that absolute beginners need to wrap their head around their complexity, so it's the same basic principle, I feel...) Jan 22, 2012 at 22:36
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    @thesunneversets Good idea - I added in a few examples. What is obvious to you (and at long last to me) is not at all obvious to many beginners and was not obvious to me in my first few years of casual play. My bidding ability in bridge was hindered for many years by not having trust in the bidding system I was purportedly attempting to follow/learn, because I knew it failed for certain types of hands. Had I known and well understood the answer to this question, I would have progressed far faster.
    – Joe Golton
    Jan 22, 2012 at 23:02

5 Answers 5


To best understand the answer to this question, it helps to understand the purpose of bidding and bidding systems. Bidding is an attempt by two partners to predict the number of tricks their combined hands can win in the play. The purpose of bidding is for each partnership to ascertain which contract, whether made or defeated and whether bid by them or by their opponents, would give the partnership their best scoring result.

A bidding system is the set of agreements and understandings (treatments and conventions) assigned to bids and sequences of bids used by a partnership. As a beginning player, you might think it a simple matter to develop a bidding system which, if followed, would always land each partnership in the contract which yields the highest score. In reality, no perfect system has been developed. The problem is that the number of possible hands is too large to be mapped onto a tidy bidding system that works well for all of them. There is simply not enough bidding space to develop such a system.

Since designing a perfect bidding system is (probably) impossible, compromises must be made. The way this is usually done is to divide hands into types and develop a sense for which types of hands are most common, less common, uncommon, and extremely rare. When designing a bidding system, you make darn sure that the most common types of hands are easily dealt with, landing you in the highest scoring contract 100% of the time or close to it. Then you keep modifying the bidding system to deal with ever less common types of hands.

A beginning to intermediate student of bridge will do well to follow this same path of successive levels of approximation.

For example, if you're learning the Standard American system with a pair of books by William S. Root (Commonsense Bidding, Modern Bridge Conventions), you first master the bidding basics in the first 10 chapters of the book Commonsense Bidding. Perhaps that will enable your partnership to handle 65% of all hands once you've thoroughly mastered these chapters. Then you read the rest of the book to get your partnership able to handle 86% of hands. Then you cover the one-star conventions in the next book, Modern Bridge Conventions, to get you up to 93%. Then the 2-stars get you to 96%. Then the 3-stars get you up to 97%. Beyond these 2 books you'll get into increasingly esoteric conventions that come up so rarely in play that they're very hard to remember - but may help you tackle most of the remaining 3% of hands not covered by the treatments and conventions described in these 2 books.

The actual percentage of hands covered is almost certainly different than what I just described, but the concept is valid and can be applied to learning:

The most efficient way to learn bidding in bridge is to concentrate on the most common hands first and master the treatments and conventions for that thoroughly before starting to move on to deal with successively less common hands.

A common mistake of beginners and one which I made many times is to look at a certain hand and realize that the bidding I've learned so far probably won't work well for this type of hand. So instead of doing my best to follow the treatments and conventions I've learned so far, I simply ignore the system and try to do what feels right for the hand. This not only results in many misbid hands (your partner has no idea what you're doing!) but also slows down learning how to bid if you do this frequently.

Another common issue is getting obsessed about learning how to bid a certain type of hand. Yes it's very cool to learn how to bid slams that have a missing ace but a void in that suit (Splinter bids). But this type of hand comes up maybe once per thousand deals. If you try to learn that before you've mastered the basics, you're concentrating your efforts on a 1 in 1000 occurrence before you're dealing well with types of hands that come up every time you play.

So that's why you want to delay learning how to bid certain types of hands even if it lands you in poor contracts from time to time. By learning how to bid more common types of hands first, you make more efficient use of your learning time and get more used to applying basic treatments and conventions. Once you master the basics, you can better refine your bidding system with added treatments and conventions but if you don't have a good foundation to build on top of, this is more likely to hurt than help.

I know from experience as I had to unlearn years of bad habits developed during casual play - habits that would not have formed had I understood this concept of successive levels of approximation. Once I understood this, I then fully unlearned my bad habits, and my bidding improved dramatically.

  • Note that thesunnneverset's answer was also very good and very worth reading. It was difficult to choose which answer to accept.
    – Joe Golton
    Jan 30, 2012 at 20:06

I'm going to go for a "so simple it's possibly insulting" answer here. Hopefully it won't actually be taken amiss!

Bridge is a complicated game. There's a lot to take in, and in many ways there is no end to the amount of obsessive fine-tuning you can do to your system. A beginning player who has just brought a fat Bridge tome and read bits and pieces of the theory will probably blunder in and get a lot of things wrong the first few times they play.

As such, their more experienced mentor may subscribe to a Keep It Simple, Stupid philosophy. It's all very well to be enthusiastic about Jacoby Transfers and splinter raises to the 4 level over 1NT, which are in the latest chapter you've read, but these things are precision tools that are used in quite specific circumstances that don't come up very often. If you are devoting brain-space to them before you've mastered the art of bidding and defending simple 3NT contracts, you are almost certainly putting the cart before the horse.

It's much more useful to get good at basic Bridge before you start cogitating about the best techniques for winning rare outlying scenarios. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that you will have a much better chance of understanding these rare-outlying-scenario techniques, why they're needed and how they work, after you've really gotten a feel for "basic" "simple" Bridge. Beforehand, they actually stand a strong chance of screwing up the way you play.

Also, anyone who feels compelled to spend a long time panicking about how they'd deal with being dealt a 12- or 13-card suit should probably take a crash course in basic probability. Understanding probability is a big part of being good at Bridge. I'd feel a lot more comfortable playing with a partner who doesn't think one-in-a-million chances are worth taking in the course of the play :P

  • 1
    Right. There's nothing wrong with saying after a hand, "Sorry about that, I've never had that kind of hand before!" As long as you're straightforward about your experience, a good partner will understand if you can't manage a hand as well as you'd like - that's a natural part of learning any game. If they don't understand, well ... maybe your problem isn't the hand! Jan 24, 2012 at 17:15
  • I had a hard time choosing which answer to accept because I thought both this one and my own answer were excellent and helpful to the beginning-to-intermediate bridge player. I might even change my mind later. What tipped the balance slightly in favor of choosing my own answer was I explained more of the broader context (purpose of bidding and bidding systems). I wish there were a way I could accept both answers though as I think they both say the same thing in different ways. Some will prefer one. Some will prefer the other. Some will appreciate both styles of answer.
    – Joe Golton
    Jan 30, 2012 at 20:03
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    It's fine, asking questions you plan to answer yourself is a bit eccentric (and not really incentivised by the Stack Overflow points mechanic, AFAIK?) but I have nothing against you choosing the answer you prefer - especially when it did get more upvotes ;) Jan 30, 2012 at 20:48

What they are saying is "don't learn this, yet".

You need more bridge experience, and you don't want to spend all your time reading books, you need to take it out in practice, go out and play, see what goes wrong, etc.

You learn the game to play it, after all. You want to learn some simple bidding techniques to start off with so you can go out there and play. Playing duplicate is actually the best way to learn, as you then really do get to know when you have scored badly on the hand. With rubber you will probably just blame the luck of the cards. And you won't get the hand print-outs to look at to see what you could have done.

Mastering the competitive auction will do you well and in most books that is sadly neglected. Even in the most complex bidding systems notes, which I personally can never follow myself, there is very little about what to do when the opponents intervene.

In fact Mike Lawrence once suggested that it is extremely advantageous to open the bidding as much as possible because opponents' methods when the opposition open the bidding are far less discussed than those when they open. Whilst he knows a lot better than me, my own personal style is to keep 1-level opening bids sound and limited exactly so we know where we stand when the opponents enter the auction.

By the way, to really improve your bidding, learn to recognise situations where: - Your partner has made a decision and - Your opinion at this point is not sought.

If partner is expecting you to pass then do so. Don't think about it. And certainly if you do think about it, do what partner is expecting you to do. Even if it ends up being the wrong thing this time, it will probably be better for your partnership in the long run.

Another thing you need to learn is when partner has come into the auction to compete or push them, not to keep on bidding until you get doubled for a large amount. Yes, raise with support if you feel partner wants to know about it, but don't punish partner.

Do these and for one, you'll find it easier to keep partners and secondarily, if you master these aspects of competitive bidding you will be a bigger winner at the table, and can work more on improving your card-play.


The unusual types of hands require "judgment," and an intuitive feel for what is right. Those are things that beginning players lack, by definition.

The only way of teaching such hands to beginners is by "rote," because the logic will not be obvious. That will only confuse a beginner, who is being taught things for which the logic is obvious. If teaching certain types of hands would only create that kind of confusion, it's better not to teach it all.

Or put another way, for those hands, by the time you could teach someone how to bid them, that person might possibly have figured out a solution on their own; that's how "advanced" some hands are.


For the same reason that you don't teach a 4th grader that the actual approach velocity of a train going 100 mph from Chicago to New York and a train going 120 mph from New York to Chicago is (v1 + v2)/(1 + v1v2/c^2).

There are many situations where it's better to walk before you run. I've seen far too many beginning bridge players think that they have game or slam just because they have a long suit, only to go down 5 doubled.

Patience, grasshopper. Patience.

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