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How to get started in bridge

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Counting figures as diverse as Warren Buffet, Martina Navratilova, and Dwight D. Eisenhower among its millions of fans, bridge is one of the world's most intricate and rewarding games. To succeed, you'll need strategy, memory, intuition, logic, guile, and no small amount of luck.

Small wonder it has a reputation as being hard to learn. Don't let that put you off: follow these simple steps, and you'll be ready to lay down with the best of them.

Get a good partner

Bridge is a team game -- there's nothing worse than a bridge partner who's unpredictable. If you want to get anywhere, you have to have a partner you can rely on. If you know an experienced, patient player who can be talked into showing a novice the ropes, that's perfect; likewise, learning together with a fellow beginner is perfectly doable.

But logical as it seems to select your husband, wife, or other life-partner, it's not always a good idea. Spousal disagreements at the bridge table have been known to end in murder charges. We're not saying you should let that put you off, but many bridge-playing spouses indeed prefer to partner-up with other people.

Play some spades.

Yeah, you heard that right. In fact, playing anything from the whist family of trick-taking card games (hearts, Oh Hell, whist itself) will provide a decent primer for bridge, but spades is a particularly good choice.

Why's that? It shares many gameplay mechanics with bridge: two pairs of players, sitting opposite each other; thirteen cards each; highest card wins each trick. Spades is just less intricate and overwhelming for beginners. Once you have a solid grasp of spades -- and perhaps you already do -- you'll know most of what you need to survive a bridge hand without fear.

But that's only half the game.

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Going once, going twice: the auction

The other half is the "auction," a process before each hand where each partnership attempts to reach an agreement -- a "contract," in bridge lingo -- on what the trump suit will be, and the number of tricks the partnership expects to take over the course of the hand. It has a reputation as being impenetrable, and high-level auctions can indeed be hard to follow, but here are the basics:

Players take turns to bid a number and a suit. The number indicates how many of the hand's 13 tricks they think they can take, and the suit specifies the trump suit they favor. By convention, the first six tricks are assumed, so a bid of "two spades" means that player thinks she and her partner can take a total of eight (six plus two) tricks if spades are trumps. If you can't find a suit that suits you both, you can bid "no trumps," which, if successful, means the hand will be played with no trump suit at all. If you don't want to bid, you pass.

Easy, right? Like any auction, you can only bid up, not down -- suits are ranked in alphabetical order -- and the auction is settled once three players pass in succession. One note: in anything beyond the most social of bridge settings, superfluous chatter is frowned upon, and could even lead to accusations of cheating. The only way you and your partner can exchange information about your hands is with your bids.

So how high you can go?

First, figure out how strong your hand is. Give it four points for each ace, three for each king, two for each queen, and one for each jack. Add an extra point if you have only one card in a suit, and an extra two if you happen to be missing a suit altogether. A good hand is generally 13 points or more; fewer than seven is on the weak side.

Now you know what you're working with, you'll have some idea of how aggressively you should bid. On the whole, you can "open the bidding" -- be the first in your partnership to bid -- if you have 13 or more points. If your partner opens, you ought to have at least six points if you're going to reply with the same suit, and eight to propose a new one. Fewer than that, keep quiet.

Once you and your partner have agreed on a suit, you'll need to know how high you can bid. It's as much art as science, but as a general indication you need at least 22 combined points for a contract at the three-level, 25 points at the four-level, and 28 at the five.

Got a kick-ass hand? Bids of six and especially seven, nicknamed a "small slam" and "grand slam" are comparatively rare, but they do happen. You'll need some serious luck -- and, more often than not, an advanced bidding strategy -- to bid successfully at this level. Bidding eight is almost inevitably unwise, and likely to get you ejected from most games.

Playing the hand

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Bridge players (Getty Images)

Now you've settled on a contract, it's time to actually play some cards. Of the winning partnership, the player who originally bid the eventual trump suit is termed the "declarer," and her partner is called, rather unfortunately, the "dummy."

The person to the left of the declarer plays a card first, and then we get to the only real difference between bridge and spades: the dummy player lays his cards on the table and sits out the rest of the hand. Declarer plays both her and her partner's hands, in other words, and the dummy player is free to go grab another round of drinks.

Meantime, the play is pretty much the same as spades. Players must follow suit if they can, or play any other card from their hand if they can't. Whoever plays the highest card of the lead suit -- or the highest trump -- wins that hand, and leads the next one. Repeat that 13 times, and it's all over; the declaring partnership adds up their tricks, and discovers whether they've successfully made their contract. Job done.

Going further

Getting good at bridge is a lifetime's work, and there's a wealth of books and other resources out there that'll help you along the way.

Bridge for Dummies is widely considered to be among the best beginner texts. It's just about to be reprinted, but the older version is still easy to find. If you prefer something a little more interactive, computer and iPad game Bridge Baron (and its tutorial counterpart "Introduction to Bridge") are well-regarded, if a little pricey.

Once you and your partner are comfortable with the game, it's time to spread your bridge wings. Check your local listings for a bridge club and stop in: you'll find them populated chiefly by elderly (and old-fashioned) types, so put on some smart clothes, good manners, and a smile. If that's a little intimidating, check out Yahoo's bridge rooms, where you'll have no trouble finding a friendly game. Good luck.

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