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Subject: Tournament Bridge rss

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Brian Bankler
United States
San Antonio
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"Keep Summer Safe!"
There are several good reviews about Bridge (in particular, Ekted's is nice and detailed), but I figured I would describe how tournament bridge works. In most tournaments, you play with the same partner the entire time (usually you have pre-arranged it with a friend, or just called and asked them to find you a partner).

The Deals

Tournament Bridge is sometimes called Duplicate Bridge, and that's because each deal of the cards is played multiple times. A special board holds the cards and shows the relevant information.

This image shows board 13. The compass allows you to make sure that the player sitting at the "North" side of the table (marked with mats) gets the North cards. Both N/S and E/W are vulnerable (which affects scoring) and North is the dealer. Each player takes their cards, bids normally. During play, instead of tossing cards into the middle of the table, each player places used cards in front of them (pointing towards which ever side won the trick), then puts them back in their slot after the hand.

Depending on the tournament, the cards may be shuffled and dealt by the players before the first round (but never again), or the director (or a computer) may deal out the boards. [The computer uses a special deck with bar codes on the cards to sort them. The same program will then print out hand records after the game. For example, you can see the hands I played on my last session (pdf file).]

The bidding

Bidding works as normal, but instead of spoken bids most tournament use bidding boxes.

When you want to make a bid you just grab it and place it in front of you. This has a few benefits:

1) It's quieter. This matters in a crowded room, and especially since each board is played multiple times.
2) If you forget the auction you can just look around the table.

Apart from using the bidding box, the other difference is that tournament players are expected to fill out a convention card. This lets your opponents know your general agreements and specific non-standard conventions you are playing. Some non-standard bids are alertable. For instance, if you bid "Hearts" to indicate that you have Spades, your partner (not you!) indicates that to your opponents by saying "Alert." This lets your opponents know that they may want to look at your card (or ask). In all forms of bridge (not just tournament) you are required to disclose your bidding system to your opponents. The convention card, among other things, shows which bids are alertable. Convention cards also show which style of defensive leads and signals you use.

If you are just starting out, you'll fill out a simple card with few (if any) alertable bids (assuming you are playing a standard system).

The play

Apart from not tossing your cards into the middle, there isn't really anything different about playing the hand.

Unlike rubber bridge, each hand is scored separately ... you don't keep a running total. (Mainly, because everyone will be playing the hand in different order). To reflect that fact, you get a bonus for making a part score (50 points) or game (300 or 500, depending on vulnerability). Slam bonuses are unchanged, as are penalties for failing to make the contract (or bonuses for making a doubled/redoubled contract). If you have a bidding box, the back of the cards will show the possible scores for that contract.

The play of the tournament
A typical session will last around 3.5 hours and involve 22-26 hands. Often you will play 2-3 hands against one set of opponents (this is called a round), then everyone will move. A typical movement will have all the North/South pairs sit still and the East/West Pairs move to the next higher table after each round. In a small club game (less than 12 pairs) the movement will be more complicated. Guide cards on each table will tell you what to do after each round, in any case.

Scoring the Tournament -- Matchpoints

Most games are scored via matchpoints. That means for each board, your score is compared against the partnerships who held the same cards as your pair. For each pair you beat, you get 1 point. Each pair you tie, you get 1/2 a point.

Let's take a mythical hand ... routine play will find North/South bidding and making a vulnerable game in spades. (Worth +620 points). A few pairs didn't bid the game, so they only get +170. One pair bid slam, so they got -200 for going down two, and a few pairs made five (for an extra 30 points), and one pair that underbid only made three.
If we played 26 boards in the tournament, its like that each board will be played 13 times (2 boards/round).

Pair# NS Score MP EW-MP
1 170 2 10
2 620 7.5 4.5
3 620 7.5 4.5
4 650 11 1
5 -200 0 12
6 140 1 11
7 200 5 6
8 620 7.5 4.5
9 650 11 1
10 620 7.5 4.5
11 650 11 1
12 170 2 10
13 170 2 10

So, pair #5 did worse than everyone. They get zero points. Every pair who scored 170 (pairs #1,12 and 13) get 1 point for beating pair #5, and half a point for each of the other two pairs, for a total of two points. Each pair that scored 620 beat all the lower scores (5 pairs = 5 points) and tied with five other pairs (5 pairs = 2.5 points) for 7.5 points. And so on. Each East/West pair (pair number not shown) scored similarly, but remember that -200 for N/S is +200 for East West. In general, the NS Matchpoints added to the East/West Matchpoints for each table should add to the same value (12, in this case).

This does means that sometimes you get a good score for getting a gift. That east/west pair who sat and watched their tablemates bid a hopeless slam did well. It happens. (You can also get a bad result if your opponents bid very well or bid very poorly but happen to get lucky in how the cards are placed ....)

Matchpoints level the playing field -- each deal is worth the same amount, unlike rubber bridge where slams (and winning the rubber) form the bulk of your points. It does also mean that you'll have some odd decisions. It's often worth it to risk hundreds of points for an extra 30 points (or fewer). That would be foolish in rubber bridge, but sound strategy at matchpoints. If the safe way to declare a contract scores +620 and the risky play scores +650 most of the time and -100 a quarter of the time, then you take the risk. This can also make defense much harder. At rubber bridge, you play to set the contract, but at matchpoints giving away an overtrick can be a terrible score.

Team Games/International Match Points

For that reason, many people like to play team games. These are usually done in teams of four. My partnership and our team-mates play another team. I'll sit N/S and my team mates will sit E/W, and we'll both play our opponents at two tables, relaying the boards back and forth. Now scoring is much simpler. Suppose I bid and make a slam in 6NT (for +990) and at the other table the other team stops in game (+490).

We bid slam == +990
We defend game == -490 (Negative, since the opponents made it)
Total == +500 points

In earlier times, that was it. Whichever side scores more points wins ("Total points") The problem with that is that you can have a situation where one partnership gets lucky on a slam and that single board dominates dozens of part scores. So now each hand is scored using International Match Points (IMPs).

Difference IMPS
0 - 10 0
20 - 40 1
50 - 80 2
90 - 120 3
130 - 160 4
170 - 210 5
220 - 260 6
270 - 310 7
320 - 420 8
370 - 420 9
430 - 490 10
500 - 590 11

So on a hand where I got +500 points, that's 11 IMPs to our team. That's still a lot to make up, but if our opponents make an extra trick on the next hand, they are only down 10 IMPs (instead of 470 points).

Team games may involve playing ~7 board matches (and 3-4 matches a session) or a long session against a single team. Nationally ranked tournaments (and World Championships) often have a series of short matches leading up to longer and longer matches for the finals. (128 deals over two days, for example).

Assuming you have some duplicate boards, you only need 8 people to run a team game, and that's a good way to learn, since you can discuss things after the match.

How a typical club game works

At my local club, I'll usually arrange to play with a specific partner a few days in advance. I'll arrive at the appointed time, buy my entry (fees of about $8/person are typical, but it varies by event) and find my table. With most partners, I'll have a convention card from the last time we played, but we may modify it. With a new partner, I'll arrive early so we can discuss it. Then we'll play the tournament. As each board is finished North will enter the score onto a slip of paper that the director will collect after the round to enter into the computer (which does the scoring). [East or West will sign to concur with the score.]

There are usually 5-10 minute breaks after every 3 rounds (or so). Of course, if you finish early you can get up to get drinks, snacks (most clubs provide some), or whatever. There is usually some socializing (just like any other game). Once you finish the last round, a printout showing the scores (with one round to go) will tell you how you are doing, and there will be printouts of the hands. Normally 5-10 minutes after the last round the full scores will be printed ... these also show the raw scores, so you can check for typos. Depending on how much time I have, I may take the hand records and go talk to some of the experts about what they did on troublesome hands or some relevant point about bidding or cardplay, bitch about how your incompetent opponents misbid and then got luck to give you a zero on that last board, or whatnot.
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Hank Meyer
United States
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Brian: an excellent overview of tournament bridge. I am a tournament player/teacher/director (and former bridge club owner) and have been playing tournament bridge for nearly 50 years (and I'm 59!).
Tournament bridge will either (a) really sharpen your skills or (b) make you wish you stayed with Hearts! Tourmament bridge is not for those with fragile egos. By playing duplicated hands, one can quickly see where mistakes took place, whether in the bidding, play or (most often) defense. It can be very instructive to participate in the post mortems with experienced players, to listen how and why they made the decisions they did.
True, bridge is not as 'pure' as chess...there is some random motion (cited in this review when Brian mentioned getting a poor result when the opponents did something that worked out - conversely, one can receive an unmerited 'top' (great score) when the opponents do something boneheaded...that's the rub of the green. In the long haul, good bidding/play/defense will keep you competitive, in the running to place high in a tournament.
Nothing will improve your defensive skills like playing match point bridge (duplicate) where the issue of overtricks often outwieghs other considerations in a given hand. A three- four hour session against strong competition can leave you mentally exhausted. Part of the skill necessary to compete effectively is to learn when to engage one's mind fully and when to relax, so as to conserve one's mental energy.
Bridge is a fabulous's only downside is the steep learning curve (typically 3-5 years for an average person to become reasonably proficient) which may explain why the younger generation isn't taking up this game - but it's better if you acquire it while you are young than to try and master it when you are retired!
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