Theory and Conventions



M J Bridge



A potted history of bridge and bidding

This page has not been researched in depth and owes much to Wikipedia.

There may be errors and lack of detail, but I am reasonably confident that the skeleton story given here is substantially correct.

Trick-taking games along the lines of whist date way back, quite possibly to at least the sixteenth century.

Variations appeared during the nineteenth century, particularly ‘biritch (hence ‘bridge) or Russian whist’, which introduced many of the features of the modern game of contract bridge, but without the competitive bidding auction as we know it today.  The earliest known rules for biritch date from 1886.

The game of auction bridge was developed at the end of the nineteenth century - various dates (1893, 1903, 1904) can be found for the invention of the game - it seems likely that the ideas developed simultaneously and more or less independently in a number of different contexts.

No doubt there were many earlier games in which players predicted how many tricks they might take, but it was auction bridge which introduced the competitive auction with a set of rules to govern it.  Auction bridge resembled the contract bridge which we play today in many ways, but the scoring was significantly different, and the rules for bidding bore only a limited resemblance to those for contract bridge.

Contract bridge was developed by Harry Vanderbilt mainly through a restructuring of the scoring system.  He published a set of rules for the game in 1925.

There have been subsequent developments, particularly in the details of the scoring, but the game as we know it dates in essence back to that time.

Ely Culbertson was the most significant champion of the game in America.  He did much to popularise it through the 1930s and 1940s.

In particular he, together with his wife Josephine, introduced a far more refined and constructive approach to bidding, and developed what was probably the first bidding system first published in 1931.

This system held sway for many years.

In its earliest forms the Culbertson system featured a strong no trump (measured in terms of quick tricks) and four-card majors.

As far as I can tell, the reason why the no trump was defined as strong was the perceived need for ‘something in every suit’.

When I was first introduced to the game in the UK somewhere around 1960, this was basically the system I was taught.

In 1949 Charles Goren introduced ‘point-count’ as a means of evaluating a hand, and this remains a standard to this day.

Goren put forward a bidding system which was more or less ‘Culbertson’ but with point-count superimposed.

Culbertson’s strong no trump was typically redefined at 16 to 18 points.  More recent usage in the world of the strong no trump has led towards the range for an opening bid of 1NT being redefined as 15 to 17 points.

In the American game a perception developed that it was vital to identify a five-card major as early as possible, and so a system based around the Culbertson method with a 15 to 17 point 1NT opener, and opening bids of one of a major promising at least a five-card major led to what is now SAYC (Standard American Yellow Card) - typical of systems played by a great many excellent players throughout the world.

In an independent development a group of distinguished players (including Jack Marx, ‘Skid’ Simon, Iain Macleod, and Terence Reese) developed an alternative approach to bidding at their club in Acol road, London.

Their system was essentially natural and featured a weak no trump (typically 12 to 14 points) and opening bids of one of a major promising at least a four-card suit.

A separate independent initiative saw the introduction of the Precision Club system in 1969.

This system features an artificial opening bid of 1 Club covering most strong hands.  Other opening bids are therefore strictly limited, and on the whole closely defined.

There are all sorts of variations to be found, but most bridge players throughout the world play a system which is recognizably related to one of SAYC, Acol, or Precision.

This page last revised 20th Feb 2020