Learning Bridge: "On-your-own" activities to build your skills

If you've decided to take up the game of bridge, you're about to discover the world's most popular and challenging card game. You're also beginning a learning experience that can truly last a lifetime, and any extra effort you can put into it now will make it even more enjoyable in the years to come.

Whether you've chosen group lessons, self-teaching and one-on-one instruction from a friend or relative, you'll learn the game faster -- and enjoy it more -- if you take an active role in your bridge education. It's difficult to become a good bridge player if all you do is listen passively to your weekly lesson and hope it will "soak in". Instead, make a commitment do some outside homework and practice. Try to devote at least a few minutes every day to some bridge-related activity, and make your learning process a "multimedia" one by taking advantage of lots of different resources. Here are some suggestions for learning activities you can pursue on your own:

Read, read, read

If you're taking a group class, your instructor has probably given you a textbook or lesson handouts. Most beginning bridge textbooks aren't intended to be light reading, so don't be discouraged if you don't understand the material at first. Keep your book handy (out on your desk, next to your favorite easychair) and plan to read and study each chapter several times between classes.

You'll also benefit from "extra-curricular" reading. There are dozens of good bridge books written just for beginners, and you might be surprised to find that they're entertaining as well as educational. When I learned to play, I read every book I could get my hands on, but I found these three to be invaluable:

Five Weeks to Winning Bridge by Alfred Sheinwold. This classic has taught millions to play, and it's the very first bridge book I ever read. It's organized in 35 one-day lessons, but I read it in one weekend -- and then reread it several times. Sheinwold uses a 4-card-major bidding system, but you can easily adapt his principles to 5-card majors or any system.

Classic Book on the Play of the Hand by Louis Watson. This is the oldest and most comprehensive guide to understanding the cards, with a wealth of information on suit combinations, basic strategies and other principles of declarer play. You won't be able to read it in a weekend, or even a month, so plan to take it slow and study each chapter carefully.

Bid Better, Play Better by Dorothy Hayden (Truscott). One of the greatest bridge books of all time, this book focuses on teaching you how to think like a bridge player. Much of the material is aimed toward advanced beginners and intermediates, but even learners will benefit from Hayden's clear approach and practical advice.

There are a number of other excellent books for beginners and learners. A listing of recommended titles -- with short reviews and links for purchase from Amazon.com -- is available in the Bridge Bookstore on this site.

Read actively.

You may find it helpful to keep a notebook and a deck of cards with your class textbook and any other bridge books you're reading. Use the notebook to outline major points, create bidding diagrams or jot down questions for your instructor. The deck of cards is a great way to translate a textbook diagram into a "real" bridge hand. Deal out the cards to match the example in the book and play it out on a tabletop next to the open book. This exercise is especially beneficial if you're studying suit combinations from a book like Watson's Play of the Hand.

Play and learn on your computer.

ACBL's Learn to Play Bridge I & II  (are two free programs you can download and use to teach yourself how to play. The lessons emphasize card play, but you'll find a good introduction to basic bidding here, too.

There are also a wide range of bid-and-play software packages that simulate a "real" game (my favorite is Bridge Baron). Although no program bids or plays like an expert, the programs are fun and they can be great teaching resources. They give you the chance to practice bidding and play -- with no time constraints, no limit to how often you can rebid and replay a hand, and no worry about disappointing a human partner. Some programs also have built-in lessons that you can use to teach yourself, even if you know absolutely nothing about bridge when you start.

Tune into bridge on TV.

Bridge instruction is also available on TV in several entertaining, professionally produced series. Check your PBS program listings to see if your local station is carrying one or more of these programs.

Take advantage of Internet resources.

You'll find a wealth of instructional material on the web, ready to download or print. Many of these sites present lessons in interesting formats, including interactive quizzes, Javascript play and email lessons. You can find links to some of the best in the Recommended websites for beginners listing on this site.

Develop your "card sense."

Many people believe that an aptitude for card games is an inborn trait -- you either have it, or you don't. While this may be true to some extent, I believe that any motivated, intelligent learner can develop these abilities. The article Developing Your Card Sense on this site will give you some suggestions for mental exercises and other activities you can do to increase your facility with the cards -- and be on your way to becoming a skilled bridge player.

Copyright Karen Walker