Choosing a club: Visit Great Bridge Links for the newest listings and links to bridge apps for smart phones. Here's a quick look at some established sites:
Bridgebase Online (free) -- Designed by Fred Gitelman, this popular site is frequented by many expert-level players and offers lots of extra features, including partnership bidding rooms, teaching rooms, Vugraph shows and bridge columns and lessons. You can also play money bridge or enter ACBL-sanctioned games (nominal fee) and win masterpoints. BBO can be accessed with downloaded software (Windows) or through a browser.
Okbridge ($99 a year; 7-day free trial) -- This is the oldest online bridge club. It uses a rating system to track your success and help you find compatible partners.
Swan Games (free) -- ACBL-sanctioned tournaments, online lesson sessions, practice tables, online broadcasts of live events, advanced rating system.
Jbridge.net (free) -- User-friendly Java2 graphic interface and several scoring options, including matchpoints and IMPs.
Bridge Club Live (subscription fee; 30-day free trial) -- U.K.-based club that supports play, kibitzing and chat through a Windows Java interface. Offers tournament games and EBU masterpoints.
TopBridge (subscription fee) -- A new type of online server that allows you to play against the computer, without searching for partners or open tables. Using downloaded software, you play a standard 5-card major system and compare your results with the experts. Money tournaments are offered. Based in Norway, with interfaces in English and Norwegian.
Funbridge (subscription fee) -- Another site where you play individually, against the computer, through downloaded software. You can then compare your bidding and play with others who played the same hands.
Getting started: When you visit a club's home page, you'll be asked to create a login name and password. Some sites require a simple software download to begin playing. Others (the Java-based sites) use a web interface, which requires no download.
Each club's homepage has help files that will describe how to use the game interface, find partners, join tables, etc. Read up on the basics, then choose a room (or "lounge") matched to your skill level -- social, beginner, intermediate, advanced or expert. Some clubs also offer different types of scoring (matchpoints or IMPs).
Finding a partner: You and your favorite partner can log on and play as a pair, but most of the online players are singles who form casual partnerships with each other. Each club has a lobby area where you'll see messages from people who are looking for partners. You can send a message to one of these potential partners and agree to start your own table. You'll also see requests from people who have already started a table and need one or two more players. If you join one of these tables, it's polite to ask permission to "sit" before you start playing.
Kibitzing: Before you actually play in the games, it's a good idea to kibitz some tables and familiarize yourself with the layout and the ways the players interact. Just join a table that's already in play and ask the participants if you can watch. You'll find well-known experts playing on Okbridge and Bridgebase Online, and these tables will often have dozens of kibitzers. If there are already several "spectators" at a table, there's usually no need to ask permission to watch.
Bidding systems: If you pair up with a new partner, the two of you will usually have a very short discussion of your bidding system before you begin play. Many players in the beginner rooms use standard Goren bidding. In the intermediate and advanced rooms, you'll find partners who play 2-over-1, Precision, Kaplan-Sheinwold, Acol and other systems.
The most popular system of all is SAYC (Standard American Yellow Card), which is a 5-card-major system with simple conventions (weak 2-bids, Jacoby transfers, negative doubles, etc.). If you're new to online bridge, it will be helpful to develop a working knowledge of SAYC, since it eliminates the need to discuss conventions and many of your "pick-up" partners will probably ask you to play it. Here are some helpful links for learning more about the SAYC system: