Bridge has been said to be the most difficult card game to master.
There used to be a regular bridge game at lunchtime where I worked. It takes four to make a bridge table (two “teams” of two people sitting across from each other) so the number of tables depended on who showed up that day. At the less advanced table, nobody kept score, and the strategy seemed strange to me until I went to a duplicate bridge club.
After playing duplicate bridge, the strategy made more sense to me. Duplicate bridge tilts the luck-skill balance almost all the way towards skill. The cards are shuffled and dealt at the start of the session. After each hand, the cards are put into a “board” where the four hands are kept separated as they were originally dealt. The boards and players move from table to table in a certain pattern. At the end, you’re scored against the other players who played exactly the same cards that you did. The luck of the cards is unimportant; to win, you have to beat the others who played the same hands.
I imagine the rules as a sort of hierarchy, for both the bidding and the play of the hand, with Level 1 being the most fundamental.
Level 1, bidding
The dealer bids first and bidding goes clockwise around the table. Each player can either “Pass” (which amounts to not bidding), make a higher bid than the last one (higher in number or in a higher-ranked suit, where “No Trump” counts as a “suit”), or “Double” or “Redouble.” The partnership who made the highest bid gets the contract for however many tricks they bid in whatever trump suit they bid (or “No Trump”).
Level 1, play of the hand
Whoever first bid the trump suit (or “No Trump”) is the declarer. The player on the declarer’s left makes the opening lead; then the declarer’s partner lays down his hand face-up on the table, he’s now the “dummy” and watches the declarer play the cards from both hands in the partnership. Each trick has four cards, one played by each player in turn going clockwise. Players have to follow suit if they can, otherwise they can play any card. The highest card of the suit led wins the trick unless somebody played a trump, in which case the highest trump played wins the trick. The winner leads to the next trick, and so forth.
Level 2, bidding
Each bid states a number of tricks and a trump suit, but it also gives information about the bidder’s hand. Someone in the history of the game evidently realized that an “unnatural” bid could have a special informational meaning. If the bidder’s partner knows the meaning, the partnership can benefit from this shared knowledge. The bidder’s partner knows that the special bid doesn’t suggest the bid suit as trumps, and knows not to leave the final contract in that trump suit.
But doesn’t it seem wrong for a partnership to have a secret bidding system? The rule-makers thought so, but rather than prohibit such unnatural bids, they decided that such bids are legitimate as long as the opponents are also informed about the bidding system being used.
Over time, a set of the most popular bidding conventions was grouped together and declared to be the “Standard American” bidding system. Decent players are supposed to know these conventions, which have increased in number over the years.
Level 2, play of the hand
There are also conventions in the play of the cards. Certain cards played have “meanings” that a partnership can agree on (and should tell their opponents about). Since the declarer is himself playing both partnership hands, one of which is face-up on the table, it’s only the other two players (the “defenders”) who would use these card-play “signals” to help each other. There are “standard” card-playing conventions that decent players are supposed to know.
Signaling by facial expressions, “casual” remarks, or other secret codes is strictly forbidden. Signals must only be given by the choice of a bid or by a card played!
Beyond level 2
From here on it gets crazier. If a player hesitated a long time before a bid, did that give his partner extra information? At a bridge club, the opponents would call the director, who would have to judge whether extra information was given, or whether an advantage was gained by this information. There are more rules to handle these cases, but this is as far as we’ll go in the hierarchy for now!