The players who sit facing one another are called partners. They are pitted against the second set of partners. One player deals out all the cards, thirteen to each player. The object of the game is to win as many tricks as possible. A trick consists of each player, in turn, laying a card from his hands on the table. High card wins. All players must follow suit. If a player has no cards in the suit led, he may play a card from a different suit.
Before the actual playing of any tricks, however, comes the bidding, the phase in which each player looks at his cards and estimates how many tricks he thinks his partnership can win. The bidding, which like the play takes place in turn, in a clockwise direction, also determines which suit will be trump for the ensuing thirteen tricks. Trump is like a wild-card suit. If you cannot follow the suit led, you have the option of playing a trump card. A trump card, no matter how low, beats any other card, no matter how high -- except a higher trump card. In other words, the two of trump beats the ace of any other suit.
Any time a player opens his mouth to bid, he is declaring that he and his partner will be able to make six tricks plus whatever number he bids. A bid of one spade promises a total take of seven tricks, with spades as trump. If that player's partner has a strong hand with spades of his own, he might respond "two spades," promising eight tricks instead of seven, still with spades as trump. The opponent bidding after him, who has no spades but six hearts, might counter "three hearts," which would require him and his partner to win nine of the thirteen tricks, with hearts as trump. If the first player were feeling particularly flush, he might respond "four spades."
Chico Marx, who like his brothers was an inveterate player, had a policy of always bidding. But players, especially those with weak hands, can decline to bid by saying pass. The bidding of a hand ends when three players in a row pass. If the bid of four spades, in this instance, were followed by three passes, the contract would be four spades, with the partner who first bid spades (the trump suit) the declarer.
Play begins with the opponent to the left of the declarer selecting a card from his hand and leading it, whereupon the declarer's partner, known as the dummy, sets down all his cards face up on the table. His job, for the rest of the hand, is to sit there -- like a dummy -- and watch the declarer make all the difficult decisions about which cards to play.
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Sometimes a partnership will decide they are better off with no suit as trump. In this case they can bid a contract at "no-trump." Another wrinkle: To distinguish between bids at the same level, the suits are ranked. Thus a bid of one club can be topped by a bid of one diamond, which is inferior to a bid of one heart, which can be outbid by one spade, which is subordinate to one no-trump. The highest bid possible, then, would be seven no-trump, which requires the partnership to win every single trick without the benefit of trumping, also known as "ruffing."
If a declarer makes or exceeds the number of tricks his partnership bid, his team wins points. If he fails, like poor John Bennett, they lose points. As in life, the great risk reaps the great reward. Partners can win thousands of points for making a bid of seven clubs, or just twenty points for a bid of one club.
The basics of the game take about an hour to learn. To play well requires nothing more, or less, than the simultaneous application of memory, logic, intuition, and guts.
And a modicum of patience.