To start with, I'm going to describe Whist, which is probably the most notable precursor to Bridge. The play of the hands in Whist is almost identical to that of Bridge, with one major difference, but Whist lacks most of the particularly complicated elements of Bridge, so it's considerably simpler to learn and understand. Whist is also a card game for four players, in teams of two. Partners sit opposite each other, with opponents to either side. The dealer deals thirteen cards to each player, turning the final card in the deck face up before taking it. The suit of that card is called trump for the hand. Trump has a special significance during the hand, in that it takes priority over any other suit. I'll explain that shortly. The player to the dealer's left makes the opening lead. That player may play any card from his hand, including a trump, to the center of the table, face up. Proceeding to the left, each player in turn will play one card. If a player has a card of the same suit as the opening lead, he MUST play a card of that suit. (This is called following suit.) If a player doesn't have any cards of the suit led, he may play any card from his hand, including trump. A player does not have to follow the suit of any card played after the lead... for example, if the opening lead is a heart, and the second player has no hearts, suppose he plays a club. If the third player also has no hearts, he doesn't have to play a club, although he can. He can play a card of any suit he has. Once all four players have played a card, the "trick" is complete. If there are any trump cards in the trick, then the player who played the highest trump card (with the ace being the highest card) wins the trick. If there are no trump in the trick, then the highest card of the suit led wins the trick. (So, if spades are trump, and the lead is the two of clubs, followed by the ace of diamonds, ace of hearts, and king of hearts, the two of clubs wins the trick.) The player who won the trick collects the four cards and places them facedown to the side, as a scoring indicator. (Since tricks are shared by partners, one player generally collects the tricks for himself and his partner.) The player who won the trick then leads any of his remaining cards for the next trick... there's no suit to follow until the lead is made. Play continues until all thirteen tricks are played. At that point, the partnership that took at least seven tricks has won the hand. The first six tricks are known as the "book" and are worth nothing, but each additional trick is worth points. A new hand is dealt, with the deal passing to the left, until one team reaches the agreed-upon score limit.
Now on to Bridge. A Bridge hand is dealt in the same way, except that no card is turned face up. Instead, the players begin the hand by bidding for the right to declare the trump suit. Beginning with the dealer, and proceeding to the left, each player must either place a bid, double, or pass. A player may pass any time it is his turn to bid, and the bid passes to the next player. If three players pass in a row after a bid or double, then the final bid that was made is the contract. (The player who made the final bid doesn't get to bid again.) If all four players pass without making a bid, then the hand is redealt. A bid consists of a number, from one to seven, and the name of a suit or the words "no trump". The number is the number of tricks that the partnership will need to take, in addition to the six trick "book" as described in Whist. So a bid of "one club" is a contract to take seven tricks with clubs as trump. A bid of "four hearts" is a contract to take ten tricks with hearts as trump. And a bid of "seven no trump" (or "seven no") is a contract to take all thirteen tricks with no trump suit. In a no trump contract, only the highest card of the led suit can take a trick. Once a bid is made, any subsequent bids must be higher than the most recent bid. A bid is higher if it is for a higher number of tricks, or for the same number of tricks in a suit of higher rank. The rank of suits is in alphabetical order - clubs are the lowest rank, followed by diamonds, then hearts, then spades, and no trump outranks any suit. So, if a player bids "one heart", then the next player can bid "one spade" or "one no trump", but in order to bid clubs, diamonds, or hearts again, the player must bid at least two. A player may raise the bid as many levels as he might like, but keep in mind that when a bid is followed by three passes, the player has made a contract to take the bid number of tricks with the named trump suit. In addition to bidding and passing, there is one other action a player may take. If the previous bid was made by an opponent, the player may "double" the bid. A double is not a new contract... it is a modifier to the bid, affecting only the scoring for the hand. If the double is followed by three passes, then the doubled contract stands and must be played by the bidding partnership. If a doubled contract is met, then the partnership gains double the points, but if the doubled contract is set, then the opponents gain a significant number of points (more than double the normal amount). A member of the partnership that was doubled may "redouble" the contract to double the awards again. If another bid is made after a double or redouble, the modifier is canceled (but the new contract may be doubled).
Once the auction is over, the contract is decided and the play of the hand can begin. The player on the winning partnership who FIRST bid the suit of the final contract is called the "declarer". (An opponent cannot be declarer. Both opponents are "defenders".) So if one player bids "one spade" and his partner bids "two spades" followed by three passes, the player who bid "one spade" is declarer. The player to declarer's left will make the opening lead. Once the lead is on the table, declarer's partner will lay his hand on the table, visible to all players, with the trump suit (if any) to his right. Declarer's partner is "dummy" and has no further input into the hand. Declarer now plays cards from his own hand as well as dummy's, in turn. The lead for each trick will come from whichever hand took the previous trick, until all thirteen tricks have been played. Once the hand is over, the tricks for each partnership are counted and the hand is scored.
There are many different types of scoring, but the type I play is called "Rubber Bridge." The scoresheet will have a horizontal line drawn across it. Most points are scored above the line. However, if declarer makes his contract, then the tricks bid and made are scored below the line as follows. If the trump suit was clubs or diamonds (the minor suits), then each trick after the first six (the book) scores 20 points below the line. If the contract is hearts or spades (the major suits), then each trick scores 30 points. If the contract was for no trump, then the first (seventh) trick scores 40 points, and each additional trick scores 30 points. So a notrump contract is worth 10 points more than the major suit contract of the same number. If declarer's partnership takes more than the number of tricks bid, the additional tricks (overtricks) are scored at the same rate, but above the line. There are also bonuses for making a contract of 6 (slam) or 7 (grand slam). A slam scores 500 additional points above the line, and a grand slam scores 1000. However, if declarer fails to make his contract, then the opponents score 50 points above the line for each short trick (undertricks). That's constant regardless of the suit.
If the contract is doubled, the numbers change. If the declarer makes a doubled contract, the points scored below the line are doubled. Overtricks, however, are worth 100 points each. There's also a 50 point "insult" bonus scored above the line. If the declarer is set, however, the opponents score 100 points for the first undertrick and 200 points for each additional undertrick. So a three-trick set undoubled is worth 150 points, but doubled, it's worth 500! And a redouble simply doubles all of those numbers except for the insult bonus, which is still 50.
Now, here's what makes it Rubber Bridge: If a partnership scores a total of 100 points below the line, in one hand or as a total of several, then that partnership wins a "game". A new line is drawn below all the scores, and the scores that were below the line are now above it. (So if the opponents had scores below the line, they don't count toward a game anymore.) The partnership that won the game is now "vulnerable", and their scoring changes accordingly. For a vulnerable partnership, a slam is worth 750 points, and a grand slam is worth 1500. Doubled overtricks are worth twice what they were non-vulnerable. However, if the vulnerable partnership is set, their opponents gain 100 points per undertrick, if it's not doubled. Doubled, it's 200 points for the first undertrick and 300 for each additional undertrick. A three-trick doubled vulnerable set is worth a whopping 800 points! So a vulnerable partnership needs to be careful about taking risks. Whichever partnership first wins two games scores the "rubber bonus", which is 700 if the opponents are non-vulnerable (haven't won a game) and 500 if they're vulnerable (have won one game). After the rubber bonus is awarded, the scores are totaled, and the partnership with the highest total score wins. It can be as few as two hands, or as many as it takes to win two games.
And that's Bridge in a nutshell. Any questions? Next time, I'll describe bidding in more detail, including some conventions that you can use to help determine what contract your partnership should strive for.