What is Duplicate Bridge? And why you’re gonna love it!

In a game of kitchen bridge, typically a shuffled deck of cards is dealt for every hand.  Duplicate bridge is a bit different. In duplicate, all players in the game play the same deal. The  result of your play on that hand is compared to the results of everyone else’s play on that hand and a score is given. Thus in many ways, the ‘luck of the deal’ has been removed.

I have always disliked games of chance and the deal of cards is exactly that. Chance. Bridge math tells us there are 635013559600 possible bridge hands. And many of them are not very exciting! What’s the point of playing a hand that’s full of pips and has no honours? So boring! But with Duplicate, everyone has that same ugly hand. Your challenge is to score higher with those cards than everyone else. And that takes skill. This makes duplicate bridge challenging and exciting – every hand is an adventure.

This is the fifth article in our Bridge Basics series where you will find many answers to basic questions about bridge. Photo source: Lees Bridge Club, Canada.

Duplicate bridge is the term applied to the playing of the same deal of cards by more than one table of players. Scoring of duplicate bridge is based on your performance against the field. In this way, every hand, whether strong or weak, is played in competition with others playing identical cards, and the element of skill is heightened while that of chance is reduced.  ACBL Learn Bridge

But how is this done?

The Deal is Preserved

The cards themselves for each deal are kept in a ‘board’ or ‘wallet’ – and are then passed around the room. For example, the cards dealt on Hand 1 are played then inserted into Board 1 and they make their way around the room to be played at the other tables. In order to be sure people don’t play the same hands, typically the East West pair at a table will move one direction and the boards will move the opposite. Theoretically the game will end before any given pair will meet the same set of boards again.

Often you’ll sit down to a table and there will be 3 boards. Let’s say boards 7, 8 and 9. The board will have four slots – one for each of north, east, south and west.  In the early days of duplicate, you might have been expected to shuffle the cards and place them in the four slots. This would be done at the beginning of the game only! After that, the cards are kept in their dealt order. In modern times, the boards will come ‘ready to play.’ Someone else has done the shuffling and dealing, or a machine has done the dealing already.

When the game begins, you pull the 13 cards out of the slot that corresponds to your direction. If you are West you pull out the cards from the West slot. The boards will also indicate who is vulnerable using red markings, and who is dealer.  Now you play the hand.

Time to Score

Trick your cards. You don’t mix your cards during play or after.

In some forms of bridge, especially social and kitchen bridge, the cards for each trick might be thrown into the center of the table. But with Duplicate you keep all your cards in front of you and don’t mix them with others. You can turn them so tricks you win are facing you and partner, and tricks the opponents win are facing them. This is referred to as ‘tricking’ the cards. If you take care to do this, you’ll be able to tell at a glance how many tricks you’ve won or lost, and you’ll also have all the played cards in order in case an opponent argues the trick total result or there’s an issue with the score.

The score is now entered into a handheld scoring unit. Or, if there is no scoring unit on the table, the results of the hand are written on a slip of paper which is then folded, then stuffed into the North card slot. North is always in charge of scoring. North enters the score, then East typically has to agree.

Once the play and score are complete, and the hands are returned to their slots, that board is over and you can move on to the next. You’ll have a personal score sheet where you can write in the results of the board and notes to yourself. It’s good to do this for later when you might be talking over the boards in a post mortem or ‘board review’ with friends.

Duplicate bridge is a timed event and is divided into ’rounds.’ In the example above, your round comprised boards 7, 8 and 9. You’re given a good amount of time to play those three hands (see our article “How long is a bridge game?” for more information on timing). Once that time is up, the Round is called. Usually the director will shout something like, “All move please.”

The Tables have numbers and all the East-Wests get up and move to the next higher table. Meanwhile the boards move to the next lower table. North-Souths stay in place ready to greet their new EW opponents. As a new player, you might want to ask the director to give you an East or West seat. This way you won’t have to worry about keeping score. But truthfully, even if you do sit North, everyone at the table will be happy to help you!

We’re above average!

After the game is over, people often mill about waiting to see the scores. In early days of duplicate this could be a lengthy process. Basically what happens is each slip for each board is ‘match pointed.’ Let’s take an easy example. Board seven was played 9 times. The slip will show the NS or EW score for each time it was played. The lowest score will earn a zero (0) match point. The highest score will earn an eight (8) match point. Or, to put it another way, pairs are awarded 1 point for every pair sitting in the same direction who scored lower than them, and 1/2 point for every pair who scored the same. These match points are then added up across all boards to determine the winner(s).

Match pointing used to be an arduous task with directors doing it with pencil and eraser. These days it’s all done by computer.  In fact, with a hand-held scoring unit, the scores are matchpointed throughout the game and results are available as soon as the last board is played.

Of course this is quite simplified but I’m hoping you now have an idea of how duplicate bridge works. Usually your score will be converted into a percentage. Anything above average for the game will be a good solid result. A game in the high 50s is something you can be proud of. Games in the 60s range are super. Games above 70% are very rare. In fact there’s a whole section in the ACBCL’s monthly Bulletin dedicated to Big Games of 75%+ In the March 2024 issue there were 40 of these games in all of North America where thousands of duplicate games are played every month.

Note though, we’re talking about in-person games at the club and tournament levels. We are not talking about bridge online where scores can be crazy high. I play a 12-hand tournament daily on Bridge Base Online, and there are always scores in the 70s. This is because of the type of game, and the robots and all sorts of other factors. More on that at another time!

Why do we Howell and Who is Mitchell?

Duplicate bridge first became possible in 1891 when Cassius M. Paine and J.L. Sebring patented the duplicate tray. The advent of auction bridge in the 1920s lead to championship tournaments, but the game didn’t become a global favourite until contract bridge was invented. In the 1930s there were famous matches between American and British teams that helped elevate duplicate play to its current status.

Let’s look at some common terms in Duplicate Bridge.

Mitchell Movement: The most common setup for a game of duplicate is where North-South pairs remain stationary while East-West pairs move to the next higher-numbered table after each round, similar to what I outlined above. The Mitchell movement ensures that, in an ideal setting, all players will be able to play against each other.

Howell Movement: If there are only a few tables, this movement is often used. It involves more movement, with most pairs and boards shifting after every round rather than EW moving one way and NS staying in place. There might be laminated cards on the table that will tell EW and NS what table to move to at the end of the round. Or if there is a scoring unit on the table, it will indicate on its readout where the different pairs should move.

Bye or Sit Out: Handling an odd number of pairs or teams in a tournament can be tricky.  The easiest method would be to have a ‘phantom pair’ at one of the tables. When EW moves to that table, they don’t have to play. They get a ‘sit out,’ sometimes called a ‘bye’ and scores are adjusted accordingly.

IMPs (International match points)

There’s Match Points (MPs) and then there’s IMPs. IMPs are mostly used when there are only two tables to compare and the NS and EW are part of a team. To simplify, at table 1 NS is part of a team with EW at table 2. And the NS at table 2 are part of a team with EW at table 1. On each board the total point difference between the two scores is compared and converted into IMPs according to a scale.

So for example, if you are NS and you scored 170 for being in 2 spades making 4, but at the other table the NS scored 420 for being in 4 spades making 4, the difference in the score is 250 for them and this converts to 6 imps. Your opponent NS will score 6.

IMPs are used for a variety of other types of games, even pair games. And there are different styles of play that go with each form of scoring. But for you, dear reader, you need only know the meaning of the term for now.

Masterpoints

The only reason I slotted this term in here is that it sounds like Match Points and you might get the two terms confused. Match Points is used as a form of scoring a bridge game. Masterpoints, on the other hand, are awards you might earn for winning or placing in an ACBL sanctioned bridge game. This can happen online or at a club or a tournament. You would need to be a member of the ACBL in order to earn masterpoints. And your masterpoint total might guide you to different types of games such as ‘Under 100 Future Stars’ or ‘Non Life Masters (300+ masterpoints)’.

We’ll close this discussion with some resources that might lead you to more information about Duplicate Bridge. But to recap simply, Duplicate Bridge is a form of contract bridge where the same dealt hands are played by everyone in the game and the results are compared across the field.

Resources

Karen’s Bridge Library
https://kwbridge.com/dup.htmAmerican Contract Bridge League (ACBL)
https://www.acbl.org/learn/