I have been told that this is the best variation of three-handed bridge possible. That remains to be seen, but that "Carl's game" (as I have had the audacity to call it) is a good game, that is certain. It is also a very good way to get people started on bridge but more about that in the end of the article.
As in Minibridge you "bid" by saying numbers, but now the numbers are not your hcp but your number of tophonours i.e. A,K or Q. (In the sequel these will be called "tops".) Unlike Minibridge your bid does not have to be honest, but it can be dangerous to deviate too much from your actual number of tops.
Deal as usual to four players, the hand opposite the dealer belonging to the dummy. Starting with the dealer the three players bid or pass clockwise but only once each. To "bid" means here to say a whole number greater than or equal to 2 or greater than the bid before (if any). The highest bidder becomes declarer, but to avoid penalty points (see below) he has to raise his bid if it is lower than his number of tops. (If all pass the hand is of course redealt.)
Let us say South became declarer. East will then look at dummy's cards and tell which is dummy's longest suit and how long it is. In case of a tie this information is given only for the highest ranking suit. East also tells how many tops the dummy has. South now chooses his mode of playing i.e. he chooses a trump suit or decides to play without. Then West leads a card and the game continues as ordinary bridge.
THE SCORES. The game features a special way to score. First you add together the final bid and the number of tops in dummy. This gives the so called playnumber. To this you add 1 if NT has been chosen and 3 otherwise. The resulting number is "the target" i.e. the number of tricks to be taken to get a good score. If you make the target exactly you get 3 points in NT and 6 points in trump. Tricks in excess of the target ("overtricks") give you one point each. One below the target gives 0 points if in NT and 2(!) points if in trump. Both in suit and in NT, two below the target give you -3 and if you "go more down than that" this is -1 for each.
PENALTY POINTS. If you become declarer and have bid lower than your number of tops you must (to avoid penalty points) raise your bid. This has to be done before the opening lead and you have to raise your bid at least to the same level as your number of tops. If you fail to raise and play the hand anyway, nothing is said about this during play, but the score is calculated based on your correct number of tops after which 6 is subtracted. (Since it is very bad tactics to "underbid" this situation will only arise by mistake.) If the wrong information about dummy is given, the informer is penalized by a deduction of 2 points. Besides declarer may change his playing mode (NT or trump) after having seen dummy but the opening lead is not to be changed. (This is another rare situation.) As for mistakes like revoke, playing out of turn etc you can make your own rules or use the same rules as in tournament bridge.
You should play for a stake and a good way to do that is to play a "match" which consists of 6+6 hands (including the ones passed out although this seldom occurs.) The dealer in the first hand as well as the position of the players (let us call them A,B,C) is decided by (say) drawing cards. The dealer (A say) in the first hand will take care of the score sheet in all 12 hands. After 6 hands B and C change places, A deals in the seventh hand and a new score sheet is made. As usual the deal moves clockwise.
On the score sheet the players have (in "dealing order") one column each. At the bottom, right under the dealer (and his scores), a note is made of dummy's number of tops and the playing mode. This is done before the opening lead and also helps to keep track of who is to deal in the next hand.
When the match is over the scores for each player in all the twelve hands are added. Then the players give (receive) to (from) the other players a sum proportional to the respective difference in the total number of points.
If the cards are to be put together in the tricks or placed separately (as in tournament bridge) is a difficult question. The game may get popular more easily if the cards are put together since this is the usual procedure in trick taking games but on the other hand detecting "underbids" will then be harder. A good "in between solution" is putting the cards separately in the tricks, but have the rule that only dummy's cards need to be put so that the orientation of the card shows which side won the trick.
TACTICS. It is favourable if you can become declarer with a bid which is equal to the number of tops you have in your hand. Therefore you must not "overbid" if you think you can become declarer without it. The most common motive to overbid is to "blur the picture" when someone else is likely to become declarer, but sometimes you also overbid to become declarer with a good (distributional) hand unlikely to result in a negative score. In both these cases overbidding by more than one is unusual.-If the playnumber is nine or more you tend to play in NT, with less than nine a good rule is to play NT only if you don't have a 6+ suit and cannot find an 8+ fit with dummy. Note that you can sometimes draw some extra conclusions. If for instance dummy has 4 there must also be 3 or (about twice as likely) 4 while the majors must be distributed 3-3 or 2-3.
AN EXAMPLE. Playing at a club in New York I was invited by my casual partner and his girlfriend to play some more bridge at their house. When we arrived there we learnt that the fourth player was to be an hour late , so I suggested my game. My hosts were not easy to persuade but finally agreed to give it a try. After having played a "testhand" we decided to play for a stake, but since it was my idea I suggested I should play for 50 cents a point while they could play for a quarter. In the very first hand I went two down so that I owed them 1.50 each. The hand below is the second hand where I managed to get my money back. Right after this the fourth player called again and said he could not make it after all. We then decided to play a match but with 25 cent a point for all of us. We actually played two matches and we really had a good time not missing the fourth player all that much. I flew back to Sweden the next day and never saw them again but if John and Diane happen to see this I send my best regards.
West was dealer and passed. East bid "3" and I (South) bid "4". East now told me that the dummy had 3 tops and 4 . With 6 in my hand I choose as trump. (Dummy must have at least 2 .)
West led 3 and this is how it looked:
8 5 2
A 10 4 2
A 10 7 6
A Q 4
K Q 8 6 4 3
Well the trump support was as small as it could be but the tops were of first rate quality. The opening lead was nice too, so this looked like 6 easy points. East played 9 on dummys 2 and I won the queen. I continued with 3 to dummy´s ace but when I played 2 East discarded a (as a signal that he "had something" in .) Now it seemed like I was only going to score 2 points. Was there still a chance to make 10 tricks?
I won K and played 5. West played low and East won dummy´s 10 with Q. Then he started to think and all of a sudden I knew precisely what he was thinking of. He must have had 3 tops from the start one of them being K. (West would not have passed if East had less than 3 and East surely would not underbid in this situation.) He knew West had 2 tops, one of which must be K according to the opening lead. But which was the other? Was it Q or Q? If I had Q returning a could cost...
Finally he decided to "play it safe" and returned a . I won with A and could not deny myself the pleasure of playing Q just to see his face. Then I entered dummy with A and played another on which I discarded a . East won with K and tried desperately with another but I ruffed that. Then I entered dummy with A and played the last discarding a from my hand. West ruffed but the remaining tricks were mine.
After the game there was the same type of discussion as in ordinary
bridge. "Don't you know that it is dangerous to discard from 4-cardsuits?"
said West."If only you had not led from K in the first
trick!" said East. "Why didn't you return a instead of a ?" said
West. And so on.....
TEACHING BEGINNERS. Start with 2-3 hands in NT with no information about the dummy and "honest bidding". (If you play with the very young a good idea is to substitute the top honour cards with cards from a deck with a different back. You can then see who won the bidding right after the cards have been dealt. For children you can also allow the choice between trump and NT to be made when dummy becomes visible, that is after the opening lead.)
When "your pupils" got the hang of declarer and defence play, you may skip honest bidding and play the real game for a stake but the stake does not have to be the same for all the players.- The following game is not suitable for play at a stake but it can be used to introduce the way to score in ordinary bridge. The bidding and the info of dummy is the same as before except for one thing. If the playnumber is 9 or more, declarer also has the right to know dummy´s number of aces. Declarer gets to choose a contract. The minimum number of tricks to be contracted is then the playnumber + 1 if NT is chosen and +2 if trump is chosen. Only if this minimum number is less than 7 declarer may pass in which case the hand is redealt. If you allow doubling (and redoubling) only the opening leader (who has not seen dummy) may double. The vulnerability is "individual" i.e. you start nonvulnerable and your vulnerability changes each time you get a gamescore. Note that (as in Carl´s game) you may always pass, but if you bid in this game your bid must never be lower than your number of tops!
AN INTERESTING POSSIBILITY. There are many who like to play cards but think bridge is too difficult for them. It is then the bidding that is the obstacle. Let us imagine that "Carl´s game" became really popular. People would then be able to follow the play if they saw Bridge played, and would soon (very soon in my experience) grasp enough of the bidding to be able to actually sit in. I have successfully introduced many of my friends to bridge in this way, and there is no reason why it should not work also on a larger scale.
If the "Bridge-Establishment" were to view this form of three-handed bridge as a way to attract new players, very much may be gained.
There is some additional material relating to this article, notably a twohanded bridge used to teach the mechanics of bidding and the way to score but also an explanation why Carl's game tends to give reasonable contracts. (click here!) If you have any questions or suggestions you are welcome to mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please write "3-handed" as subject.