Source: by James Vogl March 15, 2016

Dear Bridgewinners,

After playing for close to ten years I am still hopeless at counting the hand (shape mainly but also points).

I am just not a natural at it and have to work so hard to do it, it takes away focus from the interesting problems.

Perhaps 13 is just a difficult number to work with.

Using a counting game on BBO where it gives you three numbers and you have to quickly enter the fourth has helped a bit.

I developed so many techniques to instantaneously count the pips at backgammon, I find my lack of ability at bridge counting extra frustrating. If anyone could give me some advice or post links to articles or the names of books on this subject it would be much appreciated.

Sorry to waste time for all you Bridgewinners if it is so long since you went through this and it is just natural for you and you have forgotten how you do it.

Yours, Bridgeloser, but hopefully not for too much longer.

Some Answers

Nigel Kearney: Play against the computer. On the first three tricks, whenever it is your turn to play, write down everything you know about the unseen hands. Consider all inferences from bids and plays chosen and not chosen. Don’t play a card until you have done this.

It may take a while, but after some practice you should be able to do this at reasonable speed without writing it down. Then start doing it in actual play. Do it on every hand – never go on autopilot early in the play. Counting has to become a habit that is almost subconscious, otherwise it is too hard.

Martin Henneberger: Practicing counting the distribution of the 3 unseen hands when dummy will pay dividends later. This is the simplest way to get continuous practice without doing anything extra. Try thinking in patterns such as 5-4-3-1 vs counting to 13 in every suit and having to rehash the play by adding and subtracting. There are several “old” bridge calendars that present puzzles that need to be solved on declarer play and defense up to the point when a critical decision is needed. These are often exercises in counting out the shape based on lead, bidding inferences including negative inferences, and any count signals given by the defense. There is no quick fix to learn/relearn how to count. It is through repetition and practice that one starts to master the skill. It is up to each individual how much time they are willing to invest. We have all heard the saying “practice makes perfect”. The truth is PERFECT practice makes perfect. In order to learn and understand the correct way to count, a fast track may be to ask/pay a high level player to take the time to educate you through demonstration by thinking out loud during some instructional hands. Once you HEAR the thought process it should guide you towards thinking and practicing correctly.

Benoit Lessard: My tips.

For counting trumps or a side suit count only the unseen cards. So I got 5 trumps and dummy got 3 my opps have 5 remaining trumps and I do 5..4..3..2..1 Sesame street style.

To follow the rank of high cards, some high cards are done automatically, for example if you always know if a J is good or not but sometimes there is a 9 that your not sure for this player the AKQJ(T) is done automatically with no effort whatsoever so this player must pay more attention on the 9s & 8s. By focussing on the 98 sooner or later the 98 will be done automatically and we now be able to switch focus on the 7s and 6s.

For more experienced players they must learn to visualize hands as 13 card patterns, without any need to count to 13. If you have 12 or 14 cards in your hands you should noticed it immediatly for me its like a sudoku I zoom on a suit and see a 13 cards pattern, i zoom on my partner and see a 13 card patterns, it work well for most hand pattern without any basic counting.

Counting hcp of hidden hand is for me the toughest one to do automatically and i seems to always rewind the play to count the remaining hcp. When declarer range is narrow I take the middle number and say my partner got 7 plus or minus 1, but i still have a hard time doing it 7..6..4 because its a method i cannot use all the time.

Steve Moese: Part of counting that helps a lot is to create a likely shape for declarer (when defending) or, say, the danger hand when declaring. Then as you play use the fall of the cards to adjust the accuracy of your estimate. Thinking about the whole hand using how opponents bid and play is easier than counting card by card.

What you want to do to is think in terms of the number of missing cards. Be sure to know the relative likelihood of the splits you can expect. Start with an odd number splits evenly and an even number splits oddly. Then choose cases for 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 missing cards and learn the relative probabilities. You can keep track of patterns instead of counting card by card.

Eddie Kantar treats counting in a very readable way. Check his books on defense.

Kieran Dyke: Countdown to Winning Bridge by Tim Bourke is a very readable book on this subject.Apart from this, my general advice is to start with what you know. South opened 1 and bid 2Heart Suit, so you know nine cards out of his shape. Then it’s just a matter of identifying the remaining four cards. For example, my partner led a fourth best deuce of diamonds, so I know declarer has three of those. Maybe his last card is a club – we’ll find that out soon.

Points can be counted by a simular approach. He opened a strong notrump, so he has 15-17 points. At trick one we know that he had the AK of spades, so he has 8-10 more. He has no points in diamonds, so there are 8-10 pointe between hearts and clubs.

Other bids will have ranges which you can use as a starting point. This hand raised one spade to two, so he has (check this to be sure) 7-10 points. This hand passed their partner’s opening bid, so they have 0-5. They just showed up with an ace, so they have almost nothing else.

Michael Bodell: One common advice for counting is to think in terms of patterns (4432, 5422, 6331, 7321, 5521, etc) rather than individual counting. This works both for how one suit is split around the table and also how one person’s hand is split amongst suits. There is no need for adding when you just think in terms of patterns (I have 4 and so does dummy of the suit I led at nt. Partner showed odd count on the trick so it is likely 4432 around the table with 4414 the only other possible holding in this suit).I also found playing a relay bidding system helped learn the patterns and get better feels for their frequencies, textures, and instinctively knowing the patterns.

Anthony Taglione: A bridge expert is someone who can count to 13 four times in five minutes. It seems trivial but we all know that it isn’t.

The bidding can give some strong clues if there’s been a shape-showing bid, such as Michaels, Ghestem or an Unusual NT. You can see two hands and know that the other has 5-5 in two suits, one of them known for sure. In those cases, you can easily work out the shapes of everyone.

I find it often useful to count what’s missing, rather than what I’ve seen. If you know there are, say, nine Diamonds between the two hands, don’t count to nine, ten, eleven…. Make a note that just four are missing and cross them off as you count down from four.

When dummy goes down, make a note of your high cards, if you have some good 8s and 9s, remember which cards are higher and still to be located. You lead out the 10 and see the J, Q, K appear. You then know that there’s only the Ace left before your 8 and 9 are promoted. If you see the 7 pop out, then suddenly your 6 becomes good, too.

Think about what’s missing, rather than what you’ve seen.