Essential Bridge Books

by Matthew Kidd

We live in a golden age of bridge literature. Even a starving graduate student could pick up an excellent library of used bridge books for under $200.

Reading is essential if you want to become a strong player. There are too many situations to learn through trial and error in anything less than a lifetime of bridge. Understanding and applying general principles is key. Paying to play with experts will cost you much much more and you will learn less than you could from the experts who have taken the time to record their knowledge in books at very modest cost to you. Being lucky enough to play with strong partners in strong games will help but you will not pickup all that you should unless your strong partners choose to put their time into it and you are a willing listener. By contrast, books are available on your schedule. There are many resources online but few have the careful organization of a well written book. If you read first, you’ll be in a much better position to sort the online dross from the gold.

The golden age of bridge literature is perhaps thirty years old. Good books on card play have existed for a long time, for example Watson’s Classic Book on The Play of the Hand at Bridge (1934), Card Play Technique: The Art of Being Lucky (Mollo, 1955), Bridge Squeezes Complete: Winning Endgame Strategy (Love, 1959), and just about anything by Terrence Reese or Hugh Kelsey, though sadly the taint of scandal hangs over the former author. But several things have changed since then. Bidding has gotten better and so has the writing about it. For all topics, the teaching style has gotten much better. Watson’s book will put you to sleep a few times and Love’s book is definitely work; newer books move right along. Good books are now available for all levels of players. Many out of print books have been brought back into print by Masterpoint Press and other speciality bridge publishers, and have often been updated with modern bidding. And the internet makes it possible to find almost any book.

So which bridge books should you read? I took a look around my big bridge library and came up with the list below. I assume you are at least an intermediate player and have ambitions to become a strong player. The titles are roughly in order of increasing difficulty / investment though this is a subjective and imperfect ordering. Dates are the original publication date. An asterisk indicates a book for which there is no substitute. Links are to Amazon but you might find them cheaper elsewhere.

Commentary

Bill Root and Eddie Kantar are two of the best bridge writers. Learn the basics and a bit more from them and you will have a great foundation for the rest of your bridge reading. Both of the first two sets are natural pairs if you are thinking of giving a gift… maybe to your bridge partner! Eddie Kantar Teaches Modern Bridge Defense and Eddie Kantar Teaches Advanced Bridge Defense essentially repackage the material from his classic 1974 Defensive Bridge Play Complete (Big Red), and make the switch to leading ace from ace-king and updating other minor defense agreements. See my Notes from Kantar’s Modern Bridge Defense for more about these books. Big Red is an acceptable substitute if it is what you have or you find it for cheap.

Almost all Eddie Kantar books are good for intermediates. Don’t miss out on the quiz books Test Your Bridge Play volumes 1 and 2 and Kantar for the Defense, volumes 1 and 2. The only Kantar book I wouldn’t recommend for intermediates is the technical Roman Keycard Blackwood: Slam Bidding in the 21st Century, a book for well established advanced partnerships.

You can’t call yourself a cultured bridge player unless you’ve read Victor Mollo’s Bridge in the Menagerie. Several other authors have tried to replicate the style Mollo introduced but none have surpassed him (sorry David Bird). The other books in the series are also quite funny. While we are on the topic of humorous bridge books, don’t miss Danny Kleinman and Nick Straguzzi’s The Principle of Restricted Talent, Roselyn Teukolsky’s How to Play Bridge With Your Spouse, and Alan Sontag’s The Bridge Bum.

To Bid or Not to Bid: the Law of Total Tricks is Larry Cohen’s popularization of a technical idea introduced by French bridge theoretician Jean-René Vernes in an article in The Bridge World in June 1969 which Larry Cohen and Marty Bergen put to good use against opponents for years before the book was published. The title is deceptive. It should be called something like The Empirical Observation of Total Tricks instead of the Law of Total Tricks. Nevertheless the so-called Law is often excellent guidance in bread and butter competitive decisions and it has had significant impact on bidding. Be sure to read the final chapter carefully. Cohen’s followup book, Following the Law (2002) is only necessary for lazy readers who did not think carefully about the material in To Bid or Not to Bid or who didn’t study the last chapter carefully. For a well rounded education about the Law, also read Mike Lawrence and Anders Wirgren’s I Fought the Law of Total Tricks (2004).

About twenty years ago, our team lost Flight C Swiss the whole day. There didn’t seem to be many games, though this probably had something to do with Flight C players not finding pushy games as well as better players. We lost 4-8 IMPs at time. Again and again. This seemed too improbable to chalk up to bad luck. Clearly we sucked at competitive bidding and I set out to do something about it. I picked up Mike Lawrenece’s Overcalls and slowly worked my way through it. Then I did the same with Balancing. Modern bidding is very competitive and there is still no substitute for these books. With three or four hands discussed on each page, each book covers hundreds of hands. Read carefully and learn. It’s so worth it. Lawrence slightly updated both books in 2009. You are better off with the new books but 90% of the material is the same.

Perhaps “Modern” is no longer appropriate in the title Modern Bridge Conventions since book is now 33 years old. Still it is a great reference for most of the conventions players are using today. Your partnership should be playing at least half these conventions and you certainly want to know what is going on when they are used against you. Root and Pavlicek are succinct and yet they are excellent at covering the important cases for each convention. It's good to selectively reread sections of this book.

Decades ago, Easley Blackwood—yes that Blackwood—wrote a book on opening leads titled the Complete Book of Opening Leads. His book is verbose and mediocre. You are much better off with Mike Lawrence’s Opening Leads, which arguably should be included in my list above. Still time moves on and computer analysis is beginning to influence the game. The two Anthias and Bird books on opening leads break new ground using double dummy simulations of many hands consistent with common auctions. Advanced players know these old dilemmas well and should take a strong interest in maximizing their chances on the opening lead. The opening lead, or at least the choice of suit lead, often determines the fate of the contract.

An intermediate player transitioning to an advanced player should transition from Eddie Kantar to Hugh Kelsey. I included Killing Defence at Bridge on the list but Logical Bridge Play, Sharpen Your Bridge Technique, Test Your Card Play, and More Killing Defense at Bridge are all worthwhile reads at this point in your education. By time you get here, you should be able to focus on the card play and not get hung up on the ACOL auctions.

Read at least one book on endplays. Clyde Love’s Bridge Squeezes Complete is a fine choice. I have a hardcover version of the original which is probably a rarity now. Love’s book appears to have been reissued as Bridge Squeezes Complete: Winning Endgame Strategy in 2010 with Julian Pottage and Linda Lee added as authors. I doubt it matters which version you read. If you want to drag out the process and spend more money, you can read the Hugh Kelsey series, Simple Squeezes, Strip Squeezes, Double Squeezes, and Triple Squeezes, or buy the whole collection together as Kelsey on Squeeze Play. Or save your money and read San Diego local Marvin French’s Squeeze Refresher (For Good Bridge Players), even though Marvin’s introduction states, “the purpose of the book is not to teach novices about squeezes, but to serve as a review for those who are already acquainted with the subject.” Chien-Hwa Wang’s The Squeeze at Bridge (1993) also looks promising but though I own it, I have yet to read it.

Squeeze play is fascinating and interesting in a mathematical sense but it is easy to get carried away. A mastery of simple squeezes (positional and automatic), the basic double, criss-cross, guard, and trim squeeze positions will in practice gain you most of what can be got out of squeeze play in practical situations and will see you through some dicey contracts. Time spent reading about triple squeezes is probably better spent reviewing the Overcalls book. It’s worth noting that even the Rodwell Files is far more about entries and timing than about obscure end positions.

Hugh Kelsey and Géza’s Ottlick’s Adventures in Card Play is a magical book. Read it at least once to appreciate card play at its most fascinating. This book had no equal until The Rodwell Files: Secrets of a Bridge Champion but they are not interchangeable. A true knowledge seeker must read both. For more about the brilliant and frustrating Rodwell Files, read my review Days of Thunder.

Unsatisfied topics

It seems like a list of essential books should include a book on Standard American bidding using 5-card majors. To my frustration, I’ve not found a really great book on the topic despite wanting to provide one to several people. I also do not include any books on 2/1 even though it is the choice of most experts in the U.S. today. I learned 2/1 from the 1989 edition of Two-Over-One Game Force (yellow cover), but consider it too flawed for inclusion on a list of essential books. Problems include the tedious spelling out of suit names instead of the use of suit symbols which makes searching through the book difficult, the pedantic use of M--N+, e.g. 15--17+ for a 1NT opener, instead of simply stating once a list of hand evaluation considerations that may adjust hand values by 1 HCP, the lack of chapter titles at the top (or bottom) of each page which again hurts searching, and a unclear mixing of core 2/1 methods with pet treatments such that the two can not easily be distinguished by a student. It is possible that later editions corrected these issues.

Since first writing this article I’ve read and recommend Audrey Grant and Eric Rodwell’s 2 Over 1 Game Force. It is almost too simplistic but this can be a strength in a teaching book and like Root and Pavlicek’s Modern Bridge Conventions, it covers all the key cases without get lost in details. It also provides good explanations of the advantages of 2/1 over Standard American and therefore is a great book to give to a player looking to upgrade from Standard American or to one who got rushed into 2/1 because everyone else was playing it but never took the time to understand 2/1 fully. I am also inclined to steer readers to Mike Lawrence’s Workbook on the Two Over One System, even though I haven’t read it.

Excluded classics

I’m sure someone is whining that I didn’t include S.J. Simon’s Why You Lose at Bridge, Robert Darvas’ Right Through the Pack, or Mike Lawrence’s How to Read Your Opponent’s Cards. I just don’t think they are essential even if they were at a time when there were far fewer great bridge books. Still I would encourage you to pickup How to Read Your Opponent’s Cards.

Honorable mentions

There is much to learn and discuss in a serious partnership from the two Better Bidding with Bergen books, Volume 1: Uncontested Auctions and Volume 2: Competitive Bidding, Fit Bids, and More. Andrew Robson and Oliver Segal’s Partnership Bidding at Bridge: The Contested Auction (1994) has definitely influenced my bidding. I don’t always agree with Marshall Miles and have done probability calculations and/or simulations to test some statements he makes, but still found his Competitive Bidding in the 21st Century very interesting. Miles’ It’s Your Call (2009) is worth your time too; the book is chock full of expert opinion about difficult bidding situations.

Many people mention Pietro Forquet’s Bridge with the Blue Team and after only thirty pages I’m inclined to agree. But finishing the book never seems to make it to the top of my queue.

I’ve had my doubts about David Bird, but my respect has grown considerably since the publication of Winning Notrump Leads and Winning Suit Contract Leads. His Off-Road Declarer Play (2007) also bolstered his cause. It is no substitute for the Rodwell Files and yet it covers similar ground in advanced card play in a much better organized manner.

The Krzysztof Martens University of Defense books deserve mention. Good players only though; the text is terse and you need to know card play well to follow these books. I’d recommend them more highly if they weren’t so expensive and hard to find.

Speciality books

If you want to play a weak notrump or just defend better against it, look no further than Andy Stark’s The Weak Notrump (2006). For an in-depth look at the successes and failures of computer bridge and a collection of good hands, track down A Computer's Twist - Play Problems for You with Bridge Baron. Guy Levé’s The Encyclopedia of Card Play Techniques at Bridge (2007) is an amazing compilation of hands. It must have taken years just to collect them all. It’s impossible to read it straight through; just open it anywhere and read ten or twenty interesting pages.