A bidding box is a device used in contract bridge for the purpose of making the bidding easier. It is a plastic, wooden, or cardboard box with two slots, each holding a set of bidding cards. The back holder contains 35 cards with symbols of bids (5 denominations—clubs diamonds hearts spades and notrump (NT)—in seven levels of bidding, numbered 1-7). The 35 bid cards are cut so that the symbols form tabs, as in phone books, and any desired bid can be easily reached.
In the front holder are stored a supply of Pass cards (usually 6-10 cards, commonly colored green), a few Double (red, usually marked X) and Redouble (blue, XX) cards, an Alert card or tab (light or dark blue), a Stop card (red), and, optionally, a Tournament Director card (orange). There is one bidding box for each of the four players, normally held at the corner of the table; at duplicate tournaments, boxes remain stationary on the tables.
Usage of bidding boxes has several advantages over oral bidding:
- It helps maintain silence, so that bidding cannot be overheard at the neighboring tables.
- Bids cannot be misheard, and it is far more difficult to make a bid out of turn.
- Players cannot forget a bid during the auction, which eliminates the need for the auction to be reviewed if they do, and helps them maintain concentration.
- The accidental passing of unauthorized information by the manner of making a bid is almost eliminated. It is easier to play bidding cards in a uniform manner than to speak in a uniform manner with no tone of voice.
The auction proceeds by each player making a call
(a bid, pass, double, or redouble) at their turn to bid, until it is concluded by a sequence of three consecutive passes. With the transition from auction bridge
to modern contract bridge, the bidding has become more and more complex, and conventional
auctions often last through several rounds of bidding. Such long auctions are hard to memorize and review. In addition, oral bidding causes noise in tournament halls, and auctions can be easily overheard on other tables.
Bidding boxes were invented in Sweden in the late 1960s and first used at a World Bridge Championships game in Stockholm in 1970. Per Jannersten, Swedish social bridge player and founder of the largest European bridge equipment manufacturer Jannersten claims the invention; however, the patent is disputed by the Swedish Bridge Federation.
They quickly became popular in Europe, and after some resistance were accepted in American bridge clubs. As of 2006, they are practically an indispensable part of the game, and even many rubber bridge players use them at home.
At each player's turn to bid, he selects the cards from the bidding box and places them in front of himself. To make a bid, the entire remaining stack below the desired bid card should be pulled out, (e.g. when opening 1, the 1, and 1 cards should be taken out also), but this packet of cards is kept closed so that the topmost one (the desired bid) covers the others. Pass, Double, and Redouble cards are used one by one as needed. The cards should be upside-down to the bidder, giving the other players a better view of them. (Some designs are symmetrical, with two copies of the bid so that orientation is not an issue, but this gives a more cluttered look.)
Calls on successive rounds of the auction are placed in overlapping fashion so that the previous calls remain visible. For example, if the 1 bidder's next call is a bid of 3, he will take a packet of 10 cards (1 through 3) and lay them down partially overlapping the packet of 4 cards of the 1 bid. With standard, "right-handed" boxes (see laterality below), the calls are placed left to right on the table as seen by the bidder.
When the auction is over, each player first returns to his bidding box any Pass, Double, and Redouble cards he used. After that, all the bid cards from the table are simply swept up into a single stack and placed into the bidding box at the back; in this way, the box is returned to the original state and made ready for the following deal.
The additional (non-call) cards are used as follows:
- The Alert card signals to the opponents that the partner's call does not have the expected meaning (see bridge convention). As soon as a player makes the alertable call, his partner is supposed to pull out the alert card and display it briefly, ensuring that both opponents see it (with screens in use, players also alert their own calls, but only to their screen-mate). Sponsoring organizations regulate which types of calls should be alerted. Where an alert tab is used, it protrudes from a slit in the bidding box and players alert by tapping it.
- Use of the Stop card is optional with most sponsoring organizations, but if players use it, they must do so consistently for all skip (jump) bids. Prior to his own skip bid, a player displays the stop card and makes the bid, moving the stop card back into the box after 10 seconds. The rationale for the procedure is that jump bids, especially preempts, often pose a bidding problem for the opponents, and the left-hand opponent's fast or slow reaction after the bid can reveal whether his cards are bad or good. In order to prevent such passing of unauthorized information, the skip-bid warning requires the next player to wait for a while with his bid, regardless whether he has a problem or not.
- The Tournament Director card is held high in the hand when a player summons the director (referee) after an irregularity happens at the table, so that he can spot him more easily.
The exact regulations for the use of bidding boxes vary according to the sponsoring authority. In the ACBL:
- Players must choose a call before touching any card in the box. A call is considered made when a bidding card has been taken out of the bidding box with intent.
- A call may be changed without penalty (under the provisions of other bridge laws) only if a player has inadvertently taken out the wrong bidding card, and the player corrects, or attempts to correct without pause for thought, and the player's partner has not made a call.
- The skip-bid warning is given using bidding boxes by displaying the stop card, making a call and then replacing the stop card in the bidding box. The bidder is not obligated to display the card for 10 seconds, but the left-hand opponent is obligated to wait 10 seconds (while giving the appearance of studying his hand) before making a call.
There are two main types of bidding boxes: the more common ones are freestanding, held on the top of the table. The other, hanging variant is smaller, with two holders closer together, but attached to the side of the table using C-clamps
. The latter has the advantage that it doesn't occupy space on the table, but it can hamper the players' passage to and from the chair, so it gets damaged more easily. The free-standing boxes usually have a cover on the bottom, where the bidding cards can fit within when packed up, while they must be kept separately with the hanging ones. In some tournaments an L-shaped metal bracket is slid under the tabletop corners, leaving its other end standing up. This is inserted into a slit in a free-standing bidding box, which then functions like a clamped one. Another alternative is to provide side tables so that bidding boxes as well as refreshments can be kept off the playing table.
The bidding cards are made of cardboard or thin plastic; like playing cards, cardboard ones are more resistant to wearing (especially when plastic-coated), while plastic ones are more resistant to tearing. Manufacturers also offer the bidding card sets for purchase separately from the boxes.
Use of bidding boxes greatly improves the game for people with hearing impairment. For tournaments where bidding boxes are not available, sponsoring organizations will allow their use for the tables where they play. In the case of limited availability of the boxes, people with hearing problems will have the precedence.
Most bidding boxes (more precisely, bidding cards) on the market are suited for right-handed
people; the tabs of bid cards grow up from right to left side of the stack, and the printed symbols are right side up when the card is held with the right hand at the tab. That makes it somewhat difficult for left-handed
people, who naturally bid with left hand: they would normally hold the box at the left side of the table, and the card symbols on standard boxes turn upside down unless rotated in an awkward manner. Also, the natural order of placing the cards would be from right to left. Some manufacturers offer the bidding boxes for left-handed people, which are constructed (except for the placement of suit symbols on the tabs) and used as mirrored right-handed boxes. Tournament organizers generally permit the players to carry their own left-handed bidding boxes.