Solve Double-Dummy Bridge Problems

I'll assume the reader knows the basic rules of games in the Whist family, like Bridge. Here's a Bridge problem that stumps most experts. Give it a try!!

                  A K 7 6 5 4 3
                  3 2
                  A K 2
    Q J T 9 8                    2
    4                            Q T 8 7
    Q J T 9                      8 7 6
    K T 2                        8 7 6 5 4
                  A K J 9 6 5
                  5 4 3
                  A Q J 9

West leads the Spade Queen against your contract of Seven Hearts. How do you play to win all the tricks?

The program below will determine whether or not a given contract can succeed against perfect card play. The single long function consists of

Putting everything into a single routine named ``main()'' was excessive, but I did it to emphasize a particular point: No use of recursion, in the ordinary sense of automatic stack manipulation is required here. The ``needed recursion'' collapses into a simple iteration, or rather a form closely related to tail recusion arises.

Such ``quasi-tail recursions'' are not always available. Here however, the whole procedural implementation of a forward/backtrack loop collapses into a simple flow (implemented with a goto!), arguably best viewed as a variation of the tail-recursion motif.

It seems surprising that this simple program, with such a simple flow, can solve a seemingly non-trivial problem: Finding best play in a difficult game. Complication would arise if we tried to make the program fast, by developing bridge strategies. The program isn't that slow as it is, however, and can even quickly solve an interesting 52-card problem too difficult for most human experts. (Try to work the above example yourself before turning it over to the machine! If you do give up, the software will print out only one variation, so you'll either have to use that as a hint to come up with the complete solution, or let the computer print the winning play against other defenses by inputting the appropriate subsequent positions. As a last resort, here's the solution.)

The program does apply two heuristics. When a player has the Nine and Ten of Spades, there is no sense trying both cards; their effect will be the same. More generally, if the player has the Five and Ten of Spades, and each Spade in between the Five and Ten is either out of play, or is already present in the trick under consideration, then, provided the Ten of Spades wouldn't be enough to win the trick, the effect of the Five and Ten will be the same. There are a few lines of code in the software to implement this idea.

The other heuristic applied is the alpha-beta heuristic. In our program, only two game values are ever generated: Success and Failure. This makes the alpha-beta heuristic so trivial it almost goes unnoticed. An unfortunate consequence of this degenerate form of the heuristic is that the software will not try for overtricks. If there is a play which guarantees an overtrick it can be discovered by rerunning the program with a different contract. Two such runs will often take less execution time than a single run would take were the game value modified to recognize overtricks. (This fact provides a clue towards a general approach for speeding game-tree searches.)

There is a special reason why I've included this program on the website, but I'll explain that after giving the source code.

 * Copyright (c) 1990, 2000 by James D. Allen (
 * This program will solve double-dummy bridge problems.
 * The algorithm is trivial: brute-force alpha-beta search (also known
 *      as "backtracking").  The alpha-beta is especially easy here since
 *      we do not consider overtricks or extra undertricks.
 * The control flow is ``way cool'': this is a rare exception where software
 *      is more readable with a "goto".  (Although I've tersified this to
 *      the point where it is perhaps unreadable anyway :-)
 * Yes, the `goto' won't operate properly unless all the local variables
 *      are in precisely the right state to make their strange voyage from
 *      one inner loop to the other.  But that's exactly the concept which
 *      the potential code-maintainer is intended to grasp.
 * This "dumb" program could be sped up considerably but, as it is, it
 *      does solve *one* complete 52-card position ("13-card ending")
 *      in about 1 minute that many expert humans cannot solve at all.
 *      That special position is sort of a quirk.
 * This program is "copylefted."  You are authorized to use or reproduce it
 *      as long as you observe all three of the following admonitions:
 *   (1)  Do not sell this software for profit.
 *   (2)  Do not remove the Copyright notice or these admonitions.
 *   (3)  Do not use an alternate construction which avoids the `goto'  :-}

#define NUMP    4       /* The Players:  N, E, S, W */
#define         NORTH   0
#define         IS_CONT(x)      (!((x) & 1))    /* Is x on N/S team? */
#define         LHO(x)          (((x) + 1) % NUMP)
#define         RHO(x)          (((x) + NUMP - 1) % NUMP)
char    *Playername[] = { "North", "East", "South", "West" };

#define NUMS    4       /* The Suits:   S, H, D, C */
char    Suitname[] = "SHDC";
char    *Fullname[] = { "Spades  ", "Hearts  ", "Diamonds", "Clubs   ", };

 * Rank indices are 2 (Ace), 3 (King), ... 14 (Deuce)
 * There is also a CARD Index which can be converted to from Rank and Suit.
#define CARD(Suit, Rank)        (((Suit) << 4) | (Rank))
#define SUIT(Card)              ((Card) >> 4)
#define RANK(Card)              ((Card) & 0xf)
char    Rankname[] = "??AKQJT98765432";
#define INDEX(s, c)     ((char *)strchr(s, c) - (s))

/* A "SuitSet" is used to cope with more than one card at once: */
typedef unsigned short SuitSet;
#define MASK(Card)              (1 << RANK(Card))
#define REMOVE(Set, Card)       ((Set) &= ~(MASK(Card)))

/* And a CardSet copes with one SuitSet for each suit: */
typedef struct cards {
        SuitSet cc[NUMS];
} CardSet;

/* Everything we wish to remember about a trick: */
struct status {
        CardSet Holding[NUMP];  /* The players' holdings */
        CardSet Legal[NUMP];    /* The players' remaining legal plays */
        short   Played[NUMP];   /* What the players played */
        SuitSet Trick;          /* Led-suit Cards eligible to win trick */
        SuitSet Trump;          /* Trump Cards eligible to win trick */
        short   Leader;         /* Who led to the trick */
        short   Suitled;        /* Which suit was led */
} Trickinfo[14]; /* Status of 13 tricks and a red zone" */

        SuitSet set;
        return set & 0xff ? set &  1 ? 0 : set &  2 ? 1 : set &  4 ? 2
                          : set &  8 ? 3 : set & 16 ? 4 : set & 32 ? 5
                          : set & 64 ? 6 : 7 : highcard(set >> 8) + 8;

        register struct status *P = Trickinfo;  /* Point to current status */
        int     tnum;   /* trick number */
        int     won;    /* Total tricks won by North/South */
        int     nc;     /* cards on trick */
        int     ohsize; /* original size of hands */
        int     mask;
        int     trump;
        int     player; /* player */
        int     pwin;   /* player who won trick */
        int     suit;   /* suit to play */
        int     wincard; /* card which won the trick */
        int     need;   /* Total tricks needed by North/South */
        int     cardx;  /* Index of a card under consideration */
        int     success; /* Was the trick or contract won by North/South ? */
        int     last_t; /* Decisive trick number */
        char    asciicard[60];
        SuitSet inplay; /* cards still in play for suit */
        SuitSet pr_set; /* Temp for printing */

        /* Read in the problem */
        printf("Enter trump suit (0-S,1-H,2-D,3-C,4-NT): ");
        scanf("%d", &trump);
        printf("Enter how many tricks remain to be played: ");
        scanf("%d", &ohsize);
        printf("Enter how many tricks North/South need to win: ");
        scanf("%d", &need);
        printf("Enter who is on lead now (0=North,etc.): ");
        scanf("%d", &pwin);
        printf("Enter the %d cards beginning with North:\n", NUMP * ohsize);
        for (player = NORTH; player < NUMP; player++) {
                for (tnum = 0; tnum < ohsize; tnum++) {
                        scanf("%s", asciicard);
                        cardx = CARD(INDEX(Suitname, asciicard[1]),
                                        INDEX(Rankname, asciicard[0]));
                        P->Holding[player].cc[SUIT(cardx)] |= MASK(cardx);

        /* Handle the opening lead */
        printf("Enter the directed opening lead or XX if none:\n");
        P->Legal[pwin] = P->Holding[pwin];
        scanf("%s", asciicard);
        if (asciicard[0] == 'X') {
                strcpy(asciicard, "anything");
        } else {
                cardx = CARD(INDEX(Suitname, asciicard[1]),
                                INDEX(Rankname, asciicard[0]));
                for (suit = 0; suit < NUMS; suit++)
                        if (suit != SUIT(cardx))
                                P->Legal[pwin].cc[suit] = 0;
                        else if (!(P->Legal[pwin].cc[suit] &= MASK(cardx))) {
                                printf("He can't lead card he doesn't have\n");

        /* Print the problem */
        for (player = NORTH; player < NUMP; player++) {
                printf("\n---- %s Hand ----:\n", Playername[player]);
                for (suit = 0; suit < NUMS; suit++) {
                        printf("\t%s\t", Fullname[suit]);
                        for (pr_set = P->Holding[player].cc[suit]; pr_set;
                                        REMOVE(pr_set, highcard(pr_set)))
                                printf("%c ", Rankname[RANK(highcard(pr_set))]);
        printf("\n%s%s Trumps; %s leads %s; N-S want %d tricks; E-W want %d\n",
                trump < NUMS ? Fullname[trump] : "",
                trump < NUMS ? " are" : "No",
                Playername[pwin], asciicard, need, ohsize + 1 - need);

      /* Loop to play tricks forward until the outcome is conclusive */
        for (tnum = won = success = 0;
                        success ? ++won < need : won + ohsize >= need + tnum;
                        tnum++, P++, success = IS_CONT(pwin)) {
                for (nc = 0, player = P->Leader = pwin; nc < NUMP;
                                        nc++, player = LHO(player)) {
                      /* Generate legal plays except opening lead */
                        if (nc || tnum)
                                P->Legal[player] = P->Holding[player];
                      /* Must follow suit unless void */
                        if (nc && P->Legal[player].cc[P->Suitled])
                                for (suit = 0; suit < NUMS; suit++)
                                        if (suit != P->Suitled)
                                                P->Legal[player].cc[suit] = 0;
                        goto choose_suit; /* this goto is easily eliminated */
                      /* Comes back right away after choosing "suit"  */
                        P->Played[player] = cardx =
                                CARD(suit, highcard(P->Legal[player].cc[suit]));
                        if (nc == 0) {
                                P->Suitled = suit;
                                P->Trick = P->Trump = 0;
                      /* Set the play into Trick if it is win-eligible */
                        if (suit == P->Suitled)
                                P->Trick |= MASK(cardx);
                        if (suit == trump)
                                P->Trump |= MASK(cardx);

                      /* Remove card played from player's holding */
                        (P+1)->Holding[player] = P->Holding[player];
                        REMOVE((P+1)->Holding[player].cc[suit], cardx);

              /* Finish processing the trick ... who won? */
                if (P->Trump)
                        wincard = CARD(trump, highcard(P->Trump));
                        wincard = CARD(P->Suitled, highcard(P->Trick));
                for (pwin = 0; P->Played[pwin] != wincard; pwin++)

      /* Loop to back up and let the players try alternatives */
        for (last_t = tnum--, P--; tnum >= 0; tnum--, P--) {
                won -= IS_CONT(pwin);
                pwin = P->Leader;
                for (player = RHO(P->Leader), nc = NUMP-1; nc >= 0;
                                        player = RHO(player), nc--) {
                      /* What was the play? */
                        cardx = P->Played[player];
                        suit = SUIT(cardx);
                      /* Retract the played card */
                        if (suit == P->Suitled)
                                REMOVE(P->Trick, cardx);
                        if (suit == trump)
                                REMOVE(P->Trump, cardx);
                      /* We also want to remove any redundant adjacent plays */
                        inplay =  P->Holding[0].cc[suit] | P->Holding[1].cc[suit]
                                | P->Holding[2].cc[suit] | P->Holding[3].cc[suit];
                        for (mask = MASK(cardx); mask <= 0x8000; mask <<= 1)
                                if (P->Legal[player].cc[suit] & mask)
                                        P->Legal[player].cc[suit] &= ~mask;
                                else if (inplay & mask)
                      /* If the card was played by a loser, try again */
                        if (success ? !(IS_CONT(player)) : IS_CONT(player)) {
                              /* Pick a suit if any untried plays remain */
                                for (suit = 0; suit < NUMS; suit++)
                                        if (P->Legal[player].cc[suit])
                                                /* This goto is really nice!! */
                                                goto choose_card;

         * We're done.  We know the answer.
         * We can't remember all the variations; fortunately the
         *  succeeders played correctly in the last variation examined,
         *  so we'll just print it.
        printf("Contract %s, for example:\n",
                        success ? "made" : "defeated");
        for (tnum = 0, P = Trickinfo; tnum < last_t; tnum++, P++) {
                printf("Trick %d:", tnum + 1);
                for (player = 0; player < P->Leader; player++)
                for (nc = 0; nc < NUMP; nc++, player = LHO(player))
                        printf("\t%c of %c",

After you strip out the source code and put it in a file called bridge.c, here's a script to demonstrate the solver:

cc -O -o bridge bridge.c
bridge << EOF
4 6 5 2
bridge << EOF
1 13 13 3
3C                3H 2H                   AD KD 2D      AS KS 7S 6S 5S 4S 3S
8C 7C 6C 5C 4C    QH TH 8H 7H             8D 7D 6D      2S
AC QC JC 9C       AH KH JH 9H 6H 5H       5D 4D 3D
KC TC 2C          4H                      QD JD TD 9D   QS JS TS 9S 8S

Comments on the Use of goto.

It is not wrong to avoid goto statements when convenient alternatives exist, but some people carry their contempt for goto much too far. There are many, many situations where use of goto is the least of evils. A simple example arises in the Waldo's Nim playing software on this website:

        /* Look for a winning move. */
        for (numpile = 1; numpile <= plast; numpile++) {
            for (numrem = 1; numrem <= psize[plast]; numrem++) {
                if (WINNER)
                    goto move;
        /* No winning move ... use a simple default move */
        numpile = numrem = 1;
        printf("My move: %d piles and %d beans per pile.\n",
                numpile, numrem);

The people who despise goto base their case on the fact that programs can always be rewritten to remove any goto. Well, we could write English without any adverbs if we wanted; does that make it right? Here's how the goto Gestapo would rewrite the above fragment:

        /* Look for a winning move. */
        for (numpile = 1; numpile <= plast; numpile++) {
            for (numrem = 1; numrem <= psize[plast]; numrem++) {
                if (WINNER)
            if (numrem <= psize[plast])
        if (numpile > psize[plast])
            /* No winning move ... use a simple default move */
            numpile = numrem = 1;
        printf("My move: %d piles and %d beans per pile.\n",
                numpile, numrem);

Boy, if you think that's an improvement you probably thought Steve Forbes's tax plan was good for America!

There are many examples where goto is the best approach in a programming problem, but I'd hate to rely on this simple example from the Waldo's Nim program to make my point: it's too tame, and too clearcut for any serious controversy. That's why I've included the Bridge Double Dummy solver on this website.

In the Double Dummy Solver there are two independent nested loops, one plays cards forward, the other undoes those plays, backwards. A backtracking search involves ``zig-zagging'' through the forward and backward routines, and in this program that's accomplished with a goto from the innermost depth of one loop to the innermost depth of the other!

I do not propose this as a general model for backtracking. Easier problems can be handled nicely by nesting the backtrack loop inside the forward loop, or vice versa (attempting that here would require clumsy switching variables), and harder problems require more general methods. But for this particular algorithm the goto works out just right, and I think that's elegant.

The code contains two goto's. One of these is the wonderful goto which cannot be removed without making the source code dramatically more complex. The other goto is quite trivial to remove; I've included it, perhaps perversely, just because it seems to add an elegant balance: now both inner loops jump to the other.

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