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Tennis is a plain-trick game in which two players strive to match a bid number of tricks exactly for each of their two hands.

Setup and Bidding

Tennis uses a standard 52-card deck, with cards ranked from ace (high) to 2 (low). Suits have no rank, but for each round of play (called a game) a different suit may be trump. For the first game, clubs are trump; then diamonds, hearts, spades, and notrump. Playing five games this way is a set. A complete match consists of exactly two sets, enabling each player to be both dealer and non-dealer for each trump possibility.

For each game, the dealer passes out 13 cards to each player and sets aside the pack. These first sets of cards are each player’s Backhand. Each player then removes one card from the Backhand to bid the number of tricks that hand will win. An ace is a bid to win exactly one trick; a 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, or 10 is a bid to win exactly that number of tricks; a jack is 11 tricks, a queen 12, and the king is a bid to win zero tricks.

The Backhand bids are placed face-down horizontally in front of each player, with the Backhand itself also placed face-down horizontally. When both players have made a bid, the Backhand bids are turned face-up simultaneously.

Dealer then deals the remaining cards, forming each player’s Forehand. The bidding process is repeated, with the Forehand bid placed vertically atop the Backhand bid. Here’s how the table will look:

Each player holds a Forehand of 12 cards. On the table, a Forehand bid is face-up vertically in front of each player, while horizontally under the Forehand bids are face-up Backhand bids. Each player's Backhand is face-down horizontally beside the bids.

The Play

Non-dealer serves by leading any card from Forehand. Dealer then plays from Forehand, following suit if possible and playing any card if not. Both players then put the Forehands face-down vertically on the table and pick up the Backhands. Non-dealer plays from Backhand, again following suit if possible, as does dealer. The trick is now complete, and the highest card of the suit led, or the highest trump, wins the trick.

Whichever player won the trick collects it and places it face-down behind the bids. The trick should be placed vertically if Forehand won, and horizontally if Backhand won. The winner then plays any card from the hand that won the previous trick. The next player follows to the trick from the same kind of hand (Forehand or Backhand), then both players put those hands face-down and complete the trick by playing a card, in order, from the remaining hands. Note that each player may look at only one hand at a time.

Play continues in this back-and-forth fashion, much like a volley of tennis, until all 12 tricks have been played. Below is an example of how the table might look halfway through the game depicted in the first diagram:

Each player holds a Backhand of 6 cards. On the table, a Forehand bid is face-up vertically in front of each player, while horizontally under the Forehand bids are face-up Backhand bids. Each player's Forehand is face-down vertically beside the bids. One player has a row of 5 tricks, with 4 facing horizontally (won by Backhand), and 2 facing vertically (won by Forehand). The other player has one trick facing horizontally (won by Backhand).

After each game, players count their errors (see below). Dealer alternates with each game. At the end of the match, the player with the fewest errors wins.


A player who makes both Forehand and Backhand bids exactly has made no errors and scores nothing. Otherwise, players score 1 error for every trick by which either hand misses its bid.

Example: Player A has a Forehand bid of 7 and a Backhand bid of 3. After the game, the Forehand has won 9 tricks and the Backhand 2 tricks. Player A scores 2 errors for missing the Forehand bid by two tricks, and 1 error for missing the Backhand bid by one trick—for a total of 3 errors.


  1. Just as in Contract Bridge, players should pay careful attention to the bidding to help place cards during the play.
  2. Every trick counts! In most trick games, there’s a safe threshold (10 tricks or more, 61 points or more.) Tennis doesn’t offer that luxury; taking too many tricks is just as bad as taking too few.
  3. Don’t get lazy just because you’ve hit your targets. Even if your opponent wants to win the remaining tricks, you can affect the score by maneuvering to have the wrong hand win the trick.
  4. If you are forced to choose between overbidding and underbidding, it’s probably safer to underbid and throw tricks than create winners out of thin air.
  5. To help keep track of which hand will serve next, you may wish to place cards vertically and horizontally when playing from Forehand and Backhand respectively.
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