Trick-taking games can be traced back to the early 16th century. Whist became the dominant form, and enjoyed a loyal following for centuries.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word bridge is the English pronunciation of “biritch”, an older name of the game of uncertain origin; the oldest known rule book, from 1886, calls it “Biritch, or Russian Whist”. This game, known today by the retronyms bridge-whist and straight bridge, became popular in the United States and the UK in the 1890s.
Biritch featured several significant developments from Whist: the trump suit was either chosen by the dealer, or he could pass the choice to his partner; there was a call of no trumps; and the dealer’s partner laid his cards on the table as dummy to be played by the dealer. It also featured other characteristics found in modern bridge: points scored above and below the line; game was 3NT, 4H and 5D (although 8 club tricks and 15 spade tricks were needed!); the score could be doubled and redoubled; there were slam bonuses.
In 1904 auction bridge arose where the players bid in a competitive auction to decide the contract and declarer. The object became to make at least as many tricks as were contracted for and penalties were introduced for failing to do so.
The modern game of contract bridge was the result of innovations to the scoring of auction bridge made by Harold Stirling Vanderbilt and others. The most significant change was that only tricks contracted for were counted below the line towards game and for slam bonuses, which resulted in bidding becoming much more challenging and interesting. Also new was the concept of vulnerability to make it more expensive to sacrifice to protect the lead in a rubber, and the various scores were adjusted to produce a more balanced game. Vanderbilt set out his rules in 1925, and within a few years contract bridge had so supplanted other forms of the game that “bridge” became synonymous with “contract bridge.”
These days most bridge played is tournament bridge.
Video: Play Modern Bridge with Andrew Robson Clip1