I learned to count while playing hide-and-seek with my sister. Innocent enough, but it led to some confusion for my kindergarten teacher. She tasked me with counting rabbits on a worksheet, so I counted "One Mississippi, Two Mississippi,.. "
While counting is a basic skill, it turns out that there are wrong ways to count.
Everyone counts at bridge. If you ever happen to kibbitz top pros, you'll occasionally see them ticking off fingers. My father swears he once saw someone take off their shoes to count on their toes. Let's review the ways to count effectively.
First, a quiz: What's the first thing you count in a hand?
Answer: Your cards! Don't forget to count to 13 with the cards face down - sometimes mistakes happen and a card gets misplaced. Don't wind up unable to play a board because you were in a rush to look at your hand. Consider this a warmup count.
The SECOND thing you count (as you may have erroneously guessed before) is the number of points in your hand. A lot has been written about high card points, including the famous series by Marty Bergen called "Points Schmoints". Points serve as a guideline for you, but as you gain more experience, you should be willing to adjust your point count. You'll differentiate good 12-counts, regular 12-counts, or bad 12-counts, and bid accordingly. The other key point is to re-evaluate as the auction goes on. If you count your points and that's the end of your evaluation, you need to force yourself to ask, "is my hand getting better or worse?" after each bid.
We'll skip some of the other fancy counts that people do in bidding for now. Winning trick count, losing trick count, Monte Cristo Count (where you count the number of times your partner has wronged you and plot appropriate vengeance), etc. are useful tools, but let's master the hammer before we start using a grappling hook.
After the auction ends, we get an opening lead and then EVERYONE should start counting dummy. Declarer counts their winners or losers and plans the play. Meanwhile, the defense should review the auction to try to start counting shape and points for the hidden hands.
Say declarer opened 1, rebid 1NT, and dummy has 10 points. If you look at your hand, you should have a rough estimate of what partner holds. If you have an 8 count, how many points does partner have? (A: 8-10ish)
In addition to counting points, you can count shape. How many cards in each suit can partner have based on the bidding? How can you develop defensive tricks? Make a picture of your partner's hand using those limitations, and then play for partner to have the right cards to help you beat the contract.
Lastly, we need to keep count of suits as they are played. Walking through a bridge club, I sometimes spot a declarer staring at the dummy looking horrified, consternated and forlorn (it's a distinctive look). They look both ways and call a card. A few moments later, eyes cast downward, they apologize to their partner and say, "I lost count".
While there's no cure for this (save memory improvement) there are some useful tricks. The best is to stop counting 1-2-3-4. Instead, count in splits. Think about how the missing cards in a suit are divided. When you have an 8-card trump fit, you know the opponents have five cards. Those cards can be split 5-0, 4-1. or 3-2. After each round, you'll be able to update the possible holdings. After one round and they both follow, the suit is either 4-1 or 3-2. If someone shows out on the second round, you'll know that the suit was originally 4-1 and that the person has 2 cards left in the suit.
One last trick to counting is to teach yourself to count in 13s. Think about how 13 cards can be divided into four hands. Sometimes, in lieu of singing in the shower, I'll start counting to 13s instead: 4-3-3-3, 4-4-3-2, 4-4-4-1, 5-4-3-1, etc.
So we've covered… um.. some number of times that we will have to count. While the concept is simple, the amount of different ways we'll need to count can make the task feel daunting. Try to do your work in advance as much as you can: figure out the outline of the deal at trick one and then fill in that sketch by counting.