If you're a bridge player, you already know that you can nearly always find a friendly game onboard a cruise ship. But did you know that there are also plenty of formal opportunities to play bridge with your cruisemates, participate in a sanctioned game or tournament, and even hone your skills by taking a bridge seminar onboard? Whether you're a master player or rank novice, here's what you need to know about playing bridge on cruises.

Themed Bridge Cruises Sponsored by Third Parties

Several tour outfitters make a living packaging and selling bridge theme cruises. You might already be familiar with some of the marquee names like Audrey Grant's Better Bridge and Bridge Holidays.

These companies act as your travel agent and offer a package deal that includes your cruise fare -- and everything that it usually entails -- plus extracurricular activities related to bridge. Expect things like a welcome cocktail party so you can get to know your fellow bridge players; group luncheons or dinners; bridge lessons and seminars offering tips on bidding, play and defense; and sanctioned games -- oftentimes both contract and duplicate sessions -- for beginners as well as those who have intermediate or advanced knowledge of the game. Some companies even offer customized shore excursions exclusively for the bridge group. Many of these bridge-themed voyages offer American Contract Bridge League (ACBL)-sanctioned duplicate games that allow the player to earn masterpoints. Check the package offerings carefully since each group's extras might be different. One thing that all bridge-themed cruises have in common is the demand. If you wish to join a themed cruise, book early because many of these events sell out up to a year in advance of embarkation.

Here are a selection of operators offering bridge-themed cruises:

Audrey Grant's Better Bridge is well known throughout the cruise industry. Audrey Grant and David Lindop have been offering a few sailings each year since 1992, mainly on Holland America and Crystal Cruises ships.

Bridge Holidays was developed by Roberta and Arnold Salob, and they offer their programs exclusively on Crystal Cruises. These sailings offer daily ACBL-sanctioned duplicate games, plus social bridge as well.

Regionals at Sea from Alice Travel is your best bet if you're interested in participating in an ACBL-sanctioned regional and earning gold points. These voyages can be booked on ships like Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas or Liberty of the Seas, and Crystal Serenity. Well-known bridge champion and author Larry Cohen hosts many of the cruises. These voyages sell out quickly so book as soon as a Regionals at Sea itinerary is announced.

Go Away Travel bills itself as "the bridge cruise leader since 1997," and the company sells themed cruises aboard ships in the fleets of Holland America, Royal Caribbean and Regent Seven Seas Cruises. Participants can earn masterpoints in ACBL-sanctioned duplicate games.

Barbara Seagram Bridge, part of the Toronto School of Bridge, offers themed sailings on both river cruises (AmaWaterways) and oceangoing cruise ships like Regent's Seven Seas Navigator.

Ship-Sponsored Bridge Opportunities

Of course, you don't necessarily have to book a tour operator's themed bridge cruise to enjoy the game onboard. Many cruise lines have robust bridge programs built into their offerings, but they're generally relegated to luxury lines and longer itineraries aboard mainstream ships. These sailings will bring an ACBL-accredited master instructor onboard to conduct bridge classes and hold tournaments.

Here are some of the more robust ship-sponsored bridge programs:

Crystal Cruises: Crystal is a bridge-friendly cruise line. An accredited ACBL instructor is onboard every single cruise to provide instruction and supervise games. Game play and training are included in your cruise fare.

Cunard: No matter which Cunard ship you sail, bridge lessons are offered on sea days for beginners and those with an intermediate knowledge of the game. Each session lasts for 45 minutes to an hour. A certified bridge master teaches each class.

Holland America Line: Look to Grand Voyages, Legendary Voyages and Crossings (both Atlantic and Pacific itineraries of 14 nights or longer) for the line's formal bridge program. On those sailings, there is an ACBL bridge director. Games and lectures are included in your cruise fare.

MSC Cruises: On certain itineraries, MSC offers a bridge program that includes lessons in the morning -- taught by international bridge directors -- plus afternoon tournaments and additional card games after dinner. The program welcomes bridge players of all levels. Certificates are awarded to all participants, and tournament winners receive a prize.

Oceania Cruises: Oceania welcomes Gerry Fox onboard in the role of accredited master instructor. He's taught the game full time for more than 40 years, so there's a chance you'll pick up a few tips from him. The cruise line offers more than a dozen itineraries -- all 14 nights or longer -- that offer the bridge program. On all other sailings, you'll need to arrange game play on your own.

P&O Cruises: With the exception of Azura and Ventura, bridge games are offered on all P&O voyages with seven nights or more at sea. Britannia offers bridge without an instructor, which can be played in the Marlow suite (subject to availability). Instructors teach classes in the morning -- beginners' level first followed by an "Improver" class. Both sessions last about an hour. Additional classes are held in the afternoon. All cards and equipment are provided onboard. Consult the daily Horizon program to learn about tournaments.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises: Look for Regent's special Spotlight on Bridge voyages. With 40 different itineraries between 2018 and 2019, you'll likely find one that works for you. ACBL-certified bridge masters are available on those sailings to provide instruction for all levels and host games. All of Regent's ships are ACBL-certified, and passengers taking part in duplicate bridge will earn masterpoints. The program is included in your cruise fare.

Silversea: When searching for voyages on Silversea ships, look for special Bridge Sailings. Passengers can play contract or duplicate bridge any day of the cruise, and an ACBL Life Master presides over games. Expect guest lectures for beginner- and immediate-level players to be offered.

Seabourn: This cruise line offers a formal bridge program with accredited ACBL instructors that teach a curriculum created by Audrey Grand Bridge especially for Seabourn. Look for itineraries with three or more sea days; the program is not offered on destination-immersive voyages like those in the Caribbean, Canada/New England, Baltic or Mediterranean.

Finding Bridge Partners for Onboard Social Games

What if you want to play bridge onboard but you're not part of a themed bridge cruise or on a voyage where the cruise line offers formal gatherings? You'll still be able to find bridge partners, and you don't even need to wait until embarkation to look for them. Before you sail, visit your itinerary's Roll Call on Cruise Critic's message boards, and post a message specifically looking for bridge players on your cruise who would like to meet up for a few games.

Once you're onboard, look for meet-up announcements at the community message board (usually located near the guest relations desk).  If you don't see any bridge-related notes, ask guest relations to post a note announcing your search for bridge partners. Nearly every cruise ship has a card room where passengers can meet to play bridge. Some groups also gather at a shaded table on deck (the tables at the pool grill are sometimes ideal), or at a lounge that's hardly used in the morning or afternoon hours. If you're lucky enough to have a suite with a living room and/or dining table, invite the gang over for a game once you've gotten to know the other players.