On the role of beauty and regret in bridge.

April 30, 2009 at 8:34 am 48 comments

Does bridge meet art, and if so where?

I was recently reading a review of a book of chess games which was rather dismissive of The Evergreen Game, one of the classically famous games of the Romantic period.

Bridge doesn’t have periods, it doesn’t have famous hands or themes in the way chess does. Aesthetics don’t have the same weight in the bridge player’s mind, as far as I can tell. Coming to bridge from chess where beauty counted for so much – where one had an obligation to be aesthetically pleasing – this came to me as something of a surprise.

One of the things the reviewer had against this particular game (and presumably, therefore, the period) it was its simplicity. It has a famous sacrificial theme with attendant variations. Yet do not simplicity and beauty go hand in hand and do not we bridge players get our pleasure more of the simple moments than the complex ones? If you perform a backwash squeeze with a triple somersault and a forward tuck landing does that really stay with you the way a simple flip of a card onto the table might which is diabolically deceptive and subsequently wins you the hand?

I was wondering if the difference in part between these two scenarios that makes the latter aesthetically important and the former trivial is that the trivial, but complex one, is there for the taking. The cards lie a particular way, therefore…The simple act of deception, however, requires a creative interaction between you and the cards. Even if you don’t think of it the backwash squeeze is still there. But the one card deceptive play is only there because you create it in your mind.

That made me wonder if it affects the nature of regret in bridge. Because if you have an aesthetic duty to the game, then the regret that follows the errant path is really quite profound. You have disappointed the game as you might disappoint God. You have let down so much more than a mere partner or teammate, or a result.

Just so we have a clear understanding of what is meant by regret, I have in mind Gerald Abraham’s distinction between it and sorrow:

“Sorrow emphasises, by reluctant acceptance, the goneness of what has gone. Regret dwells on the persistent reality of what might have been…..The thought that what might have been has, in fact, not been, does not deprive the might have been of reality, in the way that the sorrowful acceptance of some present anguish exorcises the spectres of the past. Regret stays sadly and quietly with the mind; dwelling on unactual realities….

“To many chess players this experience is real – is at once acute and chronic. When the old campaigner Morry was asked by a spectator: ‘What is that player thinking about?’ he replied: ‘He’s not thinking, he’s regretting.’ But the person referred to was living in a real world: the world in which he moved the other Rook; the world in which he did not foolishly capture the Pawn, or foolishly refuse the Pawn, as the case may be….

“[The] chess player does not accept as valid a rigid distinction between the ‘actually is’ and the ‘never was.’ He does not accept, in other words, the unreality of possibility, including the possibilities of the past. To the logician the whole issue is too easy: true or false. It is just untrue to say: ‘I moved the King’s Rook,’ when in fact you moved the Queen’s Rook. And if you say: ‘But what if I feel as if I had moved the King’s Rook?’ he will reply, if he is a modern: ‘From a false proposition, all absurdities follow.’ But the chess player will not be convinced, for he has lived in a dimension of reality which professional philosophers ignore or pretend to ignore. His regrets accompany him in a dimension of thought which even the idealists find hard to recognise….

“Most taking of all words: it might have been. I do not know whether the philosopher Bergson was a chess player…..But if I ever meet Bergson in the shades, I’ll tell him that the chess players of the world know the real meaning of The Reality of Time. I do not refer to Zietnot, which is time mechanised and formalised, and only a clog to the creative spirit. I refer to the richness of time, with all its possible dimensions which are the dimensions of possibility.”

I’m off to Adelaide (as are some of those reading this) today. I’d really love to have everybody’s thoughts on this topic. And, if it comes to that, hands. Are there hands you’ve played which conjure up the sense of this post? Is there a point at which you think that art is more important than odds? Do you think that art can beat the odds, which after all, Seres most certainly did. If you have a hand in mind but laying it out is not your thing, email it to me: cathyc@pioneerbooks.com.au I’ll do the rest.


Entry filed under: thoughts on bridge.

The Victorian Playoff continued The NZ Playoff

48 Comments Add your own

  • 1. cathychua  |  May 6, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    Actually, I’m starting to wonder if a system can’t be aesthetically pleasing. I dare say the most efficient systems are a complete hodgepodge with nothing visually appealing about them, but what about Symmetric Relay? That so much can be done so neatly in such a minimalist fashion, isn’t that a beauteous thing?

    • 2. Bill Jacobs  |  May 7, 2009 at 8:44 am

      Well it has a certin symmetry about it …

      Some would say that the whole relay approach, with its grounding in the Fibonacci sequence is quite pretty.

      All in the eye of the beholder.

      • 3. cathychua  |  May 7, 2009 at 11:12 pm

        Well, I’ve learnt something there. I didn’t realise there was a Fibonacci connection. No wonder relay looks so pretty. I thought Fibonacci was just something knitters use.

      • 4. Bill Jacobs  |  May 8, 2009 at 2:56 pm

        Oh well, let me explain, because it leads to some philosophizing about bidding theory, which is what Chris Mulley wanted.

        In the Fibonacci sequence, each number is the sum of the two before, so the sequence is

        1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55 …

        Now suppose you are responding to a relay bid, but are not allowed to go past 3NT – this is a typical rule in relay systems. How many hand types can you show if the relay bid is:

        2NT? etc

        Over 3H, you can show 2 hands – one for the 3S bid and one for the 3NT bid.

        Over 3D, you can show 3 hands, similarly: 3H/S/NT.

        But over 3C it gets better: you can show 3 hands with 3H, 3S, 3NT, but after the 3D bid, relayer can bid 3H, getting two further combinations. So you can show 5 hands in total.

        Now try it with a relay bid of 2NT – you can show 8 hands.

        2, 3, 5, 8 … there’s the Fibonacci sequence.

        So the question is, how many hand types can responder show if “relayer” starts with 1C? The answer is F(15) = 610.

        And starting with a Forcing Pass? F(16) = 987.

        Using Forcing Pass rather than Big Club gives you 377 more hand types that can be shown. There’s a nice point of trivia for you.

        Now compare that to co-operative or descriptive bidding. How many uncontested auctions are there to 3NT? It’s a lot more than 610 or 987. The relay auctions are those where every second bid is one step above the previous one (the relay bid).

        So Naturalist Mathematicians will call relay methods inferior, because they don’t use the full arsenal of bidding.

        Relayers will counter argue with two points:

        1) Even though they have fewer steps, providing more data to relayer (and none to responder) will result in a better outcome than the murky auctions where both partners have SOME of the data.

        2) Relayers will also assign meanings to auctions where the relayer breaks the relay and makes some other bid.

        Who wins the argument? No one yet, because we haven’t added in the effect of the opponents interfering.

      • 5. Ben Thompson  |  May 8, 2009 at 4:27 pm

        Let’s complicate it a little…

        First, lose a little:
        – Relayers typically play 1C-1D-1H as stronger, followed by 1S weaker. Then 2C is often the super-strong bid, rather than 1NT. That costs the relayers 34 sequences.

        Now gain quite a lot:
        – Relayers relay after all sorts of low-level openings, not just 1C
        – For example, after 1S, using 1NT relay gives you F(11) = 89 sequences to 3NT
        – Depending which ones you relay over, you would have another 400-500 relay sequences below 3NT

        And naturalists don’t exactly use the full arsenal of bidding either. When was the last time you went 1C-1D 1H-1NT 2C-2H 2S-3S 3NT in a natural system? There are a lot of non-sensical natural sequences that make perfect sense in relay methods.

    • 6. Jonathan  |  May 7, 2009 at 10:50 pm

      There’s definitely elegance in managing to describe all the hands you want to in a limited space somehow. And you can have elegant ideas in the auction of course, such as this solution
      to a bidding problem, suggested by the late John Armstrong:

      Partner opens 1NT (suitable range), next hand doubles and you have a good invitational hand with 5-1-1-6 shape, and are not playing much system. How do you best describe your hand?

      I hummed and hahed and suggested starting with 2NT removing 3D to 3S but that’s not ideal.

      John suggested just bidding 2C. Almost all oppo play pass over that as forcing, and so opponents will let us have another go
      at which point we leap to 3S. A nice idea, using opponents’
      system against them.

      • 7. Chris Mulley  |  May 8, 2009 at 11:17 am

        I have always found that relying on the opponents’ system is fraught with danger. I have enough trouble trying to control OUR system, let alone theirs as well. At least I will have someone to blame rather than partner or myself if everything goes horribly wrong.

        My favourite story relating to this is one which I read (in AB, I think) recounted by Richard Hills. His opponents were playing a Forcing Pass system, and Richard and partner were playing “Forcing Pass over Forcing Pass” as a defence. The auction proceeded:
        Pass (Forcing) on Richard’s left;
        Pass (Forcing) from partner;
        Pass (Forcing) on his right
        … and he, looking at a balanced one count, felt that the odds greatly favoured him passing it in. He was right!

  • 8. andrew  |  May 5, 2009 at 8:36 am

    Productive topic.

    I think bridge does have periods;

    The first American period (Game is invented; bidding begins, ideology)
    The British (Limit bids, non-forcingness, pragmatism)
    The 2nd American period (cardplay & egos)
    The 1st Italian period (partnerships, teamwork, bidding science)
    The 3rd American period (OK, we can do all that stuff)
    The confused period (Who says PASS means a bad hand? Why do I have to bid suits? Attack at all costs)
    The 4th American period (OK, we can do that stuff better too)
    The 2nd Italian period (New system ideas)

    Now, I know that, peered at with a beady eye, historical periods are inclined to dissolve, and this list may be a tad idiosyncratic, but I feel it aligns conceptually with chess periods, which, from my standpoint, seem to be strongly associated with a world champion, or a school surrounding a great player, as do the bridge periods nominated above.

    (Practising the comma)

    • 9. cathychua  |  May 5, 2009 at 9:26 am

      Hmmm. Chess periods for me have some link to aesthetics, which I’m not quick to pick up on in these periods you’ve suggested for bridge. Partly that has to do with visual aesthetics, as raised by Chris Mulley. Think of a chess period – or a chess school – and you think of a kind of position, it will have its own look. Again, is bridge too limited a game for that to be possible? Or does one type of card player give a different look to a hand from another’s style. I do keep thinking of Tim in particular who had such strong preferences in card play. Occasionally hands do turn up where there seem to be various different ways of setting about the play which are all valid – perhaps by definition these are aesthetically pleasing.

      I hadn’t really ever thought of system and bidding being aesthetically pleasing or analogous either.

      • 10. khokan  |  May 5, 2009 at 10:16 am


        I’d mostly agree with the above distinctions, although their influences didn’t quite filter through to Australia IMO, at least to the mainstream.

        In terms of local influences, while Tim was a great card player, I think that Marston’s ideas have had much more influence among players at all levels in Australia (eg using length in the opponents’ suit as a basis for action, rather than hand strength).

        Digressing a bit, I think it’s hard to go past Marston as the Australian (OK, Zone 7 player) that’s achieved the most overseas – to my mind the best OS results Australia has enjoyed are the 3rd at the 1986 World Pairs and the semi-final appearance at the 1989 Bermuda Bowl.

      • 11. andrew  |  May 5, 2009 at 1:15 pm

        There seems to be a burgeoning agreement that aesthetics in bridge is significantly different to chess. But I think it would be possible to posit an aesthetics which values teamwork, and assuming you accept the (possibly simplistic) idea that a lot of the Blue Team’s success was their focus on teamwork & partnership then the era of the Blue team would be aesthetically pleasing. And I can certainly think of many hands/situations that define for me what the Blue Team is – of course my knowledge of those is contingent on a degree of possibly self-interested myth-making, but I suspect chess has its fair share of that.

        Or you could posit, as Chris & Khokan have, that a bridge aesthetic necessarily involves bidding. Then we could say that the Blue Team period had a distinctive aesthetic as well, both through their ideas on bidding mechanics and the balance they sought between bidding & play. And again, I could find hands that seemed to me to encapsulate that. For each of the other periods I cite I think I could once have dug up the supporting evidence. But my bridge library now is not so large & my memory is not so good.

        I also think Khokan has made an important point vis-a-vis the influence in Australia of NZ bidding theory. But as I noted before, history can look radically different at different scales.

        The lack of bridge documentation is also troubling, and makes it difficult to construct one’s arguments; likewise perhaps, the lack of introversion in bridge writing, so we don’t find so many of these kinds of discussions in our literature.

  • 12. Khokan Bagchi  |  May 4, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    Bill’s hand about Ishmael’s lead reminds about one of the most sublime examples of aesthetics that I’ve ever seen written. Ishmael got to 3NT after a 3S opening on his left. His spade “stopper” consisted of 10xxx in hand opposite a void in dummy. His LHO (Marty Fleischer) led the SA and Rodwell on his right contributed the SJ. Fleischer, holding AKQ9xxx, switched to another suit, but Ishmael still only had 8 tricks. He led a spade out of hand!! Fleischer, who was convinced that Ishmael was to block the suit, and Rodwell held J10 of spades, hopped the SQ!!

    • 13. cathychua  |  May 4, 2009 at 8:28 pm

      Khokan, You are doing fine for somebody who thinks they are in, over their head. I’m still away until Wednesday, but looking forward to reading all this properly on my return!!

  • 14. jill  |  May 4, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    the scoring of many bridge formats on planet earth, via comparisons and confounded datums detracts from the purity and beauty of the game

    how does your number compare with the datum number? what does the datum number actually mean? we’ve all had good datums for playing bad bridge and vice versa. “playing with the field” may also pollute the pure creative decision making process. professionalism in bridge also places pressures on expert players to generate results which could potentially in some players, modify the fearless creativity and abandon they might otherwise exercise when playing in a non professional role, although im not wholly sure this is the case.

    at the end of a matchpointed session we receive a percentage, which may make us happy or sad depending on the degree of ego investiture

    teams bridge seems the most pure in terms of head to head scoring but even that is somewhat randomised until the final

    i guess there’s comparison in any sport, but not against an average or a datum which seems to cheapen the endeavour into keeping up with the Joneses –do we really wish to be rewarded for a comparison or for individuality and creativity?

    do we look at a picasso and say it is 10 imps better than a matisse? do we listen to a concert and rate it at 57%? even with football, do we say collingwood played 10 % better against north melbourne than st kilda did against the bulldogs?

    the scoring distracts our attention at times from essence of the game, but i would not be clever enough to come up with an alternative method

    finer minds might ponder new interplanetary ways to score the game

    had the privilege to kibitz tim seres a few years back. he opened and there was a spade overcall to his left. His partner made a 2 over one, and tim bid 3NT with a singleton spade K in his hand. a spade was not led. The ace of spades was actually to his right. the contract rolled home.
    as a novice at the time, i was duly impressed.
    dunno if his bid was percentage or not, but it demonstrated courage and creativity, rather than simply counting beans

    it would be interesting to have a poet’s corner in the bulletin
    to report on the artistic aspects of the game

    • 15. Bill Jacobs  |  May 4, 2009 at 10:38 pm

      Hey Jill, I ran poems for 10 consecutive months last year in the VBA Bulletin. I’ve done my bit!

      But reading this thread, if you want an artisitic corner in the bulletin, someone other than me is gonna have to write it.

      I admit it would be nice if some higher deity awarded Artistry Points as distinct from Master Points.

      • 16. jill  |  May 5, 2009 at 10:02 am

        yes bill, i know, this was not intended as a critique of the bulletin, but i will keep an eye out for artistic deeds.
        cathy, a very interesting blog.

  • 17. Khokan Bagchi  |  May 3, 2009 at 5:17 pm


    The topic is way over my head, too.

    The D2 lead isn’t consistent with the hand you’ve given west, unless west has chosen to falsecard on the opening lead – very unlikely.

    The strip squeeze line is reasonably safe and doesn’t lose to the layout you’ve given. Yes, you do need to finesse spades early, if that’s your line. However, it isn’t often that you get so many inferences on the opening lead and it seems a waste not to make use of them – especially with the actual layout!

    • 18. Bill Jacobs  |  May 4, 2009 at 12:59 pm

      Who is your opening leader Khokan? Some years ago, I was in a suit slam with a side club suit of



      My LHO Ish Del Monte thought briefly on lead and led the club 8.

      That looked singleton-ish, so I won ace, drew trumps and then played a club from dummy. Ashley Bach on my right played the king and I claimed.

      Something strange happened then. Ish went off at Ash for playing the club king. Taking the whole deal at face value I said “it doesn’t matter, I was hooking the 10” (If Ash had KJxx and he plays low and I win the queen, I go down.)

      Ish gave me a look and then faced his hand … he had started with J8 doubleton of clubs!

      So, the moral of this is: trust an opening lead at your own risk. If a creative player is on your left, then the diamond 2 lead on your deal doesn’t have to be a singleton.

      • 19. khokan  |  May 4, 2009 at 1:40 pm

        I don’t remember the names of the Chinese pair we played (it wasn’t Fu/Jack). The opening leader was the youngish, portly player with glasses. He was a good, aggressive player, but I hadn’t seen a lot of creativity, so far. Anyway, I reckon that most players, especially experts, tend not to be that creative in a blind situation because they figure that the information they give to their partner is more important than the information they impart to declarer. If they are being creative at trick one, I’d probably pay out in the knowledge that I’ll be ahead in the long run.

      • 20. khokan  |  May 4, 2009 at 3:31 pm

        I wonder if you feel any worse if you ignore inferences and you’re wrong, or you take them on board and you’re wrong. I played the next hand from the 2008 SNOT in 5H after the following sequence:

        NS vul

        P—–2S* -3S—-4S
        5H all pass

        *weak 2



        West leads the SQ. You win, cash the HA, to which everyone follows, and then lead the DK. EW play fairly religious count signals and west plays a diamond that suggests an odd number. East wins and returns the C2 (thirds and 5ths).

        Over to you…

      • 21. Bill Jacobs  |  May 4, 2009 at 10:31 pm

        I’m happy to take the heart finesse. Even if your opponents are chronic swindlers (and therefore one should ignore the diamond and club plays), West probably has 6 spades to East’s 3, so the heart finesse is maybe the percentage play anyway.

        I don’t think we’re disagreeing here … clearly one needs to take inferences of the type you are talking about.

        But there are limits, and your first hand seems to be beyond those limits. Let’s say you had successfully double finessed the spade blind. Your play would have been written up across the world (do they still have a “Best Declarer Play of the Year” award?) … and a small minority would have wondered if you had peeked. That’s how obscure I find the winning play.

        But hey, that probably just demonstrates my limitations …

        By the way, it’s only mildly “creative” to lead the diamond deuce from xxx, is it not?

        Or let’s put it another way … you probably could have won the event on some other deal, with a less spectacular decision 🙂

      • 22. Khokan Bagchi  |  May 4, 2009 at 11:33 pm

        West’s hand was:


        so EW were honest in their count signals. Anyway, I presume, Bill, that you were going over to dummy with a diamond, so you would have gone down, too. I do think, however, that it’s right to play on diamonds first, with a view towards getting a count in the suit, especially against people who play strict count (as do a number of top Victorians).

        You’re absolutely right, too, that I could have done better things on a number of “normal” hands. However, I’d just present as a standard goose on those hands, rather than an aesthetic goose!!

      • 23. Bill Jacobs  |  May 5, 2009 at 6:45 am

        There’s no need to go over with a diamond is there? I can safely ruff a spade …

      • 24. Khokan Bagchi  |  May 5, 2009 at 7:07 am

        Playing the second diamond was to get a complete count signal from west – the first diamond was slightly ambiguous, as the D9 was still missing. West held, inferentially, 6 spades and 3 clubs. If he had a singleton diamond, I wasn’t making anyway (!), so I thought that crossing over to dummy to confirm the diamond count was safe

      • 25. Bill Jacobs  |  May 5, 2009 at 2:14 pm

        It’s a good story.

        – Mrs Beginner bangs down the two top hearts (8 ever, 9 never) and makes

        – Mr Intermediate plans to take the heart finesse through East on vacant spaces principle, and makes as the queen obligingly shows up.

        – Ms Advanced tries a diamond on the basis that West would have led a singleton, sees the count card from West, and ruffs a spade intending to finesse a heart … making again.

        Only Mr Expert (Khokan) goes the whole hog with a second diamond to confirm the position, and goes down!

        A nice combination of Beauty and Regret (to bring us back on topic).

  • 26. Chris Mulley  |  May 1, 2009 at 11:23 am

    I find it interesting that so far there has been no mention of bidding systems in this discussion of aesthetics. Maybe its because I’m a “system person”, but I can find both beauty and ugliness in bidding systems (or, at the micro-level, conventions).

    For me, there are greater parallels with chess here. A (good) chess game for me seems to have its own life and personality. There will be some unifying themes, but also possibly necessary anomalies. Bridge systems are like that too. I find beauty in thematic systems with clear objectives, but the “necessary anomalies” also crop up.

    Maybe it’s because of the need to mix “attack and defence” in both system and a game of chess that creates the similarities for me.

    The pure mathematician in me sees both chess and bridge as throwing up problems which one tries to solve. “Beauty” is the extent to which you find the solution to be elegant. There can be beauty in a “brute force” approach – calculating precisely twelve moves ahead in a combination, calculating precisely probabilities when deciding on a line of play or a relay-type system which enables perfect (or near-perfect) transmission of some type of information in the bidding. However, I find it much easier to find beauty in the “neat” solution to problems – things which can form the basis of the patterns that Jonathan refers to in chess.

    My final thought on all of this is that chess, when it is played well, is a holistic game. Because so much is routine in bridge, it seems to be the solutions to the micro-problems which capture our thoughts and imaginations. Perhaps that why I see more of the similarities between construction of bidding systems and chess.

    • 27. andrew  |  May 5, 2009 at 8:05 am

      It’s not that we overlook the aesthetics of system, it’s just that it can’t plausibly be compared to chess. Both bridge & chess have “play”. Comparing them may be problematic, but I don’t think any part of chess is analogous to bidding.

  • 28. Jonathan Mestel  |  May 1, 2009 at 12:41 am

    I suppose I ought to comment here. Let me introduce myself – I am a chess grandmaster, who now plays relatively little chess and much more bridge. At bridge I’m useful, but nothing special.

    Of recent years I have become more interested in chess problems rather than chess-playing. Chess problems (which include artifical “white to mate in 4 moves” as well us “White to play and win” types) are by far more artistic than ordinary chess playing, for which the most spectacular ideas usually don’t quite work. Of course chess-playing is more of a sport, and I agree that a single chess game is much more like a moderately close bridge match than a single bridge hand. In a chess game, you can play really well for 30 moves and then do something incredibly stupid, which can either lose you the game or alter the nature of who has the advantage.
    So think of a match with several fascinating part-score/overtrick battles on which you build up a lead of 18 or so IMPs, and then you go for 1400 and let through a slam and are now trailing. The match continues – overall you have played better, but are now defending a worse endgame.
    This is the sporting contest: the Artistic element may or may not rear its beautiful head during this process.

    Chess is a perfect information game – mathematically “trivial”. But we can’t understand it fully, and we devise various pattern recognition
    techniques to help us fathom what’s going on. These give rise to aesthetics; it would be similar to say that a painting was “trivial” because
    it scattered light of various wavelengths in a pre-determined way. In contrast, bridge has an unknown element, which gradually diminishes as
    the hand is played. This allows the psychological element to enter, and also a meaningful partnership aspect. And one of the charms of bridge
    is starting each hand from a completely unknown position. While one could randomly scatter chess pieces on a board and start playing, the positions are very unlikely to be as interesting as a bridge hand with its need for discovery.

    The parallel of artifically composed chess problems may be double dummy problems. These can be fascinating, but they can be a bit dry, having dispensed with many of the attractive features of bridge. I am afraid that in terms of the mechanics of what can occur chess is much much much richer.

    Friedgood and Levitt wrote a book in which they analysed chess beauty as having 4 components: Depth, Geometry, Paradox and Flow.
    While I don’t fully accept this definition, of those bridge has depth and paradox; relatively little flow and practically no geometry.
    But it does have the unknown.

    I have occasionally thought about mimicking various chess ideas in a bridge context and vice versa. An easy theme is Zugzwang – where having the
    move is a disadvantage – which are like endplays. Squeezes on a chessboard are not so hard. You force your opponent to make a detrimental and irrevocable decision. A fork in bridge could be like when we threaten either to ruff things in dummy or establish dummy’s suit, and the defence can’t prevent both.

    More advanced is a “Novotny” theme. In chess, this is typically where a piece is sacrificed on a square which is the intersection of a rook’s move and a bishop’s move. If the bishop takes the piece, the bishop blocks the rook and advantage is taken of that; and vice versa if the rook captures the piece. This can perhaps be mirrored in terms of a sacrifice
    attacking communication between declarer and dummy.

    By convention, chess problems must start from legal positions, i.e. they could in theory arise in the play of an ordinary game. So no pawns can be on the back rank, for example. The constraint that a position is legal can sometimes be used to work out what must have just happened from a given position; sometimes you can prove that White cannot castle in a given position, for example. This is known as retro-analysis.
    Many years ago I invented a simple bridge retro-analytic problem:


    You turn up at a bridge table and declarer hands you 5 cards saying “I have to run. It’s your lead – there are no trumps.”
    You cash the 3 aces and everyone follows. Then you lead towards the AQ. Do you finesse or play for the drop?

    I may already have gone on too long and digressed too far…Jonathan

    • 29. cathychua  |  May 1, 2009 at 8:09 am

      ‘Gone on too long and digressed too far’? Of course, not Jonathan. By the way, one of the things I was hoping to observe in this post was the differences in philosophy between bridge players and bridge/chess players and even, chess players who don’t play any bridge….if there are any reading this….

      As for, as you say, bridge having the ‘unknown’, does this work, as I expect, both in aesthetically pleasing and displeasing ways?

    • 30. sartaj  |  May 1, 2009 at 11:19 am

      Great post.
      xxx AKQ
      xxx AKJ
      xxx AKJ
      AQJ10 xxxx

      weird line of play in 7C though, eh ?

      • 31. Ben Thompson  |  May 1, 2009 at 2:19 pm

        The part I don’t understand is why he didn’t claim. Surely it’s just as fast and less risky to throw your cards on the table and say “I have to run. Repeating the club finesse”. Lefty must have been 3334.

        The comment “there are no trumps” and the play must add up to the contract being 7NT.


    • 32. andrew webb  |  May 1, 2009 at 3:18 pm

      Bridge certainly has geometry – agree that it lacks flow though. That is, I always felt that AICP was about card geometry.

      • 33. Khokan Bagchi  |  May 1, 2009 at 6:27 pm

        Unlike most on this forum, I didn’t really get into AICP, mainly because I couldn’t get my mind around most of the problems. I have, however, played with some players who can visualize those kinds of endings at the beginning of a hand. I think it’s a mindset thing that one either has or hasn’t.

        I think that there are many more interesting decisions to be made in the bidding than in the play or defense. Like Chris, I’m inclined to think that one’s imagination really comes to the fore in bidding, whereas in play and defense, the best action is usually clearcut.

    • 34. Jonathan Mestel  |  May 1, 2009 at 10:56 pm

      Perhaps we can further infer that if declarer
      doesn’t know CQ will win that RHO must have discarded
      a black card last time…. Or I’ll change the setting:
      “You wake up from a nightmare in which you’re declaring 7NT and have no idea what’s gone to find that it’s true…”

      I once saw an example hand in one of Reese’s books
      illustrating a double squeeze. Amusingly, one could prove that the defence must have discarded SA a few tricks previously…

    • 35. David Morgan  |  May 9, 2009 at 1:45 pm

      I think there is lots of beauty in bridge: in the bidding, in the play, in the design of a bidding system. Like Jonathon, I think puzzles offer a way for us to appreciate beauty, especially the interaction between declarer and the defenders duringthe play of the hand. Try this one:

      N: 873 62 74 K98543

      S: K6 AKJ5 AQ653 A2

      In pre-Lebensohl days the bidding goes
      2S P P X
      P 3C P 3N
      W leads the SQ to E’s A; E returns the S4 to your K. Your lead.

      (And, yes, for those with long memories, this is from Jeff Rubens’ great article “Practical Puzzling” in the Sept 1980 Bridge World.)

      Now it’s your turn to bid:
      Ax A Axx KT9xxxx
      Thirty years ago when openings were sounder . . . Pairs, NV/V, partner passes, you open 1C, partner responds 1H, you rebid 2C (an underbid but do you fancy 3C with that suit?), partner jumps to 3N. What do you call and why (to paraphrase Roth and Stone’s great series of problems)?

      To make 3N declarer needs D 3-3 with the K onside. But he also needs to ensure that E wins the third diamond, so E needs KJx (or else a good defender will play the DK under the A following the D finesse, so as to create an entry for W). With that holding a *very* good defender would play the DJ on the first D led from dummy, starting to unblock. (Would that have occured to you? It didn’t to me.) However, if you cash the DA first, before going to dummy and finessing, E is powerless: you can counter any unblock and, if he doesn’t, W never gets on lead. Rubens’ article describes the beauty of this thrust and parry in more detail, together with some other problems.

      And the bidding problem? I think Paul Soloway found one of the all-time great bids. He deduced that Bobby Goldman, his partner, had jumped to 3N AS A PASSED HAND with C support and likely double stoppers in both unbid suits and, inferentially little except length in hearts. Placing him with something like SK, DK, CQ and CJ or length, together with another couple of Js or a pointed suit Q, he jumped to 6C. (The Bridge World, Challenge the Champs, March 1982)


      • 36. Khokan Bagchi  |  May 9, 2009 at 2:08 pm

        On the second hand, I would have rebid 3C, bad suit and all. 2C seems such a big underbid. However, I reckon that it would be much harder to get to 6C, now. Partner, likely with no aces, will bid 3NT, and now there’s little reason to bid on, as you’ve already described the power of the hand – great problem.

  • 37. Khokan Bagchi  |  April 30, 2009 at 11:09 pm

    As a philistine, I’m not sure I understand much about aesthetics. However, I believe that there’s always a percentage play (or bid), and this will be determined by factors additional to the auction and lead – ie opponents matter, too.

    Anyway, I’ve got a hand to showcase my point:

    1999 PABF, Opponents: China

    We reached 6H by south. Before making his lead, west was informed that I held a balanced minimum (I opened 1H as south playing a strong club system with 10-14 limited openings, sometimes canape). After some time, west led the D2 (fourths) and I had to play the following dummy:



    The play at trick one went D10, DJ, DK.

    What is the percentage line and what is the aesthetic line? I took the aesthetic line and went 2 down. If I’d taken the right line, we would have won the Far East, instead of running 3rd.

    • 38. Jonathan Mestel  |  May 1, 2009 at 3:01 am

      Did you bid diamonds in the auction at all?

      It’s tempting to place the leader with a stiff diamond and not the CA; but he might have led more quickly in that case. We could cash HQ, ruff a 3rd spade low, play a H to the J and if they break ruff the last spade high. Now if DA is not ruffed, we strip-squeeze RHO with CA, 3 trumps and DJ98x.
      That feels suitably aesthetic. But we look stupid if D are 3-2 and the 3rd spade is overruffed, or sometimes if CA is right. Might LHO have 10 black cards? His pause could be because of another
      attractive lead, say a black QJ holding. I guess you had to be there….

      An armchair aesthete.

      • 39. Khokan Bagchi  |  May 1, 2009 at 6:22 am


        I hadn’t bid diamonds, at all. I’d opened 1H and partner made a game forcing raise (2NT), over which I decided to show a balanced minimum. My systemic rebid was 4D, to show a 2-suiter.

        Anyway, you’ve read the hand very well, especially west’s hesitation before leading. West’s hand was:


        As you say, playing west for 10 black cards is a long shot. Therefore, the percentage line is to finesse the S10 – this would have worked. The aesthetic line should be saved for when dummy has the decency to hold the H10!

      • 40. Jonathan Mestel  |  May 1, 2009 at 10:42 pm

        That’s unlucky. At least you got a story from it!

        In chess, people somtimes describe an artistic move as
        “study-like”, studies being elegant, artifically composed endings. I have coined the term “study-like blunder” which is a move (often a flamboyant sacrifice) with an
        artistic idea which appears to be clever but contains a
        fatal flaw. Rather than win prosaically, we see a seductive “brilliancy” which blinds us with its charm
        to objective reality. Usually, these moves are played
        with an exhibitionistic flourish, increasing the humiliation to come…

        These are much more common in bridge, because
        we don’t know the lie and being only partially sighted
        anyway, we do not require much blinding. Do we
        finesse or play a Vienna Coup? Do we underlead
        AKQJxxx and hope to get a ruff or try to cash two tricks? Who of us would not choose a really artistic
        48% line over a prosaic 50%? What about 45%?
        38%? And we can justify anti-percentage lines with
        table presence (or in my case, usually absence.)

        Are we trrying to maximise the pleasure we get out of playing, or our total points? Of course we can’t deny that a lot of the pleasure is in winning….

      • 41. Bill Jacobs  |  May 3, 2009 at 12:59 pm

        This topic is way over my head.

        But Khokan’s deal intrigues me. If you are going to double finesse the spade, it seems you have to do it without testing diamonds, or even drawing all the trumps – otherwise you lack the necessary entries to hand.

        If I had double-hooked the spades, dollars to doughnuts I would have found West with

        Qxx – 10xx – xxx – AJxx

        (He was trying to find a passive lead. Anyone would think before leading with that hand)

        So now I have gone down in a hand that Mrs Guggenheim can make in two different ways.

        I’d rate both the gorgeous strip-squeeze and double-spade hook as “aesthetic”. I’d go down in more prosaic fashion.

    • 42. andrew  |  May 5, 2009 at 8:54 am

      Why is the %-age line the 25% double spade finesse as opposed to the 50% club finesse?

      • 43. khokan  |  May 5, 2009 at 9:04 am

        If you accept that west has led a singleton, the club finesse doesn’t figure to work – west wouldn’t be leading a singleton if he held an ace.

  • 44. Chris Mulley  |  April 30, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    I think are some clear points of distinction between chess and bridge regarding aesthetics.

    Firstly, in chess there is the possibility of visual aesthetics which simply does not occur in bridge. This really only deals with a very small proportion of the “beautiful” games of chess, so I will move on.

    Secondly, in chess it is possible to have a much greater “sense of the unexpected” – a move (or moves) can simply blow you away when you see them because they are things which simply would not occur to you, no matter how much thought you put into them. To borrow from Kotov, there are far fewer “candidate moves” in bridge, particularly for someone who I will arbitrarily designate as a “good” player.

    Thirdly, and perhaps related to the above, there are far fewer techniques available in a game of bridge when compared to chess, and the vast majority of those techniques are available to our “good” player. Even where our “good” player might not be aware of the technique, the purpose of a particular “move” can almost always be spotted immediately by our “good” player, because there are fewer ways to reach a “won position” in bridge than there are in chess.

    This is not to say that this kind of beauty cannot be found in bridge – I think the example cited of Adventures in Card-play is a good one. I am simply saying that the occurrence of these, either in play or in abstraction, are just SO rare compared to their frequency in the realm of chess.

    More thoughts may follow when I have more time and less work …

    • 45. cathychua  |  April 30, 2009 at 8:18 pm

      Yes, I like ‘sense of the unexpected’ and if it is so that we have some feeling of beauty attached to such moves, I guess this is a nice way of summarising why the false-card in bridge is so aesthetically pleasing…

      I do also like your idea of visual aesthetics in chess, which, alas, bridge can never have.

  • 46. sartaj  |  April 30, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    “Because if you have an aesthetic duty to the game, then the regret that follows the errant path is really quite profound. You have disappointed the game as you might disappoint God”

    “Bridge players are Laskers, happy with a temporal, contingent, ahistorical view of the world. Bridge players don’t argue with success.

    Do they feel regret? Sure, we’re human. Do we elevate it into a philosophy…whose turn is it to deal?”

    Love both these bits.

  • 47. andrew webb  |  April 30, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    I’ll buy into this.

    I don’t particularly think simplicity & beauty are necessarily related. it’s a truism that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; some will find simplicity beautiful, others complexity. Some both, perhaps some neither. I myself am very partial to Kelsey/Ottlik, but I think for all the apparent complexities of the hands, there was an attempt to find (a) unifying theme(s).

    My every (historical) venture into philosophy has been unsuccessful, but adding aesthetics into the list of attempts, I would be inclined to suggest that beauty arises out of some kind of dynamic tension between complexity and simplicity. One without the other will not be enough. A backwash squeeze is beautiful – because all its complexity arises from simple things that we already know. A falsecard is beautiful – because its simplicity masks the complex of possible worlds that had to be considered for it to be effective.

    Moving on to the comparisons between bridge and chess: I’ve tried this game before but I don’t think it is a particularly easy comparison. Chess is a game of records in a way that bridge isn’t – arguably the whole history of (tournament) chess is eternally present. Chess players grow up with it, they need it with them. Bridge players can survive without much history. They live on the edge of now and the next board.

    The games are very different. I would equate a move in chess with a hand in bridge (because a match and a game are roughly equivalent, in terms of time & tournament scoring). If that’s the case then the connections between “moves” in bridge are much less teleological than in chess. It’s much harder to have a sense of a bridge match as a coherent unity than a chess game.

    To illustrate this idea, it’s quite easy to play a hand superbly & lose a match. I’ve heard many stories about such hands – they certainly have a life (pickled) beyond their occurrence – but the parallel idea (in my framework) of a perfect move in an otherwise lost game, is, I think, unlikely to occur to the chess player. It certainly wouldn’t occur to me as a chess player, because no one move can achieve quite that resonance, unless you win. (Although, there is the Marshall…).

    Someone raised the idea once of two kinds of chess player, Lasker, who played against the opponent & Capablanca, who played the game in some quintessential way. Bridge players are Laskers, happy with a temporal, contingent, ahistorical view of the world. Bridge players don’t argue with success.

    Do they feel regret? Sure, we’re human. Do we elevate it into a philosophy…whose turn is it to deal?

    • 48. cathychua  |  April 30, 2009 at 8:15 pm

      I’m certainly not suggesting that something simple is per se beautiful. And, of course, something complex may be beautiful, though that isn’t going to follow necessarily either.


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