Archive for November, 2009

When bridge was popular…

The Mercury 16 January 1906 reported:

Amongst the other enormities attributed to bridge it is now held responsible for the unprecedented depression in tho English provincial theatrical business at the present time. The lending managers who sonel out companies to tho provinces, a London paper states, are unanimous in describing the last two years as among the worst they have ever experienced in the country. At one time it was difficult to fill a provincial theatre for a matinee performance, but since bridge has become the rage the country theatres are in the better parts neglected in the evening, whereas the afternoon performances draw full houses. In most of the country houses the entire evening is now devoted to bridge and there is little else talked about but this game. The billiard rooms says a correspondent, are empty, ping-pong is never mentioned, whist is almost forgotten, hunting, croquet, hockey, steeplechasing, are all going under to bridge.


November 28, 2009 at 4:25 pm Leave a comment


Sorry, sorry, sorry. I’m in the middle of moving home again. It’s all rather messy. Back next week, maybe about Wednesday.

November 27, 2009 at 10:57 am Leave a comment

A bridge video

Melbourne players Charlie and Kerry made this movie of the 2001 ANC. I recommend fastforwarding through the first two minutes, but the rest of it is fun! I’ve made it available at Dropbox. The link is here You should be able to download it.

I’m new to dropbox. Let me know if there are issues.

And if it all works well, I’ll put another one up soon.

November 17, 2009 at 9:06 am Leave a comment

The Italian work ethic

Speaking of the world champions, as the Italians were the year they beat us in the NOT final, here is a story that isn’t going in the updated History of Australian Bridge.

We lost the first set and in my opinion should have swapped, just normal after losing. But a certain person on our team, whom I will only call Phil M. in order that he isn’t identified, refused to come out of the closed room. So, we lost our choice and lost another set. At that point I had a cunning plan for how to get our choice back.

One of the Italians in the Open room had played throughout with his hand up a girl’ leg. It seems to be physically attached. Honestly. He played one-handed. It seemed obvious to me that there was no way he’d go into the Closed room as that would involve having to amputate his right arm. I suggested, therefore, once more, that we should swap seats and this time Phil was bullied into agreeing. My partner and I went into the Closed room…and the two players who’d been beating our brains in the Open room followed us. It turned out my RHO could remove his arm from the girl’s leg if he wanted to. Damn. Only now we’d irritated him too. Double damn.

Interesting, though, to see just how professional those Italians are. They were playing a team they might have expected to beat easily, they were up a fair margin and yet still they did the right thing, no matter how inconvenienced they were by it.

November 16, 2009 at 12:03 pm 1 comment

When shouldn’t you think at bridge?

This was written in the early 2000s. I discovered it the other day, lacking a title, lacking a date, lacking an ending. It looked thought-provoking to say the least as I read through it and raises some interesting issues. Well, I hope you agree. Look forward to your comments!

When SHOULDN’T you think at bridge?

Naturally an event producing such a poor performance as the National Playoffs did for my partnership calls for some self-analysis. Being aware of the basis sport psychology principle ‘don’t think at the meet’, I wanted to try to put that into practice. The last time I think I played as best as I am able to was in the semi-final of the 2001 NOT. My feeling is that I did not think at all, and yet was about double-dummy perfect. Interestingly I now realise in retrospect that it was impossible to achieve that state against the then world champions in the final. I don’t think this was so much because of their complex methods as because they explained everything. This consequently involved much concentration on (largely) irrelevant information. And that in turn totally prevented play in the unconscious state which is ideal in competition. In the Playoff this was not a consideration because everybody was playing normal – or at least familiar! – methods.

Within the general description ‘sports’ there are at least 2 distinct types: athletic where one has no opponent and where there are no surprises. One merely has to repeat the same thing one has been practising day in, day out. And sports with opponents, whether one on one, or team on team. These are sports of continual surprise, with the player relying on their instincts for the most part. The flow of the game means there are time constraints generally preventing other non-instinctual responses. The odd exception makes us realise that this is for the best. We have no doubt all observed, in Aussie Rules in Australia, other games elsewhere, that the player who has the ball and doubt about what to do with it often does not only the inferior thing in the end, but even the catastrophic, such as kicking straight to an opponent. Or the really considered goal kick that goes completely west.

Bridge has got to be different from both of these. In the first place it doesn’t have any time constraints (ignoring the ethical aspect of some situations). The physical sportsman generally has no choice but to react. Not so of the bridge player. In the second place, well, it’s a thinking game. The critical abilities I think will turn a player into a good player are these: (1) determining when to think and (2) making best use of that.

Making best use of thought is a proposition not to be sneezed at. Most people come up with worse answers when they think. A partner I had early in my career was the most dangerous imaginable. If she ‘just pulled cards’ she was quite good. But she insisted, from time to time, on thinking and you could write the consequence in the out column before she’d done a thing. In Australia Peter Gill strikes me as a good example of one who comes up with something better by thinking on a consistent basis. But the player I’d most strive to emulate is Tim Seres. He never thinks until it is appropriate to. Often he sets about a hand by playing cards until he gets to a position where he has the information to decide what to do. That’s his critical point.

Determining when to think is inevitably also fraught with difficulties and dangers. On the one hand we are cruising along on auto, our decisions are being made by instinct, which means the collected experience of our bridge career, and then – wham, bam something happens which we should think about. Take the hand looked at elsewhere: |H xxxxx and C Ax. On lead against slam in a 4-4 heart fit, clubs weak jump overcalled by partner. This was a hand on which to think. But how should that process be initiated. We are doing things on auto, how do we switch from auto? How do we recognise the moment?

I don’t know if sports psychology provides an answer to this, being concerned with physical sports. I turned for some advice, as I often do, to chess players. The collective experience of chess, which has in effect been professionalised far longer than any of the physical sports, has pre-empted both sports psychology and brain theory in various ways which are important to us.

I presented my problem thus to two chess players:

A question, but I’m not sure how to put it. Something like this. How do you balance instinct versus thought at chess? In bridge it is true that it is sometimes bad to think. Is that so ever at chess, and if not, can you tell me what makes chess different?

I’m trying to find out, if it is generally right to obey one’s instincts, how does one not do that when it is right not to? Is the thought process like this? (1) Instinct, recognised (2) think (3) go back to instinct – generally? When correct? But if this is the process, doesn’t (2) corrupt one? Isn’t that half the point of obeying (1) and not going to (2) is that by doing (2) you can no longer tell if (1) was right?

Is any of this making sense to you? The basis of the theory, by the way, is that if you don’t respond by instinct to a situation, the problem is switched over to a part of the brain that treats it as a new problem. That is obviously largely going to be wrong in much of bridge: eg the opponents open 4S – absolutely wrong to think what to do. Just do.

To relate it to a concrete example, I held Ax in partner’s suit and xxxxx in the opponents’ slam trump suit recently. Not even thinking about it I led the ace and, too late, shifted to a trump. Trumps were 4-4, which I knew, so it was most likely that the way to beat it was by beginning with a trump, expecting to get back in with the ace in order to draw another round. Instead my trumps were crossruffed to death. I guess instinctively I was following two good rules: one, lead pard’s suit and two, cash aces against slams. But in this case the right thing to do was to think and then figure to lead a trump. How should I have done this, how should I have realised this was the time to think? By the process where one always does? Or is there some other way?

And the responses I received:

First, meet Jonathan Mestel. He is one of the few players in the world to be grandmaster of both across the board chess and problem chess. He has played Olympiads for England in both. He is an academic mathematician in England and, as for many chess players, bridge is a busman’s holiday for him.


I’m not sure I’ve anything deep to say here. Perhaps “think if something unexpected has happened” would be sensible. You don’t often hold xxxxx and an ace against a slam, so perhaps some sort of alarm bell should ring?

I think a trump is more likely to gain, but obviously it could be wrong, you’d feel silly if after some discards your ace was ruffed out, or some such.

Of course this isn’t a great example for your question – “think when there’s a problem you haven’t noticed” is hardly helpful advice! Obviously, not letting emotions cloud your judgement is a moral too.

Going back to chess, I think the Great players have a gut feel for when the critical point in a game is; when it is vital to play the best move; and they tend to concentrate their thought on these occasions….

Now meet Chris Depasquale. A Fide Master, He’s been one of the best players in Australia for many years. Ok, he’s my brother. But he’s also a profound thinker and, like Jonathan, an occasional bridge player.


In chess it has long been considered axiomatic that “the hand is more  reliable than the brain”. That is, in a huge proportion of occasions, the move you reach for to play instantly with no thought is the right move 95% of the time. This is, of course, only true if you have sufficient experience and understanding that your instincts are reliable. These guys Kasparov and Kramnik recently played a 5-minute match, and the quality was awesome. With two hours on the clock they might have each played 2-3 move/game differently – in other words they were in line with the 98%  instinct percentage.

How many times do you hear, “I had my longest think for the entire game here and made an error”? The guy is only thinking long because the issues to be resolved are not in his databank of knowledge and experience, and he is trying to work it out. If he was thoroughly familiar with the (type of) position he would not need to think long.

Instinctive moves in chess, however, do not necessarily relate to speed. For instance, in an Email Olympiad game recently my instinct told me that a pawn sacrifice I wanted to play was correct. Fritz, however, assured me it was a blunder, and that I would be losing. I followed my instinct, played the pawn sacrifice, and can demonstrate it to be winning for me in all variations if the sacrifice was accepted (which it was). The crucial point to all the variations was beyond the calculating ability of Fritz. My instinct here, however, was not about speed – it took me two days to convince myself to play the sacrifice, but it was only instinct, not calculating that led me to consider it in the first place.

Similarly instinct told me a certain position given in ECO as clear advantage White should not be so. So I sat down to work out how to refute the Encyclopaedia and did so. Only instinct works here – you would waste a life just trying to refute every assessment in ECO.

In bridge, where I have far less knowledge and experience, I am more likely to work out the right way by calculation than instinct. I can sit down and work out the only lead to break up the potential squeeze, but I am sure that, in such a situation, many other more experienced and knowledgable players would know which suit to lead by instinct, rather than calculating the possibilities.

Don’t know about your lead to slam; you may have oversimplified where your instinctive lead came from. Your instinct might have told you that where you have a making ace and an unexpected trump trick (with 5 vs 4-4) that, to get a good score, you need to take it 2 down. Or your instinct might tell you that your best chance to defeat the slam is to force declarer to take a key decision before he becomes aware of the trump break, so you need to see the dummy. [Maybe you erred at trick 2 by not finding the only lead to force a decision from which declarer could not recover if trumps were 5-0, and maybe he would have decided wrong, because if trumps had been 5-0 you might have led one at trick 1 or 2.] Are you absolutely satisfied that Trump x is superior to A lead over the range of possible distributions?

Playing for the drop when missing K x x x x is the only way to make some hands, but that doesn’t make it a superior play overall. Maybe your instinct was correct but the patient died…

I think the process for the chess player is like this:

1. instinct tells him which move “feels right”;

2. (a) if time permits he calculates variations

2. (b) if no time, moves instinctively

3. If calculations verify instinct move is made

4. If calculations conflict with instinct difficulties arise, generally resulting in much time taken, and possible errors when move finally chosen.

If instinct was incorrect this is probably because the player lacks sufficient understanding of that (type of) position.

Of course, numerous other complications can come into the actual move chosen. The instinctive move might be objectively best but very drawish, and a draw is as bad as a loss in the tournament/match situation. The opponent’s clock situation might be a factor also, but your puzzle seems to assume that you are always trying to play the objectively best move.

Probably in bridge it is rare that you can absolutely calculate the objectively best move to maximise tricks but play a different move anyway.

Belated thanks to Jonathan and Chris!

In my vain attempts to describe what I love to do best in the world, the closest I’ve ever got is to say ‘to lose myself in what I am doing’, to become one with it, to cease to exist, to become nothing but part of the thing one is doing. As a consequence I have always been drawn to activities that involve sustained concentration. I’d rather read a novel than a short story. The playing of music comes to mind, and needless to say a concerto rather than a small piece. But nothing more than chess.

Reading a little in the area of sport psychology lately has made me realise that what I’ve been talking about is the ideal of competitive sports. It’s the state one wishes to be in while competing. In their jargon it is referred to as ‘the Zone’.

Some sport has no stop-start about it at all. It is one fluid from go to wo, whether that be discus or the 5000 metres run. Team sports always (?) have stop start as part of their constitution, and so do many one-on-one activities to a greater or lesser extent. Eg tennis. Chess has ‘no’ stop-start. It is pure, sustained activity from the beginning, excepting in highly irregular circumstances where a referee might be involved. Naturally, over the course of, say, 5 hours, one will not spend every moment at the table. There will be ‘pit’ stops, and for some cigarette breaks. But one may continue in the same state while undertaking these activities, so they are no breaks in the same sense a change of end would be for a tennis player.

Bridge is really different again. Rubber bridge is the closest one can come to the perfect state because there is very little stop start. But tournament bridge has a major stop-start aspect to it. Nor is this only so between boards, where it is not uncommon even to have to wait for minutes for a new board to be available. There will be chit-chat, analysis between partners and between opponents at such times. More dramatically than this, however, the actual course of the hand itself, particularly, but not necessarily only, during the auction, is accompanied by much communication with the opponent. Most of this will be extraneous to what one needs to know. Ie, it will be informing the opponents of something you already know, or attempting to inform them of something you don’t really know. Much the same, if it comes to that, applies to information they wish to impart to you.

We’ve all been here before. Behind screens, the auction proceeds:

1C 1H

1S 2C

2S 2H

2S 3C

3D 3S

4C 4S

4NT 5D

6S All Pass.

The opponents are positively eager to impart all they know. You get the following explanations:

(1) 15+m, any; spades could have a longer suit 9+

(2) relay; diamonds, either suit could be longer

(3) relay; the spades are longer

(4) relay; 5242

(5) relay asking for controls. There are some inferences here because he could have asked for…blah blah blah; a number of queen based controls

(6) relay setting denial cuebidding; shows this and this, denies that or could have

(7) more of (6); shows and denies or could have

Welcome to dumbsville, you too have failed the IQ test. You have just spent 5 minutes being bombarded with a heap of meaningless rubbish. And it has cost your opponents absolutely nothing to provide this information. They know it automatically. It can only be good for them and bad for you to have you bamboozled by it.

There is the other approach to being informed about this hand:

Wait until the end and then get the highlights. Find out dummy’s shape and controls, where they are, by all means. It may tell you something about declarer’s hand. I am willing to ask the opponent and trust them to tell me if there is anything I’m really going to need to know. Have a policy of not doubling artificial bids. That will help this approach.

What makes me so certain that this approach is generally right was the experience of playing against the Italians in the final of the 2001 NOT. It felt like every hand my brain was assaulted by this information volunteered by the opponents. Most of it, in retrospect, I’m sure was information I didn’t need to know. So, virtually every time they bid, that bid showed either these, or none of these, or 5-4 of those, or one suited in the other. Or, or, or. So it went on. Did I need this information? Would I have been better off left to my own devices? Now, I‘m not exactly trying to say ‘I would have beaten the world champions if.’ I am saying that the playing field wasn’t even and this was to my great disadvantage.

November 11, 2009 at 5:09 pm 26 comments

Thoughts on the World Championship book

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for ages.

A couple of years ago at the Shanghai Bermuda Bowl, Brian Senior invited me to write as much of the Round Robin section for the Open and Women’s as I desired. What a nice invitation!

It set me on a path of thinking, before I went, about the nature and function of the World Championship books. Once upon a time they were the most exciting repository of information available to the bridge world. Every card and bid of the WC final, dispassionate, merely telling the tale, not embellishing it in any way. One was able to come to one’s one conclusion about what had happened.

Is there still a role for the WC book to be like this? Now, when we have on the Internet every bid and play recorded. Now, too, when we have lavish Daily Bulletins, again fixed on the Internet for posterity.

It seemed to me, that the part of the book I was writing was best off avoiding what was already going to be available online. Therefore the first thing I did was watch no matches that were going to be Vu-graphed. I also wanted to avoid writing up hands which were already reported in the Daily Bulletins. In other words to make this value for money by giving the reader new material, or, if you like, to record for posterity things that otherwise would be left unknown.

In line with this idea, I decided to follow some teams which I thought would have the potential to do really well, but wouldn’t be considered especially exciting vu-graph material.

Ireland because they’d had that great result of 2nd in the European recently. Could they keep it up?
Argentina because any team with Lambardi on it has to be a chance. Honestly, if Pablo was playing with three tinned fish I’d still be expecting him to get up.
Indonesia because they are so frustratingly close to pulling off the big one, but does anybody really expect them to? And they are my friends and neighbours.
Australia because I’m completely parochial.

Okay. Now you sit, you watch, you collect data which will tell a story. Its story.

One of the things that happened in this tournament was that Ireland and Australia both had dreadful starts. So after a few rounds I sat down to watch these two teams play each other and I guess I was already expecting what the story would be. Ireland finally gets its act together by trouncing Australia and then steadily moves up the ranks to take its rightful place, whilst Australia languishes sadly at the bottom of the field.

But the data, of course, is what’s telling the story. What happened in fact was that Australia emerged easy victors and it was Ireland that was never in the hunt. Australia had a splendid qualifying, staying in the top few throughout. Meanwhile, Indonesia was never convincing and Pablo struggled.

The data was telling a story and the story that was developing seems to be looking at the hardest question in sport to answer: why do teams lose? A harder question, even, it seems to me to answer than why do they win?

Argentina, Indonesia, Ireland are all teams that might easily do well and yet why was this the two weeks when things were tough for them, when their luck was never in?

I didn’t do a good job, in the end, of presenting this story. Partly this was because the copy that went into the WC book was, due to some sort of communication failure, not the copy that should have been there. It was incomplete and badly proofread.

Still, the fact is that it is a hard topic to write about. Yet I hope it was also a fascinating one which is rarely if ever preserved, since it is so much easier to write about the winner.

If anybody reading this has ideas on what the WC book should look like these days, opinions more than welcome!

November 10, 2009 at 6:31 am 19 comments

What’s it to be? Concluded

The question was, with this hand, what bid to make with the following information:


Partner opens 1NT 13-15.

After a system discussion of 5 minutes with your inexperienced partner, it seems to you that your options are:

(1) 2S natural and weakness takeout
(2) 3S 5+ forcing
(3) 4S
(4) 3NT

So what’s it to be?









For playing 2S making 11 tricks I got 41%. Half the field was in game, most in 4S, a couple in 3NT.

I was playing at the Adelaide Bridge Centre, Phil Gue’s club. It is a most pleasant place to play and has excellent MP scoring in place. Your scores are available the instant you finish and during the night you can see all the scores so far on each board after you enter your own score. Great fun. For a link to the sort of thing I’m talking about, go here.

Tomorrow, something COMPLETELY different. Do drop by.

November 8, 2009 at 8:36 pm 8 comments

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