The Street Smart Bridge Player
Like most things in life, you get out of Bridge what you put into
it. In fact, if you pay attention, you will find Bridge is a
microcosm of life. We can apply lessons learned at the table to
family, friends, and business.
What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School: Notes from a
Street-Smart Executive describes how competitive games allow
one to learn about themselves and others. In Mark’s case, he
provides a first-hand experience witnessing the character of a
former United States President. Sometime before Richard Nixon
became President, Mark recalls having concerns about his trust and
integrity after a friendly game of golf. At the Bridge table, we
also get a chance to learn about others. If we are observant, we
will develop insights into the character and playing abilities of
others. Better yet, we can gain insights about ourselves, who we
are, and learn how to cope with challenging situations. Best, we
can try different techniques to help us get where we want to go.
When we are young, we are easily impressed by outward factors –
money, power, and glamour. As we mature, we appreciate the
importance of character and inner qualities beyond the initial
glitter and realize the best things in life are within. Attentive
Bridge players will attest to the parallel. After some initial
calisthenics warming up with the mechanics of the game, we will
discuss the psychological side of the game.
The Technical Side of Bridge
The prerequisite to becoming a Street Smart Bridge Player is
developing one’s technical prowess. While technical details are
well beyond the scope of this series of articles, we should
acknowledge them here. Fundamental prerequisites begin with sound
hand evaluation, awareness of
environmental factors, sensitivity to
odds and statistics (also see
books). For instance, while
high card point and distribution points are useful,
losing trick count and cover card hand evaluation generates a
more accurate assessment to accurately bid games and slams.
Similarly, careful attention to the
Bridge ecosystem (environmental factors) is beneficial,
including topics such as aggregate vulnerability and relative seat
position in competitive auctions. While not purely a technical
attribute, a partnership should also be cognizant of variances in
their Bridge skills vis-à-vis the competition. While a partnership
may not prevail against superior opponents over the long term, a
pair may score using different methods in the short term,
particularly in a team event.
Any bidding system has inherent advantages in certain areas – for
instance, playing a
weak or strong opening Notrump range may affect bidding and
play (interference and right/wrong-siding the contract during
play). Similarly, knowing when to compete is a critical element of
sacrifice opportunities, potentially pushing opponents to a
makeable contract, needlessly tipping off the declarer of marked
finesses. Actually, Bridge judgment is a broad area – some players
seem born with a logical mind while the rest of us learn the
tricks of the trade through the “school of hard knocks.” Perhaps
you have an inherent sense of how to best play a hand without
knowing all the various odds – lucky you. The serious students of
the game find themselves digging into
card (suit) combinations as well as
a -priori and
Before getting into play, we should touch on bidding –
conventions. Among the masses, the
Standard American system enjoys a large following with its
strong Notrump and 5 card major opening bids. Many tourney players
2/1 system with its temporizing
Forcing Notrump and associated game-going promise with
responder’s two-over-one bid. Among heavy-duty Bridge players,
artificial methods such as
Precision and its derivatives require significant study and
memory work. Theoretically, the payoff of using artificial methods
improves the partnership’s bidding accuracy. The same logic
follows with generic systems with the addition of sophisticated
conventions. Here at BridgeHands, our website
conventions segmented by complexity (Newcomer=1 star, Novice=2
stars, Intermediate=3 stars, Advanced=4 stars), with bidding and
play labeled and indexed by these criteria. The point is, more
complex methods require both more memory work and further
partnership agreements. How does the convention work over
interference? If the convention is still on, through what level?
Is the convention still on when partner is a passed hand? Do jump
bids and cuebids behave differently based on the bidding level? As
Peter Parker gained Spiderman powers, creator Stan Lee wrote, “With
great power there must also come great responsibility!”
(August, 1962) The Street Smart Bridge Player considers these
tradeoffs both on a good day as well as over the long haul, such
as a marathon multi-day tournament under intense pressure or a
high-stakes Rubber Bridge game. An excellent book on partnership
agreements is the Granovetter’s “Forgive
Me, Partner,” discussing provocative topics as white lies, how
to handle unspecified bids, tradeoffs between aggressive and
conservative bidding, how to encourage and love your partner. If
you and your partner would like to run through a comprehensive
bidding checklist, see Mike Lawrence’s “Handbook
of Partnership Understandings.”
Let’s gloss over the play side of the game, another critical
element for the Street Smart Bridge Player. Early in our Bridge
career we mastered
promotion plays, paying careful attention to transportation,
unblocking and associated
entry management. Then we delved into more advanced topics
loser on loser plays, “rules
of 1-2-3, etc” guidelines,
safety plays (see
strip and endplays,
throw-in plays, etc. Eventually, the Street Smart Bridge
Player studies the heavy-duty techniques including
elopement (en passant),
smother plays, and
books). And as defenders, we learned how
leads were not only predicated on bidding but on bidding
subtleties as well. As play ensues, defenders employ a wide
variety of methods including
attitude, count, and suit preference signaling (see books on
The Psychological Side of Bridge
Undoubtedly the psychology of Bridge (see
books ) is always on the mind of the Street Smart Bridge
Player and has been since the inception of Bridge. In 1936, when
the legendary Ely Culbertson wrote “The
New Gold Book of Bidding and Play,” he discussed various
psychological tactics including concealing weakness, trapping
maneuvers, deceptive bidding, playing partner’s game and
understanding the opponents’ psychology;
recall in our Issue #5, we discussed psyches were big in those
days although not formally advocated by Ely. In his earlier “Contract
Bridge Red Book on Play,” he also focused on the tactical side
of psyches discussing how psychological bluffs can influence the
finesse, pseudo squeezes, false cards and the like. The father of
the slam, Easley Blackwood penned “Bridge
Humanics.” Easley began his book emphasizing the positive,
“you are better than you think!” For instance, he advocated making
understandable bids easily understood by partner instead of the
most technically astute bid – ditto on play, ergo understanding
players is as important as understanding bidding and play. Does
this topic sound familiar? In 1946, S. J. Simon's authored everyone’s
You Lose at Bridge,” advising the mortal Bridge player to keep
bidding simple by following the direct route whenever possible. Do
not instruct your partner and avoid becoming the proverbial
unlucky expert. The unlucky expert loses his shirt because he
always tries for the best result possible, where the true
professional accepts the best possible result (i.e., the
pragmatist). In 1960, Fred Karpin devoted an entire book to the
mind-game titled “Psychological
Strategy in Contract Bridge.” Fred digs into the necessity for
deceptive and obstructionist bidding and play, with numerous
examples from championship play including the ascendancy of
Marty Bergen’s outstanding “Points
21 rules (Copyrighted) to becoming a good partner:
Do not give lessons, unless you are being paid to do so.
“According to an evening paper, there are only five real
authorities on bridge in this country. Odd how often one gets one
of them as a partner.” Punch (British magazine).
2. Never say anything to your partner unless you would want him to
say the same to you. If you are unsure whether your partner would
want you to say something, don’t.
3. Never “result” (criticize your partner for a normal action just
because it did not work this time).
4. Unless your intent is to clear up a misunderstanding, avoid
discussing the hand just played. If you cannot resist, be
5. Remember that you and your partner are on the same side.
6. Do not forget that your partner wants to win as much as you do.
7. If you feel the urge to be nasty, sarcastic, critical or loud —
excuse yourself and take a walk.
8. When there is time between hands, do not discuss bridge.
9. When you want to consult another player about a disaster, ask
about your hand, not your partner's.
10. Do not ever criticize or embarrass your partner in front of
11. Remember that bridge is only a card game.
12. Have a good time, and make sure that your partner does also.
“Bridge is for fun. You should play the game for no other reason.
You should not play bridge to make money, to show how smart you
are, or show how stupid your partner is . . . to prove any of the
several hundred other things bridge players are so often trying to
prove.” Bridge legend Charles Goren.
13. Trust your partner; do not assume that he has made a mistake.
14. Although it may be unfashionable, it really is okay to be
pleasant to a partner with whom you also happen to live.
15. Remember: “The worst analysts and the biggest talkers are
often one and the same.” Bridge columnist Frank Stewart. Think
twice before verbally analyzing a hand. Do not embarrass yourself
with a hasty, inaccurate comment.
16. When you voluntarily choose to play bridge with someone, it is
not fair to get upset when partner does not play any better than
17. Never side with an opponent against your partner. If you
cannot support your partner, say nothing.
18. If you think you are too good for a partner, and do not enjoy
playing bridge with him, do everyone a favor and play with someone
else. That is clearly much better than being a martyr. However, be
careful before burning bridges — another player's grass may not be
19. Learn your partner's style, regardless of how you feel about
it. Do not expect your partner to bid exactly as you would. When
partner makes a bid, consider what he will have, not what you
20. Try to picture problems from partner's point of view. Seek the
bid or play that will make his life easiest.
21. Sympathize with partner if he makes a mistake. Let your
partner know that you like him, and always root for him 100%.
Earlier we mentioned the technical aspects of environmental
factors, however psychological considerations also influence the
Bridge ecosystem. Emotional elements that affect a player's
bidding and play include: cumulative score, partnership trust,
discipline and reliability, "mastermind bidding" (making a
unilateral call), concentration, emotional compatibility, memory
(short and long term), "stock market" mentality (fear and greed),
"catch-up" syndrome (trying to retaliate or recover after a bad
hand, and risk taking/adversity. We invite you to check out Bridge
book on the
psychological side of Bridge.
our next eMag Newsletter issue we will begin covering practical
steps worthy of consideration by the Street Smart Bridge Player –
especially the human side of the game. We are looking for
contributions so please send us your favorite street-smart tips
and tricks. For better or worse, we will also take a look at the
“dark side of the force,” so feel free to include those antics
involving shenanigans and skullduggery!