Bob Mackinnon

Team Trial Tactics

Recently I spent several beautiful, sunny days in front of my computer watching the Canadian and USA Team trials on BBO. The experience is different than reading a written report in a short article that highlights a few outstanding deals on which a large number of IMPs were won through brilliant play. Although one might wish otherwise, our bridge heroes can’t demonstrate super-human powers consistently on every deal. The best players maintain a high standard of play over the long haul and avoid horrendous errors of the kind I make every session. Observers who can see all 4 hands may groan at losing decisions, but those are understandably an inevitable part of the game. One comes at length to realize that brilliance can be no more than occasionally catching a glimpse of reality through a fog of uncertainty.

It is natural to ask, did the best team win? This is the wrong approach as ‘best’ is subject to game conditions. Matches have been lengthened in an attempt to reduce the effects of randomness, the idea being that the better team is more likely to prevail the longer the match is extended. In the USBF Open Trials after 60 boards the world champion Nickell team trailed the underdog Harris team by 5 IMPs, but after 120 boards they prevailed by 78 IMPs, a clear indication to most that virtue was rewarded in the end. However, if 2 teams are evenly matched, the length of the match may have less effect, as in the latter stages the lead may change several times, the winner being the team that just happens to be ahead after the last board. Such being the case, fatigue may become a factor so tactics involving wearing down opponents through continual pressure. Every hand has the potential to become competitive. Psychological ploys come to the fore as early disasters can be written off if seeds of doubt are planted that bear fruit later in the match. On the other hand, there are long-term advantages to keeping it simple to avoid putting pressure on one’s partner. ‘Fast arrival’ and bidding what you hope to make are all part of a dumbing down process that conserves energy by eschewing delicacy.

Dumbing down is the bridge equivalent of playing vuvuzelas at the World Cup. After an hour or so I suppose it begins to get to the neighbors who in self defence think they have to take up the same instrument. I prefer the earplug approach to try to keep my sanity. This emphasis on mindless emotion was at one time considered (incorrectly) to be found solely within the realm of women’s bridge, but now with the feminization of American culture, it has invaded all aspects of society and definitely taken over men’s bridge. Goodbye stoic John McCain, who knows pain, hello vibrant Sarah Palin, who knows the difference between a reindeer and a mousse. Today if one puts forward a coherent, logical argument on any topic, one can’t help but feel terribly behind the times. The same applies to straightforward, informative bidding.

A BBO commentator, Henri Schweitzer of France, in conversation with the sensible Alan Graves, Canadian internationalist and former resident of Victoria, BC, noted that today’s players have adopted the ‘tactical’ approach of applying pressure by increasing uncertainty. What pressure? If I were an opponent of world champions I would not be impressed by a partnership that 1) lets me play undoubled in 4 down 3, 2) doubles me in 3 making with an overtrick, 3) preempts 2 on a defensive collection that leads to my making 3NT when the opponents are going down 3 on a normal spade lead. I would be impressed when they reached 7 on the following auction and removed 12 IMPs from their early deficit of 48 IMPs. The bidding reflected the placement of the cards.


Rodwell Meckstroth
A10 KQ9643 1 (16+HCP) 1 (5+ spades)
AK7 5 2 2NT (support)
AQ 654 4 (RKCB) 4
AQJ642 K53 5 (spades?) 7 (all you need)


Golf and Bridge

On Father’s Day a stocky Northern Irishman, Graeme McDowell, showed us how it should be done when he overcame the odds and won the US Open over famous names such as Tiger Woods, Phil Michelson, and Ernie Els. At the end of the third day his magic touch had left him and he fell precipitously from first place into second as a young phenom, Dustin Johnson, surged ahead by 4 strokes. Tiger Woods hit one of the greatest golf shots of all time, and appeared to be posed to overtake the field. Although he had never won a major tournament, and may never again, Graeme felt he still had a chance. On the first 3 holes, Johnson succumbed to pressure and lost 7 stokes to par, so McDowell suddenly found himself in the lead. Despite a poor last round of 74, 3 strokes over par, he won by 1 stroke, as the great ones tried and failed to make up ground.

His explanation of events was a propos to bridge competition. The game, he said, starts and ends with the golf course, and how one copes with it. Personalities are secondary. If one tries for birdies, there was an increased risk of bogeys, so those who tried to catch up in order to win were doing themselves a disservice. The optimum approach, the one he pursued, was to aim for the par result and not give up anything to the course. This approach worked because Pebbles Beach is a very tough venue. He had just one birdie all day, but he saved many pars with a good putt. On the last hole all he needed was 2 putts for par to win by 1 stroke. It looked easy because all the hard work had already been done.

The lessons for bridge players are obvious. Come prepared to play your best, and don’t think you have to do more than your best in order to win. The placement of the cards is what counts most, so don’t be distracted by personalities. Take what the cards give you. Don’t assume prematurely that an opponent has made a brilliant move, for even if he has, brilliances are rare, and there is nothing one can do about that. Let the chances come to you, rather than actively pursuing abnormal results. However, aggressively take full advantage of opportunities when they do arise. Expect to make mistakes and encounter unlucky results, but let them pass, and keep your concentration in the face of adversity.

Randomness Plays a Role

Recently I finished reading a most entertaining and popular book, ‘The Drunkard’s Walk’, subtitled, ‘How Randomness Rules our Lives’ by Leonard Mlodinow that examines human weakness when it comes to dealing with events, such a sporting contests, that contain a random element. It appears that humans are born with an inherent grasp of randomness, but that as our language skills are being developed, and we learn to identify objects and events, we lose some of our inborn ability to merely accept things as they come. Our training leads us to seek out patterns that justify a prejudiced view.

Thinking of golf scores as the outcomes of a random process, Mlodinow would maintain that it is quite probable that a good golfer will make some great shots out of the 280+ shots he takes, and that some unknown player will come up with a good round or two in a row, and may even play extraordinarily well and win the US Open, not because he has suddenly acquired the perfect golf swing, but merely because it was bound to happen to someone sooner or later for no particular reason. I agree. There are many duffers who have scored a hole-in-one, but that doesn’t make them good golfers. I once pulled off a triple squeeze to make 7NT but that doesn’t make me a great card player.

On the other hand Mlodinow would maintain that on a random basis even a superb player is going to make the occasional horrendous error. We shouldn’t make too much of that, just as we shouldn’t make too much of the occasional great result. Here are 2 simple slam hands messed up by 2 pairs of world champions during the quarter-finals of the 2010 USFG Open Trials. The losses on these 2 hands exceeded their margin of defeat over 120 deals. Really, there is no logical reason for screwing up on these simple situations.


Hand A
AQ109 KJ84 1 1
A986 2 1 2
3 AK9764 3 5
AKQ3 107 6 Pass Lose 14 IMPs to 6


Hand B
A10543 J6 1 2
6 KQ75 3 4
1075 AK32 6 7
AKQ4 1082 7 Pass Lose 12 IMPs to 3NT


What is the lesson? Consider Justin Johnson. If a friend asked him on a beautiful sunny day to come out for a round of golf at Pebble Beach, the loser buys the beer, he would probably shoot close to 74. If he could have adopted the same relaxed attitude in the last round of the US Open, he would have emerged a champion. By putting himself under too much pressure, he destroyed his inner calm and shot an 82. On the above hands the bidding got fouled up because of mental short circuits caused by self-imposed stress.

Stay calm. Play your game. Someone has to lose – assume it won’t be you.

The above advice seems boring in the extreme, but it is not easy to follow, apparently.

The White-Beard Bikers of the Bridge Table

Everyone has a favorite hand played by the winners that confirms a prejudice. I have one involving Chip Martel and Lew Stansby of the 2010 USA championship team. Long ago Chip (57) and Lew (70) were seen as the bad California boys who played the weak NT, which they still do. Now they are like white-beard bikers keeping to the speed limit, no longer feared as rebels, but seen as early practitioners of the save-gas principle.

Board #102

Dealer: East

Vul: EW





















Stansby Gitelman Martel Moss
Pass 2
4 5 Pass Pass
Dbl Pass 6 All Pass 6 for +1460


My prejudice is that it is wrong to open 1 on 11 HCP, 3 controls and 8 losers. One is not going to lose the spade suit, as the deal clearly demonstrates. Even after Stansby guaranteed a spade fit, Martel declined to be pushed about by a preempt over a preempt. Calmly he passed a second time, but when his partner feebly doubled, Chip bid what he thought he could make. The end result represented a good fit with reality. At the other table Platnick, playing Big Club, he felt he should open a pressure-packed 1 .


Diamond Weinstein Platnick Levin
1 2
5 7 Dbl All Pass Down 4 for -800
Win 12 IMPs


Weinstein’s action gives a counter-argument to the proposition that one shouldn’t bid a Grand Slam without the assurance of 14 tricks. Diamond’s 5 bid convinced Weinstein that the opponents were going to bid 6 eventually, and it appeared that the diamond suit held no prospects for a defensive trick. Following the principle of the last guess, he applied his own pressure by bidding 7 . Take that! How costly was it likely to be?

This deal demonstrated good teamwork. Martel and Stansby are not the firebrands they were in the past, but they continue to play their game well. It was they who bid Hands A and B to the correct contracts thus gaining 26 easy IMPs. Sure, there were some soft patches, the normal expectation simply on the basis of probability, but they didn’t throw away IMPs through quirky behavior. In a bridge game, in Teams especially, it is not all about ME, but about US. That is the long and the short of it.


Dave Memphis MOJOJuly 2nd, 2010 at 8:42 pm

Nice piece.

Ross TaylorJuly 2nd, 2010 at 11:02 pm

Good blog thanks.

Bobby WolffJuly 4th, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Hi Bob,

Words which come to mind which describe your excellent article:

sophisticated, realistic, factual, insightful.

1. A long match usually produces the winner who is playing the best at that specific time.

2. It also develops the bridge personality of some, but at this still sensitive time, not all, of the particular pairs competing, usually at the death, for all to see.

3. When, and if, our highly competitive game

reaches the point where all pairs competing can be named specifically, when both good and bad plays and bids are called out and hashed and rehashed, we will have made a quantum leap forward for bridge media reporting and for human interest.

4. Until then the bridge writer needs to skulk around making judgments which, at least to him, are politically correct.

5. Whether we ever get there, only the Shadow knows.

6. Key words which apply: appropriate, significant, of interest, historical, learning experience, curiosity, professionalism.

Bob MJuly 6th, 2010 at 5:44 am

Thank you, Mr Wolff. I feel my blogging has gained a certain degree of justification that has made my effort worthwhile.

I am not an expert player, but I am an observer who tries to try to see things as they are, in a way that makes sense within a larger context. I think your admirable book, The Lone Wolff, does that and a lot more. It rings true in every respect. Thank you for your book and for your comments, as well.

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