Bob Mackinnon

Thinkers and Doers

Largely, there are thinkers and there are doers. Some think without doing while others do without thinking. In the 20th Century, we have encountered Generals McArthur and Eisenhower, the former a brilliant commander whose egotism got him into political hot water, the latter a mild-mannered desk president who warned of the military-industrial complex, but did nothing to curb its power. McArthur was for attacking the enemy’s weak points, whereas Eisenhower followed the expensive strategy of advancing along a broad front. We observe the same general strategies at play at the bridge table. The McArthurs of the bridge table are always for boldly attacking a weak point, whereas the Eisenhowers try hard to avoid a play that may appear on paper to be an error.

On the ACBL Bulletin bidding panel there are teachers and there are champions, not the same breed. The top scores go to the ‘teachers’ who know what’s ‘right’, whereas the answers of Jeff Meckstroth, who knows how to win, get only an average rating. My advice is to emulate Jeff. I have noted that when asked to give advice to the general public, the great players suggest something very basic, like, ‘keep your concentration’, or ‘count the cards’, whereas lesser players suggest something quite complex, like ‘adopt Super-Stayman’. The master players are conscious of the fact that average players lose more by not keeping count than they miss by not playing the best of all possible conventions. It is like asking a doctor how to lose weight: the average doctor fills out an expensive prescription, whereas a good doctor merely says, ‘don’t eat so much.’ Which doctor is the more popular with his patients, do you think?

Those who teach and write about bridge are of the Yin variety. They seek perfection, and find it most readily on the printed page. As players they prefer complicated agreements, and become easily upset with partners who forget the system, or miss an inference. They are prone to quote probabilities, preferring to make a losing bid or play that is ‘right’, rather than taking a winning action that is ‘wrong’. They expect the opponents to bid and play correctly, so miss opportunities to take advantage of errors.

Frank Stewart, clearly a Yin type, is a fine bridge writer who gains my admiration for the way in which he bares all and modestly tells the truth as he sees it. In the Monday Bulletin of the 2010 New Orleans Nationals, he describes a hand in a team game on which as declarer he missed a chance for a brilliant endplay of the kind he had described in dozens of articles. With AQT in his hand and the lead in dummy he could play a diamond to the ten and force a return into his tenace. However, by not cashing his A in preparation for the endplay he neglected to remove his victim’s exit card, so the cold game was defeated. He put this down to being rusty and losing control of his emotions.

I wonder if there isn’t more behind this loss of concentration than the feeling of euphoria of seeing the cards perfectly placed for an ambitious game that normally would be down. There may be a feeling of remorse involved as in a perfect world he would have stopped in a partial. The perfectionist is often reluctant to take advantage of the imperfections that plague our game, whereas the Yangs eagerly feed on mistakes. Let’s look at 2 examples from my club where I played on the emotions of the opponents. Warning: it’s not pretty.

When Emotions Prevail

When you see the opponents are upset, that is the time to take advantage of their emotional state. Last week on the first hand of a round of duplicate, the opponents’ bidding had gone 2 – 2(waiting); 4NT – Pass. No sooner had the Yin player, a man, put down a modest dummy than the complaints began. The Yang player, a woman, said she was asking for aces, and angrily put her cards on the table, claiming 12 tricks off the top. Her partner apologized, saying he took 4NT as invitational, and that 8 HCP with 4-3-3-3 shape (with Qxxx) wasn’t enough for going further. Although he repeatedly advised they should discuss it later, the loud criticism didn’t abate under the director came to the table and told the woman to shut it down, as others could hear what she was saying. Despite this, missing a lay-down slam cold on any lead was worth 25%, some small compensation for those patrons who have been encouraged to follow standard methods.

An opportunity to put this troubled partnership to the test came on the next hand when, after my partner opened a weak 2 in first seat, I held 7 KJT86 943 A543. Sensing this was a good time to show some initiative, I bid 2NT asking for shortness, planning to bid 3 if partner didn’t do so first. He did, so I corrected to 3 , our better fit. The player on my left, still fuming, came in belatedly with 4 , going down 3, a top for us when 3NT was cold with diamonds running. (It could have been down 4 if partner had given me a spade ruff.) There would have been no problem if at any point she had doubled, getting her partner into the action – something a total Yang never does.

My second example arose later in the same session. My LHO was an overly active Yang whose Yin partner was commenting remorsefully that he was bidding completely without fear, by which I suppose she meant without reason. The trick is to play upon the doubts of a player who suspects her partner’s bids, so has to depend on your bidding in order to arrive at a reasonable assessment of the true situation. Vulnerable against not, I picked up:  K2 J65 K983 KQJ5, a normal opening bid, but one which I detest for its lack of aces and the ease with which it can be overcalled. So I passed and awaited developments. LHO opened a weak 2 , partner doubled, RHO passed, and I bid 3NT, which was a pretty good description. My RHO thought for some time before allowing me to play in this contract. Partner had a suitable 1=4=4=4 hand with 3 aces, and I ended up making 5 in a straightforward manner, which scored a surprising 80%. The RHO commented, ‘Normally I would have sacrificed holding 4 spades, but I didn’t think that with a passed hand he would make it.’ The Yang had opened 2 with a topless suit, a void in clubs, and 4 hearts, and here she was the one apologizing! I find it ironic that doing something stupid, such as preempting on a garbage suit, is condoned, whereas doing something clever, such as passing with a defensive opening bid, is frowned upon.

These examples are not of general import but for the fact that my intuitive approach usually is successful. I can’t explain it, but doing what I feel is right usually works, whereas going against my gut feeling turns out to be wrong on a vast majority of instances. Well, I do have over 30 years of experience to draw from. I have often heard an opponent comment, ‘I knew it was right to …., but I…’ and they proceed to give a valid reason, usually involving HCPs, why they made the mistake they did. So I conclude it happens a lot, and not only to me. Trust your instincts, my friends.

An Appreciation of Frank Stewart

In the August 2008 issue of the ACBL Bulletin, Frank Stewart wrote, ‘bridge is a game of problem-solving and logical thinking.’ He left out the qualifier, ‘partly’. Thus he should have written, ‘bridge is partly…’ and so on. On paper the cards lie where they should according to the probabilities. The opposition bids are reliable. Aye, there’s the rub… in the real world the opposition bids aren’t reliable. The logical machinery works only as well as the initial assumptions that start it, and if one begins with false information, the logical play is not likely to end up the right play.

Information is the key as that forms the basis of the assumptions that drive the logical processes. At the table one should keep this foremost in one’s mind: a bid is not a suggestion that one play the hand in the strain mentioned, but a message to partner that is overhead by the opposition. The temptation is there to misrepresent a holding in order to gain an advantage. Or a player may be bidding mistakenly or irrationally on instinct, as I think he should upon occasion, even though committees may disapprove. An occasional aberration doesn’t change the probabilities much, but they do upset the nice logical process that Stewart imagines. In addition, bidding systems are imperfect, so even true information doesn’t always provide a detailed description that one can take to the bank.

Recently Frank has turned his attention to anticipation during the bidding process. He likens it to chess where the player benefits by looking a couple of steps ahead. He notes, ‘careful bidders think in terms of how they will describe a hand.’ His practical advice is geared towards overcoming deficiencies in standard bidding practices, the emphasis being on how to transmit reliable information in an efficient manner over a sequence of bids. He does this well, adapting the same sensible, non-dogmatic approach we encounter in the writings of Mike Lawrence. I say he writes first-class, inspirational fiction.

When I watch a game, be it baseball or bridge, I see the flaws. When seeing my heroes struggle through a hand on BBO, I am inclined to stand up and shouts at the screen, ‘lead a diamond, you fool!’ As the BBO hosts often comment, ‘bridge is different when one sees all 4 hands.’ How true, and that is my point – it is just a matter of degree. Given good information even a mediocre player can get it right where a misinformed expert fails. So do the experts bid as Stewart suggests, most informatively? No. The bridge tables of the New Orleans Spingold are far removed from Frank Stewart’s writing desk.

A common misrepresentation against expectations is a preempt where the majority of points lie outside the long suit. Against the winning French team who played a steady game throughout without the pressure bidding so favored by American players, Zia overcalled 2 on   QT9653 KT 6 K862. Jean Quantin did the same. Hamman raised to 3 on a defensive hand: J2 Q742 KJT52 A3. When the French reached a hopeless 4  , Zia bid 4 , doubled for a loss of 8 IMPs – a bad breach of discipline glorified by many when successful. On a later hand after Hamman’s solid vulnerable 3 preempt, Zia returned the favor of raising on Jx and defence: KJT64 98654 J8 J. Down 3. In the other room Quantin passed 3 and ended up defending a Meckwell 4 , undoubled, for a gain of 12 IMPs. So where’s the logic? No, bridge is much more interesting than chess because of the mystery behind what is heard but not seen.

Nothing to Fear, But…

The last 32 boards of the 2010 Spingold final on BBO were a special treat, some excellent bridge playing with instructive commenting from most of my favorites, Joey Silver, P.O. Sundelin, David Burn, Kit Woolsey, and, last but not least, Larry Cohen, erstwhile partner to David Berkowitz, one of the finalists. Cohen stated, ‘This is where experience pays off. They have all been here many times before in a tight 4th quarter of a big match. The first few times you go through it, it is very hard to keep a straight brain.’ There were possibly some physical problems that may have compounded the difficulties as the sessions may have set a record for the number of bathroom breaks. When given a time warning by a director, Alan Sontag, known for his speedy play, commented, ‘I would have played faster, but for the distance to the bathroom.’ He wasn’t the only one.

After 62 boards, the Metzler team was ahead by 12 IMPs, when Cohen gained a reputation as a prophet of doom as he typed, ‘Boards 63 and 64 look rather tame, but I know the Metzler team will wince, thinking I am cursing them.’ Here is the fateful Board 63, which is evidence of what can happen when one over-reacts to what may be, but isn’t.

Board 63

Dealer: South

Vul: N/S


4 3

7 4

Q J 8 6

Q 7 6 5 2


K 10 6 5

K 6 2

K 10 5

J 9 3


Q 9

9 5 3

4 3 2

A K 10 8 4


A J 8 7 2

A Q J 10 8

A 9 7


Moss Berkowitz Gitelman Sontag
1 S
Pass Pass 1 NT 3 H
Pass 3 S Pass Pass
Dbl (after a long pause) All Pass Down 3 for -800


At the other table South opened a Precision 1 , as Sontag might have done, and played in 2without interference, making 110. Opening 1 was safer there than against Moss-Gitelman who could be expected to compete vigorously at the existing vulnerability if they held long clubs and/or diamonds. From Sontag’s point-of-view, it was safer to open 1 as that might better allow him to get both the majors into the auction. Of course, as we can see it was not safe at all, as he had to jump to 3 to get across his full playing potential. That was badly judged. Although Meltzer might have won if Berkowitz had passed 3 (no double then), it must be said that it was Sontag’s needless fear of what might happen that caused this disaster. There’s a lesson here: what happens, happens.


LarryAugust 7th, 2010 at 2:05 am

Love your postings, Bob.

Being a Strong Club system nut, I don’t like Sontag’s 1S opening bid. Berkowitz-Cohen’s system allows the 1C opener to find out if responder has 4-7 hcp after 1C – 1D (even with interference). Conceivably, B-C would have bid 1C – 1D – 1H – 1S (4+S and 0-7 hcp).

Sontag’s Power Precision did not have that possibility. But, I believe that may be the reason for opening 1S. I don’t know how B-S play 1C – 1D – 1M.

Bob MAugust 8th, 2010 at 12:21 am

Right on. Wei and Andersen recommended opening 1 spade under such circumstances, and Sontag’s 1 club normally starts at 17 HCP, so we can’t say he departed from his normal approach. Like you I would open 1 club and take my chances. as, fool that I am, I am not really afraid of interference and I like my hearts suit much more than my spade suit.

LarryAugust 13th, 2010 at 3:35 am

Actually, B-C would probably bid the hand 1C – 1D – 1H – 1NT (0-4 hcp & 0-3 Spades) according to my notes from the web. Then, neither partner would jump in hearts as the most partner can have is a K or an Ace.

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