Bob Mackinnon

Utopian Bridge – A Brief Escape from Reality

In 1516 Thomas More published a description of an ideal society he called Utopia in which everything was done in the best possible way. Greed was not a factor as there was no private property. All houses were built the same and all streets looked the same. There was no fashion, as everyone dressed in uniforms. There was religious freedom, universal health care, equality of the sexes, as men and women both worked 6 hours a day, each according to his abilities. If there was an abundance of goods, workers took a vacation (rather than going on strike) until the excess was used up. Some Christian societies hold similar ideals. We suggest a few modern updates:

-the country supports a trickle-up economy in which workers benefit first;

-managers get bonuses for maintaining production while improving working conditions;

-only individuals can make political contributions;

-there are no provisions for the wealthy to escape taxation;

-there is no such thing as an ‘official spokesperson’– those responsible report publicly;

-there are no freedom-of -nonsense laws, only freedom-from-nonsense laws;

-sports are participatory, not the basis of a government sponsored entertainment industry.

Bridge in Utopia

Let’s consider how bridge might be played in a modern Utopia. First, the emphasis is not on achieving high scores at the expense of others, but upon playing correctly in communal setting where the interests of the many surpass the interests of the few. In Utopia bridge is part of the mathematics curriculum starting in primary school, where children learn the 4-3-2-1 point count system. In middle school kids start playing standard bridge and are introduced to logical planning. In high school bridge is used to illustrate the principles of probability, statistics, and decision making in the face of uncertainty. Before graduation everyone has to pass tests on Utopian Sanctioned Systems, of which there are 5. Graduation Day features an evening of bridge playing with the elders followed by the traditional awarding of prizes for academic excellence, neatness, thrift, and outstanding service to the community. Everyone gets to bed safely by 11 o’clock that night.

Duplicate bridge comes under the jurisdiction of the Utopian Bridge Authority, a subdivision of the Ministry of Recreation. If one wishes to play a system different from SUC, the Standard Utopian Card, the agreement of all 4 players at the table is required. Each sanctioned system is restricted in the number of conventions that can be incorporated, and no deviations within the systems are allowed, as it is deemed that the ordinary player is not competent enough to make the choices that are in his best interests. The two most advanced systems are upgraded on New Year’s Day, a much anticipated event, on the basis of recommendations of experts and the head of the statistical analysis laboratory at Harmonia University, the aim being to produce the best possible mix within the overall framework. Complaints are dealt with in the customary manner – all players may suggest changes that will be given due consideration by the Systems Panel made up of elected members. Their recommendations for change are not binding, however.

The whole bridge scene is geared towards conformity where the process is more important than the outcome. Only duplicated hands from the Internet are used and scoring is done on a par basis by computers. A deal is played in a spirit of cooperation, although Undo’s are not allowed. The objective is to achieve a perfect result by both sides. Each bid and play is judged on the basis of correctness within the system being employed. One loses points for making bids, such as frivolous preempts, considered to be destructive rather than constructive, and those points are assigned to the victims. The player with the greatest accumulation of correctness points is declared the winner of the much coveted merit award. The pair with the greatest score are the winners of the results award, a lesser achievement. If a pair reaches an inferior contract that happens to make due to an opponent’s egregious error, say a vulnerable game that makes because a timid opponent leads a trump, their score is reduced proportionately, as it is felt no one should profit unduly from the folly and ignorance of others.

The Real World

Currently bridge operates in a state of confusion within which the Cult of Self is best served. Winning is all as no masterpoints are awarded for good conduct. Greed plays a dominant role in which the primary objective is to beat par by any means possible. The operative approach is that whatever is legal is justifiable, and we demand the right to split hairs to achieve our goals. Nonetheless, there are some traces of the Utopian ideals to be found. When we begin as session, we wish the opponents a good game, even though our aim is to see it doesn’t happen. Some thank partner for his efforts when he puts down the dummy. We may even praise an opponent for a fine play. These niceties go beyond mere courtesy. There is a feeling that as players we are cooperating in an endeavor for mutual satisfaction. Such communal attitudes are reflected in the articles in the ACBL Bulletins, and especially in the letters to the editor.

In September 2010 issue of the ACBL Bridge Bulletin, a letter writer, Jack Margid, describes the graciousness of an opponent in the face of a ‘fix’ caused by a successful bid of a grand slam most pairs would not have reached. He had apologized for breaking a ‘cardinal rule’ by cooperating in a grand slam try with poor trumps. Should he have done so? The upshot of Margid’s optimistic bidding was that his partner bid and made 7 missing Qxxx. The probability of bringing in this trump suit is 58%, so this result hardly qualifies as a fix. On theoretical grounds a 58% chance justifies bidding the grand slam although it may not be a common result. So the question becomes: to what extent should one e prepared to apologize to an opponent for scoring a top against them as a result of an abnormal action? This sounds very Utopian, doesn’t it?

I remember a regrettable occurrence from several decades ago when in a European tournament a prominent player reached a risky 6 . During the play the K fell singleton which allowed him to make his 12 tricks. Immediately he said, ‘I’m sorry’. The opponents called the director asserting his apology constituted a claim, thus restricting his choice of subsequent plays. Not being able to draw the rest of the trumps, he went down. That makes me wary of making comments during the play. I think it is foolish to say you are sorry, but also foolish to feel sorry in the first place. Here’s why.

Playing against the Odds

Consider the tossing of a coin. If I bet you that you will toss 2 heads in a row, and give you even odds, wouldn’t you be happy to take the bet? The probability of 2 heads in a row is 25%. If you proceed to toss 2 heads in a row, should I apologize for taking your money? That would be silly. In the same way if I were to bid a slam that requires 2 finesses, also a 25% chance, should I apologize for giving you such good odds for a top score? Any anti-percentage play favors the opposition. If it succeeds, they were unlucky in the placement of the cards, not in the execution. If it fails, as it is rated to do, they get a top without having done anything to earn it. In this case does one apologize to the rest of the field? In Utopia one should do so, but in a greedy world a player takes great satisfaction from big risks that profit from uncertainty and create favorable swings.

There is a lot of guessing involved in the bidding phase, as a result of the imperfections in the bidding systems. One should not apologize for a correct guess, even though better sequence would have got one to the same contract. Here is an example from a recent Sectional where my partner ‘fixed’ the opponents on the second deal of the afternoon.


109 AKQ64 2 (11-15 HCP) 4 (KC ask)
Q3 A752 5 (2 KC with Q) 5 (kings?)
A92 KQJ 6 (extra in clubs) 7NT
KQJ643 A Pass
12 HCP 23 HCP


In Precision, 2 promises 5+ clubs, usually a good suit. Partner is pretty sure the field will get to 6NT, but it costs nothing to ask concerning the quality of the club suit. Finding the A, and KQ+ he feels justified in bidding a grand slam when all pairs should reach a small slam, at least. A club is led, and the RHO shows out. Now the grand depends on spades splitting 3-3, which they do. We score 35.5 on a top of 37. Is this a fix? No, partner might even be complimented by the opponents on his fine judgment.

However, what actually happened was that partner was vaguely aware that 4NT was not RKCB, but was not sure that 4 was the substitute asking bid. So he guessed to jump to 7NT, thereby taking a great risk for the greatest return. If the J had been the J the opponents could very well have scored 37 unmerited matchpoints. So by guessing partner gave them a chance that the lie of the cards denied them. That’s normal.

Abnormal Bidding

Often a simple approach to bidding cannot achieve the optimum result, so one is left to guess. Sometimes improvement is obtained if one ‘invents’ a bid that does not conform to the standard definition. In the previous blog we showed a partner opening the bidding with an unorthodox 1holding: KQJT   Qxxxxx Jxx. It was the only way to reach 6 . This is a hand on which many would overcall and some would open in third seat, but not in first. It is not a question of playing strength but of definition within a system. Here is another situation where the playing strength of a hand cannot be revealed with standard bidding methods based primarily on HCPs.


K102 AQJ9763 1NT 2 (transfer)
AQ7 53 2 3 (invented)
K972 Q6 3 4NT (RKCB in spades)
A86 K5 5 (3 KC’s) 5
16 HCP 12 HCP 6 Pass


Responder has an excellent 6-loser hand which should produce 12 tricks opposite a suitable 1NT opening bid. It is not good enough to complain, as many do, that one should never look for a perfect fit; if a perfect fit exists, try to find it. But how?

The first step in slam exploration is to establish the trump suit; the second to establish the degree of fit. Opposite a limited opening bid the aim is to get information rather than transmit it. It is useful to have the definition of the bid of a new minor at the 3-level to encompass the possibility of it being an advanced cue bid promising a control, not necessarily length, as in the case above. 3 need not be defined as a relay, but it serves the purpose. Once the opener agrees to spades as trumps, responder can take charge with 4NT as RKCB in spades. The sign-off in 5 suggests slam interest, and opener is well suited to accepting the invitation. Here is the full deal where some played in the inferior contract of 3NT. Slam needs some help. It can be made on a black suit lead, if a suspicious declarer avoids total reliance on the heart finesse and sees the advantage of playing on diamonds early – low towards the hidden K in order to gain a tempo.

Board 15

Dealer: South

Vul: N/S


A Q J 9 7 6 3

5 3

Q 6

K 5



K J 9 6 2

J 10 8

Q 4 3 2


8 5

10 8 4

A 5 4 3

J 10 9 7


K 10 2

A Q 7

K 9 7 2

A 8 6


With diamonds and clubs interchanged, the appropriate bid would be 3 which uses up more bidding space, but which is informative, ostensibly denying a club control. This treatment should be useful to the opponents as well as to partner, whereas a relay bid tends to benefit only the user. With that understanding in place, it is possible that a few swindlers would bid 3 just to keep in practice, intending always to gamble it out in slam if a spade fit is established. By misrepresenting the control situation they seek to increase the chances of a favorable lead, but a J lead would only help declarer find his way, as happened at our table. Ha! Deliberate attempts to mislead would not be allowed in Utopia. In this case it is obvious that a truly informative alternative is available.

Whatever else one might think of Utopia, the real world is a much more exciting, fractious, and dangerous place. As Harry Lime might comment disparagingly, ‘Utopia sounds too much like Switzerland.’ Orson Welles played the criminally inclined Harry Lime in the classic movie, The Third Man, and delivered the famous lines in which he mistakenly identifies the villainous Borgias as Godfathers to the Italian Renaissance while giving Switzerland credit only for the invention of the cuckoo clock. An American, he is weak on history. [Bertrand Russell observed that in his day the sins of Alexander VI could not be mentioned in the public schools of Boston or New York.] Peaceful, democratic Switzerland was born out of centuries of persecution fueled by imperialistic ambition and religious extremism. The Swiss found the middle way and have prospered greatly thereby. As for inventiveness, the cuckoo clock originated in Germany, whereas Albert Einstein made his greatest discoveries as a humble Swiss civil servant working in the patent office.


Ed JudyOctober 20th, 2010 at 2:12 pm

Provocative piece.

I’m reminded of one of Fred Gitelman’s articles from his website; quoting two paragraph’s:

“1NT showed 15-17. Sheri Winestock’s next 5 bids were relays, asking me more about my hand. I showed 2353 distribution, 5 controls (Aces are 2, Kings are 1) and the K and no other Kings. Sheri knew that I had the other 2 Aces and either the Q or the Q to make up 15 points. Six diamonds had to be an excellent contract. And so it proved to be. Trumps were 4-0 however, and the slam failed. We lost the match by 11 IMPs. Had the slam made we would have won the match as the other team bid to 4.

Bob Hamman is perhaps the greatest player in the game today. He is certainly the greatest winner. After the match we had the opportunity to ask him over a (stiff) drink if he would have rather bid 6 and lost or not bid 6 and won. “A good slam is a slam that makes,” said Hamman. “Winning is all that matters.” At first glance, this point of view seems philosophically unappealing, but it is very practical. Sometimes you will be lucky, sometimes you will be unlucky. It all evens out in the long run. If you want to be a winner, you better start thinking like Hamman….”

Hard to disagree with Hamman if you’re a top player or want to be a top player in the reality of today’s game. Easy for a lesser player like me to disagree — I find more satisfaction from the game when I’m theoretically right.

Ray LeeOctober 20th, 2010 at 5:41 pm

See my recent blog entitled ‘Moral IMPs’ 🙂

Bob MOctober 20th, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Hi, Ed. I know what you mean. when I had to work I played seldom, but read many bridge books, so when I did play it was as if I were playing against Bob Hamman with Eddie Kantar as my partner. I did fine against good players, but poorly against lesser lights whose mistakes went unpunished. My thoughts revolved around bidding systems.

I have come to realize that mistakes are a part of the game, and not to play for mistakes is a mistake in itself. Thus it is theoretically sound to play for mistakes. A bad slam may make on a bad lead, and often does if the bidding is uninformative, for example.

Having said that, it is with great satisfaction that one watches the final stages of a world championship where the bridge is relatively error-free.

Bob MOctober 20th, 2010 at 11:01 pm

Hi Ray: yes, an insightful piece that reflects a call for justice which is a part of Utopian approach. Concerning an earlier blog of yours about highly unusual guesses, I am reluctant to condemn an action that others would never consider, however, it is a mystery how someone with a long record of dubious actions gets to be elected president of any organization, much less a bridge organization.

MichaelOctober 21st, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Nice blog Bob, this one I can follow 🙂

Sometimes knowing you made the right play even though the contract went south, is it’s own reward.

John Howard GibsonOctober 22nd, 2010 at 1:07 pm

FABULOUS ARTICLE….lovely concept…..very thought provoking ideas. Perhaps I’ll do a Bigot-Johnson version of Bridge Utopian World ….who knows? Anyway, keep up the really good and imaginative work. Yours John Howard Gibson ( aka HBJ )

Linda LeeOctober 22nd, 2010 at 6:14 pm

Food, there has to be food in bridge utopian world. I remember watching my mom play bridge with her friends and the refreshments were an important part of the game.

Bob MOctober 22nd, 2010 at 10:52 pm

Linda: Well, a man’s Utopia is differenrt from a woman’s. If someone provides the food, he’ll eat it. But you get a donut only if you execute a squeeze. So buy the book, guys!

Jessica M. thinks everyone shouldn’t have to wear uniforms, but men love them (uniforms)

Bob MOctober 22nd, 2010 at 10:56 pm

Thanks, HBJ. Let’s open the floodgates for new ideas, and let the cards fall where they may. But, of course, most ideas are not new; we just have to be reminded once in a while.

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