Bob Mackinnon

Bridge, Baseball, and Sumo

Bridge has a lot in common with team games, like baseball, as well as one-on-one games, like sumo wrestling, an intensely physical game where literally one can smell an opponent’s sweat. All contests have important psychological aspects for when abilities are closely matched, psychology can prove to be the deciding factor.

In sumo two near-naked strongmen who appear to be training on doughnuts strive mightily to push one another out of a 15-foot circle. At present the New Year’s championship (basho) is taking place in Tokyo and thanks to satellite broadcasting we are able to see 21 head-to-head matches over 2 hours every night for 2 weeks. Each bout takes 5 minutes but the real action lasts less than half a minute – it as much about mental preparation as about performance. Before time limits were set, the all-important face-off could take up to half an hour before the opponents were mentally prepared to start pushing in earnest. Bridge is very much like sumo in that being in the right frame of mind is vitally important. Winning wrestlers on being interviewed often state that they had no plan, but reacted quickly without thought to the imminent challenge. At times bridge can be played that way, adapting instinctively without thought to changing circumstances, but only if one has trained the mind thoroughly.

Larry Cohen’s Baseball Analogy

In the May 2010 issue of The Bridge World Larry Cohen begins his article entitled ‘Three –Fifths of a Loaf’ with this bit of self-analysis.

‘During my 30 years of high-level tournament bridge, the biggest key to my success… was a middle-of-the-road approach. I was singles hitter who tried for a high batting average.’

Cohen set himself a goal and stuck to it with considerable success along the way. One is reminded of Ichiro Suzuki who has collected 200 or more hits, predominantly singles, in the 10 seasons he has been playing with the Seattle Mariners, a mediocre team. Ichiro can do everything, being also a golden glove fielder and a great base-stealer, but he chooses to hit singles. There are criticisms concerning what he doesn’t do. Isn’t it always the way? Ty Cobb, another singles hitter, who may still share the record for most homer runs (5) in 2 consecutive games with Albert Belle and others, when asked in 1925 why he didn’t try to hit more homers, replied, ‘because it would ruin my swing.’

It is not enough to stick to one’s own game – there is an overall partnership strategy to consider as well. For years Cohen has played an aggressive system (Precision) with another conservative player (David Berkowitz) in a partnership that was missing a certain dash and flair that kept them from matching the standard set by Rodwell and Meckstroth who very often swing for the fences and connect. The baseball analogy is apt. The best players are reliable players can turn it up a notch when required. Good pitching and defence up the middle wins ball games over the long run. The bridge equivalent is playing not to give anything away. It is also said that if a manager plays for one run, he will get one run. This is what is known as ‘small ball.’ This strategy works well against a good opponent in the World Series, as demonstrated by the 2010 San Francisco Giants, but a team has to get to the playoffs first and the Giants barely squeaked in.

A player should develop his own style while having the confidence to take advantage of opportunities when they arise. He must be relaxed and not fear making a mistake. In baseball if a batter gets a good pitch to hit, he should swing at it. If he has a good technique, the harder he swings the better the result. A missed opportunity, like a called strike-2 down the middle, doesn’t show up on the scorecard. A penalty double avoided against an indiscreet contract is such an opportunity. To double and make it stick one needs to work in close cooperation with one’s partner. If your partner can’t trust your bids and signals, and you don’t trust hers, well, bid ‘em up and hope the opposition makes the last mistake. That appears to be where the game has gone, and one can see why that is: the possible gain outweighs the expected loss, so uncertainty carries a high price tag. ‘Don’t double part scores at IMPs’, Cohen advises. Well, let’s look at a deal played by world champions in which an overcaller couldn’t trust even her own bid.

A Disruptive 2 Overcall

The scene is the semi-finals of the 2007 Venice Cup competition with France against their old rival Germany, and China against the eventual winners, USA1. Board 30 was also in play in the Bermuda Bowl, so we have a statistically satisfying sample of 8 auctions to study.


Dealer: East

Vul: None


A 10 4

A 9 7 6 4

Q J 10 5



K J 8 5 3

Q J 10 5 3


5 2


Q 7


A K 8 7 6 2

A J 7 3


9 6 2

K 8

4 3

K Q 10 9 8 4


Every East opened 1 and 5 Souths out of 8 overcalled 2 . The 2 exceptions from the Venice Cup competition were from the same match, USA1 vs China: Jill Meyers over-preempted 3 , quietly down 1; she hadn’t given the opponents enough rope, a critical factor with bad preempts. At the other table Hongli Wang passed and picked up 5 IMPs when EW bid without obstruction to 3 , down 2. Her pass worked well because this was a rare distribution of sides: 7=6=7=6 with Total Tricks at a minimum of 14. There is always danger in going against the expectation of the opponents’ action, as Hongli Wang did, but such digressions are opportunities for gaining as well as losing IMPs. It is satisfying to do what you think is right and accept the consequences, good or bad.

The consensus approach is to recognize the possibility that a 2 overcall over 1 is occasionally semi-preemptive in nature. The danger with bidding 2 in that way is that partner may think you are making a half-empty overcall on a poor suit with values outside raising hopes for higher things. In that case a misfit in clubs would suggest defending and a penalty double might be in order. To illustrate the dangers of a loosely defined action, here are the auctions when France faced Germany.


Willard Auken Cronier von Arnim
1 2
Dbl Pass 2 Pass
2 All Pass


Hackett D’Ovidio Nehmert Gaviard
1 2
Dbl Pass 2 Pass
Pass 2 3 Pass
Pass Dbl Pass 3
Dbl All Pass


Sabine Auken and Daniela von Arnim are aggressive bidders, so both are accustomed to light actions from partner. Auken would not give much credence to a semi-preemptive 2 overcall, and Willard’s negative double added a note of caution. With no fit, she decided to go quietly when she had the material for a redouble. Cronier repeated her suit, and Williard bid the better of her 2 majors, and there it rested for down 1. To standard bidders it would appear that Williard’s 2 action showed strength, but perhaps Cronier was reluctant to go further on an auction that sounded rather suspicious. Maybe she reasoned, ‘If Sabine isn’t bidding anything, she must have something.’ Right!

The real damage occurred at the other table. Barbara Hackett, as West, made a negative double, but when 2 came back to her she passed, presumably because she didn’t have the high card values to double then bid a forward-going 2 . This is somewhat contrary to the modern hyper-active approach, but, remember, she had Auken – von Arnim in the other room to do the swinging for the team. To Catherine d’Ovidio, steeped in the French tradition of sound overcalls, it appeared that 2 should not be the end of it when 3NT might be within range. After all, she had an opening bid opposite an opening bid, 2 aces and diamonds stopped ….. She bid an unlucky 2 , but not so unlucky, as Pony Nehmert came to the rescue ahead of her partner as opponents so often do in a poorly defined auction. Despite the warning signs, she bid a redundant and hazardous 3 . This is just what an opponent hopes for. ‘Blessings have been bestowed’, thought d’Ovidio as she pulled the double card, her only regret being that Germany was not vulnerable.

Unless I am void in an opponents’ trump suit, I never pull a penalty double if I am not ashamed of my previous bids, and I hardly ever feel ashamed, and remarkably, I am usually right not to pull, even when I should be ashamed, but am not. Larry Cohen takes the low road and I take the high road, a rocky, up-and-down, twisty path with many blind corners. With the South cards I have what I promised, I can produce a normal, informative lead, and I expect my K to be an entry for further leads in clubs. So I trust my partner knowing that West is acting entirely on her own. Daniele Gaviard may have thought she had promised more defence, and needed to protect against the much-dreaded doubled partial. So, it was off the plate and into the fire, -800, losing 12 IMPs solely for psychological reasons. It is painful to see former world champions so far out of sync as these two were. Always the hope is that with long experience comes wisdom, harmony, and tranquility, otherwise, what’s the advantage of growing old? I see none. Be that as it may, they overcame this bad session and remain partners going into 2011.

Respect and Ritual

The Japanese are big on respect and ritual, which shows through in their love of sumo which is ritualized to such a high degree that it becomes a religious ceremony. One cannot imagine Japanese fans booing a referee any more than one can imagine a Catholic crowd booing the Pope. (The difference is that if he is seen to have made a mistake, a referee has to submit his resignation.) The wrestlers bow as they approach the sacred ring to show their respect for the game, they bow to each other as they enter the ring, the loser bows to the winner, the winner bows to the loser, and they bow one last time as they leave. In the midst of all this bowing, they strain every muscle and fiber to crush the opponent without mercy. I don’t advocate that we go that far when playing a round of bridge, but perhaps this attitude can be partially applied. First and foremost, we should respect the game and behave properly. There are traditions that should be maintained. The ritual of thanking partner for the dummy is not one I adhere to, but maybe I should. Like all rituals it may be used to hide a false assumption contrary to the evidence, yet it has significance. Of course, baseball players have their rituals and superstitions as well, like not stepping on the foul lines, not acknowledging no-hitters, etc.

We should respect our opponents, but not fear them. Sumo champions claim that in the preparatory phase they can sense fear in an opponent, which assures victory. One of the purposes of the pre-bout ritual is to help a wrestler overcome his fear. Bridge players can use the same trick when coming up against a superior pair. Don’t tense-up. Speak pleasantly, count your cards carefully, and don’t get drawn into hypothetical discussions. Strive not to win, but to play well in a manner worthy of the game.

Last week I played on a team that once again won the monthly Swiss Teams, this time by the wide margin of 8 VPs over 4 matches. Our Ladies’ pair are outstanding: steady performers who seldom produce a bad result. Before the first match Sally mentioned to Peggy that they should play Cappelletti over 1NT, 2 showing the majors, where previously they had adopted Landy. I felt uneasy at this suggestion, firstly because I like to be able to bid 2directly to show spades, but mainly because I don’t think one should change one’s methods just minutes before the game begins. Sally’s argument was that ‘Nanaimo Jones (not his real name) recommends it.’ Well, we won the first match by 35 IMPs and Sally remarked, ‘Oh dear, we may have to play the Jones team next.’ To me the psychology was all wrong, so I commented, ‘well, in that case, maybe you shouldn’t play the same methods Jones is playing. Crowd him.’ I doubt the ladies would have followed my suggestion, but the situation didn’t arise as the Jones team had just lost by 16 IMPs, and never gained enough to come close to us. Thus we were spared for another month. I hope that by February Sally has learned to trust Peggy, who has taught bridge for eons, and agrees to play Landy and whatever other conventions Peggy suggests. Respect a partner who is better than you are, who knows more than you do, and strive to help her play her best game. Be humble but resolute.

(To be continued)

1 Comment

Stuart KingFebruary 2nd, 2011 at 10:50 am

Nice post, really enjoyed it.


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