Bob Mackinnon

Bridge, Baseball and Sumo II

We continue to ruminate over the mental factors that bridge has in common with more physical contests. Under the heading of sports psychology Wikipedia lists the following topics which we shall consider below:


goal setting relaxation visualization
self-talk awareness concentration
confidence training cohesion
rituals criticism trancing


Within this woodpile of topics lie the reasons why some men will always be better than others as well as the answer to the intriguing question as to why women, generally speaking, don’t play as well as men. Sure, some women play better than some men, but bridge is a game primarily played by men’s rules being kept alive by women at the local level who mainly view bridge as a worthwhile social event. Sadly, at the higher levels the popularity of women’s bridge is greatly in decline, except in China where women’s status still needs a boost. A generation ago women rejoiced when Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs at tennis, which men claimed proved nothing, but today North American women don’t feel the same need to prove they can beat men at their own game. The rules have changed as women have gained their rights while maintaining their privileges. However, for whatever reason, facts remain facts. In the US generally masculine mind training is being downplayed as school math scores plummet to 25th in the world standings.

Let’s think about money as motivation. Some claim bridge would be more popular if advertisement money was poured into it. No doubt, for money got George W. Bush elected twice, so anything is possible, but would the game become better or worse? I bet on ‘worse’. In 20th century baseball we have seen economic factors at work. Money is an important motivator for those whose parents weren’t born with it. There has been a transition in players from hefty Northern laborers (Honus Wagner), to Southern country boys (Dizzy Dean) to outstanding persons of color (Jackie Robinson), to quixotic Latins from outside North American continent (Roberto Clemente). Ozzie Guillen may be right when he says the future of baseball belongs to his native Venezuela. We can expect money-motivated bridge to go the same way. Will Turkey become the next great source of talent? In baseball money considerations have taken over to such an extent that a manager can’t ask his millionaire sluggers to bunt, because he knows they don’t know how and risk injury if they try. Missing a chance to hit a home run is potentially costly when extra base hits are bargaining chips. Drugs and free agency has resulted in a series of one-year wonders. It was refreshing in the World Series to see San Francisco’s veteran first baseman, Aubrey Huff, lay down his first-ever successful bunt in the major leagues. Richer hadn’t made him better, but all along inside him there was a better player waiting for the chance to emerge. He didn’t arrive at this stage until he took a pay cut.

Team spirit is more important than money. We need look only at the world championship baseball series won twice by Japan with Korea closely behind. Few have any doubts that the best players are from the United States, yet the US has been rather ineffective even though the critical games are played within its borders. It was painful to watch overweight superstars puffing after Asiatic line drives in the gap. In the last championship Japan was in trouble until the last game when the fiercely competitive Ichiro, a hero to his compatriots, came out of his slump to lead his country to victory.

Clearly, American priorities lie elsewhere. One might conclude that there is not enough money in it to provide the necessary incentive, but this is a poor argument that one often hears concerning bridge. When the Olympics were only for amateurs the United States dominated the world in track and field. Since the Olympics have gone professional, the performance of Americans has deteriorated vis-à-vis the rest of the world. The pattern is the same in other well endowed sports, particularly women’s tennis where Americans lag behind although they are almost exclusively the great names of the time before Martina Navratilova left Czechoslovakia. Black players have emerged because they have something to prove: Venus Williams in her prime was awesome; so was Tiger Woods. There was something beyond money that drove them at this particular time in history.

With regard to goal setting there is a long-term aim, which is to play good bridge, but over the short-term one trick is to set oneself an achievable, limited objective. In the last tournament of 2010 the shortest of the first division wrestlers, the 5’6” Toyonoshima, achieved the remarkable score of 14-1, losing on the last day to the nearly unbeatable Mongolian master, Hakuo. His reward was to be moved up in the ranks so that he faced the 7 best wrestlers in the first 7 bouts of this year’s tournament. His first opponent was a 6’6” European giant, so the outlook was not bright. To the delight of his fans and the surprise of the experts, the smaller man caught the unwary Estonian in an arm throw that sent the 420 lb giant hurtling into the front row of seats. Luckily no spectators were injured. In the interview that followed a delighted Toyonoshima stated that he had wanted to win this match because it was the first bout in a new year, a limited objective. Since that initial success he has lost the next 7 bouts in a row, looking particularly lackluster. Because he achieved his first goal in spectacular fashion, he may be able in future to adjust his performance with a degree of confidence not matched to his overall results. (Indeed, he went on to win his last 7 bouts to end up with a winning 8-7 record.) So, in each bridge tournament try to take away an achievement in which you can take pride.

Self-talk is useful in reminding oneself to stay calm and in focus. We have all had bad starts, and no one knows better than oneself that adjustments are needed. Naturally one had hoped for better things, but now might be the time to aim lower and play for averages knowing your partnership is not at its best. The same applies when the reverse happens and you are off to a terrific start. Now one says to oneself, ‘You’ve been lucky, so don’t expect that anything you do will turn out magical. Play good bridge.’ At times a bit of self-criticism serves as a useful reminder to get on track and stay there.

Criticizing partner either openly or internally doesn’t seem to produce the desired improvement, so I am against it for that reason. I am also against opponents who feel they have the right to openly analyze the result. Often after a bad result an opponent may comment sympathetically along the lines, ‘don’t worry I can always make 3NT.’ At-the-table post mortems are notoriously inaccurate. Even if the comments are well meaning, which I am inclined to doubt, they don’t help and serve only as a distraction. The time between hands is best spent in readjusting internally in preparation for the next hand. For some players chatting between hands is a form of relaxation, for others, a tactic of psychological warfare, but then why should I have to pay the price? Be sociable after the game and offer to buy the losers a drink over which you may suggest ways in which they might have improved. Be sure to take along the hand records. Mutual bows are optional.

After writing the above I witnessed this reaction. Early in the game I held K6 AKQT87 AKT3 KJ and opened 2 . Partner responded 2 to show exactly 2 controls, obviously a black ace. The bidding proceeded as follows: 2 – 2 ; 2NT – 3 (Puppet); 3 – 4 ; 6 , all pass. My 6 bid was based on the assumption that partner was more likely to hold a queen than not. The A was led, and the slam made easily enough when partner was able to ruff a diamond in his hand without being over-ruffed. 6 scored 80%. The opponents’ futile discussion was about whether on a club lead I would make 7 from my side of the table, given that the 2 response had wrong-sided the contract. They engaged in wasteful, wishful thinking while missing the main points.

Golfers are taught that when lining up a shot they should imagine a swing that sends the ball traveling to the most desirable spot and keep that image in mind during the actual swing. Visualization is such an important element in bridge that it hardly bears mentioning. The trouble with some is that they imagine disaster rather than success. That can be appropriate at times at IMPs when safety becomes the foremost requirement, but generally one should visualize for success. Often we are reminded by pessimistic commentators of Barry Crane’s advice to a partner, ‘don’t play me for the perfect cards, because I won’t have them.’ I wish he had added, ‘neither play me for the worst possible hand as that is the surest way to lose.’

As the saying goes, ‘to the beginner there are many possibilities; to the master, few.’ Some situations require careful consideration, but by anticipating the potential problem beforehand, one has less work to do when such a situation comes to pass. With regard to baseball, a hitter has precious little time to react to a pitch, so anticipation plays a role. The best analyst for the Toronto Blue Jays broadcasts is Rance Mulliniks, a former star infielder, who is most adapt at calling the pitches from the booth. It’s a skill that is hard to teach and comes only with experience. He reads the pitcher’s mind; he recognizes pitching patterns as they develop; he is a master of anticipation. He is so good he often makes the man at the plate look foolish, so I suppose he is not popular with the players. ‘I look for a slider just off the plate, so I would be trying to hit it to the right side’, says Rance, and just at that moment Edwin Encarnacion, not the most perceptive of Blue Jays, swing wildly over the ball striking out without advancing the runner. As with many physical activities, by the time one learns all of the secrets one is too old to enjoy them.

Finally we come to the topic entitled ‘trancing’, a characterization I feel is inappropriate to bridge. In the West trancing has origins in religious frenzy, orgies, and hallucinogenic drug-taking. The name of Hildegard von Bingen is sometimes evoked, whose blood-soaked visions were apparently induced by migraine. I don’t wish that on anyone, rather I would point to the practice of Zen meditation which requires only a bit of quiet. In scientific terms meditation is a means of reducing the frequency of our brain waves by shutting out the many distractions that plague our daily life. First relax and reduce anxiety by arranging your schedule about the event. Leave your cell-phone behind. One needs to feel that there is nothing else one would rather be doing for the brief period it takes to play the game. Intensely focus your attention on the cards. It is easier to raise the brain wave frequency quickly than to lower it, so from a relaxed state of an uncluttered mind one may more easily rise to the occasion. One is ready for the fun of concentrating effort directed towards the conscious solving a challenging logical problem.

Zen activity is instinctive and undertaken without thought. This does not mean it represents an escape from the prison of logic. I think of it as an unlocking of the doors of the unconscious memory, like a computer hacker, accessing hidden information, as it were. I am sympathetic to the view of Stuart Wilde that trancing represents a slipping of the mental shackles of rules, however, to be successful one does not act like a novice who knows nothing. One has first to store information in the unconscious memory thorough practice, practice, practice, so that at the table one is ready to act according to a well-honed instinct. This is especially true of bidding which should be well rehearsed. For the ambitious pair there should be no excuses in that regard. One needs sometimes to act instinctively within the context of a complex bidding system that gives one the advantage over opponents’ primitive agreements, however, rules, especially point-count rules, are made to be broken, if one can see an advantage for doing so.

The First Priority

Fear is an athlete’s worst enemy, and the first priority of sports psychology is to overcome the anxiety that makes a good golfer miss a short putt, a shortstop boot an easy grounder, a good bridge player to violate his bidding agreements. Basically the bridge player has to overcome his doubts, and bravely follow his bidding system even with its flaws. Keeping it simple is best. Unfortunately, due to randomness that occasionally turn bridge errors into profit, we find misdirected players who think that offbeat calls are clever, when basically they are self-destructive. They invent ways to lose.

Here is a recent hand that caused problems when partner wished we were playing Gazzilli. What is your response when partner opens 1 : 1076 743 J54 A853 (11 losers)?

Playing Precision where an opening 1 bid is limited, I would be tempted to raise to 2 in a nonvulnerable preemptive mode, knowing that the opposition holds half the HCPs. I expect 2 to go down 2 tricks and am hoping they will be pushed to the 3-level. It is tempting to raise when playing 2/1, but the risk is greater as partner sometimes holds a good hand and the opposition is less likely to come to the rescue. Like it or not, the system call, the fearless call, is Pass. You are already in your best contract. Play on.

What I would not do is bid a forcing 1NT hoping to correct to 2 . Not unluckily partner held a flat 18 HCP and the auction, propelled by uncertainty, proceeded to 3NT played from the wrong side. This cost 2/3 of a board, a deserving result that kept us out of first place by a single matchpoint. If we had agreed to play Gazzilli, I would respond an artificial 2 to show my big hand, and the partnership could stop in 2 , which makes, but we hadn’t, so we couldn’t. Inherent instability is one reason why 2/1 is so full of patches. It would have been easy to stop routinely in 2 after a Precision 1 opening bid.


Rainer HerrmannFebruary 9th, 2011 at 10:59 am

You said

“What I would not do is bid a forcing 1NT hoping to correct to 2♠”

But what will partner do with 18 HCP over a spade raise?

He will certainly not stop below game.

The only advantage is that a possible 3NT would be played from the right side.

Meanwhile chances that partner will not bid beyond 2 spades are much better if you bid 1NT than when you raise directly.

Personally I think a conservative Pass with this flat hand stands out. Your ace notwithstanding, game for your side is extremely unlikely and you have enough that game for the opponents is also not likely. Bidding has little to gain and a lot to loose. Your side is likely to get overboard whether the bidding gets competitive or not. If you raise, it requires a rather specific distribution of the remaining 39 cards that 2 spades might get passed out.

Scott NeedhamFebruary 9th, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Worthy thoughts. In this vein, consider the Belgian guy who just finished a year of running a marathon a day (I would not lie). How did he coach himself up? Something like: “OK, if I can just make it through the first 30 days, the rest will be cake”?

Bob MFebruary 9th, 2011 at 7:33 pm

Exactly so, Rainer. It has been the custom to open 1 spade with such good hands that passing with an ace becomes a dangerous option – at least that is the fear engendered by this practice. Opener will not stop in two spades. So we have instability.

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