Bob Mackinnon

The Logic Box, the Computer, and the Chimp

In recent interview on the BBC in reference to the upcoming London Olympics, a British sports psychologist claimed the minds of competitors can be thought of in terms of 3 components: the Logic Box, the Computer, and the Chimp. Mostly athletes act like chimps, he asserted, so the trick for the psychologist is to train athletes to control their chimp brains through logical processes using data from the Computer (experience). From interviews of athletes shown on the TV we see no evidence to deny the Chimp analogy, but it seems a very traditional, not to say outmoded, view, overly influenced by the discoveries of Charles Darwin.  Cycling coaches know that in a race there occurs a critical moment where a rider must make his move. If he hesitates, he loses. Hesitation in the face of uncertainty is due largely to a fear of losing. Fear of the future, the psychologist says, must be replaced by the joy of the moment. Competitors must remind themselves it is the process, not the result, which is under their control. Their preparation must be directed towards maximizing the probability of success by minimizing their irrational fears.

It is easy to see that the same ideas apply to bridge competition. So often it is evident at the table that he who hesitates loses. If one’s aim is the control of the emotions, it follows it is the aim of an opponent to provoke the Chimp within so as to degrade the thinking process. In a BBO article about France’s participation in the recent European Team Championships, Thomas Bessis gave us some insight into the wide application of the theory of chaos to bridge. The French team had as its coach the Polish expert Krzysztof Martens, who also coaches the Monaco team. Martens’ creed is that in order to win IMPs players must go out of their way to create chaotic situations that put pressure on the opponents. For example, he feels that disciplined weak two’s are a waste of good bidding space, because they are too easy to compete against, thus are not preemptive enough. As Bessis notes, this attitude is against traditional French practices which have had conservative, constructive base. Despite their attempts at adopting a chaotic style, the disciples of Descartes did not qualify for the world championships.

According to the theory of chaos, a small change can have disastrous consequences in an inherently unstable situation. If we think of atmospheric conditions, a small rise in the global temperature may not have a great effect this year or the next, but there may come a time when a small change will tip the balance of nature and produce irreversible global changes. In the bridge world we can see how a simple, seemingly harmless action can work to create catastrophic changes. Here is a recent disaster from my local game.
























This is how I imagine we would have reached the top spot. Even 6 would be acceptable with most pairs stopped in 4 , making 680. This not what happened. The lady on my left doubled my 2 transfer to hearts, a seemingly harmless noise based on KJT65 and 2 outside jacks. John passed to show just 2 hearts, and passed my 3 continuation, sharing a bottom at +170. Without the double, 3 would be unmistakably forcing, but after the double John interpreted 3 as showing a weak 2-suiter. If he himself had doubled 2 missing the AQ, he would have had a good hand, so that is how he interpreted it. This is dangerous – opponents sometimes do crazy things, as they should. The solution is simple if one thinks about it: redouble to show this type of hand.

The damage comes not from the content (‘double shows diamonds’), but from the illusion (‘and opening points’). In fact, doubling with 6 HCP is safer than doubling with 14 HCP, because in the first case, 2 doubled and redoubled makes 9 tricks, not nearly enough to compensate for a missed slam, whereas with 14 HCP the intervention could be relatively costly, allowing the opposition to bid and make game based on the useful information provided. So it makes more sense to bid on nothing more than diamonds.

Over the years we have seen conventions come and go. They have success initially because our chimp brains overreact to the unusual. Gradually players become accustomed to them, calm down, and even go so far as to adopt them. Then their effectiveness fades. If they are sound, they persist, if not, they become obsolete. One of the players at our club is known for her eccentric bidding style. Her bids are unusual, but, like the double in the above case, they make good sense when viewed in the right light. Her fellow members are by now well acquainted with her tendencies, so locally the effectiveness of her approach has been reduced. However, if she plays far afield, among strangers, she invariably does well. She engenders chaos.

Countering Uncertainty
If one can gauge the information content of a bid, the Logic Box can devise counteractive measures. During post mortems one often hears sentences that begin, ‘I should have…’ Seeing all 4 hands, no one disagrees. To create chaos at the table one aims to evoke an emotional upset. Any unusual action may trigger panic in the Chimp. So how should one react, given the information content of the interference is unknown? As far as the Logic Box is concerned, ‘garbage in, garbage out’.  Drawing the wrong inference from an opponent’s bid can lead logically to the wrong decision. Most often it is better to assume minimal information with maximum uncertainty. Why? Because the more conditions one attaches to a bid, the less likely it is to have occurred. The Computer takes over and a player guesses according to probability. Consider how the 1NT opening bidder might react to the double of 2 under various assumptions.

If he assumes that the double shows good diamonds and an opening bid, he may decide that the best option for his side lies in competition for the part score. Under that assumption the bids may be defined as follows:

Rdbl I can compete in spades
2 nonforcing
2 transfer to clubs (2NT likes clubs, 3, drop dead.)
Pass you decide

This fits in with John’s evaluation, as he passed 3, however, the underlying assumption is wrong, and The Logic Box churns out the wrong reaction. If one makes the minimal assumption that double doesn’t promise anything other than diamonds, one must take care not to miss a big score from a penalty double, a game, or a slam. The Logic Box churns out a different scheme. Redouble is now serious- ‘I think we got them’. Pass is forcing – responder escapes to 2 with a bad hand, otherwise the lights are lit.

Many methods are devised on the assumption that interference is based on genuine values. When the interference is based on worthless holdings, those methods will let you down. Here is successful reaction from the same session.
























All Pass







To the traditionalist the bidding appears all wrong, yet 4 is the correct contract with a possible 11 tricks available. Without interference the auction would have proceeded normally to 4 at all tables, yet few reached that contract. Just getting there with 13 opposite 12 HCP on a 4-4 fit was worth a 70% score. The key to understanding the bidding is to realize the doubler is known for her eccentric takeout doubles. Here she held: J4 KJ65 AJ84 Q94, so it was not established that she possessed a 4-card spade suit for her action.  Perhaps this has become common practice.

In classic Precision redouble merely shows 12+HCP. It is a nebulous game try. All other bids tend to be competitive in nature. My doubling for penalty at the one level was optimal, with 1 * going down 3. My conservative 1NT bid described my limited hand to partner – not a minimum by our standards, flat, with the semblance of a stopper. It would seem natural for John to bid diamonds at this point, but he tried for game in spades with only 4 despite the double which would normally promise that suit. 3NT (making 9 tricks) was still a possibility, but my raise pointed in another direction.

Ignore Them
A calm reaction to added uncertainty is to respond as without interference, 1 promising only a 4-card suit, keeping in mind that the great majority of points must lie with one opponent, but otherwise assuming little about shape. To ignore the opponents’ bidding is to surrender to the idea that their action contains no usable information. Treating a takeout double as if it were a pass is less than optimal, however, one is in danger if one reads too much into it. One is negligent in not attempting to extract what information there is to be had for free.

In competitive situation partners must act cooperatively to reduce uncertainty when the hand clearly belongs to their side. One player does well to show the nature of his hand so that his partner can assume the role of captain and incorporate reliable information into his decision making. Showing a flat distribution with limited strength can be especially useful: it confirms the most probable situation and prevents partner from getting carried away by the hope of a rare combination. In the above auction, my 1NT showed a flat hand with a heart stopper and 13 HCP. My partner could use this precise description in the subsequent rounds of bidding. Rather than employing 1NT, a competitive double could have been better used to provide this description with an even better result possible.

In a recent tournament report in The Bridge World, Michael Rosenberg commented that the younger generation of players often plays poker against each other. He was hinting that the strategy of bluff and counter-bluff was spilling over to the bridge table. Yes, their matches often appear to be the latest episode of Chimps vs Chumps, where the psychological element predominates. Apparently they are having fun doing it that way. In poker one has no partner so there is greater scope for individual initiative in the cause of misinformation. I remember that 30 years ago I was soundly criticized by an opponent for opening 2NT with a singleton K after I scored a top when he underled his ace. ‘You’re playing poker’, he accused bitterly, and called the director who gave me a warning. Nowadays the ploy is commonplace. It is true that it is more exciting if one bids whatever strikes one’s fancy, but in the long run one has to be concerned about one’s partner. Why take him out of the game? If one wants to play poker, play poker. Of course, that’s not the way it is going. The modern bridge player must face up to a distinct loss of information in the bidding process; one is left with playing for what is most probable in an uncertain situation. Probability trumps logic.


Alan ShillitoeJuly 10th, 2012 at 12:58 pm

I have the book in question (The Chimp Paradox) on my desk as I write this. Suffice to say, that same psychologist is cited by the athletes in question as a big part of why GB dominated track cycling at the last Olympics and is currently on the verge of having its first ever Tour de France winner. It is probably an oversimplistic model, but then it is designed for the layman to be able to understand the broad concepts. It is interesting to see it applied to Bridge though. I like to read innovative thinking on the game though taking in ideas from non-traditional fields and concepts and your blog/books have often done that.

Funnily enough, this idea of creating chaos is something that occured to me recently. Not through the psychology, but trying to understand why Junior teams who seemingly had much less technical ability were able to produce better results than some I had coached. I wondered if we were strait-jacketing them too much and if we allowed ours to play a higher variance game, their superior technique would on balance get more judgement calls right than the opponents. By playing straight all the time are we relinquishing the initiative at the table?


Bob MacKinnonJuly 10th, 2012 at 10:08 pm

Good Question!
Of course technique is an important factor, but it is technique that is applied in the context of a human contest. Learn the techniques, practice the techniques until they become automatic, then don’t think about the techniques during the contest. Don’t get upset by something you can’t control. This applies to bridge over several hours and to sumo wrestling that lasts less than a minute. Thanks! I’ll look for the book.

june jonesJuly 15th, 2012 at 8:20 pm

Perhaps I am not up to your standard yet I must need more practice and education.

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