Bob Mackinnon

Hormones and Bridge

Does Wall Street make sense? John Coates, a former trader, doesn’t think so. In his 2012 book, entitled The Hour between Dog and Wolf, he maintains he doesn’t believe in Mind over Matter, in fact, he thinks just the opposite: that our actions in moments of stress are governed by unconscious bodily reactions in which reason plays a small part. He maintains that decisions made daily by stock traders are made under stress, so are largely attributable to hormonal fluids triggered by the hypothalamus, so cannot be explained largely in rational terms. He accepts the view of John Maynard Keynes who observed in the 1930’s that market activities are spurred on by ‘animal spirits’ that trigger spontaneous optimism rather than by coolly derived mathematical expectation.

It is obvious that the same arguments could be applied to decisions made under pressure at the bridge table. This brings into question much of the tournament reportage which acts as propaganda in support of bridge as primarily a cerebral exercise. Bridge is more than that. There are purely physical reasons not apparent to the naked eye that make bridge the exciting, pleasurable, and addictive game that it is.

Coates feels certain that endocrinology provides the clues as to why women act differently from men. He suggests that stock markets would be better constituted to avoid boom and bust trends if more women were traders, these days the almost exclusive domain of young males who (he claims) snort drugs and spend their leisure moments at the computer screen viewing porn. It struck me that Coates is doing little else than reviving the age-old concept of Yin and Yang, but nowadays to convince the non-religious American reader, authors have to toss into their texts a plentiful dose of scientific references much in the way that James Bond novels were sprinkled with posh brand names. Bear with me as I illustrate the technique with this encounter in Monte Carlo after Bond having cleaned out a hated enemy at the card table is about to dine with a super Russian spy of the opposite sex.

‘So pleased to meet you at last, Mr Bond,’ she oozed, her black satin gown clinging enticingly to her generous curves. Everything about her spoke of estrogen levels of epic Marilyn Monroe proportions.

‘Shall we order now ….or later,’ suggested Bond. In precisely the manner described by Bruce McEwen and his colleagues at Rockerfeller University, his hypothalamus was issuing urgent orders to his kidneys for an increase in his level of testosterone. Consequently the rising levels of steroids in his hemoglobin increased his blood’s capacity to carry oxygen and reduced his evaluation of risk to negligibility.

‘It’s our first time together, so let’s enjoy it slowly,’ she proposed smoothly.  ‘What are we drinking?’

‘Dom Pedro ‘12, chilled but not shaken.’

‘Lovely. I could watch the bubbles for hours and it’s sweeter than most champagnes.’

‘I go for the full-bodied, myself, but this shad roe could do with some perking up. Waiter, bring us a bottle of Heinz 57.’

‘It’s true what they say about you, James – you have impeccable taste. May I call you James?’

‘I always feel the world could do with more intimacy.’

‘My name is Harmony. My father was Anton Korsokov, chief conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic until Putin had him fired for refusing to record the 1812 Overture with live ammunition. Oh, bother, do you have the time? I love my Vuitton Tambour but it’s impossible for telling time and I promised myself I’d get to bed early tonight.’

‘Now that’s what I call a happy coincidence.’

Her soft fingertips touched his wrist as he showed her his Q-modified Jaquet Droz.

‘Careful not to push any buttons – GMT is on the top left dial.’

His dopamine content, already at an extraordinarily high level, went through the roof. Meanwhile her cortisol level had taken a dive triggering the memory that she had neglected to refill her prescriptions after a recent prolonged stay in Saudi Arabia. Her ghrelin production increased sharply as her glucose levels plummeted.

‘Right now I’d love to have a great long chocolate éclair filled with whipped cream,’ she mused, ‘followed by a vanilla flavored Nescafe, black and very hot. What would you like to finish with, James? Let me guess: Pantysgawn and a stiff Dalwhinnie. Don’t act so surprised, it’s in your file, James.’

I like to believe there is a limit to what one can learn about human behavior by studying animals in a laboratory, and that the interpretation of experimental results can lead us in bad directions. For example, Coates informs us that with repetitive exposure to freezing conditions rats learn to remain calm as the temperature drops precipitously. The survivors don’t panic as a consequence of their hormonal production having adapted to a repeated experience. The conclusion can be drawn that Northern Europeans are best equipped to make decisions as their physiology has been trained over the centuries to cope with the heat of summer followed by the cold of winter. Residents of the Equator tend to overreact in a crisis – their testosterone levels get high quickly and stay high, leading to burn out, whereas a James Bond type can engage in life threatening activities, splash some cold water on his face (to desensitize his valus nerve), change a shirt, and be fresh for new challenges as they arise. This idea comes under the heading of pseudo-science in support of racism. Coates wonders whether central heating will reduce the Northerners’ natural advantage in decision making. The next generation will need toughening up. Could it be that future studies with monkeys will serve to revive the notion that the ideal family consists of a harsh, distant father and a forgiving, ever-present mother to cling to, the hairier the better? (Remember this: it is not survival of the fittest, it is survival of the most adaptable – there are more poodles in the world than timber wolves.)

Envy the Japanese who have learned from childhood not to panic when their houses shake and their dishes start to fall from the shelves. They are not easily stressed. But let’s not forget Pearl Harbor, a foolhardy decision if ever there was one.

With regard to bridge the USBC Finals should provide a good experimental environment from a stressful situation where rational thought gives way to subconscious physiological reaction. Unfortunately this year the players were not wired up, so lacking real data we’ll have to judge from the external evidence only. When I sat down to watch the last 15 boards on BBO, Diamond led Nickell by 27 IMPs. I concentrated on Meckwell, a pair noted for coming from behind at the last moment to snatch victory from defeat. They faced Moss and Bathurst, an infrequent Precision partnership, whereas as at the other table teammates and natural bidders, Weinstein and Rubin, faced Greco and Hampson, Meckwell disciples. I anticipated fireworks all around.

I was disappointed as Meckwell were about their business playing a steady game. There was no stretching to get to games that might not be bid at the other table. On one board they played quietly in 1NT, making 4 overtricks. Nickell trailed by 25 IMPs with 7 boards to play when this board came up, providing the opportunity for a slam swing. Meckwell bid to 4 unopposed; Rodwell, South, with a stong hand suggested slam, but Meckstroth declined his invitation with an ill-fitting hand. This was frustrating as 12 tricks were clearly available. Here is what occurred at the other table.

All Pass

Logically Weinstein’s vulnerable overcall doesn’t make any sense, even if we recognize that the chances of getting doubled for penalty are slim to none. Levin’s raise is scary, but Hampson, in a game-forcing situation was intent of reaching his side’s best contract. With a minimum for his 2 game forcing bid Greco opted to get out quickly. For all the activity NS reached the same contract as played at the other table and made the same 11 tricks. This then was a board easily forgotten in order to clear the mind for the next challenge. No harm was done, so relax, let the testosterone levels subside, and get on with it. However, that is not what happened.

In a Bond movie, 007 and his implacable enemy face each other at the card table with gentlemanly composure. The confrontation is intense, but they do not engage in frivolous banter. “Your move, I believe’, is as far as the provocation goes, even when playing Texas Hold’Em. All very stiff upper lip, the raised eyebrow, and all that. Apparently this is not how it was going at the USBC Final, where the voracious table talk became an essential element of the competition. Speculating on what might have happened keeps the pressure on, and does not allow for recovery of the hormonal balance. However friendly the tone, table talk becomes a psychological weapon, the result being to induce mental fatigue and cause mistakes. Similarly, salesmen are friendly when they have something to sell, but they know it is a mistake to let you go home and think about it.

According to the BBO report, after Board 54 Weinstein accused Greco of habitually making unusual and deceptive bids (the pot-versus-the-kettle gambit) and Hampson speculated on how far 2 would have gone down if he had doubled (hollow threat). This was not a harmless exchange for blowing off steam, but a way to keep the pressure on.  The effects were felt on the next 4 boards when Weinstein-Levin gained swings of 9, 12, and 13 IMPs to win the match going away. I conclude that if Coates is correct in assuming the critical decisions are governed by physiological imbalances, in future bridge reports must include the punk table talk as part of the bidding process. If this trend is allowed to continue, irrational decision making is bound to increase, and bridge as an intellectual exercise will deteriorate further into a form of two-handed poker.

Coates suggests that markets would be more stable if the hormonal composition of stock traders were to be balanced by the addition of more women and older men to the profession. Of course, those who profit greatly from ups and downs may not welcome the change. Is the collapse of ’08 bad when the market has doubled since to the benefit of those capable of taking advantage? We don’t need experiments on monkeys to verify the effect of a balanced approach, as local bridge clubs, replete with ageing men and women,  can provide direct evidence on how hormonal changes affect human performance. The club is a socially mature, stable environment where all players, winners and losers, can pass the time in pleasant surroundings due to a strict enforcement of a zero tolerance policy, but we don’t expect to find technical advances there. Trying too hard to win is taboo, which inhibits innovation. The ACBL does its part in that regard.

Endocrinological evidence may explain why certain club players consistently perform better against some opponents than against others, irrespective of the hands dealt. The top players certainly get more gifts than the also-rans, which I attribute to the stress felt by the lesser talents. Husbands may consistently score well against their wives and fail miserably when facing aggressive male rivals. This is due not only to inferior technical skill, but also to self-generated stress that compounds the problem. The question is: how can a player overcome this loser’s habit short of surgical intervention? Unfortunately, there is less free will involved than one might hope for, nonetheless, the essential first step is the development of self awareness. Denial doesn’t do it.

I have a tip about table talk: don’t engage in post mortems, especially those that clothe naked self-justification with tattered rationalizations. The complainers will not follow the good advice you could give them, rather, they will continue to make the same irrational mistakes over and over again, always seeking justification in the wrong places. Walk away from the table, look out a window, and say hello to a passing cloud. Be happy.

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