Bob Mackinnon

Perfect in Its Imperfection

What is captivating about participating in a sport is that a false impression of perfection is momentarily achievable. It is most exhilarating to score a goal, or hit a home run, or score up a risky slam, however, perfection that is not sustainable isn’t really perfection, is it? Participants can enjoy the moments of exhilaration when everything falls into place, but what one should learn most from playing sports is that one has to practice diligently and perform with panache. Hard work makes miracles possible, but failures are frequent.

Plato set Western thinking along the wrong path when he made perfection the central theme of his philosophy. His way of thinking leads to aspirations for unobtainable goals resulting in a continuous state of dissatisfaction and negativity. Really, we’d be much happier if we forgot about attaining perfection and strived merely to make the world a little better, step-by-step, which is an achievable goal. It would add up over the long term, A shining example: medical advances since the time of Mozart. The way to start is to observe without prejudice conditions as they are.

One consequence of the idealization of the bidding process is that under the rules a player is expected to give a clear and unequivocal explanation of the meaning of partner’s bids. In a recent ruling that determined the winner of the Wagar Cup, an American pair was penalized when the explanation of a call was vaguely expressed in terms of uncertainty, which was interpreted by an opponent as a statement of certainty. Only an idealized view of the bidding process would allow such an interpretation to be valid, especially in a situation where 3 players had already bid. Tolerance is called for. To illustrate this point, here is Deal 58 from the Wagar Cup Final played by those same players from whom perfection was assumed for the purposes of making a judgment. Even without interference their auctions were flawed. That is to be expected as the language of bidding is a crude means of communication. Doubt, not certainty, is the norm.


The bidding poses no apparent problem to a 2/1 bidder. Sanborn opened her major and rebid her minor 4 times. Levitina responded with her long major and supported partner’s major twice. When given a choice at the 5-level, she chose to pass with only 3 red cards in her hand. Unbeknownst to her these 3 red cards were the key elements to slam. It was perhaps unfortunate that she never had a convenient opportunity for showing her clubs. One may sympathize with her predicament; we can only question whether she is yet another victim of the standard approach where the weak hand is allowed to make the final decision after the strong, distributional hand takes pains to show shape by emphasizing her suits. The important extras in the South hand, T9 and JT, were impossible to transmit, misplacing the burden on North to guess the correct conclusion.

The problem is a fundamental one with regard to a natural system where each player bids her suits and somehow they come to a mutually agreed collective conclusion. This works well enough when the perception of each player closely matches reality, possible when the hands are balanced, hence subject to a reasonable interpretation based on probability. It is not possible when the hands are highly distributional, as each partner will have difficulty in picturing the potential of her holding in the context of a contract played from the other side. Such was the case.

Because they hold a highly distributional hand, some Souths may fear that a bad trump split is likely, but this is a false assumption. The fact that North and South have extreme distribution does not imply that the opponents also have distributional hands. On this misfit deal the NS hands have a distribution of sides of 6=8=7=5, the most common of sides. The opponents’ cards form a 7=5=6=8 division with 3=3=3=4 opposite 4=2=3=4, the most mundane of splits possible, and the most probable. So an upside to a misfit auction is that declarers can expect even splits between the defenders.

It may be that some will have no criticism of the Levitina-Sanborn auction, concluding that 5 is a reasonable contract on just 26 HCP, however, I find the process fatally flawed. With regard to information the bid of 1 was poorly conceived. Of course, many who place the emphasis of length in a major would accept it, considering it a matter of style as well as efficiency. This is a judgmental, short-term view. Note that the system operated in such a way that clubs could never be mentioned, so the information conveyed was far off the mark. This was inconsequential, as it is a matter of what information is critical and what information is irrelevant. South knew what was needed from the first; North never did catch on.

I can imagine Sanborn thought her 5 bid was forcing, a last attempt to get to 6. It would be for me. She chose not to cuebid a control in a black suit. My understanding is that once trumps are agreed, a bid in another suit above game level shows a control and initiates a slam exploration. Hence, a bid of 5 over 4 would deny a black suit control.

Even though there is something wrong here, EW were not going to appeal 5-making-7. Generally, defenders have to live with imperfect results that derive from bidding mistakes, favourable or not. The rule is, ‘no harm, no foul.’ However, under the principle of the right to know, rather than the need to know, one may ask at every turn because the information might be useful at a later stage. If a mistake has occurred, an unfavorable result can be appealed, and possibly a procedural penalty can be picked up on the grounds that the opponents didn’t know their agreements.

That was nothing compared with what transpired at the other table. South (Ran) began with a strong Precision 1, which puts the captaincy in her hands. This was a good start. North was able to show both black suits naturally and give heart support at the 3-level, indicating a good hand. An exchange of cuebids was enough for Ran to opt for slam in a red suit, so she jumped to 5NT to allow Wang to choose. It is bad for a captain to ask the crew what to do next, when the captain has more relevant information.


Stubbornly Wang stuck with clubs, corrected by Ran to 6. There is should have ended it, but Wang belatedly took over the captaincy and bid 7, thinking that Ran’s control bid of 4 indicated the K. (What is ‘oh, shit!’ in Mandarin?) The upshot of the misunderstanding was that Ran played in 7, which some have calculated as having a 1% chance of making. Miraculously it came home. It is an intriguing thought that, because of the 9, it would have been better to play in 6, the 7-card fit, than in 6, the 8-card fit. Yes, trump quality is important, and AKJT964 was better than AKT97642.

An opponent might have asked during the auction, ‘does 4 promise a top honor control in clubs?’ and if Wang had said, ‘yes’, which is what she believed, could the result be appealed on the basis of misinformation? Should the Chinese be docked IMPs for having forgotten their agreements? On another day it might work. There was a possible effect on the opening leader, JoAnna Stansby, as she led a trump from 863. It didn’t matter in this case, but with perfect knowledge she might have led an unusual spade away from KT9. Most often a lack of knowledge acts in favour of the eventual declarer.

To return to the main point of my discussion, the normal condition at the bridge table is one of shared uncertainty. Here we have two pairs at the top rung in women’s bridge who without help from the opponents, frankly, screwed up. That is not to condemn them for not being perfect, but to remind ourselves that even at the top levels perfection is rare and temporary. (In fact, playing too well only gives rise to suspicions.) The rules have to be applied with this foremost in the minds of the authorities. It is a false hope that one can legislate perfection. Assuming perfection doesn’t make it so.

If you give me six lines in the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him. – Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642)

A man who does not trust himself will never really trust anybody.
– Cardinal de Retz (1613-1679)


Jim PriebeSeptember 7th, 2014 at 7:52 pm

This is a terrific post. It displays an unusual characteristic of our game: egregious errors sometimes lead to winning results.

bob mSeptember 7th, 2014 at 11:28 pm

Yes, that’s my winning formula, Jim.

bobby wolffSeptember 15th, 2014 at 3:07 pm

Hi Bob,

It is no doubt that my intellectual and actual knowledge of old time philosophy (mostly Greek) cannot begin to measure up to yours.

Add that to bridge, being what it is, subject to words like perfection, causes me to not being in your class for explanations.

However, in spite of sometimes awkwardness in discussion, you always find a way to tie your two loves together, till death do you part.

And by doing so, all of us are blessed with your result. Thanks, Bob, for your thoughts and intuitive presentations. Yes, perfection needs to be sustained and in bridge it is well nigh impossible (or at least up to now) so Plato, if he expects to win consistently, must learn to live with less or else he will never become a grand master, even if he continues to live on for thousands of years.

bob mSeptember 16th, 2014 at 4:43 pm

Thanks for your encouragement. Currently baseball is trying for perfection with video replays of close umpiring decisions. One condition is that appeals by a manager must be made in a timely manner. I think the same should apply to bridge. Anyone given enough time and a computer can find out later what he should have done. So the basis for an appeal should be stated immediately at the table.

Keith GeorgeSeptember 23rd, 2014 at 10:13 am

Reading your post I realised that the obvious next step in improving bridge is to check all auctions for any misbids whether or nor any damage was done, and fining players as appropriate, thus relieving the players of the need to ask questions at every turn! This might delay results but will clearly give a truly satisfactory result.

More seriously, perhaps the first question about bidding should always be as to the meaning of a bid rather than what partner would be expected to do in a given situation. Although the question Bobby Woolf imagines being asked, while seemingly simple enoughand very plausible, is surely a leading question, expecting a yes? The explanation of the pass over the redouble might be, ‘the redouble enables partner to pass when he has no clear bid, ie no plausible bid by me is likely to lead to him to regret his initial pass (since the bidding indicates we are most likely looking for a safe resting place rather than anything more adventurous).

Your point on division of sides is well made, though I tend to view an 8765 DoS as having a fit albeit in the extreme edges of possibility. The real misfits occur with 7766 DoSs and the question is how easy is it to distinguish in the bidding between the two.

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