Bob Mackinnon

The Zen Mind at Bridge

-Don’t be foolish, be stupid!

-The Zen Mind is like a mirror that reflects whatever comes before it.

– Bankei Y_taku (1623-1693)

The samurai class of ancient Japan adopted Zen as a way of thinking to help them cope during centuries of warfare. Bridge is an intense competition, war-like in some of its aspects, so can Zen thinking help the bridge warriors of today cope with the stresses we encounter at the bridge table? Absolutely.

On the Internet bridge players are often judged by the number of conventions they claim to understand. Conventions that help one communicate accurately with one’s regular partner are fine, but it is foolish to adopt conventions with an unfamiliar partner whose treatments may be different from your own. It is usual with cluttered convention cards that the whole is less than the sum of the parts.

The true expert out for a fun game may present a blank card that states, ‘I’ll play what you play’. In that way he is acting as a mirror that reflects partner’s state of mind. Two admirers of Bankei Y_taku meeting for the first time might agree to play KISS –Keep It Simple, Stupid, a statement that expresses the essence of Zen. They would realize that vague understandings cloud the mind as hot breath clouds a lens.

Zen is not against science; it is not a religion, you see. The Zen Mind seeks to see things as they are, not as they should be. One may occasionally come across a comment on BBO along the lines that, ‘she played the hand perfectly, but the cards didn’t lie right.’ To the Zen Mind such a comment is misguided, for uncertainty rules the game. There is success, there is failure, and perfection is unattainable. What is true on one hand may be false on the next. As a result the Zen Mind is comfortable in making decisions as there is no fear of failure through ‘doing the wrong thing’.

If one were to say, ‘many people believe Man is descended from the Ape’, a listener with the Zen Mind might reply ambiguously, ‘I’m not surprised.’ If pressed to elaborate, he may comment, ‘the history of science tells us that the more we learn the more there is to learn; theories come and go; Darwin’s Theory merely reflects our current state of ignorance’. So it is with bidding systems – they evolve and reflect the current state of our inability to communicate efficiently. Expect continual change, embrace basic change, but don’t continually adopt new conventions to patch over deep-seated problems.

It’s bad to be thinking about one’s bidding system during the game. Rather, think about the cards. Better still, don’t think about the cards, either. Card counting and registration should be automatic. Train the mind in order to free it. Consider the opponents. Sometimes they’ll win, and you won’t like it, but if it were otherwise, where’s the fun? Don’t be afraid to lose. At the bridge club, your enemies are your friends, for without them there would be no game.

We never do anything well until we cease to think about the manner of doing it

– William Hazlitt (1778-1830)

In a long-term partnership aim to play a complex bidding system that exchanges information in an efficient manner, without the expectation that everything will always turn out as one hopes. Bids should reflect without distortion the cards one holds. Sometimes this will prove counter-productive when the opposition is able to take advantage of the information volunteered. So be it – nothing works all the time. Don’t practice deception. Who is more important to your success, the opponents or your partner? When asked how to get more money, Master Ry_kan replied, ‘to get more, pay what you owe’. By giving partner the respect he deserves, you’ll gain in the long run.

A complex system requires continual practice – a few minutes taken every week to refresh the memory is time well spent. To do great things attend to small things. During the game let your actions cascade naturally like a clear mountain stream. Submersion in the game as it is being played is known as ‘being in the zone’ and you won’t stay in the zone if your mind is constantly twisting and turning because of trivialities that impede the flow.

The Role of Intuition

There are 3 stages of learning. The beginner thrashes around randomly without technique. His actions are instinctive and unpredictable. Consequently he may lose regularly to mediocre players who lie in wait while occasionally defeating experts who actively draw the wrong conclusions from his actions. In the second stage, he becomes aware of his mistakes, acquires correct technique, whereupon he himself becomes mediocre, losing less frequently to the average players, but losing more often to the experts. By immersing himself in the crowd he has become predictable. In the last stage of learning the player frees himself from slogans and generalities and plays according to what the current table conditions dictate. Intuition takes over. Acquiring freedom of thought he becomes unpredictable like a beginner but without being inaccurate.

Intuition is more than wishful thinking. The golfer does better if he imagines the flight of the ball towards the green. The body then tries to provide the swing to accomplish it. If the body has been trained, the chances of success are improved. One has spent a lot of time and energy building up a mental store house of experiences at the bridge table. Don’t keep that treasure locked away; draw on the experiences that only you possess. Imagine a solution; make a plan. Two experts may play the same hand differently because of their different experiences. Which one is right? (Often in a marital quarrel a couple argues from different points of view. Each is right and both are wrong.)

One needn’t stick to the standard opening lead if it doesn’t rate to be effective. The validity of standard leads is based on a broad range of situations, but not all situations are the same. As long as one doesn’t deceive one’s partner, deviant plays are acceptable. Most often partner will recognize that you have departed from standard practice, and later may even congratulate you on finding the killing lead.

Enough generalities, it’s time to give an example from my own experience at the local club that demonstrates why this works, even at matchpoints. The declarer in 3NT had bid confidently to game on the following uncontested auction:

1♣ – 1♠; 2♣ – 3NT.     I held:  ♠ KJT83 9764 Q6 ♣96.

As I considered my lead the thought came to me that several years ago I had read of a clever someone who led a king and pinned a singleton queen in the dummy to devastating effect. Ever since I had aspired to such brilliance. Was this my chance? Well, I am not going to follow Larry Cohen’s advice about winning it on the next hand; there’s no time like the present! The ♠K flew out of my hand. What do you know, the ♠Q was singleton in the dummy! My joy was not complete, however, as partner held ♠A94, so any spade would have been equally effective with the possible exception of the ambiguous ♠8. Be that as it may, by taking the first 5 tricks in a suit declarer had bid, we achieved the only defensive plus score on the board, a common result being 3NT made with an overtrick. Results are transitory; it is the process which is of interest.

We can go back in time and consider the circumstances in a logical context. My first impression was that declarer did not hesitate to bid 3NT and his partner showed no signs of concern. In fact, both players looked rather pleased, although neither one could have had great expectations of tricks in the spade suit. I expected dummy to contain a healthy diamond suit, which put my Q in jeopardy. Partner, with 8+ HCP had not overcalled in hearts, so there was no reason to believe that a heart lead would be successful. In fact, a heart lead makes it easy for declarer to take 10 tricks off the top. I suspect that was the reason behind the most common result. After a heart lead would partner later see the advantage of switching to spades? Unlikely, unless I led an attitude-laden 9, but that in itself might prove dangerous. Finally, if I were to lead the ♠J, top of an interior sequence, would partner read it to good effect or might he think that declarer held the protected ♠K and look elsewhere for tricks? True, in a worst case scenario declarer could hold the ♠AQ, but if he held the ♠A it was likely that the ♠Q was held elsewhere.

It is a question of probability. An abnormal action is justified if the chance of gain outweighs the risk of loss. In this field the most frequent lead against 3NT would be in hearts, the unbid suit, but there was no guarantee that all pairs would play in game. A passive heart lead holding my opponents to 400 might minimize my loss and yet could result in a below average score.  My chance of success needn’t be greater than 50%. I could go on justifying my hunch with specious arguments, but this is enough to make my point that what appears to be instinctive at the time may have behind it a string of logical steps that the subconscious mind grasps in an instant. What feels so right must feel right for a reason. My experience is that I have lost more by suppressing my intuition that by obeying it and from the number of times I have heard an opponent moan, ‘I knew I should have …’, I gather that it must be true of most experienced players. As a group we are too risk adverse. I think of it this way: ‘After 30,000 errors what’s one more of the same?’


Dave (MOJO)February 24th, 2009 at 5:55 pm

Excellent post.

MarkMay 9th, 2009 at 3:53 pm

Good stuff. More please.

Joe TomasJanuary 22nd, 2012 at 5:13 am

Excellent. I have just considered to give the game altogether because it frustrated me too much.

ottoMay 6th, 2012 at 7:26 am

zen always starts with a training of “mindfulness” in everything you do, sounds simple but is pretty hard if you take it seriously, most give up and slosh along in mediocrity far below their abilities, mindfulness makes counting and taking in inferences automatic, meanig these things transfer from the slow part of the brain that handles logic into the fast part that handles associations aka intuition, that is achieveable up to a point but needs hard work, only then can players enter another level of their game… he who plays slow is still struggling with logic… read/or hear nobel prize winner kahnemann on his translation of zen into modern brain science terms in “thinking slow and fast”, cheers

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