Bob Mackinnon

My Secret Memoirs

Everyone knows that giving advice is easier than following it, but occasionally the fates decree that success ensues, no matter what. Last week I followed my own advice, and it worked! As in golf, so in bridge, there is an inner aspect and an outer aspect to the game. I shall explore the inner by giving you some of my secret thoughts as we went through the validation process of winning the Bracket I Knockouts at the Victoria Regional.

The day after our victory I was approached by one of the lovely ladies who through their volunteer work keep bridge alive in our city. “Is it true, the rumor I hear?’ she asked. ‘Yes it is, it was a great team effort all the way,’ I replied truthfully, while feigning modesty. I must admit I was rather put out, as I had always thought we had a very good chance to win. The first secret to winning is to foster the attitude that we are good enough to win if we play our normal game – no special effort is needed apart from avoiding the gross errors that occasionally mar our performances at the local club. The second secret to winning is to play with harmonious teammates. Serenity is the key.

It has been said that a long team match is the finest form of bridge, but I don’t think so. It must be the easiest, that’s why bracketed knockouts have taken over the game. All those brilliant bids and plays you read about constitute just a small part of the action. More important in total than bringing in a close slam are the several boards where one must compete successfully for the part score. Furthermore, the quality of the slam bidding is so poor that one might do well by resolving not to bid any slams apart from the most obvious ones. This is the route the world is following – an uninformative bidding style geared towards winning the game and part score battles that seldom produces a good slam sequence. That being so, the players you want on your team are those who fight well in the trenches and avoid flights of fancy. Mental toughness is what we look for.

In one match we faced a disharmonious pair of ladies. The younger woman was a disciple of Marty Bergen with an aggressive Points-Schmoints attitude. She and I would make a good pair, but, unfortunately for her, her partner was a traditional point-counter. They played DONT over 1NT. I began with a 14-16 1NT. This was their auction.

1NT (2♣) Dbl (2 ), all pass. 2♣ = clubs plus another.

My partner’s double showed clubs (and not much else). Declarer played it well, but +130 represented a loss of 10 IMPs as they had missed a cold 3NT. This is why I have given up on DONT – there is no way to show in a cooperative manner that your side holds the values for game. The conservative 2♣ bidder obviously feared that her aggressive partner was merely competing with lots of Schmoints and very few Points. If my partner, the doubler, had come in again, she would have competed further and they would get to 3NT, but, without his help and left to their own devices, they didn’t have the necessary information to proceed, as their past history worked against them.

Tactics that make sense at matchpoints may not play well at Teams. Our teammates commented concerning their opponents, ‘they bid a lot!’ I replied, ‘so do ours, lots of bids, but little accuracy.’ Players have been told to make garbage bids over a Precision Big Club. My advice to my partner is ‘whenever you feel you can bid 3NT over interference, do so.’ Putting pressure on an uninformed opening leader works more often than it should. The trick is not to think that your side is being stolen blind and that you have to make up for it by being extra clever. On defence against strong bids I would not recommend methods that give responder the chance to pass and come in later. Apply maximum pressure immediately. That is also why I hate to play 2§ over 1NT promising any one-suiter of any strength. For goodness’ sake, if you have spades, bid them.

Our teammates were Kirk and Virginia, a married couple. What I like about Virginia, an independent businesswoman, is that she is aggressive to a fault, which is a fault in the right direction. Kirk is someone who plays well with anyone. A thoughtful player, he doesn’t try to win all by himself. He places a necessary restraint on Virginia’s exuberance. As with many married couples, the husband tends to be less inhibited in his criticism than he would be with any other partner, a bad habit. So I told Kirk on the second day, ‘your task today is to keep Virginia happy’, in other words, cut down on the criticism. With age comes the privilege of speaking your mind to the younger generation(s). He understood that if we were going to win, everyone had to play at their best, and if we didn’t win, at least it should be remembered as a pleasant experience. My fondest memory is of Kirk and Virginia walking home that night arm in arm, perhaps the happiest couple in Victoria.

I was told that at one table a husband said to his wife, ‘if you do that again, I’m leaving this table and not coming back!’ This from a player who psyched our side out of slam! This domineering attitude can only benefit the opponents. If you want to lose surely destroying your partner’s confidence and freedom of action is the best way to go about it.

My partner, John, is an excellent declarer. I bid close games confident that he will make the contracts if they can be made. He is competitive by nature, a fearless bidder, so his attitude fits well with our Precision system. We played in 3NT 18 times, gaining 42 IMPs on aggregate. Once after he had gone down 2 and lost 7 IMPs, he complained bitterly that everything was offside. I said to him, ‘we have to bid these games whether they make or not.’ One mustn’t dwell on the failures. The next day in a Swiss Teams, I competed with spades-and-a minor over 1NT and went for 800, a fair result as I misplayed and they misdefended. My partner of that day was visibly upset, but when it came to a comparison, it was a tie board, a ‘normal’ result from a ‘normal’ action. You can’t expect perfection. On the other hand we lost 25 IMPs on 4 hands where we didn’t compete with sufficient vigor for the part score. As Bobby Wolff famously said, passing can be dangerous. You can’t win by sitting back hoping the opponents won’t make whatever they freely bid.

I find the hardest part of the Knockouts comes during the Round-Robin. It takes a while to switch to the long-term strategy involved when playing against one pair over 26 boards.

After the first half we were trailing in both matches. Kirk was complaining heatedly to Virginia that she had missed a perfect opportunity for a responsive double. I intervened quickly, saying, ‘maybe she wasn’t feeling responsive.’ “That’s right,’ she says with a laugh, ‘I wasn’t.’ So a bit of humor sometimes serves to break the tension. John and I had a problem hand where I overcalled a vulnerable1¨ with a classic 2§ with a 6-card suit KQJxxx. John passed and my RHO bid 2¨. John balanced with a double which I left in, having nowhere to go, thinking ‘how bad can it be?’ The answer: terrible, making with 3 overtricks, -780 for a loss of 12 IMPs to our side. After a discussion, John suggested he shouldn’t have doubled and I shouldn’t have left it in. I agreed to keep peace in the partnership, but I still feel it was an extremely bad tactic on a 5=4=2=2 hand whose greatest asset was the ¨A sitting in front of the bidder. (Of course, declarer held the §A.) This was a prime example of matchpoint madness being applied in a team match.

Each match is like a marathon where the optimum strategy is to bunch together during the middle portion of the race. Humans are social animals who feel most comfortable acting within a crowd. I suppose that is one reason everyone plays the same bidding system, however bad it may be. I am the lone wolf. Once playing pairs with John in a Sectional we finished the round early and stood watching the quiet crowd hunched over their cards with worried looks on their faces. ‘All the players in the gym are guessing,’ I commented, ‘and they are all using the same bad system, so we have a great advantage, no matter how good they are. We only need to keep our noses clean.’ We play an aggressive system conservatively, simultaneously taking care of both extreme positions.

In a marathon after 26 long miles, one extra inch may constitute the margin of victory. It is easier to come up from behind than to keep ahead of those keeping pace unseen at the rear. There is a cumulative effect to pressure. The Precision style is to compete early and often, frequently on values that conservative bidders find inadequate. It seems we are always opening the bidding with 1¨ or otherwise getting in the way, but it is a part of the system, not a peculiar habit. Trailing during the second half of the Round-Robin, John opened 1 which I raised to 2 with 10 HCP, and 3 hearts to the AJx. In balancing seat our RHO felt this was the time to punish our impudence, and he doubled. My LHO concurred, but John made it easily, even foregoing a 9th trick for the sake of safety. That made up the losing margin from the first half, and we went on to eliminate that team from the next round. Without their help we may not have survived ourselves.

My mantra is, ‘let the system make the mistakes.’ That is, when in doubt make the systemic bid. It may turn out wrong, but at least partner will be reliably informed. In a long match it is important to save mental energy. I can’t remember one tough bidding decision. I can remember several mistakes that luckily didn’t cost anything. My worst mistake came on the board after partner complained bitterly about a bad defence that wasn’t entirely my fault. ‘Could-have, should-have’ should be banned from discussions at the table as they can invisibly destroy concentration as the unconscious brain takes a side road searching futilely for excuses. In golf I see that the winner of the 2011 Masters finished with 4 birdies. He commented that in times of stress, simple is best. While others ran out of gas, Swartzel still had lots left in the tank. The same applies at bridge. If you must be reckless, keep partner out of it, and accept the blame if it doesn’t work out.

John complained at the break in the last match that one opponent was taking too long over a simple hand. In fact, the play was simple, but it was a slam on which they gained 15 IMPs, so some careful thought was called for. “What was she thinking about?’ he said with exasperation in his voice. Well, you can’t waste your mental energy worrying about what the opponents may be thinking, so I said, ‘Good! If she is wasting her time on a cold contract, she’s tiring herself out on a non-existent problem. She may make a mistake later when it makes a difference.’ And I was right.

In the last 7 hands we picked up 41 IMPs – a sprint to the finish when the opponents appear to have faded under constant pressure. Of course, Kirk and Virginia were playing their part on the boards they had played earlier. One element of our system that yielded profits was a one club opening bid followed by a 2¨ response that shows 8-10 HCP in a balanced or semi-balanced hand (4-4-4-1 is possible). Further bids by responder are relays that allow the strong hand to decide the final contracts and to declare them after a minimum amount of self-disclosure. Certainly, relays are the way of the future.

Sometimes players are suspicious that you are doing something very devious. Good, that means you don’t have to. The next day in Flight B Swiss I was playing 2/1 with a different partner when an opponent asked whether we played upside-down attitude on discards. I replied that we played standard discards. ‘Does a high card show values in that suit?’ he persisted. ‘Not necessarily, our discards are more or less random.’ ‘Oh, so you make deceptive discards!’ he concluded. ‘No, we aren’t trying to deceive anyone, we just don’t want to give away information unnecessarily. I call that Standard.’ ‘Right!’ he says, ‘That’s a good way of putting it.’ Later after a long auction on our part, he asked, ‘are all those bids natural?’, and I replied, ‘they are as natural as we ever get.’ After and opening bid of 1¨ on my left I had balanced with a double, and this auction followed:

♠ AQT6 ♠ KJ4
A6 KT54
87 64
♣ AK652 ♣ 8743
7 controls

Dbl 1
2♣ 3♣
3 3♠
4♠ 5♣

I think 7 controls and a 5-card suit constitute a huge hand. This is just the type of hand that gives me trouble when playing under the constraints of 2/1. Luckily I wasn’t the opening bidder. The lack of points in diamonds was another big plus, so I pushed on to the often shunned minor suit game. When dummy came down I was not as pleased as I should have been. The RHO took his diamonds then conceded when the clubs proved to be split 2-2. This was the last hand of the day in a largely uneventful match and it put us into a tie for second/third after many a slip and fall along the way in a game marred chiefly by a lack of initiative. You will have noted that it is a game dependent on a 2-2 split in clubs, less than 50%. Unashamedly I maintain that it was a question of whether one is happy gambling an 8th place finish against a possible win. I think a 40% chance is more than enough to justify going for it.

‘Why didn’t you pass 4♠ and play in a Moysian,’ I complained to partner.

‘Oh, you don’t want to do that,’ says the RHO, ‘I got a stack of spades.’

My last piece of advice is this: before you complain about your partner’s action, you’d better first check to see if he didn’t do the right thing after all.


JodyApril 21st, 2011 at 5:21 pm

Too funny for words!! Now I must go back and read ur other stuff

Bob MApril 22nd, 2011 at 3:33 am

As a wise man once said, in this life it is better to laugh than to cry, but it’s your choice.

scott needhamApril 25th, 2011 at 3:33 pm


I think it is unfair of you to display your bridge math skills in public, and not post an email address, using which many of us can bother you with our ‘special’ questions. So: if it is known that there are no suits in a deal longer than 4 cards, and no shortness less than a doubleton, and that one pair has a 7-card fit in one suit, do the odds that the remaider of the cards in this suit split 4-2 or 3-3 change? If so, what are those odds?

A shot in the proverbial dark,

Regards and Happy Trails,

Scott Needham

Boulder, Colorado, USA


Bob MApril 25th, 2011 at 7:21 pm

Hi Scott:

Well, I wrote the book on probability so that guys like you can do these calculations by yourself. It’s almost as much fun as playing bridge.

Anyway, your problem is easy to work out with a bit of paper and a pencil (convenient for erasing) I don’t use a computer.

Assuming no suits longer than 4 cards and shorter than 2 cards, and only 1 suit with 7 card held by a partnership means the division of sides must be 8-7-6-5 for both sides. The 8 card suits must be divided 4-4, the 7-card suits, 4-3, the 5-card suits 3-2. That leaves the 6-card suits which can be split 4-2 or 3-3.

The 3-3 split has associaated with it the same number of combinations in the other 3 suits as the 4-2 split and the 2-4 split.

Thus, the ratio of probabilities is merely the ratio of the combinations for 3-3 (20) and 4-2 (15) or 2-4 (15). The answer is (Ta-Da)

3-3: 40%, 4-2: 30%, 2-4: 30%.

The 3-3 split is more likley than under the a priori conditions where anything goes: 36%. because we have ruled out the more extreme possibilities, 5-1 and 6-0. The a priori odds still provide a rough estimate that can be used at the table.

OK, check it out, and see if I’m right.

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