Zia would have known what to do

Le Bridgeur

Adapted after an article by Pierre Schmidt published in the French magazine Le Bridgeur (September 2019).

Natural born talent, or always learning? Why are the champions… champions? The answer is here and, if you wish to be like them, follow these three pieces of advice from “Le Bridgeur”.

Bridge has its own social networks. The best known, in English, is Bridgewinners. You can talk about anything there, but it’s all strictly bridge. You can see lots of polls where the community is asked to help clarify a decision related to bidding or to the play. The author of one such poll, who had failed a delicate contract, accompanied his question with a statement resembling a painful plea: “Zia would have known what to do”. And he went on to explain he had enough! Enough of seeing the champions win the contracts he fails, enough of seeing them take the winning line of play more often than him, he was tired of not understanding why.

What to say to him? First of all, it should be noted that the differences in results between two pairs – even of different levels – are often very hard to overcome. Take a pairs tournament, strong enough and with participants of pretty much the same level, such as a national division in France. With 52%, you get the 10th place (many would dream of it). Only 49% and you’re knocked off. Just a 3% difference. Over thirty deals, this difference would correspond to twenty-seven ties and three hands on which some score 65% and others 35%. An unlucky lead, a trick lost in the play, a not-too-obvious slam that one table bids and the other does not. From light to shadow because of three details.

The better performance of a champion is understandable, and the good news is that his skill is not written in his genes. It is true that some forms of intelligence (among the dozens that we could mention) are more adapted to bridge than others but it is through work, more than anything else, that the champion acquires his superior ability. Improving more and again more, no matter what level you reach, is always possible. You have to really want it, and offer to yourself the means to make progress.

So how does a champion’s brain work?

Today, we will not talk about the bidding, but we will look at the mental process of a champion in defense or as declarer, two areas that have a lot in common. A champion’s brain is like a screen divided into three areas.

Don’t fly blindly

To the left of the screen is the map of the playing field. You can’t fly a plane without a map. In bridge, this is the diagram of the deal, with the vulnerability, the bidding sequence, the indication of the dealer. When the board is placed on the table, the map is all blurred, but as soon as he picks up his cards, the champion places them on the map. The bidding starts and the rest of the map starts filling up: an opening of 1♠ means there are at least five “spaces” reserved for the Spades in that hand. An opening of 1NT? 15 (maybe 14 and a five-carder) to 17 high card points. What is certain is green on the map. Suppositions are orange. And, after the opening lead, everything accelerates. The dummy is already known. Your partner leads the Queen of spades while the dummy doesn’t have the King of spades, nor do you? So we can deduct that the declarer has it. The 2 of hearts opening lead against 3NT? Reserve four spaces for this suit in your partner’s hand and the rest in declarer’s hand. The map of the playing field becomes clearer and clearer with each trick. A champion will never play a card that is not compatible with “THE” map as he sees it at this moment.

If your teachers taught you and repeated over and over: “Count, count, count, count again…”, it’s nothing more than a way to draw the map of all 52 cards in your mind. It is nevertheless very striking to note that even experienced players act without taking into account the complete context of the deal, by simply applying general rules (second hand low, third hand high, cover an honor with an honor, 8 ever 9 never…) without an effort to visualize the hidden hands. However, it is easier to solve a problem when looking at all four hands, than by looking at only two hands, don’t you think?

First advice to train yourself for this mental process, which must become a habit: if you went down in a cold contract, or delivered a contract with sloppy defense, review things calmly when you get home. Write down on a piece of paper what your image of the full hand could (should) have been at the time you made your mistake, based on all the elements that were available to you. Most times you will discover that if you had done this exercise (mentally) at the table, you could have avoided your mistake.

And let’s double this advice for bridge teachers: when you get to commented games, stop the play in the middle of the game and ask each player to write down on a piece of paper the map of the playing field they picture in their mind at that moment.

The database

The left of the screen is therefore the map, the picture of the full hand that a champion constantly fills in as more elements are known. To the right we have the database where the champion’s brain has stored everything he has learned. Let’s take a very simple example: the finesse mechanism. A beginner can obviously discover this on his own, but it’s so much easier if you explain it to him in his first lesson on the play of cards. More complicated: the squeeze. Who has not read and reread the books of Bertrand Romanet will never master the art of lemon pressing. You cannot reinvent bridge on every deal: any player, even the greatest champion, will look into his personal database for analogies with the situation he is contemplating. I am declarer and the dummy is placed on the table: is this a cross-ruff game? Establish a secondary suit? A safety play? A dummy reversal? A combination of several techniques?

The same applies to playing each suit. It is not necessary to have encyclopedic knowledge of suit combinations and you can calculate and discover things at the table, but nothing beats the experience stored in the database. Let’s take this example:

K 10 9 2

A 8 4 

We’re playing No Trump and we have to take the best line to make three tricks. You will see many players cashing Ace and King off the top. Others play the Ace and then twice small towards K-10-9 with the intention of taking the finesse. These people are wrong. The best way to play this suit combination is small to the 8, and then play the 10 with the intention of taking the finesse. The reason is that all the good and bad cases are symmetrical compared to the previous plays, except for two: we lose Queen-Jack doubleton with West, but we win Queen-Jack fifth in both opposing hands (since East will discard when we play the 10), a more likely position than Queen-Jack tight. Please check before you start throwing tomatoes at us. If you have never thought about this suit combination, it is unlikely that you will find the right play at the table… or you could, but at the cost of a big effort that won’t help focusing on the next deal.

A champion has this information stored in his database. He has also stored that, before deciding how to play a suit, we still check other things: are there enough entries, is there a possible shortage in the opposing hands that we could know from the auction or the first cards played (for example if East showed five cards and West three in the opening suit, this could be enough to change everything), an inference from the bids… And then a champion has other things in his database: the behaviour of opponents, depending on their level, among other things. When he plays a small card from dummy towards the 8, if he thinks that East would not be capable of playing small from QJx in the suit, then he will give up on the best theoretical play and cash the Ace before playing twice towards King-10-9.

Thus, for each deal, a champion identifies in his database similar situations to which a certain number of techniques and information are linked. Sometimes we even get the impression that he knows the deal! The need to build this database has long led us to believe that we could not become a great champion until we reach a certain age. There are now counter-examples such as the Polish Klukowski, two-times world champion at 19. The diffusion of knowledge through the Internet and the ease of online play are two plausible explanations.

How to build this database efficiently? This is the object of our second piece of advice:

Build your personal database by reading bridge books and magazines, by training daily with exercises, by playing against players who are stronger than you, by watching the big championships live on BBO, especially when they are well commented, and — why not — with the help of a coach: an expert with whom you can review and discuss the deals you have played.

The program

The map to the left, the database to the right. Now you have to make the most of it. The brain is our processor, it is up to us to make it run the right program. A program is a series of instructions, with switches in some places: if… then….

Your bridge teachers have taught you the program.

Remember your lessons on the play of cards, for example, at No-Trump:

1 Count your direct winners.
2 Identify the sources of additional tricks (honors or long suits).
3 Analyze the bidding sequence and the opening lead (which amounts to filling in as much as possible on your mental map of the playing field).

At this stage, the program has made it possible to reach a diagnosis.

4 Make a game plan (by searching the database for similar situations for which we have information).
5 Call the first card from the dummy.

The process is iterative: with each trick, we learn something, the diagnosis is adjusted accordingly and we start again…

The more the program has access to an accurate map and a complete and well-structured database, the more efficient and rapid its implementation will be. It is the interaction between all these elements that is the key to success.

In bridge, you learn from your mistakes. Each of them can be seen as an opportunity to make progress:

  • Was the mental map complete? What clues did I miss? Did my “program” forget to consult the map at a decisive moment?
  • Let’s store (in the right place) in our database what happened. This will help us avoid repeating this error next time.

Learning bridge is demanding and exciting. And here is our third and final piece of advice: ask yourself, throughout your playing career, about your motivations. Are you stagnating? Your results are not improving? Is it because you are not (or no longer) willing to do the necessary work to improve further? If that’s the case, don’t throw yourself into the river, there’s nothing wrong. But then adjust your expectations. Bridge has this magic that it can be very enjoyable at any level.