One of my all-time favourite books is Why You Lose at Bridge by S.J. “Skid” Simon. I’ve probably read it a dozen times; the last time (last week), it was after two decades of not playing any contract bridge, so I had to think about why I like it so much. Hence this post. Yes, I know this is meant to be a blog about information…. somewhere in my head, there is no contradiction :-)
First, about Skid. The day after tomorrow marks the 58th anniversary of his death, and I’d quite like to improve on the “stub” related to him in Wikipedia. I’ll do my bit over the next week or so; if anyone out there can improve on it, please do whatever you can.
There’s something peculiarly fascinating about contract bridge; I don’t mean the auction or traditional rubber bridge variety, this is about pairs or teams-of-four in duplicate or similar movements.
Why do I find it fascinating?
- There are open standards for communication. [Yes you can adapt and improve them, but only if you share the adaptation with the world at large].
- There are low barriers to entry to the game.
- When you communicate, you have to manage a very delicate balance between collaboration (with your partner, who may or may not be someone you know) and competition (your opponents).
- You can break with convention and use what is called a “psychic” bid, a hunch-based action; but you run the risk that it’s not just your opponents who get psyched, but your partner as well. You can buck convention, but there is a price to pay, and only occasionally it pays off.
- While there is a strong mathematical streak running through the process of bidding and play, a lot of it is about human interaction, about psychology. My father used to say you only need to know how to count up to thirteen, everything else is about people. It’s about people.
- There are enough combinations available for each deal, each hand, to be different. Throughout your life. It scales. And has variety and unpredictability.
I could go on, but won’t. What I will do instead is recommend you read Skid’s book. Here are a few excerpts:
From the inside front cover:
- You are the ordinary club player. You have a fair amount of playing ability, which you imagine is greater than it is. A smattering of all the more popular systems. And a pet system of your own (probably a variation of the “Two Club”) which you play whenever you manage to cut one of your favourite partners. Your bidding is adequate and your defence quite shocking. You have no ambition to become a master player, but you like winning. You do not keep accounts and tell everybody that you think you are about all square on the year. You lie and you know it.
From Chapter X: Fixed — by Palookas
- The title of this chapter is taken from an article….. the article described a rubber between two very clever experts and two honest palookas. Smacking their lips over the appetising meal offered to them, the two experts cut loose with an orgy of psychics that should have reduced their stupid opponents to a helpless bewilderment and fooled them out of all the good hands they kept on getting. But their stupid opponents were far too unimaginative to be fooled. They just looked at their cards and bid them stolidly. And as the rubber progressed and the experts took penalty after penalty, so their frenzy increased and their psychics grew wilder until they were fooling each other and ended up playing a lay-down Grand Slam in a part-score because each thought the other psychic. And the next hand they were too sulky to psyche any more, and the stolid palookas bid a stolid three No Trumps and made it, and won an enormous rubber. And the experts paid up and made no attempt to look pleasant.
The book is really in two parts, one about the mathematics and one about the psychology. The way Skid deals with common errors and misconceptions, how he focuses on simplicity and honesty, how he shows a better way, it is a real delight to read the book.
And his writing talent shows through; he was an accomplished comic novelist and (I believe) had his works (in collaboration with Caryl Brahms) adapted for the stage.
A bridge game is a small market. With conversations underpinned by open standards and conventions. Balancing a mix of collaboration and conversation. Rich in diversity, scaling across cultures, with low barriers to entry. Allowing a serendipitous view of mathematics and luck. Populated by experts and palookas and kibitzers.
Above all, it is social. In learning about bridge, we learn something about information and about ourselves.