Squeezing The Dummy

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Promoting Bridge

It's no secret that in North America the game of bridge is effectively dying. The average age of ACBL members keeps rising and you see less and less young faces at tournaments. As well as promoting the game to retired people with lots of free time, efforts need to be made to get younger people interested in bridge. In order to understand how to go about this, two key questions need to be asked.

First, what will attract teenagers to the game? As a teenager myself, if someone were to tell me that bridge is great for the mind and a very interesting game, I wouldn't have any desire to learn the game.

I would be interested in the great rivalry between USA and Italy, the huge money that professionals are making, big prize money tournaments like the Cavendish, and the great party atmosphere at night during tournaments. Though these things have nothing to do with the game itself, they are interesting and would make me want to become a part of the bridge scene. To do this, obviously I'd have to learn the game.

There was a great poker movie made in 1998, Rounders, starring Matt Damon. To watch this movie and enjoy it, you would literally need no knowledge of how to play poker. The movie was a hit, and many college kids started playing as a result. The natural reaction to being captivated by a movie about poker is to actually go out and learn how to play. Of the people who do that, some percentage will keep playing for the rest of their lives. The point is not to market the game, but to market the drama and atmosphere that surrounds the game.

Imagine a movie about a young bridge professional trying to make it in a highly competitive world. He falls into the trap of drugs and drinking during the wee hours of the night during regionals and nationals and hits rock bottom. At some point, he rises above all of this to greatness. At the climax he's playing his nemesis, the antagonist who has stolen clients from him and bad mouthed him throughout the movie. He pauses when the player leads away from an ace and he must guess the contract to win the match and the tournament. He finally guesses, and wins tens of thousands of dollars as well as the respect of everyone. It may sound silly, but you wouldn't need to know how to play bridge to watch this movie and many would enjoy it.

Some mainstream media effort could easily be made to create an influx of juniors to the ACBL. A movie, a documentary, articles in widely read magazines about the life of a young bridge player, a TV show with a main character that is a bridge player, even a reality TV show. Trying to put an actual bridge game on TV will never achieve great success, but making the bridge world and the atmosphere a part of some bigger picture could.

The ACBL, with it's site "Bridge Is Cool," has failed miserably at understanding what will appeal to a teenage audience.

We also must wonder, what existing markets can we tap into that include young people? There are certainly some people we can advertise the game itself to. It's obvious that the millions of teenagers that play spades, a trick taking game similar to bridge, are such an easy market to attract to bridge. They devote some time to playing card games, they already understand the basic rules of bridge, and they are willing to spend some time to learn a game. As I write this there are almost 7,000 people playing spades on Yahoo. Most are teenagers. Why are we not actively trying to get these people to play bridge? It makes absolutely no sense.

Other board games, card games, and strategy games have young players who would be quite interested in learning the king of all card games. We need to make a site that we can direct those people to, and somehow make the site available to them. That was probably the goal of Bridge Is Cool, but something more appealing to this type of person is needed. The more times that prize money and huge amounts of strategy are mentioned the better.

The other market is school kids, particularly those in advanced math classes. By junior high it's too late, there are so many other interests that bridge will not be a priority. I think the ACBL is already doing a great job in teaching bridge at elementary schools so I won't expound.

In order to save the game of bridge, those in power need to understand the new generation. As a member of said generation, I will tell you with confidence that Bridge Is Cool will not appeal to ANYONE. A new game plan needs to be drawn up before it's too late.


Friday, April 28, 2006

Money Bridge Review

Bridge Base Online has recently started offering a format that enables its users to play bridge for real money. This is like a dream come true for me. I missed the days when money bridge was popular, and unless you live in New York, Chicago, or London it's tough to find any club that offers any kind of rubber bridge. Even if you do, they won't be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The ability to play long sessions of bridge for money will not only satisfy my gambling needs, it will make me into a better player. All of this is great, but what about cheating?

BBO found a brilliant way to circumvent any kind of possible collusion or cheating. Instead of playing with a human partner, you play with a GIB robot against a human and another GIB. Kibitzers are also disallowed. Not only does this make it impossible to cheat, it is also very fair. Regardless of the mistakes GIB makes, long term it will average out. So if you are better than your opponent by a margin greater than the rake, you will profit.

Despite some (inevitable) complaints, GIB really plays pretty decently. Once the best computer program in the world, it is still in the top 3. Of the opponents I've faced for money so far, GIB was probably better than half. His declarer play is superb but his bidding and signaling are erratic. There are 3 speed settings and the slower he plays the better he plays. Unfortunately, the slowest setting is painfully slow. I prefer to play with GIB set to medium speed. You will never misunderstand a bid GIB makes because you can click on whatever he bids to see what it means. Figuring out GIB's strange tendencies and what bids trigger it to do costly things will be a huge part of being successful. Potentially you could do better than a player more skilled than yourself if you handle GIB better. This is true in live money bridge as well; handling partner is a very necessary skill.

If you like action, you will like the format. It is scored in total points with seating and vulnerability assigned randomly at the beginning of each hand. Basically, there is massive variance. I have already experienced swings of plus and minus 12,000 points. As the saying goes, the next best thing to gambling and winning is gambling and losing. Do not be disillusioned; if you are a winning player you will profit long term.

I do have a few gripes. Mainly, the maximum stakes to play for right now are a penny a point. Eventually, I hope to see this maximum get higher and higher, maybe to as much as 20 times that number. Since it's still in it's infancy, I can understand keeping the stakes small for now. Also the rake, though they cut it in half from its original cost, is still relatively expensive. They rake 5 points a hand per person unless the board is passed out. They also charge you a percentage of your deposit to pay PayPal. I hope if the stakes get higher, they will rake less proportionately for the bigger games. Perhaps 3 points a hand for a 5 cent game.

Besides those two complaints, I am very excited and happy with online money bridge. The potential is endless. Currently BBO is testing money bridge tournaments complete with a leader board and everything. I have a feeling those will be extremely popular. I encourage everyone to try it out unless you are in a state that classifies bridge as a game of chance. In that case, money bridge is illegal in your state, and you should write your congressman letting him know how stupid that is.

Keep in mind if you're playing against someone who you feel plays well you should quit. Many good players are playing under aliases (including me). It's always fine to just leave and play against someone else who is worse.


Thursday, April 27, 2006

What Could Have Been....

The spring nationals were held recently in my hometown, Dallas. I had high hopes for the tournament given my home field advantage. The event that I really wanted to do well in was the main event, the Vanderbilt.

The Vanderbilt is a knockout held at every spring NABC that attracts the best teams in the world. It is thought by many to be a tougher event than the Bermuda Bowl mainly because of the depth of the field. Just making it into the round of 8 is a huge achievement. You need a good team to do well, obviously, but I felt that my team was particularly dangerous and capable of multiple upsets. I was playing with my father as well as John Kranyak, Melanie Tucker, Agustin Madala, and Guido Ferarro. Half of our team was made up of juniors, and also included an Italian world champion and 2 national champions.

As the 27 seed, we got a bye into the round of 64. Our whole team played well and we were able to defeat a team that included Barry Rigal and Jeff Aker along with some tough Israelis. In the round of 32 we drew the 6 seed. Their team was Steve Robinson, Peter Boyd, Kit Woolsey, and Fred Stewart. This was a great team but I really felt like we had a shot.

After the first 32 boards, we trailed by 1 imp. The third quarter was a disaster, and we lost about 50 imps. Our opponents were flawless, and the amazingly aggressive preempting style that Woolsey and Stewart are known for was really paying off in the other room. They put our teammates into some impossible positions.

Now the question, what is your strategy going to be down 50 imps to such a great team with 16 boards to play? Our team talked about it, and the general consensus was just to play normal bridge and to pick our spots. Nothing crazy because that usually leads to digging yourself into a bigger hole.

The first board out we bid a non vulnerable 3N with 23 high cards and made it with no play. The second board was uneventful. Then the critical third board...

I picked up AQ AKT62 AJT963 -- with everyone vulnerable. My first thought was that this was a great hand to hold when you need a swing. There was certain to be fireworks on this board. I opened 1 which just showed 16+ points. LHO, Kit Woolsey, bid 3. So far every single time we had opened a strong club, Woolsey or Stewart had bid. Partner Xed which showed a game force with no good suit to bid. I bid 3 and partner bid 3N. The implication here was that his clubs were not great; probably not a double stopper or he would have bid 3N directly. What should I bid now?

The correct technical bid is probably 5, showing this shape and telling partner to pick a slam. I decided to hedge with 4 to keep the auction low. Partner could now show real diamond support, suggest a major to play with 4, or perhaps retreat to 4N. He bid 4 and I decided to take a shot on 7. If it was on a hook, I wanted to be there. I felt that if we were to come back from this deficit we would need a little luck. A grand between 40-60 % would be just the luck we were hoping for. Besides, it may be cold.

LHO led a very quick A and I found myself in 7 with:

J942 QJ K87 Q932
AQ AKT62 AJT963 --

I have caught a minimum but very suitable red suit holdings. What are your thoughts, would you like to be in 7 if you were me?

I was very happy with this dummy and my contract. I thought Boyd and Robinson would play in 6, so we had a chance to pick up some much needed imps. There was still the matter of making this though.
I ruffed the club and played the jack of diamonds to the king (you never know) and led a diamond. RHO followed.

This was a very tough decision. Clearly RHO rated to have Qxx of diamonds given LHO's length in clubs, but if he did I would need a spade finesse as well. If diamonds were 2-2 I could simply pitch the spades from dummy and ruff a spade. I decided LHO would bid 3 with any hand that contained AK sixth. He could have 7, but not 7-4, and he could have the spade king. RHO also would not raise frequently with 3 from what I had seen. If LHO was 2326, 3226, 2227, 4126, or an unlikely 1426, I would need to go up. If he had 3316, 4216, 2416, 3217 or 2317 without the spade king I would need to hook. Overall, it looked like going up was the percentage play. Unfortunately RHO had Qxx of diamonds and the spade king. The rest of the match had some exciting deals but we never had much of a chance after this board.

The funny thing is, at the other table they were in four hearts! No one criticized my play, but my bidding came very much under attack. I contended that I had no way of knowing that a top pair would play in game, and that if I had made this the momentum would have been with us. I thought it was right to take a chance on a hand like this, and that bidding 6 was not the way to win the match. Even though this was a gamble, it was by no means a crazy contract. We ended up gaining 10 imps or so for the set, but losing the match. Our opponents went on to win the next day.

Reflecting on it, I still would like to be in 7 diamonds on this hand unless I knew my counterparts would be in game.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

How To: Improve Your Game

The most frequent question I am asked is, "What can I do to improve my game?" The truth is it's a lot of hard work. As in most areas of life, there are many more people who desire to become better than people willing to put in the work to achieve it. For those still interested, here is a guide to improving your bridge game no matter what level you are currently at.

Step 1: Play many, many, many hands. This cannot be underestimated. The more hands you see and experience you get, the better you will become without even doing anything else. While you are playing these hands, count. Count points, count shape, count winners, count losers, count everything. Form a picture of the hand, and change it with each trick that goes by until you know every card. The more you do this the more natural it will feel. Honestly, it is impossible to play good bridge without counting. Online bridge is great for this purpose.

Step 2: Evaluate. After each session you will need to objectively evaluate how you played. What boards did you lose imps on? Why did you lose imps on those boards? Could you have done anything or were you unlucky? This will be a very hard process, because you will realize that you suck. In reality, we all suck, and we just strive to suck less. After you go over the hands with yourself enough, you are going to find certain weaknesses in your game. Right now I feel like I give up the most on opening leads. I am getting into computer simulation, and forcing myself to take more time with leads. Leads are obviously not an exact science, but I'm sure I could do better. Whatever your weaknesses are that are causing you to drop imps, figure them out and don't feel embarrassed.

Step 3: Plug your leaks. You know what your weaknesses are, so fix them. This will not happen overnight. The main thing to do here is read. If your cardplay in suit contracts is a big weakness, read any declarer play problem you can find in a book or message forum that has a trump suit. Try to work it out. Really try, don't just think for a minute and then look at the answer. The other thing to do is to think. Really think about certain problems that you get wrong, like 5 level decisions. If you don't bid 5 over 5 enough, what is wrong with your evaluation? Perhaps you don't realize the power of a void in the opponents suit. Sometimes the problem is mental, and you have to fix it mentally. If you are unable to do this on your own, discuss hands with better players. Sometimes hearing their thinking process will make it clear to you what the error in your thinking was.

Step 4: So, you're now capable of analyzing every hand and not doing anything stupid. Sometimes you still do though, why? Once your game is at this level and you are technically proficient, you need to work on your head. Bridge is a mental game, and you need to be at your best all the time. Many capable players play poorly because they have problems focusing and concentrating. Sometimes they don't get enough sleep, or play distracted. Sometimes they can't get over a bad result and do something stupid after that. Don't fall into these traps. Figure out how to get your mind right, and what the best conditions are for you to be able to focus and give it everything you have. Again, this requires introspection to figure out what's going on. Only you can know, and only you can fix it.

Repeat. I guarantee if you go through these cycles many times and swallow your pride and ego and really work hard at doing these things, you will find tremendous improvements. I still go through this cycle routinely, and hopefully I always will. Nobody is too good to improve.

Sound like hard work? I'm exhausted just writing about it.


Tuesday, April 25, 2006


Psyching. The word alone carries such a stigma in the bridge world that most are too scared to ever try it. Those who do are often shunned and ostracized. Still, psyches and tactical bids are a big part of the game and are perfectly legal and often very effective.

If your opponents know that psyches are in your arsenal, they will often suspect that you have done it even when you've just bid normally. Even if they're not sure, there will be doubt in their minds. Having that reputation is more valuable than anything you will ever gain from your actual psyches.

I psyche in real life about twice a year (if you do not include light openers in third seat or light overcalls which are done systemically and marked on my convention card) and that is about two more times a year than most people! The fact that psychic bidding is so rare adds to the effectiveness; even most experts have little experience dealing with it and don't design their systems to cope with it.

Psyches may seem like random bids but there is certainly a logical reason behind every good psychic bid. Typically you will want to satisfy all of these criteria before considering a psyche:

  • Have a limited partner. You don't want to open 1N with 0 points in first seat; partner may jump to 6. Partner will need to have limited his hand in some way to make sure that things don't get completely out of control.
  • Have a suit to run to. Ideally you will have a fit for partner or a long suit of your own. Also ideally, this suit will be higher ranking than the one you're psyching so that if you have to run after getting doubled when partner raises you can at least stay at the same level.
  • An understanding partner! Psyches will not always work out and are high variance actions. If you are playing with a partner who will get very upset by a psyche gone badly, you're better off not even trying it.

Let's look at some examples where a psyche or tactical bid is most often employed. Some of these bids are known as "baby psyches" because they are so easily unmasked.

Third Seat

Most psyches are done in third seat. This is because partner has limited his hand with a pass and if you are very weak you already know the opponents can make a game (or more). Sometimes throwing up a smoke screen will deflect them from their path.

A third seat 1N is the most common psyche. Let's say you had x xx JTxxxxx Qxx and were not vulnerable with 2 passes to us. Instead of the normal 3 bid you may mix it up with a 1N opener. This is especially true if the opponents play one of the many common systems that don't allow for a penalty double, such as DONT. They will have no way to bid a strong balanced hand, or to show any hand as powerful as the one they probably have. If partner bids any kind of transfer or stayman, we will just pass (we're not doubled, and if we get doubled we can run to diamonds). Even if the opponents do have penalty doubles available, when we run what is forcing for them? What do doubles mean? Who has shown what strength? Even most expert partnerships won't know, so you will have achieved your goal of confusing them.

You may even try a 1 opener if you are really adventurous. It could work wonders if you pick off the opponents fit, but it is much more dangerous. Partner may well hang you if he has a good fit for spades, and you will be forced to run to 5 which could be disastrous.

A less common hand type for a 1N psyche is what I call a semi-bluff (taken from poker). Say you had xx xx AKJTxx Axx white/red in third seat. A 1N opener would have a number of ways to win. The opponents could be cold for 4 of a major or a major suit partial and miss it, and if partner bids 3N you may well make that with your trick source. Remember, the more imaginative the better because the opponents will not expect it.

When Partner Preempts

Most psyches that are not done in third seat are done after partner makes a preempt. Again, he has limited his hand and isn't going to go crazy no matter what you bid. Let's say partner opens 3 and you have xxxxxAxx QJxxx not vulnerable. If RHO passed, you may choose to bid 3N. This will work if the opponent's points are divided equally, in which case they will both pass. I do not recommend ever trying this psyche if RHO has Xed, it has no chance of success.

Again, you may try the more risky psyche of 3. This could pick off enemy fit and create mass confusion, but is more likely to lead to something bad happening. If you REALLY wanted to be tricky you may try jumping to 4 when partner opens 3 on a hand like xxxxx --- xxxxxxxx. Most people would treat a X of 4 as takeout (or just a strong balanced hand). LHO may really be put to a tough problem if he can't make a penalty X. The possibilities are endless.

Psychic, Cuebids, or Splinters

Psyching game tries, cuebids, and splinters are pretty well known tactics most notably employed by Zia. Say you had AKQxxx x xxx AKx. You open 1 and partner raises you to 2. Obviously you are going to 4, but you might try the effect of bidding 3 to deflect the lead. The same applies when you know you're going to jump to slam, but have a potentially dangerous lead possible. You might try cuebidding that suit first.

Hands to psyche a splinter are rare, but let's say you had AKQx --- xx AKxxxxx. You open 1 and partner surprises you by bidding 1. Although partner is not unlimited, you are going to take control of this auction. You may try splintering in diamonds and then asking for aces to try and get the heart lead.


If partner passes and RHO opens, you may still try a 1N or 1 of a major psyche. This will pretty much always get smoked out because LHO will always have a penalty double available, but it still creates problems. If LHO Xs and bids a new suit is it forcing, or does he need to jump? Can he make any takeout Xs? Even though they know you've psyched, it's not clear they know what to do about it.

One psyche I have made before is to psyche michaels when partner was a passed hand and RHO opened 1. The best hand type to do this with is long spades and short hearts. The opponents will never have a natural heart bid available, and you can correct hearts to spades. This is dangerous though; partner may keep correcting spades to hearts!

Also Ran...

The only other common psyche is when partner opens 1 of a minor and RHO either Xs or passes. With a big fit for the minor (7+ cards) and a very weak hand, you may try psyching your short major. I wouldn't recommend this though, because if partner raises you to game correcting back to his minor is a cuebid. Basically, partner isn't limited enough to make this psyche. Opposite a precision 1 opener, such a psyche is MUCH more attractive.

The key is creativity. Don't always make one of the psyches above, try and look for new opportunities where a psyche has a good chance of success. Keep in mind you cannot psyche any strong and artificial bids, like a strong club or game forcing stayman. Also, do not make the same psyche with the same partner in a short time period. That would create an implicit agreement. Everyone should be on fair playing ground, partner should have no more right to know that you may have psyched than the opponents. Everyone should have to figure it out on their own, using bridge logic. If you ever get to the point that you are underbidding because you know your partner tends to psyche 1N openers in third seat, you are fielding his psyche and are doing something illegal. You cannot field a psyche unless you can figure out from the auction that someone had to have psyched.

I don't recommend psyching at your local club game, or against weak players at a small tournament. The players there are mainly social players looking to have fun. If you are a seriously competitive player in one of those environments, you are a minority. It is perfectly legal to psyche but you will be ruining the fun of others, and for what gain? To win a club game that you probably would win even without psyching? Sadly, it took me a while to realize this. Against other competitive tournament players, or in a flight A regional or higher go ahead and psyche if you feel like it's right, and don't feel badly about it.

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