Bridge … Oh my!

Oh my, have they changed!

Forty years ago, I worked for American Express and the first generation front-end network we designed and programmed was finally on-line. We, the programmers, needed to be on-hand if anything went wrong. In the early weeks, there were calls in the middle of the night as well as calls to our desks during workdays to hurry and fix “crashes” that immobilized the business. In the office and with nothing else to do except “be on call,” we started playing Bridge during lunch. But with nothing else to do, those lunch breaks and bridge games got longer and longer as the computer system we babysat grew in reliability. Before long, we played more bridge, a lot more bridge, than wrote or fixed software.

The bidding system we followed had been described by Charles Goren in the late ’50s in his book, “Contract Bridge for Beginners.” Example hands and play were also shown in a regular television show from 1959 to 1964 that I remember watching and, on rainy days with other kids from the neighborhood, we tried to mimic what we had seen as we stumbled through the rudiments of Bridge along with other card games including Canasta, Hearts and, of course, Poker.

That TV show and Mr. Goren’s rigorous explanations included sample hands and bidding, as well as demonstrations of finesses and other strategies of play. Notable guests from the Bridge world made guest appearances including Chico Marx, well know to many as a member of the Marx Brothers but also an accomplished Bridge master.

Thus, we played “Goren Bridge” 8 hours a day, five days a week for many months.

Ultimately however, work reared its ugly head and our day-long bridge games came to an end. That was followed with forty more years of career, plenty of domestic and world-wide travel, two kids, two grandkids, paying down a mortgage and a lifetime of saving for retirement.

Then, on January 1st of this year, I retired.

Now what?

One of my very good friends, a co-worker at my last place of employment, shares many of my non-work interests. He sings, for example, with the symphony chorus. That’s an activity that’s always attracted me but, due to work and travel, I’ve never had time to start. In retirement now, it’s on my “to do” list.

Vic is also a big-time MasterPoint-earning Bridge player. He not only finishes quite well in the national tournaments, he also teaches Bridge locally and, a couple of times per year, on cruise ships. Also, his significant other – a master-level player herself – runs the tournament-level club in Scottsdale, the In Tempo Bridge Club.

So, three weeks ago I decided to drop in for their Monday evening “lesson and supervised play.”

It was a disaster!

In Goren’s system, bidders may open four-card suits and, on rare occasion when the cards are right, three-card majors. But in contemporary play today, this is simply not done. What I know of bidding is forty years out of date. The world has moved on.

Fortunately for me, during the lesson which preceded our practice hands, the teacher for that session, Richard, demonstrated some example bids from the “two over one” system used by most players in the US. (Most British players today use the ACOL system, it is also NOT good old Goren.)

I had no idea what he was doing.

In the supervised play that followed, I warned my newly-met partner of my near total ignorance. Luckily for me, he understood some of the bidding system I knew – it was the foundation upon which all systems since then have been built – and he reminded me that, during the bidding and play, I can raise my hand to summon help from the director. That evening, my hand was up a lot but, even with my partner’s toning down to my simplistic level and in spite of the director’s help and explanations, I still painted our partnership into several embarrassing corners. The only saving grace was, once we got to the play of cards, Aces are still high and trumps are still trumps.

At the end of the evening, my partner – the bleeding from my butchered bidding mostly scabbed over by this point – graciously offered he would have me as a partner again.

I now have a lot to learn.

The good news is there are lots of books and classes and teachers of “two over one” including my good friend, Vic. I know from our professional association with each other that Vic is a top-notch teacher. We’ve taught together from time to time and shared many secrets and strategies for the classroom. He is a skilled educator and I am supremely confident I will learn a lot from him. (His “two over one” class starts on the 18th. I’ll be there.)

The bad news, however, is that most of books and classes today are written by “experts” and, as Vic and I both know, they tend to write from memory of what to do rather than explaining, as beginners often need, the “why” of bidding and play.

In the limited study I’ve done in the past couple of weeks, I sometimes want to ask a book’s author,

“What is the reasoning behind opening an otherwise weak hand with a two-bid when I have fewer than 11 High Card Points and only one long, 6 or 7-card suit with few, if any, honors? Isn’t that incredibly dangerous?”

But, of course, the book doesn’t answer. Indeed, in most cases the expert authors will describe when and how to do this, but rarely the why.

I want to know why.

I’m an engineer and I know that, if I can understand why something is done, then it’s easier for me to remember when and how to do it.

What I then need to learn and do by rote memorization is simpler.

Then, during the game, everyone at the table is allowed to review each partnership’s list. And everyone is expected to know what the conventions mean. This is not the time to learn. This is the time to apply – you’re supposed to know all the conventions before sitting down at the table.

Oh my!

This is where books come in. The experts describe the conventions, by name, and provide examples of their use.

Reading a book should be sufficient to learning the conventions, right?

Well, no.

Compounding the matter, the system of rationalizations behind one convention are often predicated upon a convention applied earlier – they build on one another. A complete understanding, then, needs to know that sequence. “First, apply convention A and when this really unusual situation crops up, then you should probably use convention B.”

But each expert makes slightly different recommendations about when to apply each of those dozens of conventions. So, without a reasonably complete understanding of one author’s personal gumbo of conventions, readers are forced to figure out the compelling strategies, the reasoning behind a particular convention, on their own.

(And for Heaven’s sake, don’t try to read and compare two experts. Their reasoning of when to apply a given convention will vary and the specific method to apply a given convention may also vary. Holy cow!)

In my newly-discovered ignorance, it seems fair to assume that master-level players have a very large set of conventions upon which they call during a game and, paired with someone with a similar bag of tricks, they make powerful partners.

Beginners – I certainly count myself in that rank now – have a much more limited, perhaps severely so, repertoire of strategies. While we may bid and play a measurable percentage of hands in a not too embarrassing a manner, when faced with unusual hands or unusual competition, we will be lambs for the slaughter.

So be warned, partner, this could get ugly!

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