Saturday, April 4, 2009

Struggling for Objectivity : Attachment

A very valuable skill in bridge is the capacity to be objective at the key moment.

Identifying the moment is the first step. This is not easy and many contracts are misplayed or misdefended by a lack of appreciation of the importance of the very next card. The stronger the player, the more adept they seem to be in identifying the time to stop and think.

Say we appreciate the moment and the depth of the situation is well within our concept. Ideally, a thoughtful, strong player would assess the evidence, examine the likely outcomes and then choose an approach that optimises his result. At the table, however, this is not how it always plays out.

Lets look at one of the causes for failure in this domain. Attachment.
Here’s a hand that I found myself defending in the Yeh Cup (Round 2 of the Swiss)

As West, I led the 3 of hearts (3rd/5th) to the nine – ten – Ace. Declarer played C6 at trick 2. I rose CA (partner played the 3, reverse count) and stopped to think.

It appears that declarer has either the singleton heart Ace or Ace third. At some early point in the thought process, don’t know exactly when, I decided that declarer’s hearts were Axx.

The rest of the thought went something along the lines of..
“That gives partner J10 doubleton heart, which fits in with his trick 1 play. If declarer had the singleton Ace of hearts, partner would have played the 2 of hearts, reverse count, as he knows for sure that the ace is stiff. So, yes, while on surface, I have a guess between the two heart layouts, I should trust partner and go for giving him the heart ruff.”

Developing this piece of analysis, I decided to try and create a layout which fit in with my conclusion. After some more thought, I came up with …

Yes, that fits in with the requirements, declarer can’t play trumps from hand. That would explain the need to cross to a club.

At this point, I was feeling very objective, very rational, very clear. All the good feelings one has on one’s good hands. So I continued a heart as declarer pitched two diamonds.

Right as I played the heart, the tension of the moment was broken and I saw the flaw in my assumption. From partner's point of view, I may have led a singleton so he was possibly making the natural play from JTxx.

And later thought reveals that the layout I created doesn't fit with the facts. If the diagrammed layout above existed, then declarer would win the HK in dummy at trick 1 and play a spade.


Superficially, I conducted a survey of the evidence, evaluated my options, came up with a solution and checked its validity. In truth, a weighted agenda was in operation. The J10 doubleton layout was non-traditional, the element of trusting partner’s play gave the idea a romantic twist and the validity check was hasty and erroneous.

It was more a case of wanting to believe in something, and then doctoring the evidence to go along with it than an honest search for objective truth. That is what I’ve termed attachment.

Attachment, however, is a practical reality for a bridge player. It is impossible for us to be number-crunching machines with no biases from our general attitude to life, our partnership history, our temperament and a host of other things.

What we can work on, however, is self-awareness. Our awareness of our biases can aid the pursuit of objectivity.

GM Jonathan Rowson again comments on the difference in attitude between weaker and stronger players in chess. Weaker players come up with a hypothesis and then seek to justify it by calculating variations that prove it right; the stronger players try to falsify the hypothesis by attempting to prove it wrong.

If you've grappled with similar issues or have some thoughts on the matter, please feel free to comment.

Still to come...What was the full hand and what happened ?


  1. I asked my bridge partner Martin Bloom once: "When you stop to think, what do you think about - one thing, that is the thing you were trying to work out, or lots of things?" When he replied that he thought about one thing, I suggested that he have a checklist to run through each time (each Pass or Bid, each play made) to see if it fits with the solution he has found. Unlike chess, at bridge I think there are less variations to work through, especially early in the play, so perhaps this is a useful thought.

  2. Great! Like the mind-provoking chess references.

  3. the following may or may not be relevant to readers of this blog-- there may be parallels in others' professions:
    the issue of attachment confronts me on a daily basis in my work as a pathologist. one looks at a slide and it looks, --to give a random example-- like a melanoma. then, already biassed, one looks further, but selectively (?euphemism: algorithmically)within that slide for supportive evidence that it is indeed a melanoma -- atypical cells, Pagetoid scatter, and mitotic figures--these findings are not good news for the patient, but nonetheless impart to the pathologist a comforting sense of ego-satisfaction that one's initial impression was correct -- attachment/pride. The above is an extremely dangerous approach. With experience you hopefully learn that rather than adjusting diagnostic criteria to fit with your initial gut impression, u have to continually re-look at slides with the eyes of a child--- just in case there aren't some petrified cells down there screaming: "wait a minute u idiot!! u've got it wrong!!! before u brutally cut us out-- listen up!! -- we're not melanoma, we are benign!" (or vice versa, u initially think something is benign and its actually not, or even when u think it's x but it's y ). Even after arriving at a carefully considered diagnosis, the phone can ring, you are told by a clinician that your diagnosis might be wrong. the case may subsequently be reviewed and challenged by other pathologists. At this juncture, an open-minded revisitation of the visual image is the only way to learn. This experience is better perceived as a fortuitous second chance, rather than an assault on one's intellectual integrity. NOT being attached is essential to scientific objectivity and learning. this approach of continual detached revisitation would appear to obtain to bridge as well, though most players, myself included, find it quite difficult to master.