Thursday, May 28, 2009

First Among Equals

Bridge conversations amongst experts are rarely ever balanced. Balanced in the sense of two people interacting, sharing ideas, constructively criticizing each other's opinions and being open to revising one's own ideas.

These conversations instead consist of the players stating their own point of view, reinforcing their own prejudices, paying attention to the other person's argument with the aim primarily of butting in at the right moment with something like "There is something to that but what if..."

Why is it ? Why can't we hold a civilized discussion instead ? Why can't we learn from others ?

The standard response to this would be that such players have too much ego or that they are insecure or that they are incapable of changing.

I believe that bridge is not a game of logic. The winning philosophy is not one that can be argued using pure logic. Logic is overrated.

The player receives information through the prism of his playing experience, his analysis of his experience, his perception of his experience, he literature he peruses, the opinions of others he respected in the past, the habits of his peers. He distills all these inputs into his own crystallized form of the game, his own little logical setup.

This setup consists of his so-called bidding philosophy, principles and habits.
Any succesful player needs this crystallization, else the self-doubt eats up on one's energy reserves in a competitive domain. There is so much ambiguity in the game and so much subtlety.. Unless one has something solid to fall back on for the big chunk of it, it is very easy to get lost in the maze. This feeling of certainty, of knowing the way to play the game, is a confidence enhancer. It is not the real truth, and on a subconscious plane we understand that it is not the truth but it is a crutch we need to get by. A precious crutch.

A so-called bridge conversation is never about one's philosophy. That is too precious to expose to the outside world. However, if we do respect the other person, then the conversation becomes one of the inputs into the prism of our identity and may indeed one day lead to a change in our thoughts.

Reminds me of a deleted scene from Pulp Fiction
Mia : Do you listen or do you wait to talk ?
Vince : I have to say I wait to talk but I am trying very hard to learn to listen


  1. I tend to disagree with your conclusion, although not the observation. Bridge is a game of imperfect information. As such you are not evaluating a single bid or play on a given hand, but instead the algorithm used to determine the bid or play, over all possbible hands. Bidding in particular is difficult to assess, since many problems are not merely an evaluation of all possible bids for a given hand (or all possible hands for a given bid, or sequence of bids), but the optimal meanings of the bids themselves. This problem is so huge its impossible for anyone to assess all possible meanings. Yet, human beings are information processing machines. We observe, and create heuristics, and use the heuristics to guide us. Some people are much better at this than others, and thus create better heuristics. Having said all this, most of us, who actually care about "the truth" are capable of rigorous analysis of these heuristscs. In some cases, its really hard to tell the difference between two sets of heuristics, even if they are quite different. Often, one just has more variance than another. Or performs better against a certain type of player (or there are game theory aspects that the opps strategy effects what you should do and so on). Further. unless you do systematic studies, you are subject to all the standard problems that behavioral economics talks about (availability bias and so on). Some results are just more salient in your memory. I had one partner, playing a very swingy method with me, complain about the method after a spingold match and insist we change it, becuase of 1 bad result and 2 guesses we had because of it (that we got right) in a spingold match. Meanwhile, we actually gained imps 5 of 10 times the bid came up with only 2 losses, and a big net gain because the opps had even more difficult guesses. I can understand not wanting to play something because your temporment does not like the random swings. Thats fine. But the human temperment to focus only on the results where YOU had the difficult decision and had difficulty making it, well thats just a departure from rationality.

    Many people just dont care. They are not interested in optimal performence. Often they are just interested in removing blame from themselves. Others truely take a scientific approach, and truly can be convinced by logical arguments, large simulations with appropriate assumptions, and so on. Lets hope logic wins out, and bridge knowledge improves over time, as most forms of knowledge improve.

  2. Thats a great post Josh.
    Intend to respond to your points and will aim to do it (relatively) soon :)

  3. Sartaj raises some interesting points, but I think his post might emphasise the idea that "bridge is not a game of logic" more than he actually believes.

    I'd rephrase the idea slightly - I think many players suffer because their logical framework (or "prism") becomes biased and inflexible. This makes a meaningful exchange of ideas impossible.

    As Josh points out, the non-deterministic nature of bridge doesn't rule out logic altogether. It just means we need to dig deeper in our analysis and then work hard to integrate the new ideas into our thought process at the table.

  4. I realise that I'm coming in on this kind of late. I agree and disagree with your point about uncivilised conversastions. Bridge may be a game of imperfect knowledge, and therefore uncertainty, but uncertainty isn't the same as equivocation. If you are sitting at the table and let doubts surface (maybe this isn't the right bid/maybe someone will laugh at me/I'm playing for a very unlikely layout (a priori)/ etc.) then you will play boring, stolid bridge and good players will crucify you. You must be certain of yourself.

    The reason for the lack of civilised conversations is that players keep this attitude even when away from the table. When I have a tough decision and am thinking of doing something non-standard - especially when I'm doing well in an event - I think 'I know that this is not what others would recommend, but others are doing worse than me so what do they know?'. It may be arrogant; it may (or may not - I haven't been playing for long enough to know) also be necessary.

    I'm sure you'll all disagree - but then that's the nature of bridge players.