Friday, July 17, 2009

The psychological dynamic at bridge

In a recent online discussion,Khokan remarked
I reckon that the best of Australia’s top players are pretty close to the best in the world, but their worst is a lot worse, and the bad episodes happen more often (to them) than to world-class players.

In the same thread, he also commented
... I don’t believe there are three clear-cut picks to make the Australian Team – there are at least a dozen (pairs) that could perform creditably in world competition on their day ie make the quarters of a world championship.

I totally agree with him on these points. What is of interest is determining the reasons behind the inconsistency of australia's best at the world stage.And similarly the cause behind why those top-dozen Australian pairs dont have many of those golden days when they play at the level of world championship quarter-finalists.

Going by fundamentals, the solution is easy : Our top bunch has a sufficiently strong concept, but our delivery is inconsistent.

While there is an awareness about this assertion,unfortunately, not many seem to know what to do about it.

We continue (relatively) pointless discussions around merits/demerits of preemption, around four versus five card majors, around count versus attitude, around natural bidding versus relay. We continue to put in(relatively) pointless effort in improving our system, documenting our understandings. We continue to misguidedly attach our competitive ego to our concept.

What we need to focus on, for significant improvement is delivery. And, in the next few posts, I will try to understand, for my own benefit, what delivery is all about. Your thoughts are welcome.


  1. My 2 pennies on the topic of attaching our ego to our concept.
    Ego when not healthy gets in the way of top performance. But it is not only the concept which is hampered, it is the DELIVERY. Mainly, I believe that an oversized ego will become too attached to the outcomes of what we do. Winning becomes more important than playing. And when we focus more on the outcome and the desir to win during a game, we are not directing ALL our thoughts to the game at hand
    On a different slant, an oversized ego is harmful to best performance as it will will also prevent us from correctly assess our weaknesses – and if we do not assess, we cannot correct.

  2. I play with several partners, each with somewhat differing play and bidding styles. The ones I am most comfortable with are the ones who invest the time to keep thinking about and discussing bidding sequences and agreements, and autopsying playing efforts. To the extent that the goal is to be consistent in future events, that time isn't really being spent on "concept", it actually is being invested in "delivery". And to be honest, I don't what else to do about delivery except practice, at the table and away from it. I'm by no means world-class, but I have my moments, and I'd be delighted if someone has a great idea to make that time more effective.

  3. Combine Kokan's comment and you get to the root of the Australia - Pacific problem. The gulf between the 12 world class pairs and the rest is to great.

    In general terms, these 12 pairs play in 6 teams within national tournaments of 10-14 rounds. Sometimes followed by a brief knockout set of finals. So within the swiss they can expect roughly half their opponents to be at a level of serious competition.

    Within the knockout round of 16 again more then half will not be at a level of serious competition. The odd upset not withstanding due to the brief nature of the opening knockout rounds.

    No such luxury in the world class events, no easy rounds full stop. I'm yet to see recognition of this. For years I have read laments about how Australian teams failed to get the necesary results against the weaker teams.

    Delivery is achieved via training. A friend of mine does triathalons his squad moto is "train to race".

    In order to achieve this our top 12 need the opportunity to train for world championships. To do that you have to consistently play against the best and nothing but the best.

    For me this means taking them to Europe and the USA to participate in the big tournaments as many as possible within the calendar year.

    Probably not going to happen, so maybe select our team 18 months out and provide the core 3 or 4 pairs that opportunity to build the stamina necessary to play 2 full weeks of world class bridge, by sending them overseas.

    Reality check, that takes money. Sufficient to turn some of our players into professionals (paid to play). Well that's the case for the top world class teams and we need to aspire to that level.

    Plan B - Maybe restructure at least some of our nationals, to copy the big overseas tournaments. Teams are seeded and pooled within groups. Top teams qualifying out at the completion of a round robin. I think the same depth problems will exist.

    In truth we have to reduce the gap by improving more pairs to challenge the top 12. Increase their access to top level competion. Build the pool.

    So do we have sufficient opportunities for the improving player to advance in the game? i.e those with the desire to compete at the top of state and national play.

    Is their any plan to make that happen!

    Michael Phillips

  4. Sorry, I don't think our top pairs "are pretty close to any in the world". Nor do I think we have a dozen world-class pairs.

    I think we have between 0 and 2 world-class pairs. I come to this conclusion through a lot of watching of major events on BBO, compared to my direct experience in Australia against Australia's best pairs.

    It's not easy to determine the reason for this. My gut feeling is that to be world-class, you need to be a career tournament bridge player - i.e. have it as your occupation. And I'm not sure that any Australian is doing that. But I will be interested to read more of Sartaj's views.

    Cheers ... Bill

  5. Still trying to get my head around the delivery thing. For now, thought I would respond to some of the very valid comments in this thread.

    Catherine, Agree with what you say. My intention was to eventually propose that we should try to attach our competitive ego to our delivery. So that our aim is to play to the best of our potential, instead of aiming to get everything right.

    Richard, It appears that you are focussing in your partnerships on concept. I intend to develop my thoughts on this subject to a point where we can work out how to improve our delivery. Right now, even I dont have (that much of) a clue !

    Michael, Agree with you that the deeper the field, the better it is for everyone concerned.
    I think the way to achieve that is for unfancied pairs to make the effort personally and in their partnerships. Ewart-Howe are a great example of a pair that made that effort and became regular contenders at the nationals a couple of years ago. And similarly the Canberra team.

    Bill, On their better days, I would say that bunch are capable of being world class. How else do we explain two Oz teams making the cut in the Bowl in the last 8 years, and one team losing the PABF on the last board.
    I do not contend that these pairs are world-class. We lack the consistency to earn that label. And that is why we need a renewed emphasis on understanding the reasons for it.

  6. Well, you can start, and maybe end, with the bidding.

    I started subscribing to the American Bridge World magazine in the 1970's. They have continually run Challenge the Champs: 10 hands to bid, a score up to 10 on each hand - 100 points available.

    In the 1970's most pairs playing CTC scored in the 50s - sometimes the 60s, sometimes the 40s.

    Nowadays, scores in the 80s are routine. The hands are no more or less difficult, but the bidding has improved over the decades.

    The bidding of the top Australian pairs has, however, not kept pace. My contention that we are currently outclassed, based on observation, relates primarily to inferior bidding systems and agreements.

  7. The crux of my position earlier was train/play against the best, as a means of improving your own performance. i.e "get match fit"

    After realising the difficulties in getting international fitness into our top aussie partnerships (cost/convenience). My mind drifted to BBO.

    Now I just read Richard comment to the Dark Side post: "Against stronger opposition, you don't get so much feedback, but against weaker opponents, you read them (their body language etc) as much as their cards. That is completely absent from online bridge."

    Hmmm, working in the absence of physical tells seems a good training ground for international play to me. Screens in use throughout, the physical tells should be less.

    In fact I might even go as far as to say the over abundance of physical tells in the Australian games would work against our own international players.

    So as part of your training to improve your delivery, you might wish to consider playing quality international opposition over a suitable number of boards (20+) on BBO.

    I've also been thinking of Bridge Super League. Increasing the player pool by a few teams from NZ, Indonesia, Singapore and other favoured Asian countries.

    Perhaps this league could be run across BBO. Nothing on the line but personal pride and the odd side bet :P

    Michael Phillips

  8. A question: do the top pairs use coaches/trainers? Or do they act as their own coaches? It occurred to me that coaches are used all the time in major sports. Even chess grandmasters have people to help them analyze games.

  9. Some of very top teams have coaches. My impression though is that only the Dutch coach (es) play an active role in technical and psychological development. The key responsibility for the other high-level coaches is an appraisal of the peculiarities of various opponents.

    Some aspiring teams do hire coaches like Kokish or Balicki with varying results, including some notably big successes (Russian womens' team).

  10. My thought, of course, was that one way to mitigate the ego-involvement is to get an outside opinion.

  11. I don't buy the "capable of being world class" stuff at all.

    Go down to your local park next weekend and you'll see some guy playing amateur footy (pick your favourite code) do a few things that would make a professional proud. Are these guys capable of being world class? 99.999% not. Maybe another 9 on the end.

    Having a world class moment doesn't get close to indicating that you can perform at a world class level.

    To be world class you have to execute a very broad range of skills to an extremely high level with exceptional frequency.

    You can't separate your ability to execute a skill from your awareness of the skill. Almost nobody has the ability the execute at the level required. You can improve through training, but a crucial determinant is how much you are prepared to suffer to be world class.

    The local amateur footy player does a couple of cool things, and he is satisfied. He trains, he practices, he works out, but he is satisfied at his level. The typical strong bridge player (anywhere in the world) does the same thing. We are NOT world class primarily because we are not prepared to suffer enough to become world class.

    You think this doesn't mean you?

    There are all sorts of studies of elite athletes trying to figure out what physical properties set them apart. In the end, it turns out that all sizes and shapes can be athletically elite. Far and away the most in-common characteristic of elite athletes is their willingness to suffer that little bit more to become that little bit better.

    Am I willing to suffer? Only to a certain extent. At the moment, not to the level required to be world class. So I have world class moments, and other moments, and I am ... mostly ... satisfied.

    Telling ourselves that we are capable of being world class is just classic amateur mental gymnastics to help ourselves be satisfied with our (lower) performance level.