On the completion of the auction, if an opponent asked you for a review of the auction, could you give one without hesitation or failure. If the answer is “Yes”, you are half-way toward acquiring bridge “table presence.” Well maybe 25%, because the next part (i.e. What does it all mean?) is certainly a much bigger leap. Those with table presence start the intelligence gathering process with the first action by the dealer. The process in some cases continues virtually to the end of the play. To limit the scope of the is post, I am going to focus mainly on gathering intelligence during the auction.
Let’s first define terminology: if we don’t know what table presence is, we have a slim chance of acquiring it. In a previous article I referred to the book “How the Expert’s Win at Bridge” by Bert hall and Lynn Rose-Hall. Here is what they have to say about table presence:
“People with table presence literally work out in some magical way what is going on at the table. They use inferences, deductive reasoning, and like any good poker player, they learn to read their opponents. Experts who acquire table presence concentrate on what’s going on, ask themselves the right questions, and use logic or deductive reasoning to figure out the hand and their opponents.”
The player’s that have the best table presence seem to be able to elevate the scope of their thought process, so that during the auction they appear to be thinking more about what inferences to take from the action by opponents than the problems presented by their own hand. All of us have kibitzed bridge games. Have you noticed how much easier it is to analyze the action when all you have to do is sit and watch? All of a sudden you are placing cards, values and distribution well ahead of the time that dummy is tabled. Mostly, this is because when we kibitz, we are not viewing the current deal as a problem of 13 cards, but rather 52 cards. But mystically, the ability to do this seems to disappear when we also have to manage one of the hands. This is the problem: we have to learn “to walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Albert Dormer, a noted European and British expert, in discussing table presence, said: “ We must constantly ask ourselves why the other players have done or not done what they might have done.” The reason that I included Dormer’s quotation is that it focuses not only on what other player’s have done, but more importantly on what they might have done and did not do. Every expert knows that a pass at the table gives away important information about the hand. We all process the significance of a previous pass by our partner in the auction, but the experienced player knows that often passes by opponents can be more telling than those by partner.
When I was in law school I was fortunate to enjoy the friendship of the top student in our class. Law school exams are famous for detailing intricate fact patterns, and then simply at the end asking you “discuss the legal issues.” Since I wasn’t really challenging my friend for the top spot, I simply asked him one day to tell me his secret to success with law school exams. He looked at me and said one word, “WHY?” He continued “Look at every word in the question in isolation and ask yourself why was that particular word used. His example was “Why is it a red car and not a black car?” This not only worked for me in law school exams, but I find this simple inquiry equally applicable to acquiring better table presence at bridge. The inferences that you take from asking the question “Why” are obviously important, but not half as important as the fact that you remembered to ask.
Example 1: You hold an opening hand (13 hcps). LHO deals and passes. What does that mean? He has less than 12 hpcs, he cannot preempt or make a weak 2 bid, so apparently he does not have an unbalanced hand. The remaining 27 hpcs are probably equally spread between opponents and partner. If that is the extent of your analysis that is good enough. You have limited LHO’s hand and have a start on hand distribution. Just hold onto your answer and see if it gives you guidance later in the deal.
Example 2: You are dealer, you make an opening 1 club bid. LHO passes! If he can’t muster a bid over 1 club in this day and age, you can mark him down as broke. He could not even make a lead directing overcall, so he probably does not have a decent 5 card suit. Look for partner and RHO to have the better hands. Hold onto that thought!
Example 3: Same as example 2, but LHO makes an overcall of 1 spade. At the one level he doesn’t need significant values to make this call, but mark him down for holding at least 5 spades and a suit that can take a lead by partner. Hold onto that thought!
Example 4: Your are dealer and make an opening 1 spade bid. LHO makes a 2 heart overcall. He has opening hand or compensating values, at least a 5+ card heart suit with some solid values in it, and his distribution must be 5332 or better. He has less than 17 hcps, or else he would have doubled and bid. Hold onto that thought!
Example 5: You are dealer and make an opening bid of 1 club. LHO makes a take out double. He has opening hand values and beyond that his hpcs are still unlimited. He probably has 2 or fewer clubs and relative balance in the other suits, maybe 4432. What he probably doesn’t have is a 5 card suit. Hold onto that thought!
These examples are very basic. Even a relative novice could give you the analysis given enough time. The problem is that you must think to ask the question, then make a simple analysis that you can remember, do so in the time allotted to you and finally apply the information gathered to your plan for the hand. It not easy and that is why so few people have “table presence.” On the other hand, if you do not ask the question “Why”, you are never going to make any progress.