Monday, November 3, 2008

The Road to Hell is Paved With Good Conventions

Do you own a copy of the bridge book 25 Conventions You Should Know (1999) by Barbara Seagram and Marc Smith? How About the 2003 Sequel 25 More Conventions You Should Know? I admit to owning both of them, as well as many others. I am proud to say that I can recite all 50 of them in alphabetical, ascending or descending order, and at the same time juggle 3 golf balls. I noticed too late that the title of the Seagram and Smith series was conventions you should “know”, they didn’t say anything about “playing” them. All of this assiduous application of talent failed to lead me to the real secret of winning bridge: understanding the importance of the “Secret Move.”

Now the “Secret Move” is not as secret as you might think. It origins have been lost in the convoluted development of the game of bridge, but certainly documented traces of it can be found as early as the year 2000. At the risk of incurring the wrath of the ABTA (American Bridge Teachers Association) I am going to put it on the internet for all my readers to view. In preparation for the secret move you need to gather together all of the convention cards that you currently use with partners, straighten out all the folded corners, put them neatly in a stack with the most complex at the top and…. Are you ready for this…..? (drum roll) the Secret Move is to put them all in the nearest trash can, preferably on garbage day so they cannot be retrieved when you get withdrawal symptoms.

Well that may be a little dramatic, but unless you are an expert (self proclaimed does not qualify) or are on the cusp of bridge greatness, your bridge game, the weekly results, your attitude and your enjoyment will definitely improve if you will only simplify your systems and conventions, so give some thought to the Secret Move! Like most everything else that appears on this blog, this is not original thought. I have some pretty good authority that agrees with me.

In a published interview in 2000, Eric Rodwell (49,649.59 master points) commenting on this subject, said:
“There is a lot to be said for just plain vanilla “bid-what-you-think-you- can- make” bridge. There are a lot of tactical advantages- not allowing opponents in, not giving them extra information, not giving them extra opportunities to overcall or double. All are big advantages of natural bidding, like 1NT-2NT-3NT. Just in general there are a lot of potential downsides to playing artificial conventions. The main ones are not having thought through the sequences thoroughly enough to see when you are benefiting and when they are necessary.”

In the August 2000 ACBL Bridge Bulletin Zeke Jabbour (29,498.72 master points) said:
“What methods you use do not matter. What matters is how well you use them. What systems you play doesn’t matter. What matters is how well you play it. The convention doesn’t matter. What matters is the agreement and how well you understand it. How complicated your methods are doesn’t matter. What matters is how comfortable you are with them.

In the February 2001 ACBL Bridge Bulletin Zia Mahmood (13,665 master points) said:
“It is very important to emphasize that except at the very highest levels it does not matter what you play. Sound bridge and good judgment are enough to win.”

In his October 2008 Newsletter. Larry Cohen (23,328.81 master points) said:
“I am a staunch advocate of “less is better.” My observation is that at every level of the game players are using too many conventions. Too often I see players (from beginner to world champion) misusing or forgetting their methods. Everyone would benefit if they would just KISS (Keep it Simple Stupid). If I had to choose 4 conventions, this would be my list: Stayman, Blackwood, Negative Doubles and Weak 2-Bids. If you made me chose 4 more, my list would include Jacoby Transfers, DONT over opponents Opening 1NT, Weak Jump Shifts in competition and 4th Suit forcing to game. I could live happily with those 8.”

Glen Ashton, a Canadian Bridge theorist and editor of Bridge Matters advised:
“Select methods that your partnership likes, understands, and remains comfortable with, methods that give your partnership confidence, non- complex methods that come up often and are mostly successful when they do. Methods that are easily practiced, remembered and used. In other words methods that help you play well and win.

Here I think is the litmus test. If your systems or conventions are causing you to be out of tempo, require that you review conventions and responses on the drive to the bridge club, are subjecting you to that familiar refrain from partner at the end of the auction “failure to alert” or are creating tension in what should be a wonderful afternoon of pleasure, then back off, apply the “Secret Move” and start all over with treatments, systems and conventions that you are very comfortable with. Also remember there is a difference between knowing conventions and subjecting yourself to the ultimate test of using them under fire.

If you have to make choices, focus on knowing how to describe your hand when there is competitive bidding and understanding the meaning of partner’s double. Today, there is an inverse relationship between opponent’s master points and competitive bidding, and if they are still enrolled in week 6 of the “Introduction to Duplicate” series, get your defensive shoes on, cause you ain’t going to play a hand. You will soon be on a first name basis with all of the Phil Helmuth’s of duplicate bridge. They are “all in” all of the time.

To bridge game directors, I would suggest a true test of duplicate bridge. Once a month limit your player’s to Larry Cohen’s top eight conventions, and let’s find out who can really bid and play the cards the best! Don’t be surprised if the names are familiar!


J. Larry Miles said...

Great article. I play yellow card anytime I can find someone who will. I have been reading your blog for a long time and rarely see comments. We are reading it and appreciate your efforts.
J. Larry Miles
(NY summer, AL winters.)

Kevin said...

But I wouldn't know what to do without Byzantine Blackwood and Inverted Psycho Suction! You can't take those away from me - you just can't!!!


I have to admit, complexity has never frightened me, though I recognize that some partners have better memories than others. I like playing things like splinters and Michaels cuebids as a way to find neat fits. But who the heck wants to remember DONT and Cappelletti and Brozel for the circumstance when someone happens to play one instead of the others...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great article! After having played competitive bridge on a relatively low level for a few years I developed into a serial convention pusher. Have therefore enthusiastically and gradually introduced these excellent (no irony!) conventions in the partnership with my wife. After too many mishaps and a decline in the enjoyment of the game, I have recently realised (oh the pain, the pain) that we need to embark on the road to simplicity. Proper card-play and hand-evaluation skills are so much more important. Remembered your article and reread -thanks for the inspiration to move on. Less is more. / Johan Uppsala Sweden