When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. ~ 1 Corinthians 13:11
You know things have taken a turn for the bizarre when I start quoting Biblical aphorisms. Still hurtling through the air, approximately 30,000 feet above New Mexico those were the words that popped into my head.
Before I continue I feel I should note that I refuse to completely put aside childish things. I recently got a “Recommended for You” e-mail list from Amazon that was made up in it’s entirety of bridge books and SpongeBob SquarePants DVDs. I refuse to give up SpongeBob (this study will come as no surprise to my bridge partners); but when it comes to bridge, the time has come for me to grow up.
I won a lot of masterpoints very quickly playing an off-the-wall kind of a game, always looking for the unusual contract or the unusual play that might just work on that particular hand. It leads to wildly inconsistent bidding, vacillating between overly conservative and overly aggressive, only rarely dipping into a bidding “sweet spot” and many, many bikini games – all tops and bottoms. It is impossible for ones partner to calibrate for that kind of action. A lot of frustration for both myself and my partners resulted from the fact that I felt that I caught a lot of flak when this strategy didn’t work, but it seemed to me that they were playing with me because it just as often did – I find, in retrospect, that they were playing with me despite the gambles that paid off, not because of them.
“This is bridge, not poker!” I heard obscenity-laced variations on this theme from both the Mad Scientist and Yin. Doc, who put up with more than either of them (but is so much more level-headed), managed not to lob this particular insult my way, but I bet he was thinking it. Still it wasn’t sinking in because as crazy-making as playing with me was (and is) it was (but now isn’t) a successful strategy. I’ve taken it about as far as it will go, maybe a little further even, and I’m not anywhere near the player that I would like to be.
Which brings me back to the airspace above New Mexico. I spent six days in San Francisco at the NABC and while I didn’t get a chance to play very often, the times I did play I was repeatedly confronted by the limitations of my skill-set. My first night there I played in a side-game with Washington, I was exhausted after traveling all day and the time-zone change made the 7:30 PM start time feel like 9:30 to my addled brain. Things did not go smoothly. We repeatedly zigged when we should have zagged. On one hand Washington made a less than ideal opening lead and apologized. I jokingly responded, “Now we’re even,” and he scoffed, which was my first inkling that perhaps I was making even more mistakes than I realized. The Kid decided to kibitz the second half and after the game ended at around 11:00 PM (read: 1:00 AM) we were looking over the hand records. I asked about a particular hand, he answered but it seemed like when he was done answering my specific question there was more he wanted to say. I knew better than to push the big red “Don’t push!” button, but I did it anyway. “Was there anything else?” I asked.
Twenty minutes worth of bad plays, and errors in judgment, all casually observed from somewhere behind my right shoulder and only then did he reach the play that “really bothered” him. To wit, there was a very small chance on one hand for me to make the contract, it was a cost free play to find out if in fact my LHO held specifically the Kx of diamonds on-side and instead I conceded the trick. My face burned with the realization, it isn’t like me to just give up on a hand. At the time I didn’t learn that the one holding I needed to make the contract was in fact the holding my opponent had, but it would literally have cost nothing to find out, just cross my fingers and plunk down the diamond ace after the finesse to the queen worked. Suddenly the unsupported Jack in my hand would have been good. Instead I had led a small card back toward the jack, a zero percentage play, zero, zip, no chance – I’d just given up. I felt disgusted, vaguely nauseous and suddenly very, very tired. I limped back to my hotel room and found I couldn’t sleep. When I would drift off to sleep, the King of Diamonds haunted my dreams.
The next night, after working all day on very little sleep, I played with my boss for the first time. I found myself in the uncomfortable position of really wishing I could be up in my room in bed instead of forcing my eyes open at the table. Adding to my misery, the cards were not going our way and hand after hand we found ourselves on defense. When we did get into the bidding the best we could manage was a part-score. We said very little to one another between rounds, except to ask if the other would like a cup of coffee when we left to refill our own cups. This time it was my partner who had a kibitzer, but the hands were so boring that even he lost interest and wandered off after awhile. We had a decent game, nothing earth shattering, but no disasters either.
The Kid and I filled in the movement for one session of a fast pairs game on Sunday. My favorite disaster of the session involved my doubling a vulnerable 5♦ contract that should have been down three only to find the one defense that would allow it to make. White against red, my partner opened the bidding in second seat:
This was my hand:
I am pretty sure my RHO is 5-4 in the red suits, because otherwise she could have used Michael’s so the good news is that I think we have probably two spade tricks coming to us but there’s nothing saying she doesn’t have the Kx of spades. A club lead might be right, but I really would like to get a ruff with my anemic diamonds if at all possible so I try the singleton heart lead even though it is the declarer’s first bid suit.
My partner plays the ♥8 and not surprisingly the declarer wins and switches to a diamond, my partner wins his stiff ace and returns the ♥2 which I interpreted as asking for a club return. I ruff the heart and return a low club. The declarer wins with her J of clubs and the hand is over when the finesse for the missing heart honors is on-side. My poor partner had the KJxx of hearts. The declarer started with the AJ tight of clubs and the Tx of spades. I can see why my partner might not have wanted to return either the K or J of hearts and it is of note that if I return the ♣Q instead my partner will still overtake with the ace (if he had it) to return another heart and it would protect against the declarer having both missing club honors. We would have at least beat it (though not by as much as if I had instead returned a spade to my partner’s king.) Minus 750 is a big fat zero.
My declaring was as enlightened as my defense. Earlier in the session I had gotten completely tangled up in a 1NT contract and went down one when I should have made it and then there was a hand on which the correct line eluded me both at the table and for what felt like ten minutes after the Kid pointed it out to me. He noted the diamond suit. I stared at him blankly, wondering what exactly he wanted me to do with the moth-eaten diamonds. He looked at me wondering what planet I was on. Finally it dawned on me that the answer was to ruff them. (Oh is that what a trump suit is for?) Another zero when I’m in 2 down one when I should have made three. And the less said about the hand where we ended up down one in 3NT when we were cold for 6♦ the better. So for the record, Red Vines followed by a 5-Hour Energy shot is not the breakfast of champions.
On Monday night, I played for the first time with another co-worker of mine and we had a very decent, solid game with only one real exception. In first seat, both side vulnerable, I picked up this:
I only really considered opening it 1♠ for the briefest of moments before coming to my senses and opening it 3♠. Everyone passed.
The opening lead was the ♥Q. and the dummy came down with:
You know you have a reputation for opening light when you open 3♠ vulnerable in first seat and your partner with a spade fit and four quick tricks, passes. Unfortunately it makes five all day long and with minimal effort once my RHO turns up with the QT tight of diamonds. I will admit that had I been playing with my teacher that would have been exactly what either of us would have done with her hand since our three-level openers are such garbage we alert them, but then we probably would have opened that hand 4♠ instead.
It’s hard to say exactly how these four games led to my realization in the sky that whatever I was doing wasn’t working for me anymore, and really they were just the culmination of a longer process. Upon reflection, the strides I’ve made up until this point have come pretty easy though it didn’t always seem so at the time. The real work is ahead of me now, and I’m not entirely sure that I’ll succeed. I worry that I’m just not smart enough to play this game at the level I would like to, but I feel I must at least try and circumstances are such that I’m not playing as much as I was before and so I have the time to put into really studying card play and developing a different bidding philosophy. Breakthrough or breakdown, in the end, there will be transformation.