The 12 Habits of Highly Effective Bidders  (November 2011)

10.  They allow their opponents to make mistakes.

My opponents in a regional Swiss team event were two 20-something players from my local club. While we were shuffling, the young man and woman pre-alerted us to their homemade bidding system, which featured ultra-light opening bids, zero-point responses and anything-goes preempts.

Their system didn’t perform well. In the first six boards, they suffered a penalty from a garbage preempt, overbid to a hopeless slam and then missed a game because neither could be sure the other actually had constructive values.

Just as we were starting to bid the last hand, my partner, the always colorful Harold Feldheim, put down his cards and announced that he had an important question for our opponents.  

“You seem like nice kids, and I can tell that both of you have a lot of natural talent,” Harold said warmly. “I just have to know: Why do you want to tunnel your game by playing this crazy system?”

Our opponents were taken aback but amused. “You have a team of experts, and we’re cannon fodder,” the young man grinned. “We figure this is the only way we can beat you.”

Harold shook his head. “We’ll talk later,” he promised.

Our team may not have had as big an edge as our opponents believed. Their system failures had cost more than 25 IMPs, and we won the match by only 20.  

Many players believe that desperate measures are called for when they’re underdogs. A common strategy is to preempt aggressively, push to thin games and slams, and hope for miracles. Some pairs, such as the young couple from my club, alter their entire systems just to create unusual, “swingy” results.

Winning a bridge event usually involves some element of luck, but much of it is the luck of the draw -- whom you play on which boards, and how well they play at your table. Matchpoint tops and big IMP pickups are most often the result of your opponents’ errors rather than your brilliancies.

Experienced pairs will, of course, make far fewer mistakes than novices, but they still happen. World championships have been decided by outright blunders. In the finals of the 2011 Vanderbilt Teams, two pairs of national champions bid a grand slam missing the ace of trumps. If you kibitz the free Vugraph shows or expert team matches on Bridgebase Online (, you’ll see plenty of bidding misunderstandings and judgment errors.

No matter what the skill level of your opponents, they are not perfect. You’ll get the best results if you can give them opportunities to make mistakes, then take full advantage when they do. On some deals, that requires patience and self-control – recognizing when it’s right to settle for an average result, resisting the temptation to act on a hunch, allowing for the possibility that the opponents might not be in the perfect contract.

On others, you may want to take risks to force your opponents to make difficult guesses. Choose these battles wisely. If you “shoot” at every opportunity, your luck will have to be extraordinary to come out on the plus side. You’ll need two miracles to make up for every disaster.

It’s also important to give your opponents room to fail. There’s a fine line between an aggressive bid that gives them a problem and a foolhardy one that leaves them no choice at all. And once you’ve created the dilemma, you have to stop pushing and hope that they guessed wrong.

In upcoming issues, we’ll look at ideas for how to induce, recognize and take advantage of your opponents’ errors. We’ll also discuss some of the ways you can avoid making mistakes before they do.

 ©  2011   Karen Walker