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The following article about matchpoint tactics in bridge says that you should bid a game that you think everbody else will bid, even if you think the game most likely won't make. I have seen similar advice in other places to follow the field.

Why should this be the case? As I see it, if you do what everybody else does, then you are guaranteeing yourself an average score, at the expense of the chance to get a very good score. It seems to me that an over 50% chance of getting a top is better than a 100% chance of an average board.

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In matchpoints, your score is based on how many people you got a better score than. Doesn’t matter what the score is - just is it better.

So if 10 pairs play a hand, and 8 bid the game; one bids part score; and you:

  • Bid the game: if it makes you get 5 points, if it goes down you get 4 points.
  • Bid the part score: if the game makes you get 0.5 points, if it goes down you get 8.5 points.

This assumes play is identical at all tables, only the bid matters.

This is to say, bidding the game is by far the safer choice: you’ll guarantee an average score. If you have some reason to believe you know better than everyone - sure, bid the part score. But if you’re unsure, the post is saying to go with the safer choice.

And to be clear - if you’re pretty sure it goes down, don’t bid it. Just be aware you’re going to either gain or lose a lot of points on the board. I think the advice in the article is probably a bit overstated - limits of space and time I suppose.

Most decent players get their 55% by bidding the safe choice consistently - if you get the par results on every hand, odds are you’ll finish near the top because everyone makes some mistakes. Add to that some board or two where your bidding methods give you a particular advantage (maybe you play a particular defense to preempts or a particular overcall against NT that happens to work well on one or two hands) and you will score well.

But get that 0.5 and you would have a big hole to dig out from. Obviously the 8.5 would be nice - but get those on the hands you’re more confident on.

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  • Thank you for your answer. So I guess my thinking was not completely of, it is not obvious from first principles that you should follow others. – Guest67Lulea Jul 24 at 23:01
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When you bid differently from most of the other players, you increase your variance. Being in a different contract than everyone else makes it more likely you will get a very good score, but also more likely that you will get a very bad score, while reducing your chance of getting an average-ish score.

Now, people who listen to bridge advice and read bridge books are not quite average players. They are usually slightly better than average. They are the kind of player who, if everyone was in the same contract all the time, would score 60%, because they are better declarers and better defenders than most players.

If you are this somewhat better than average player, then taking a chance on an unusual contract that is better 55% of the time is bad for you. You score 100% if you are right, but 0% if you are wrong, so you average out to 55%, which is not as good as the 60% you would get being in the same contract as everyone else.

If you are even with or slightly worse than everyone else in the field, by all means take some calculated chances. Ditto if you feel you've had a few unlucky boards and getting 60% the rest of the way won't get you to your goals for the event.

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    I'd agree with this in part (+1), but I think that it's a bit misleading to suggest that being worse than average means you should take more chances. The problem is that if you're worse than average, you're probably worse at calculating good/bad risk, so taking more risks probably won't help overall. You'll look at that hand and say "probably not making, so let's take the "riskier" choice and not go in", and then everyone else will go in and make because they evaluate the hand better. – Joe Jul 22 at 17:21
  • I like this; but feel you've missed a key point. Information is much scarcer during the bidding compared to the play, so luck lays a greater role in attempting to generate favourable swings. Stronger players are much better off playing for swing on defense and as declarer than during the bidding (of most hands). Making an overtrick (or even the "unmakeable game", as Barry Crane was want to do) nets the same top or average-plus with less risk. – Forget I was ever here Jul 25 at 18:52
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As a player of uncommon systems (weak NT in a very strong NT environment, Strong Club systems in a standard/2 over 1 world) I agree with Alexander Woo (who likely won't be surprised). However, variance is actually a very interesting topic at matchpoints.

Possibly the hardest part of matchpoints is working out what the contract really is when dummy comes down (and on defence, it's even harder). 120 vs 90, or 430 vs 420, is the same matchpoint as 1700 vs 620. Say the auction ended at 3NT. But when dummy comes down, you realize that everyone's in 4H, and it's making. So now you have to make 4NT, because 3NT= scores (almost) the same as 3NT-1. Or you notice that if they had led a diamond instead of a heart, 3NT will go down; so now just taking 9 tricks, even if you have a chance for more, beats all the tables that got that diamond lead. Or you realize that everyone's in 3NT, and everyone's making it, and it's a fight over the 10th and 11th trick for the matchpoints.

Variance, or "not going with the field", makes this harder, whether it's "in the room, partner is playing 3NT, did we get a good or a bad lead as a result?" or "our weak 1NT opener likely stopped them from bidding hearts, what does that mean?" or "our auction went 1NT-AP, the room is bidding 1D-1S; 2S - how many NT do I have to make to beat the players in spades?"

Variance is not necessarily good or bad; unless it's clearly inferior or superior, it doesn't change your mean score. What it does is increase the deviation, and with each board in a 25-board session being worth 4% of your score, it can be a lot of increase! When you get the day where your system means you're in 5 bad contracts, that no matter how well you play them are going to score badly, it doesn't matter if you're a 60% player in the field - you're still not breaking average. When you get the day where your system nets you 5 good contracts (over the field), though, your 45% game becomes a 58% and you might win.

I played Precision at a National level (not that I am National level, but we liked the challenge!) for 5 years. The worst thing bar none, the times that caused the grey hairs, was when I knew the standard bidders were having a mindless "book" auction like 1NT-3NT, but our unusual auction showed us that the "book" contract was bad. Do I back my system, knowing that 30% of the time the "bad" contract is right and I get a zero, and even when it's wrong, some will bring it home anyway and beat me; or do I go with the field knowing that 70% of the time it's a bad contract (and I'm not as likely to bring it home anyway as the National level players)? Or worse, I'm at 3H, and I know there's a good chance at 6C, but if I go looking, I can't stop in NT any more. I know the "book" auction won't find out about the slam potential, and they'll all be in 3NT. I know that 3NT+1 (which likely will happen) beats 5C, or even 5C+1 when they don't find the setting lead to 6. Do I try? Or do I just bid 3NT with everyone else and "try to win the board in the play"?

On the other side, there's a strategy. "Get to the field contract, and beat them in the play." This is a low-variance strategy, and it works. For the better card players in the field, minimizing variance in the auction - which, yes, includes "bidding bad games" that everyone else will bid - gives you field protection. Your "bad contracts" will be 40% or so, not near-zeroes, and you still have a good chance at 65% if you play them one trick better than the field, even if it's -1 instead of -2.

But of course, for this to work, you actually do have to "beat them in the play". If you're not the "better card players" in the field, then turning 5 or so of the 25 boards in a session into crapshoots means that on the day when they all go bad, sure your 45% becomes a 38%. But when 4/5 of them work, that same 45% game is a 54, 55% game (frequently at the expense of the best players!)

As Alexander Woo says, many of the readers of bridge advice - and almost all the writers - are "better players" in the field. So you would expect to see this strategy. As I said, it's not wrong, for them!

What I will agree with the "strategy" people is "the best use of your time improving your game (in general) is play and defence. It's not as much fun as playing with system, but it pays off more." It doesn't matter if you're the best bidder in the world with the best system in the country if you can't make the great contracts you're in because you're only an average player. And as everyone is discussing here, if you're one of the best players in the room, almost every hand has possibilities to get ahead of the field - even if you bid as badly as the rest of the field.

The question of course is then "why play a high-variance system at matchpoints?" Well, frankly, most don't - they play the system they learned, basic or sophisticated as it comes, which is the same system almost everyone else plays. This is even more so in the ACBL (the Hamilton Bridge Club is in the ACBL) than in other parts of the world. Those that do:

  • it's the system they learned (in England, or Poland, or China, but now playing in Hamilton);
  • It's a system they're comfortable with (I just find 70% of auctions in a weak NT system easier than in standard) or better suited to their mental states (Strong club systems like Precision frequently are much more detailed than standard, so you're "on book" for longer before you have to use judgement; the cost being more memorization. I'm someone who can memorize long series of tables - or recreate them from rules on the fly, sometimes - so for me, it's a win. Most find this a tax on their memory, and are worse off).
  • it's fun to be weird, and present an unusual challenge to your opponents. And most players, even the "better players", play bridge to have fun. It's not like poker, where loose play costs actual cash.
  • they're tired of "normal" and just want to do something different sometimes (note that there are people who are exactly the opposite and "something different" is way too tiring!)
  • they're in a game where "second place is the first loser" and they're unlikely to win playing straight up. Playing high-variance, they will likely do worse - but when everything goes right, they get 10% "for free" and their 52% average is a 62% win.
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  • I think that "variance" is definitely good for weaker players when it's systemic variance - it's an important distinction between "variance because your system causes different results" and "variance because you guess that other people have it wrong". The latter is probably net-negative unless you're a very skilled player (or at least a very skilled understander); but systemic variance (caused by playing a totally different system may well be a net-positive in terms of 55%+ nights for many players who otherwise wouldn't have many. – Joe Jul 23 at 14:57
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    Pluses and minuses. Weaker players who don't understand "the normal" won't understand the systemic variance either, or how to analyze it. So in addition to the variability, they won't maximize the pluses or know when they're behind and have to try something odd. Basically, "systemic variance brings with it judgement variance" just because judgement comes in different places. Also, maybe more 55%s, sure, but also more 37%s rather than the plodding 43, 44, 46 they'd get most of the time in standard. Is the disillusionment of the downside covered by the upside thrill? – Mycroft Jul 23 at 17:50
  • You hold Kxxx QJ Qxxx KQJ opposite a Precision good9-15 1S opener. Do you downgrade and evaluate as a limit raise (whatever your system for showing a limit raise is)? Is doing so judgement variance or systemic variance? – Alexander Woo Jul 25 at 5:28
  • @AlexanderWoo: Really? What's the very worst hand partner can accept with? Perhaps QTxxx Kx KTx Axx or QTxxx AK KTx xxx? Do you really want to miss either of those games? A trump lead on either is unlikely to be found which means only a heart lead (from 4 or 5 headed by A in the first case or ten in the second) doesn't give you something. And those two hands really are close to pathologically bad, and still have decent plays. I was taught, and have profited from, that if the very worst hand partner might have still gives a play for the contract - it should be bid. – Forget I was ever here Jul 25 at 19:08
  • @ForgetIwaseverhere: Evaluate as a limit raise, so of course you'd be in game if partner has those hands and accepts the invitation. The alternative is to evaluate that hand as a game force. – Alexander Woo Jul 25 at 19:22

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