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Sort of a follow-up question to Why don't the meanings of specific bids need to be considered when giving advice?

As I understand the answers to that question, most bridge players play variants of the same bidding system. In other words, most bridge players have lots of experience playing with and against that bidding system.

Given that, why don't some bridge players learn a new bidding system to catch their opponents off-guard? Even though bridge bidding systems are public knowledge, by using the new bidding system:

You:

  • Are playing a system you are familiar with
  • Are playing against a system you are familiar with

Your opponents:

  • Are playing a system they are familiar with
  • Are playing against a system they are unfamiliar with

This seems like an advantage. Certainly something similar applies in Magic: the Gathering (which is the other card game I'm most familiar with) - there is some value in bringing a rogue archetype to a match, because opponents are less likely to know what to do against it. The question becomes whether the advantage you gain from that is worth the rogue archetype (probably) being weaker than the top archetypes. In Magic, the answer is usually 'no', but presumably that does not apply to bridge (since if the other bidding systems really are inferior to the most popular one, then everyone including top players would be using the same bidding system).

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  • I don't know of any people that play different bidding systems, specifically to throw off opponents. But lots of people play systems such as T-Walsh that are designed to be beneficial for the pair will throw off weak opponents as a side effect. Systems such as strong club, opening transfers and many other that I can't think of right now are even more different from "standard bidding" and will also throw off good unprepared opponents.
    – Tvde1
    Sep 13 at 9:41

3 Answers 3

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Most players play variants of the same bidding system because learning a significantly new bidding system is a significant amount of effort. Most players aren't very good even with the only bidding system they know. Ask them to learn a new one and they would be perpetually confused. Most players aren't that serious.

I'm now going to ignore the mass of non-so-good players and focus on the advanced and expert players.

In most countries, the main bridge-tournament organizing association regulates what bidding systems are allowed, precisely to limit this strategy. You're not allowed any bidding system you want, and bidding systems and or conventions that are likely to be unfamiliar to opponents are banned, particular in games where each pair faces each other pair only for a small number of boards. (In North America, it's quite common for good-to-expert players to complain about the regulations put forward by the ACBL on the grounds that it bans legitimately useful conventions that are not that hard to prepare for.)

In tournaments without such restrictions, which are mainly very high level tournaments such as world championships, players are required to disclose their bidding systems to their potential opponents several weeks ahead of time so that their opponents can prepare.

Even so, there are some practical reasons why bridge players don't play highly unusual systems all that often. The first is that it is actually hard to design a good (human-playable) system that's very different from any of the commonly played systems. (Minor variations don't do much to confuse opponents.) If you make up a completely new system, even if you are good at it, the system is likely to have some significant weaknesses (which may simply be that it's very complicated and you need to spend a lot of mental effort remembering what your bids mean).

A second is in how professional bridge players make a living. There is no prize money in bridge tournaments. Rather, bridge players are paid by wealthy sponsors who want to win (or at least do well) in tournaments by having good players play as their partner. It's unlikely that their clients want to put in the effort to learn an unusual system or that their clients will be able to play the system well. Even the professional players who usually play with the same partner (because they are hired to be part of a team where the client plays with their professional partner at one table and two professionals play with each other at the other one) change partners sometimes when their usual partner is unavailable for a tournament (or does not want to be vaccinated and hence is taking a possibly temporary forced retirement).

(Most players at all levels play with several different partners. I once played four different systems in a week; I can handle that but most players would be quite confused. And there are subtle things I tend to get wrong when switching systems.)

A third is that a significant amount of bridge is played with matchpoint pairs scoring, where your score comes from how you do on each hand compared with a large number of other players. If you are a very good player, you play the cards better than everyone else and can score 60% (which is usually close to enough to win) every hand just by being in the same contract as everyone else. Playing a different contract than everyone else introduces additional randomness, which you don't want. Certainly, there will be games where the hands suit your system, you get to better contracts, and score 65%. But 60% is first, and 65% is also first, and there are also games where the hands don't suit your system, you get to worse contracts, and score 57%. (Let's suppose your system is actually better, so you lose less when you are unlucky than you win when you're lucky.) But now 57% is third.

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    To give you some idea of the difficulties of learning a different system: 4 years ago I started playing Precision with one partner. It's very much a minority system - definitely less than 5% of partnerships play it - but the most important counter-strategy is well known - when opponents open a Precision 1C (which announces a strong hand but no other information), take additional risk to pre-empt and take away their bidding room. It's only late last year, after maybe 2500 hands playing this system, that I feel comfortable against this counter-strategy. Sep 12 at 7:45
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Even in absence of the regulatory issues described in Alexander Woo's answer, there are reasons why this would not be an effective strategy.

There's a reason why a handful of systems have become popular. They're either

  • Easy to learn and remember because they don't have lots of artificial bids. Standard American, 2/1 Game Forcing, and Polish Club are examples of this.
  • Technically superior in finding the best contract. Precision is an example of this.

The popular systems are tried and true. If you make up your own system, it's unlikely to be better in either of these ways -- if it were, someone probably would have invented it earlier. It's not impossible that you could be a genius and make a significant improvement on a century of experience, but unlikely.

If the only important feature is that it's unfamiliar to the opponents, that's not likely to make up for its misfeatures. You won't be able to play it with many partners, so you can't get as much practice as you can with standard systems. And since it's presumably highly artificial, this means you're more likely to forget details and make mistakes using it.

Many auctions aren't even competitive, so the opponents don't need to be able to defend against your conventions. In these hands, you're likely to confuse yourself for no gain at all.

There's an inherent limit to how much artificiality you can put in a system, because you have to arrange that the auction tries to end at a reasonable contract. You can't use many bids to describe a pair of weak hands, because you'll end up too high.

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    I actually don't think Precision, at least the way I've been playing it, is actually better at finding the best contract! We've been using it mostly to open lighter, to make it harder for opponents to find their best contract in more situations, without giving up too much on our ability to find the best contract. Sep 13 at 3:52
  • Aggressive styles in general accomplish that -- it's also a benefit of weak and mini NT. But you're right, big club systems in general allow for systemically light openings, which has a strong preemptive effect.
    – Barmar
    Sep 13 at 16:44
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It's been done before, just once, and very successfully.

However, no-one else is Barry Crane.

First the system: Four-card majors (Yes!) played in a very light opening and slam averse style, emphasizing in fast and out fast auctions. Plus, you had to play the cards the way Barry specified as well or he would throw a tantrum and lose on purpose.

No-one plays four-card majors any more; and not many played them during the latter half of Crane's career in the 70's and early 80's. Yet Crane won nearly as many Swiss Team events as he did Open Pairs, and one could argue that the difference is not the system, but just that Crane is only 25% of a team while 50% of a pair; he was of course a superb card player also.

Second, you have to understand just how good Barry Crane was: One of the top experts in the World, and regarded by many as the indisputably best Match-Point player ever; yet also wealthy enough to be a client. Barry liked to pick-and-choose McKenny winners, as he could usually play only two days a week, so the deal was this:

  • He'd pay you to play with him two days each for so many weeks - the understanding being that you in return would garner so many extra wins as to almost guarantee a McKenny win over your rivals.

Playing with Crane, however, was no picnic. Upon winning King of Bridge as a high school senior, Jeff Meckstroth was granted the "privilege" of a game with Crane. Upon its completion Meckstroth is claimed to have shredded the convention card in front of Crane while averring never to play with [Crane] again.

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    "No-one plays four-card majors any more" - except that Acol is "standard in British tournament play and widely used in other parts of the world" (Wikipedia). Sep 14 at 17:47
  • @AdamChalcraft: Perhaps if I restated as "No-one (except ACOL-playing Brits) plays four-card majors any more"? ;-) Sep 14 at 23:50

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