Monday, August 16, 2010

A tale of two books

At a recent tournament, I was pleased to find two books that I hadn't seen before which interested me a lot.  One was Deceptive Defense: The Art of Bamboozling at Bridge by Barry Rigal.  The other was Bridge, Probability & Information by Robert F. MacKinnon.

The first of these is an excellent book, a must-read for anyone who wants to improve their game.  Whereas it's fun to pull off an advanced play such as a squeeze or endplay, it's even more fun to perpetrate a successful deception.  The look on the opponent's face is always worth it.

As a long-time student and enthusiast of probability theory as it applies to bridge, I've generally bought any book that I could find on the subject.  These range in quality from completely pointless (Frederick Frost's book) to totally brilliant (Kelsey and Glauert's Bridge Odds for Practical Players).  So, it was with great anticipation that I began reading MacKinnon's new book.  Especially given the allusion to information theory.  By the time I started to read the book a day or two later, I had seen a rave review in the ACBL Bridge Bulletin.

But I immediately found the style of the book somewhat annoying.  The book reads like a series of short essays on bridge probability.  They do not follow each other in logical order and each section is prefaced by a pithy, but typically totally irrelevant, quotation.  There are several really important concepts that MacKinnon puts forward.  But he seems to do so in such an off-hand manner, that the impact is very much lessened.  And he goes so far out of his way to ensure that the book does not read like a textbook that, where a little logical derivation of a result would be extremely helpful, it is usually missing entirely.  The author generally states these important results as facts or axioms without making it entirely clear how he derives the result.  The layout is not always as helpful as it might be, for example, the table he uses to demonstrate that the ratio of the number of combinations (and, therefore, probability) comes from the small number on the right divided by the large number on the left.  In this instance, the splits (large:small) are not aligned between the columns as suggested in the text.  Even the examples which he shows from actual play do not always seem to be entirely relevant to the ongoing argument.  I think that what this book craves most is a good editor.  The author definitely knows his stuff but, in my opinion, needs help in presentation.

This is definitely not a book for beginners, or even advanced players unless they have an abiding love of probability topics.  While it does "correct" some misconceptions suggested by other books, I do not think it will supplant Kelsey's book as the premier book on the topic.

Meanwhile, Rigal's book is, as always with this author, excellent.  It reads so well, and is sufficiently interspersed with relevant examples, that it is a hard to put down.  It concludes with a spectacular example of deceptive defense by the late great Maurice Harrison-Grey.  Grey's hand was ♠83 9643 AQ3 ♣KJ54.  His LHO opened 1D, partner bid 3S and RHO closed the auction with 3NT.  Grey led ♠8 and dummy tabled the following hand: ♠9 AQT KJ9852 ♣982.  Declarer held up his A until the third round (as the spade bidder could easily have held only six spades).  Put yourself in Grey's seat.  What do you discard on the third spade?  The hand went down one, by the way.

If you want to know the answer, you'll have to buy the book!  Or you could just ask me.

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