Monday, January 3, 2011

Bridge at the Enigma Club

I am always thrilled to receive bridge books as Christmas gifts.  This time Joan, my mother-in-law, bought me one I hadn't seen or heard of before: Bridge at the Enigma Club by Peter Winkler.  As soon as I saw the title and read the cover, I knew I was going to enjoy it.  But it's better than that.  I love it!  And, therefore, I highly recommend it to anyone who loves reading about bridge.

Peter Winkler is a professor of math and computer science at Dartmouth College and a former cryptographer.  Although I'd heard long ago about encrypted signals at bridge, I hadn't realized that it was Winkler who originated the idea.  Given my love of cryptography (and its relevance to my work), I've always been fascinated by the idea of crypto signals at bridge and somewhat saddened by the fact that they are illegal in many bridge jurisdictions, in particular the ACBL.  Why should this be?  It's such an arbitrary ruling.  And, of course, it turns out that one can theoretically use crypto during the auction too.  Perhaps Winkler won't mind if I quote a passage from his book:

"Suppose you and your partner are on your way to a slam, and you bid five notrump, showing the rest of the aces."
"Well, you now know which ace your partner has, right?"
"If I, your opponent, ask you which ace she holds, do you tell me?"
"Of course not, but that's not the same thing, nothing hangs on which ace she holds."
"That's because you didn't hang anything on it. On that auction you and your partner developed two bits worth of cryptographic 'key' that you could theoretically use to hide information..."

The whole business of full disclosure is based on the fact that you have to tell your opponents your agreements, even down to the last detail if necessary, but you don't have to tell them your hand. So, if there's something about your hands that you know, legally, but they don't know, why should it be that you can't take advantage of this bonus knowledge?

While Winkler makes a good case for allowing crypto in bridge, he doesn't do it as a proselytizer might do.  In fact, his "hero" in the book is the skeptic, the one who is unfamiliar with it all, just as we the readers typically are.

The book is really just a great read.  There are fascinating ideas about system here, too, in particular, the meaning of 2/1 bids.  He also describes a bridge club, and its ways of playing duplicate bridge, which is fascinating.  A cross between online and face-to-face bridge which is elegant but goes much further than either.  Some of the ideas aren't quite so novel now that we have pre-duplicated boards and electronic scoring, but still it represents to me a kind of nirvana for playing bridge.


  1. Having finished the book (within a day or two of my earlier post), I should add that there is a lot of good thought-provoking stuff on relay systems in this book too. The surprise ending is also quite brilliant! Enjoy. And, if you want to buy it from Amazon, don't forget to click my link :)

  2. Isn't the author the son of Susan Winkler, a former NH bridge player, who, with her husband Walter Spiewak, moved a few years ago to the North Carolina?

    I hope I haven't embarrassed myself by misstating something in the family tree.