Saturday, January 26, 2013

Psychopaths and bridge

I've recently read and enjoyed one of last years crop of new bridge books: Shades of Grey by Ken Allan. This is a book about cheating – but in a light-hearted vein – and therefore a lighter, perhaps more easily accessible read than Truscott's The Great Bridge Scandal or Chua's Fair Play or Foul?

I found the whodunnit style rather engaging. As the book progresses, the style turns into a how'd-they-get-caught which is equally interesting. The characters are believable, even if there is perhaps a little too much intrigue for the "Soo" region of Ontario. I would definitely recommend it.

The only odd thing was that people who saw me reading the book would ask "have you got to the naughty bits yet?" These people were apparently free-associating the book with the 2011 erotic best seller Fifty Shades of Grey. I can't say if the latter book has any bridge in it but, strangely enough, the 2012 bridge book does have a few, albeit very mild, naughty bits.

My only complaint is that an important character in the book, Rocky, goes missing and we never find out his fate. It's possible I just missed it, but I don't think so.

I learned a lot about psychopaths in the book, as one of the characters is professionally acquainted with psychopaths and one of the cheaters may be one. Not all sufferers turn to a life of crime but psychopaths tend to have no guilty conscience and do not get embarrassed easily by doing bad or even stupid things.

One of the things that keeps most of from making really idiotic bids at the bridge table is our fear of embarrassment, and possibly our conscience prevents us from treating our partners thus badly.

Our robot partners on Bridge Base Online suffer from no conscience or embarrassment – and therefore can be considered psychopaths. Take for example a hand that arose last week in an ACBL robot tournament. My hand, as dealer at matchpoints with none vulnerable was ♠AKQT7654 Q6 – ♣QT4. Perhaps I began the train-wreck with my 1♠ call. The hand just seemed too good to open 4♠. LHO showed hearts and a minor with 2♠ and partner passed (take note). RHO bid 3 and I decided that the time had come to put things to bed with 4♠. But I had reckoned without my partner who so far had underbid his hand somewhat. His call? 6NT.

I watched in some amusement as the opponents wrapped up 9 tricks and then let partner in (their defense was less than optimal – they should have taken the first 11 tricks!). Here is the whole hand:

If you hover over my 4♠ call, you will see that it is supposed to show (according to the Robots' system) a hand with good spades and about 20 hcp. Clearly, my hand was not so well appointed as that! But even so, is it sane for partner to bid 6NT with two suits unstopped?

So, did this result (-400) score the world's coldest bottom? Not at all. We got a 25% board! Although N/S can make 6♠, only one pair (of 24) got there. Many were in 5♠ often doubled. One optimistic pair got to 7♠ which was allowed to make on a diamond lead. Par on this board is actually 7X by E/W down 4. Several E/W pairs (our "teammates") were allowed to play (and make!) 5, thus saving us from ignominy.

And I should point out that we had company. Five other pairs had the exact same auction and result as ours.

Going down eight (even undoubled) is generally such an embarrassment at bridge (although I have it on good authority that Michael Rosenberg once went down seven –350– in 1NT when his opponents were cold for a grand but were unable to bid) that those of us with a conscience won't do it without being fairly sure of our stoppers. The Robots suffer from no such inhibitions. In short, they are psychopathic bridge players!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Masterpoints, or "dumb and dumber"

Several recent occurrences have reminded me of the issues with the rather odd system we have of recognizing bridge success, which we in ACBL land call masterpoints. I last wrote about this subject three years ago in Points, schmoints.

The latest and perhaps most trivial silliness is the recent announcement that platinum points, albeit fractional, will be awarded at an event restricted to players with fewer than 10,000 masterpoints. On the one hand this seems like more "dumbing down" by the ACBL and a new thin-end-of-the-wedge, similar to the devaluing of gold points. On the other hand, it's ludicrous given that the event will exclude all of 553 players (one third of one percent of all ACBL members) from participating. Are they serious?

Then there's Adam Parrish's contribution to Bridge Winners Give the 27-54s some love! This article makes the very good point that the ACBL is doing nothing to encourage the middle-aged players. Surely these are the future of the game every bit as much as the juniors and youths? Many of the points of discussion relate to basic questions like Why do people play bridge? What motivates them to play in particular events? etc. I think I have mentioned this before in my blog but we know from the types of articles that are these days missing from the Bulletin (in particular Partnership Bridge) that the editors are deliberately dumbing down its content.

But perhaps the most significant recent event is the effort by officials of my district (25) to discover why the B flight members are not coming to tournaments as much as they should. Apparently, the C flight is coming in droves because of the "Gold Rush" events (yes, I've noticed this of course). The A flight comes because they love to play bridge and win points. I don't know if the absolute numbers of B players is down but it seems that C players who have been amassing gobs of masterpoints in Gold Rush events eventually get "promoted" to the B flight and whoa! it's not so easy to win any more. So they stay home.

Could it possibly be that we gave them a false expectation of their ability to win points? Could it be that we made them think that winning points was all bridge is about? Could it be that after life master, there is no meaningful rank left to attain, other than the very remote (for most of us) Grand Life Master?

Tweaking masterpoint awards, event schedules, dividing the field into brackets, and the like are all very well to increase membership and table counts. But I think they are a short-term solution.

Here's my proposal:

Divide the field into three tranches, possibly four. Beginners, "relaxed," and open. A possible fourth tranche might be NABC+ (a special kind of open). Any player may play in any tranche. No restrictions, although club directors would be able to exclude players from the beginners group at their discretion. There might not even be such beginner events at tournaments, but if so there would probably have to be some upper limit to keep it sane. Clubs would not normally hold open events, except perhaps for club championships, charity games, and that sort of thing. On such occasions, if the club is big enough, it might hold two sections, one competitive, one relaxed.

Each tranche would have a different type of masterpoints. Let's call them white, pink and blue, but I really don't care: perhaps we could name them after quarks: charm, up and down, etc. The different types of points would not be interchangeable. If you just want to play bridge and don't particularly enjoy playing against experts, you play in the relaxed game. You will never reach so many points that you can no longer play in this game. If you are a competitor, you try to play in open games when you can.

Simple, right? Players would still see their point totals going up month by month. Milestones would be different for each tranche. There would be no such thing as a "life master." Open/NABC milestones would be more meaningful: a certain number of points, a certain type of win (single-session tournament, two-session, KO, etc.)

In many ways, this would be a reversion to the "old days," before flighting and pigmented points. Except that in those days, there were no beginner games and no relaxed games. When you joined the ACBL and started playing you were swimming with the sharks, like it or not. Earning even a fraction of a point was an achievement!

We would eliminate "senior" events altogether. Given that most players in the ACBL are already in the 55+ group, it hardly constitutes a meaningful demographic division. Older players who wanted a little less seriousness in the game would play in the relaxed events.

I'll add one more observation. In the Boston area (specifically the "Route 128" corridor), we have three clubs which offer a Saturday afternoon game. For those of us who live on the West side of the city, there are two games within reach. One game is a very competitive club game (Westwood). The other is a so-called "Goodtimers" game (but open to anyone who wants to have a good time) at Dean Panagopoulos' Bridge Spot. Players are to a large extent already voting with their feet (well, their wheels) as to which game they prefer. And why not? Give people the type of game they enjoy. Isn't that ultimately what will bring people back to play more bridge?

This subject is one of the most controversial of all bridge topics so I expect some comments!