Friday, January 2, 2009

Lack of opponent-specific systems (bridge)

I could be wrong on this, and I'd love to hear the opinion of some real world class competitors, but I'm just putting this out there. It seems to me that even in the late stages at the highest levels of bridge, pairs continue to play their original systems and never tweak conventions or systems based on the score or the opponents. One thing I think we can all agree on is that there is no single most objectively optimal bidding system. So why not play more than one system or list of conventions and choose the ones that are most optimal for the specific situation?

I understand the arguments against this way of thinking. One system (and all accompanying agreements) is hard enough to handle as it is and one can always tweak the aggression factor. But I'm sure that even at the highest levels there are systems or conventions that certain players are uncomfortable playing against or that compare favorably in certain situations versus opponents' systems in the same direction. It's one thing to have prepared defenses, but when you set the system, you're dictating the terms and on the offensive.

Here's a sports metaphor. In the NBA, you have the regular season. You play all the opposing teams in the league and play continuously enough that you play one style that is optimal for getting you the most overall wins. It doesn't matter who you beat or lose to. But when the playoffs start, there is only one team you have to beat. You need to specialize against your opponent's tendencies. Both teams are more likely to play their most potent rotation more frequently than in regular season games. So in the round robin or in a pairs event, I certainly understand playing a specific system/style. But in the later stages, why wouldn't the same apply as in the basketball metaphor and increase the need for specific matchup-oriented strategies?

Maybe some pairs do make significant adjustments that aren't visible to the casual observer like me, but I still feel that any such adjustments are constrained by the thought of "what can I change within the system" instead of just changing the system to fit the need.


wildman said...

There are definitely some pairs that play strong club in first and second seat and then a very aggressive light opening system in 3/4. But we don't see much of that on this continent (nor do we see much creativity at all).

thg said...

I don't think changing system is quite the same as inserting a different player into an NBA starting lineup in order to take advantage of a matchup. I think the NBA analogy is more like being more or less aggressive against a particular pair or method, or even playing a special defense to a particular opening.

NFL teams will often use an extra down lineman or defensive back to counter what they feel is the opposing offense's strong point; offenses will employ an extra tight end or put a blocker in the backfield (often an out of position defensive player or even offensive lineman).

Changing bridge system based upon opponent would be more like switching from a West Coast Offense to a Wishbone -- it requires a new playbook rather than focusing on certain parts of the existing playbook.

I think there are a number of reasons you don't see system changes based upon opponents:

1) Top pairs put in 100s or 1000s of hours practicing their methods. Many of the nuances they learn are specific to their unique system and would not carry over to a different system. In other words, properly preparing a second system would take an enormous amount of time.

2) Players tend to gravitate to systems that they are comfortable playing or that suit their personality or approach to the game. Some people prefer natural, some prefer artificial; some are able to memorize (and recall at the table) lots of uncommon sequences, some are not. When a player gets out of their comfort zone, they consume more mental energy on this part of the game than normal and other parts will suffer.

Do not underestimate this comfort zone, even for the experts. I've played a lot of 4-card majors, and it gives even experienced players pause for thought. I do not mind at all that they are thinking about our 4-card majors rather than making automatic decisions based upon more familiar 5-card major methods.

3) There is ample opportunity to swing within any given system. A two-minute offense in bridge does not have to consist of a new playbook. You're not going to run it up the middle very often, but you don't need to resort to a hook and lateral (at least not very often).