Sanjoy Bhattacharyya On Bridge: What It Takes
A visitor passes a wall decoration showing playing cards, in Madrid, Spain. (Photographer: Antonio Heredia/Bloomberg)

Sanjoy Bhattacharyya On Bridge: What It Takes


Malcolm Gladwell fans may well believe that once you put in the 10,000 hours, bridge nirvana is round the corner. Unfortunately, dedication, self-belief and relentless effort will give you a clear edge but are inadequate to achieve true mastery of any profession. A fine line differentiates the genuine bridge maven from the aspiring expert. The privilege of having kibitzed the greats for many years and intense introspection has led me to the conclusion that the difference is primarily the result of five factors.

Sanjoy Bhattacharyya On Bridge: What It Takes

First, incredible powers of concentration for as long as it takes. In practice, counting points, distribution and tricks is akin to breathing. The ability to focus on every single card that is played and draw relevant inferences is quintessential to winning bridge.

Second, the skill in imagining unusual but crucial combinations or possibilities. This ability is the bedrock for flair, creativity and tackling adversity at the table.

Third, a ‘probabilistic mindset’ that constantly evaluates different alternatives with a view to enhancing the prospect of a favourable outcome. This difference is most visible in tricky hands where declarer brings home a difficult contract by finding a line of play that increases the odds of success by as little as 2-3%!

Fourth, ‘table presence’ which permits the master to get into the minds of his opponents and avoid subtly laid traps by sniffing danger in advance. This is the key antidote to deception and guile when the greats confront each other – punch followed by counter-punch!

Finally, the ability to be a rational optimist and think out of the box. While there is a lot of common ground with flair and imagination, the key to making this happen is not to be unsettled by occasionally having egg on your face – highly disconcerting for most experts.

The hands that follow aim to introduce you to one or more of these elements in a manner that is entertaining as well as instructive. Bon appétit!

With both sides vulnerable and West dealer, you pick up

♠AQ5 AQ6 1054 ♣J963 as South. After West gets the ball rolling with a pass, partner opens 1. East overcalls 1 and as you mull a variety of options, you conclude that it is probably best to bid 3NT immediately.

Sanjoy Bhattacharyya On Bridge: What It Takes

As dummy comes down, you feel modestly confident about scoring 9 tricks. East is likely to hold the A and KJ. If he holds the diamond Queen and club King in addition, there is clearly little hope. East covers the lead of the 8 with the knave, won by the queen. Since the A is virtually certain to reside in the East hand, a crystal ball is not required to fathom that the diamond finesse should be taken ahead of the club finesse.

Should the Q be favourably placed, 9 tricks are assured – 5 tricks in the majors, 3 diamonds and the club Ace.

With a plan in place, you play the ten of diamonds with the intention of running it around. Your analysis seems to be well conceived as East wins with the Ace and returns 10, which you duly win with the Ace. It seems the gods are smiling and your bold bid will be duly rewarded. With the club finesse redundant, you cheerfully play a low diamond and insert the 9 from dummy. There is a slight pause and you smile amicably at West, not wanting to gloat in the least. The Q makes an unexpected appearance and West claims 3 additional heart tricks to set the contract by a trick! East held ♠J107 KJ1095 AQ3 ♣72.

On the next hand, there was little to commend in the bidding (2♣-2-3-3♠-6) but declarer had a chance to redeem himself in the play.

Sanjoy Bhattacharyya On Bridge: What It Takes

Prospects seem fairly bleak but can declarer with a wee bit of luck and some inspiration create a chance where none seems to exist? Be informed in advance that neither defender held a singleton ♠A.

At a number of other tables where declarer landed in the identical contract, the play was not very imaginative. After winning the lead of the ♣Q, declarer drew 4 rounds of trumps with West revealing a singleton and discarding a couple of clubs and a diamond subsequently. When the spade 2 was played, West followed with the 6 and East held off winning the first trick. Winning the next spade, East returned a club and declarer surrendered disconsolately after wriggling for a while. The Bulgarian declarer I was fortunate enough to kibitz cashed his second club after drawing trumps and before pulling a spade. As before, East declined to win the trick. Now he played a third club from dummy and ruffed it in hand. The top 2 diamond honours were cashed before he exited with the remaining spade. Voila!

The ambitious slam in hearts had come home to roost.

Note how declarer put the jigsaw puzzle together. Recognising that the high spade from West on the first round was an attempt to convey a doubleton holding, declarer figured that East held 4 cards in each major. The minute East followed to the third club, the game was over. Having only spades left, East was helpless when the second round of spades was played (4-4-3-2 shape!).

The final hand illustrates the importance of sticking with the odds and not succumbing to the temptations offered by the defenders. After a somewhat old-fashioned but unrevealing bidding sequence (1♠-1NT-4♠), declarer thanked his partner for providing a suitable dummy and won the lead of the Q with his singleton King.

Sanjoy Bhattacharyya On Bridge: What It Takes

At trick 2, declarer tabled the trump Ace and noted West’s Queen and East’s 2 with interest. What would you do next?

The proficient but somewhat pedantic expert crossed to dummy with a club and disposed of a diamond on the heart Ace.

With a slightly triumphant look, he continued with the ♠10 intending to run it unless East covered. Since he had found a way to restrict his trump losers to a single trick, it was now perfectly acceptable to lose 2 diamonds. When East discarded a heart, declarer realized that he had been beaten by a true master. The actual cards West held were ♠QJ94 QJ104 106 ♣J82.

Finding A with East was a fifty per cent chance as compared to a 3 per cent chance of a singleton ♠Q with West! Despite brilliant defense by West, but declarer should have used his solitary entry to dummy more productively.

As an Italian writer put it:

Genius is neither learned nor acquired.
It is knowing without experience.
It is risking without fear of failure.
It is perception without touch.
It is understanding without research.
It is certainty without proof.
It is ability without practice.
It is invention without limitations.
It is imagination without boundaries.
It is creativity without constraints.
It is…extraordinary intelligence!

For the rest of us, the words of Albert Camus will need to suffice –

“I don’t want to be a genius – I have enough problems just trying to be a man.”

Sanjoy Bhattacharyya is Managing Partner at Fortuna Capital and an avid bridge player.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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