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Juniors Who Play Exotic Systems

We often see juniors playing unusual systems. This article documents the nature of the phenomenon and how the playing acumen of players evolves due to playing these systems.

Many juniors begin playing systems that fundamentally differ from the three mainstream types: two over one, precision and Polish club. Some make the change due to individuality, after seeing many older players play similar systems (two over one in North America and Western Europe, precision in North America, Eastern Europe and East Asia and Polish club in Central Europe). This is not so different from the kids who listen to different music and eat different foods from their parents. The sense of individuality that has largely characterised millennials plays a role in adopting a new system. These systems also appeal to the sense of structure that has attracted many who excel at mathematics and informatics to bridge.

Once juniors begin adopting the system, selective memory filters the good results achieved using the system. For instance, a pair who plays a relay system may remember the time the system revealed a grand slam in a 5-2 fit instead of the inferior conventional grand reached using natural methods. Declarer called out partner’s hand before the opening lead, fully knowing that some advantage could be gained from the limited trump fit. But many more gains from exotic systems come from unfamiliarity. The mainstream bridge crowd often coughs up good results due to unfamiliarity and the lack of an automatic counting facility that could remedy the gap. The juniors remember these instances, much more than the competitive bidding deficiencies or outright system mixups, which reinforces the affinity for playing the system.

Playing exotic systems is a phase in a bridge player’s career, like psyching. Several years ago, Ron Smith asked Jeff Meckstroth and the late Paul Soloway how to curb the natural desire to psych in juniors. Meckstroth and Soloway described psyching as a phase players go through, one that should be allowed to run its course. Curbing the tendency to psych would simply cause more problems later on, and playing some atrocious contracts would give the juniors an opportunity to remain calm in the face of adversity. I largely relate the tendency to psych to the proclivity to play exotic systems. The period comes with the capriciousness that provides flavour and character to junior bridge, and ends with a broader perspective on the game that is becoming a prerequisite to play at higher levels.

My personal experiences playing Tarzan Club, a symmetric relay precision variant developed by Simon de Wijs and Bauke Muller, are a typical example of the three points. Matt Haag provided the notes in late 2005, while he was an econometrics lecturer at the University of Warwick and I was a probabilistic combinatorics graduate student at Rutgers. This ensured we had plenty of time to be different from all the old fogeys who played two over one or modern Acol. We spent most of this time in the Bridgebase bidding room, appreciating the beauty of the relay system and its ability to reach minor suit slams that were not biddable within our other partnerships. One of the most memorable auctions from this period was the local tournament when an opponent asked about each and every of our fifteen bids from one club to a difficult six clubs. While it was difficult to notice the phase at the time, it is extremely clear to both of us now.

There is no doubt that we had worse results with Tarzan club, compared with 2007 when we both started working for PricewaterhouseCoopers and reverted to a very vanilla two over one. Many reasons lead me to believe our experience is not unique, that playing exotic systems leads to a momentary dip in results. First, as Skid Simon alluded to in Why You Lose at Bridge, there is always a learning curve associated with more agreements. As a partnership practises more to learn the agreements, bids made are less mainstream, which results in reduced bidding accuracy. Second, with concentrated efforts toward the bidding system, much less mental energy can be devoted to competitive bidding, declaring and defending. Errors in these departments rise much faster than the system wins. Third, and related, juniors simply do not have sufficient experience to make competitive bidding and defence automatic. Especially on Bridgebase, most juniors have a handful of partners, which dilutes the focus away from defensive bidding and cardplay in the context of the exotic system.

Results from recent junior tournaments support my belief that naturalist juniors perform better. Due to frequent wine tasting trips to Napa, Kevin Fay and I played only 120 hands prior to the Istanbul tournament. Our agreements fit on two wine labels, and a quarter of them were related to lead and defensive carding agreements. Justin Lall believed that we played in superior form, levels that we have rarely achieved since. Furthermore, despite the inherent luck of butler scores, the top five pairs in Philadelphia were naturalists. While exercising our seating rights, I would always take the same cards as the pair playing the least natural system. The ensuing variance helped us during several round robin matches and the quarterfinal match.

With all these reasons for loss, one might read this as a rant against exotic systems. But that is not the point of this discussion. Despite having no intentions to return, I fondly remember the days playing Tarzan Club for the benefits and perspective they accorded. Working on nailing opponents within Tarzan Club has made me much more comfortable playing against strong club systems. I have a much clearer intuitive notion of when and how to interfere. The principles outlined above also serve as a framework for me to evaluate the ability of junior players. Whether setting team games on Bridgebase or taking seating at the world championships, the principles provide a bit extra to think about the soft factors in the game. To stop juniors from playing exotic systems would deprive them of the experience and ensuing benefits. It would be more productive to understand their thoughts as this phase of their bridge career unfolds.

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