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The Only Thing We Have to Fear
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My last article discussed how players can allow emotions to negatively impact their bidding choices. I included 4 real-life examples where players with the knowledge to choose better bids made poor choices under the influence of their emotions. Kit Woolsey replied with an interesting comment. While I attributed the bad decisions to fear, Kit commented that fear would have driven him to make stronger choices. He said, 

South
xx
xxx
xx
AQJxxx
W
N
E
S
1NT
P
?
"I would raise an opening 1NT to 3NT because if I only invited, I'd be afraid to miss a game."

While Kit's comment was intended as mildly tongue-in-cheek, it conceals serious wisdom. Fear is your body's early warning system. When you are struck by a wave of fear, your mind is warning you that your choice will have a big impact. If you use that fear as an impetus to choose wisely, fear helps you. So what is the difference between Kit, whose fear guides him well, and a weaker player, whose fear is destructive?

Kit and his less-aggressive opposite number are both afraid of humiliation. Kit is afraid of the humiliation he will feel in the IMP comparison, when he reports +110 and hears his teammate reply, "lose 10". The weaker player is afraid of the humiliation he will feel immediately after the deal is finished and he has scored -100 instead of +110. The weaker player fears how he will be perceived by partner and opponents. Kit cares little about how he is perceived. He cares about how many IMPs he may lose.

Embarrassment over a perceived public failure is one of the most natural and most common of human fears. So how did Kit learn to move past these feelings? Years of experience have trained Kit's feelings to focus on what helps him win--the IMP or matchpoints at stake, not the raw score. In the process, Kit has accomplished an emotional conversion that many bridge players, even some talented ones, never fully accomplish. 

How can an improving player acquire the same emotional skills? Josh Donn's advice for overcoming fear of aggressive game bids is simple: overbid often. After a while, going down in game bothers you a lot less. Josh is urging learners to confront their fears.

Suppose every time the correct strain was known and you held a hand worth a game invitation, you jumped to game instead. What would happen? Well, game will either make or it will fail. Over the course of many hands your aggregate results will be similar to your results when you invite. While your fear is realized on some individual hands, over many hands your fear comes to naught. For me personally, aggressive game bidding had an unexpected side effect: it improved my concentration. When one plays frequent touch-and-go contracts, one better make them if one wants good results! And making tenuous contracts on good play is a great way to decrease fear of public embarrassment.

What A Rush...

Another emotional experience which can impact bidding decisions is thrill-seeking. Some players love the rush they get from taking a risk and surviving. Do you remember this hand from my last article?

South
Q
QJxxxx
xx
xxxx
W
N
E
S
1
X
?

The player who held these cards loves pulling the wool over another's eyes. When he sees a chance to possibly exploit his opponent without much chance of getting penalized, he jumps at it. When properly trained, such thrill-seeking can be a useful feeling because it alerts you to opportunities to generate positive IMP swings by disrupting enemy auctions. But to help you win, this response must be tempered by an understanding of the size of the risk and reward. On this hand:

  • 2 is unlikely to prevent the opponents from finding their spade fit because they can bid 2 on moderate strength
  • On those occasions where 2 pushes the opponents too high or drives them too low, the reward is only 5-6 IMPs because their game is NV
  • Lastly even if partner has 4-card support for hearts there is virtually no chance we can have a cheap sacrifice over 4 at unfavorable

So although they may not often punish us, we can expect our IMP victories from 2 to be small and infrequent. But at the table, who has time for all this thinking? 

For many of you, your fear reaction would steer you away from this bid. But could this player's thrill-seeking urge have guided him away from this call? Yes it could. This player needs to learn to react to IMP opportunity rather than on a reaction he will experience at the table. 

Suppose the opponents end the auction in 4. Today, this player would gloat to himself because he has escaped a double. For him, that equates to "success". What if instead, he defers his gloating reaction until he can write +10 IMPs in his scorecard? He would direct his thrill-seeking urge towards situations where a large IMP swing was possible. He would avoid this bid since it offers too little upside, but change the deal a little, and he would bid:

South
QJxxxx
Q
xx
xxxx
W
N
E
S
1
X
?

Similar hand and auction. The risk profile is exactly the same. But this time, the reward profile looks much better. Given that our suit is spades:

  • Chances to interfere with a hypothetical enemy heart game is good. LHO may not have enough to introduce hearts at the 3-level.
  • When the enemy do find hearts but misguess the level, the reward may be 10 IMPs, not 6.
  • Lastly, if we get lucky and catch a large spade fit, we might have a cheap sacrifice in 4.

You may feel the reward still does not justify the risk and if so, that is fine. However, even if you prefer pass, this scenario should be much closer to a bid. And if you enjoy the rush that risking 8-11 bills provides, this is a much better time to take it.

Conclusion

Humans are driven by emotions so it is not surprising that emotions drive bridge decisions. In expert players, emotions work to reinforce bidding decisions that reward them. In weaker players, emotions often work at cross-purposes. Playing expert bridge means both thinking like an expert and reacting like an expert. Training your emotional reactions is an integral part of making yourself a stronger player.

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