Thursday, August 05, 2004

Rubber Bridge

I played a lot of bridge on my recent beach trip, and let me tell you something. Bridge is an amazing game. Possibly the best game ever designed from a deck of cards. It takes skill, intelligence, memory, teamwork, and it never gets old. Like chess, it's fun and playable at the beginner level and the intermediate level, and takes on a whole new level of strategy at the expert level.

But I have one giant complaint when it comes to bridge, and frankly it's stupid that I should be the one making it, as it's such an obvious flaw in the game. But someone has to point it out. If you don't know the rules of bridge or don't care, you can skip this. This goes into the minutae of the game.

My complaint concerns the scoring. Bridge has a somewhat convoluted scoring system, one that actually reminds me of tennis in its arbitraryness. (0-15-30-40-game?) In bridge you have two different values for contracts in the major vs. minor suits, vulnerability, scoring above and below the line, points for overtricks, 2 games to a rubber, part-scores, etc. It's a big mess.

But my complaint with the scoring is not the complexity, it's the fact that the scoring, well, ruins the whole game.

Let me start with my underlying philosophy in this matter: the scoring system of any game or sport exists to service the game. It exists as a way to keep tabs on who is performing better than who. A good scoring system rewards the best play and therefore encourages the best play. A bad scoring system is one that rewards the players for something other than optimal play.

Don't you feel a little uneasy when football players call timeouts, not because they need to confer with the coach on strategy, but because they want to put more time on the clock? Or how about when basketball players decide that their best strategy is not to score baskets, but to keep possession and just let the time expire? These are perfectly legal moves, and yet they suggest an error has been made at the rules level. The players are exploting loopholes in the rules, and in some fuzzy way are violating the spirit of the game.

But those are mild problems compared to the one in rubber bridge. The one in bridge, as I said, ruins the game. Here's my case.

Bridge is at its best and most challenging when the partnership arrives at the highest contract possible, in the highest valued suit possible, and then makes that contract. When a player picks up a new hand, his object should be to communicate carefully with his partner, try to figure out how many tricks are possible, and then reach for that goal. The scoring system in rubber bridge, sadly, actively discourages players from arriving at an optimal contract almost every single time.

Here's the simplest example. You and partner, it seems, can almost certainly make 5 hearts. 6 won't be possible, since you know you have two losers. But really, you don't expect to lose more than those two. Let's say you know all this information at the 4-level of bidding. What do you bid?

Well you won't bid 5 hearts, that's for sure. Why would you? There is absolutely no reason to bid 5 hearts, the way the game is scored. It's either 4 or 6. There are several contracts that you just can never bid in rubber bridge, despite the fact that they may be the most challenging contracts that a savvy partnership could reach through intelligent bidding. These contracts include 5 hearts and spades and no trump, 4 diamonds and clubs and no trump. You would just never settle on these contracts, unless you had to perform an emergency stop on 5 spades en route to slam. Either way, you aren't getting any more points for making 5 spades than you would if you had bid 4 and made an overtrick. Right off the bat, out the 35 possible contracts in bridge, 6 of them have automatically and arbitrarily been declared worthless by the scoring system, even though one of those contracts might be the "optimal" contract, the best one to play.

The other, more general way rubber bridge scoring actively discourages optimal contract bidding is by always putting the players within arm's reach of game. If you've got a partial, why the heck would you try for 5 diamonds when 3 diamonds could be made easily? Ever hear your partner with the scoresheet remind you "All we need is one"? Screw that! Thinking in terms of reaching game instead of how to make the best contract possible absolutely sabotages the essence of the game. And in rubber bridge this kind of compromise attitude towards the bidding happens almost every single hand.

Ah, comes the retort, That's the beauty of duplicate bridge! Pure skill is rewarded! Those meaningless overtricks in rubber bridge are highly significant on the duplicate scoreboard!

Well, you know something? That answer isn't good enough. It's hard enough getting four players together for a game around the kitchen table, let alone 40 for a duplicate tournament. For lots of us, that option isn't there.

But even duplicate bridge doesn't solve the problem. Sure, you don't have to worry about partials, but the core scoring sytem is still in place. There's still no advantage to bidding 5 hearts if you can bid 4 and make an overtrick. And small differences like that are really where expert skill comes into play. Duplicate will remain flawed as long as the rubber bridge scoring system remains at the core of scoring.

The whole concept of vulnerability also interferes with optimal bidding and play, as it can give one partnership different priorities and levels of risk-aversion than the other. But this isn't as serious a problem because it will generally affect both teams equally. Finally, 100 Honors rewards a lucky hand, not skillful play. It should be dropped.

So what, therefore, would be a good scoring system for bridge? The answer: I don't know yet. It would have to set a goal, similar to game or rubber, but one that a) didn't encourage compromise bidding, and b) didn't place arbitrary high value on certain random contracts. It would reward play based on pure skill. It would have to go even further than establishing a ratio of tricks to points. The ideal scoring system would have to be savvy enough to know the difference between a 6 heart contract that was skillfully bid and made, and a 6 heart contract that was overbid through sloppyness but made through wildly good luck. That's a tall order. I'll work on this new scoring sytem and report back when I have it.

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