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Thinking about Imperfect Thinking

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Author’s Note — This is long and very self-absorbed, but has been weighing on me for a while.

I’ve wanted to be a Bridge expert since college. Not ‘expert’ in the sense of Life Master or one of the better club players, but “threatening to win a national event” expert. Or better.

In High School I’d expected to conquer chess, but achieved only tournament mediocrity after five years. Possibly — if I’d kept trying — I’d have pulled myself up into barely expert rank through sheer perseverance and the slow accumulation of knowledge. But I felt immensely frustrated, I wanted the fast accumulation of knowledge I’d encountered in so many fields. I can’t ‘see’ positions in my mind. I studied openings and would sometimes remember them, but often not. I studied endgames. I studied and studied but during games minutes would tick by. I would be “thinking,” but haphazardly. Loose thoughts, jumbled together in a tangled mass.

So I read and studied more.

One book gripped my psyche and captivated my thoughts. Kotov’s “Think Like a Grandmaster”. In the introduction Kotov tells about visiting a distant chess club andbeing asked to give an impromptu lecture. The crowd shouted requests, that Kotov review a master game or some new opening theory.

He demurs. “There’s no point in learning details if you can’t learn how to think. Let’s discuss thinking

Kotov sets up a position and turns to his audience, “Let’s imagine you’ve been asked to take over for a player who has fallen ill. It is our move, what shall we do?” The story — omitting much chess analysis — continues:

“There are two obvious moves (a kingside and a queenside move). Let’s try the a kingside attack. Does it work? Hm. …Kotov runs through a few moves… no, that last move seems to stop me. OK. What about a queenside pawn push? Hm … runs a few moves … no, that seems to be losing. It’s too slow. Back to the kingside. What if I prepare the sacrifice with this move? No. Hm. Still doesn’t work. Maybe if I do adjust my queenside pawn push.”

Kotov alternates between the two lines then exclaims Then you look at your clock and think “Oh my god, ten minutes have gone by! How could I have only analyzed two lines in ten minutes? I’m going to lose on time!”

And then Kotov grabs his king and castles, saying “So you just castle, without even thinking about it. Its probably safe enough.”

Kotov’s audience roars with laughter, and applauds. They recognize themselves. And I (a young teenager) recognized myself. Kotov then explained that Grandmasters think through a line only once, because they are sure their analysis is right and if they missed something, they are likely to miss it again. The rest of the book is his instruction on how to think. But I could never absorb the lessons, at least not to the level that satisfied me, and at some point I stopped playing Chess.

As this is ostensibly a blog about games, let me present a hand from a Bracketed Swiss (top bracket). (Skip ahead to the Post Hand Analysis, if you don’t care about the details).

Dummy S:QJx H:AJxxx D:Q98 C:Q9

My Hand S:Tx H:KTx D:KJxx C:K8xx

My RHO opened 1 Club, I passed, LHO responded 1 Spade and my partner doubled. RHO raised to two spades, and I bid 3 Diamonds, ending the auction.

I thought partner’s red suits would be equal (or diamonds longer), and could have bid 2N to let partner pick the suit, and I thought that when dummy came down, but I recognized that I could no longer do anything about that. Partner didn’t expect me to have the World’s Fair and compete to the three level, no doubt. Here’s the auction again:

1C   P  1S   X
2S  3D  All Pass

LHO led the club Ten.

After some thought I covered the queen and RHO won the ace. RHO then shifted to a diamond, ducked around to dummy’s nine.

My opponents have a Flight B national championship (I believe); they aren’t bad. Steady players. They make mistakes, but play steadily enough to win a long multi-day event against other Flight Bs.

What play should I make? Here’s my internal monologue:

First things first — Count! Spades are presumably 4-4. With 5-3 I’d have heard a support redouble.The opponents only have 18 points — RHO opened and LHO responded, so it could be 6 (on my left)-12 or 5-13 or 7-11 or maybe something like 4-14. Either opponent could be light. The latter is most likely if LHO has a stiff club, but RHO didn’t return a club.

LHO likely doesn’t have AK of spades, that would be an almost automatic lead.

[Not terribly extensive, but at least I did note those things and counted. That’s better than too many hands. Back to my thoughts…]

I see three options —

  • I could continue with diamonds. This will work spectacularly well if I pick up hearts. But RHO thought pulling trumps was OK. If I lead a trump I risk it going diamond ace and another
  • Or I could lead the 9 of clubs and win the king then ruff, then cross in hearts and ruff another club.
  • Or I could float the 9 of clubs. That 8 of clubs is taunting me.

If LHO led the T of clubs from JT tight (which is the standard lead) the last would be phenomenally bad. Can I tell? I don’t think I can. Restricted choice says its likely Jx, but I don’t know.

I considered the pros and cons of each, but I also spent a fair amount of the time wishing I hadn’t been dealt the 8 of clubs. And considering if I could make inferences from their defense.

In the end, I decided to play the diamond queen (ducked all around), then a diamond to the king (RHO showing out and LHO winning the ace). The opponents cashed their spades (honors split) and put me on the board with a spade (I pitched a club). Thinking again, I decided that

  1. If LHO had the heart queen then he’d be stronger than opener, and
  2. If LHO had the heart queen then from RHO’s point of view hearts were potentially running so a trump shift would be ludicrous.

Given these two data points I finessed against RHO’s heart queen with the ten (winning), pulled LHO’s remaining trump and claimed the rest.

+110, score it up. LHO hissed “Anything but a trump switch” and I looked like a competent bridge player.

I can, in hindsight, say that LHO had 4=3=4=2 shape, but I never found out what LHO’s other club was.

Post Hand Analysis

After the entire hand, I still wasn’t sure whether my play at trick 3 was right. Even analyzing it here, it feels close. Also, I may have played wrong at trick one (although I think I didn’t).

But when I wrote “I decided to play the diamond queen,” I lied.

A more precise description of my mental state: “Being frustrated by not being able to see the correct answer, I eventually just called for the diamond queen to end my indecision.”

Even though it worked, my thinking had stopped. I didn’t call the diamond queen because I knew it to be right (or even right on probability). I didn’t choose it after deciding that my options were too close to call, or a coin flip. I called it out of frustration, before I had finished my analysis.

After the hand I remembered Kotov’s story.

I console myself by remembering that everyone makes mistakes. Here are some I witnessed (or made) in that single day. These players are the best teams of the field. (I am perhaps median in the bracket for strength a few strong players are much stronger than me, but its mostly a bunch of us weak experts).

… Playing in NT with AKQ8x opposite a stiff 9 an expert cashed AKQ and failed to note that the JTx fell on her right, so she called for the low three instead of the high eight.

… Amusingly enough on that hand I (holding 7652) played the 76 on the first two cards and then the 5, because I noted fall of the JTx, so of course assumed the expert would. Given that, I wanted to continue to play my cards top-to-bottom as an unmistakeable signal that I was guarding the upper suit.

After I played the five, I thought “Maybe I should have saved my five because declarer might not have be paying attention.” I decided I was silly, declarer was a solid expert.

When she called for the three I had to sheepishly follow with the deuce. The two of us started laughing and apologizing to our partners.

… I saw an expert make a no hope play that cost a contract. That time I did think “What the hell, its IMPs” and baited her (risking overtricks to offer the failing option). She took it. Dummy instantly noted her mistake.

…(They were also in the wrong contract because she didn’t bid correctly).

… Prosaically — A revoke.

… A few days earlier partner opened 1NT with a singleton because “he had a club mixed in with spades.” We were playing online, the computer sorts the hands. He literally mis-saw a pre-sorted hand.

I’m no better. I chronicled a near-national qualification for Flight A North American Open Pairs and disasters include a hand where I literally could not remember the most basic part of my system. Not obscure, rarely used parts of Polish, mind you. (We all forget the rare stuff from time to time). Bread and butter bidding, in this case — splinters. They show up once a session. (Technically my problem was remembering multiple systems and not being sure which one I played. I was playing standard splinters, and had been for several years at that point).

One partner calls it “Chicken Braining” when you suddenly don’t know things. Where a song name suddenly is gone, or where you can’t remember something until you stop trying. That happens to everyone, I think, but for things like “songs you haven’t heard in a decade,” not “bridge conventions you’ve used for two decades on a weekly basis.”

I remember in college (when I’d been playing for 3 years) making a boneheaded play and my mentor saying “You know better than that.” I remember the shame, because even at that point, I did. I couldn’t explain why I’d done the stupid thing.

I constantly bid or make plays I instantly recognize as mistakes; plays that make me mentally smack my head. I fail to count. I miscount. I can’t tell you the card partner played after the trick is over.

What’s so much worse, is that every once in a while, when I pay attention, I literally mis-see the cards played when I know exactly what I’m looking for.

The funny thing? I’m still a good player. Dangerous … but I rarely win. Too much chicken brain. I can remember the exact details of many of the hands I’ve played in the most recent session. People present me problem hands and I usually get them right. I really am an expert, albeit a weak one.

Kind of where I’d have ended up in Chess. My thinking is just as haphazard as before, but my study of Bridge put my chess study to shame. With so much study I can often recognize the critical point of a position, so I don’t have to think as deeply. It’s like hearing a very complex math puzzle and knowing the answer because I’ve already seen the puzzle solved. Sometimes I just do the obvious things instead of think. But other times hands I’d get right in a puzzle, I miss because I play automatically. Over a full session I’m likely to flub something stupid once or twice (if I’m lucky). Stronger experts don’t flub the easy stuff. And there’s luck … sometimes I can recover or the cards just don’t lie wrong to punish my mistake. (Sometimes my mistake gets lucky and does better than the right play).

At the club I win because the game is loaded with patzers. I won the last club game I played at. But Flight-A events?

I’m too erratic. I can’t really think.

One recent morning I woke up physical refreshed but mentally ambivalent and decided to write the day off. I went back to sleep.

Eventually I got out of bed at a time and sent a note to the office formalizing my status as absent-with-leave. Still feeling a bit groggy and meh, I decided to watch something uplifting and cheery and bright, with songs. (Moana). I felt a bit better, so I grabbed some lunch. Rather, I tried. But my favorite restaurant near my house has a “closed one day a month” policy (and two weeks once a year) that is eminently sensible if you are a restauranteur wishing to retain his sanity, but struck me as a gross injustice when staring at the locked door, craving Thai and only just then remembering their reasonable/infuriating “First Tuesday of the Month” policy.

I’ve had this restaurant be closed a few times in the last year, and each time I thought “Oh, right.”

After a pedestrian, non-Thai lunch I still felt tired, so I napped, and then finally I felt refreshed and OK. I decided to watch a movie that I’d had in my queue — The End of the Tour.

This movie recounts David Lipsky’s interview/road-trip with David Foster Wallace. I haven’t read any of DFW’s fiction, but I enjoy his essays. He writes well (of course), but also takes mundane topics in unexpected directions. And it stars Jason Segel. Now streaming on Netflix. Perfect for a lazy day.

But, much like the green printout sign on the Thai restaurant’s door, I had momentarily forgotten a fact.  David Foster Wallace committed suicide.  (On checking, nearly a decade ago).

The movie is not typical Hollywood. Two hours of writers talking about life, pets, writing, snack food, movies, fame, tobacco, addiction, and writing. It makes me wonder “Who thought this would make a good movie?” But, catnip to me. I routinely turn off movies after a few minutes, but I found this compelling even though nothing much happens.

Good movie. Uplifting it is not. And I had many strange thoughts that tie in with this essay.

(Don’t take this story to mean that I have severe depression. I don’t. But neither do I have the “can-do, turn that frown upside down, let’s face the world with gusty” spirit some people possess. Some days the thought of going out to meet the world fills me with dread. And I have enough resources to simply choose not to face the world, so I sit at home and watch TV, eat Thai food (or not), possibly play computer games or go to the bridge club or write about board games. I relax for one revolution of life’s game clock. This isn’t an “I hate my job” thing, either. I no longer go to the Gathering for ten days because even at five (sometimes less) the noise seems too loud, the colors too bright, and the crowd too maddening. I don’t have depression, so much as a preference for introversion. Perhaps they are related, but depression isn’t a problem for me).

Anyway, the movie is mildly depressing, but also intriguing because DFW spends an equal time contemplating important issues and a similar amount of time caught up with trivia. He describes Infinite Jest as about addiction and the question of “Why do we have so much more than prior generations, but are so much less happy?” (Which makes me want to read that, now). He deals with ethics and philosophy, and comes across as manic-depressive-ish. Not regarding energy, but on the politeness-axis. He is remarkably open in the interview, even dangerously unguarded despite knowing full well that the interviewer can crucify him, then suddenly acts paranoid and terse about letting Lipsky interview others. Wallace freezes up for hours, then suddenly is open and warm beyond measure.

And while I’m not depressed, over the last few years I’ve wondered if I’m losing my mind. Not just normal lapses due to age, or minor facts like the First Tuesday Thai Shortage, or which celebrities are dead. Driving home from a tournament I decided to stop by Trader Joe’s to pick up some things. I’ve been there 50-100 times. I could not remember if it was before or after the highway exit I took. I knew where it was, in the relation to the buildings around it. But not in relation to the exit ramp. Could I get there without turning around?

Didn’t remember.

This is literally two miles from my house, a road I have driven for a decade. A store I’ve been to maybe a few times a month in the years its been open. The exit I take to my house.

Couldn’t remember.

I’m in a meeting meeting where a person says “We’ll agree to do A.” And so I say “OK, we’re doing A.” and the entire meeting says “No, we just agreed to not do A.” I don’t think I mis-heard. These things don’t happen often.

Just enough to make me wonder what’s wrong. I would think it’s normal age related issues, but then I look back on my chess career (as it were) and realize that I’ve always had some problems like this, but I’d just said I’m absent-minded.

Last season of BoJack Horsman featured two episodes (and a few scenes) inside a character’s head, instead of the typical third person POV. One shows Beatrice Horseman (BoJack’s mom) reliving her childhood memories, and also seeing scenes as she seems them now — with dementia.

The people have no faces. She can’t tell them apart.

The other episode was called “Stupid piece of Sh*t” and voices BoJack’s internal monologue: telling himself what to do, to be nice, to not eat food he doesn’t want, to limit himself to one drink.

For all the terrible things he does, he knows better. But he ignores his good intentions. Then he berates himself. (The episode title refers to BoJack calling himself a stupid piece of shit over and over).

It sounded like my internal bridge monologue when I just make a decision without thinking. “Why did I do that? I know better! You stupid *(#&.” Then, in the closing scene, BoJack’s daughter Hollyhock confesses that she has the same internal voice and asks “But, that’s just a stupid teenage girl thing? It will go away, right?”

BoJack assures her it does.

I forced my wife to watch the episode (she hates the show), because I felt like “Finally, someone gets it.” At the time, I felt such elation that one other person …. the writer of some TV show … had the same voice nagging them, berating them.

Thankfully– for me its mostly about being good at games. I’m not driving a Tesla into a swimming pool or getting blackout drunk or driving people away. I’m not suicidal. I’m just annoyed and insulting myself due to avoidable Bridge mistakes. Hooray for the relative unimportance of my terrible decision making!

Every time I sit down to play I tell myself, “this time, I’m going to pay attention, and I’m not going to make a bid or card play and just instantly recognize it as wrong. I’m going to think it through, I’m going to pay attention.”

Sometimes I don’t make it through the first hand.

The End of the Tour conveyed that DFW was self-aware, but not able to improve despite his awareness. (The movie does not touch on his abuse of women). As I said, not uplifting. BoJack suffers the same way.

After my day off I returned to work. Afterwards I swung by the used book store to see what they had and bought several Wallace books. One of them was “This is Water“, a college commencement speech presented in a nice little format and — as such — a ridiculous thing to buy, even used for five dollars.

Wallace talks about compassion, perseverance, and overcoming the problems of mundane existence. It has the following

Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” … It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

(DFW hung himself).

A few days before seeing The End of the Tour I was tinkering with this article (even then several thousand words), struggling to describe my thoughts about being not-as-clever as I wish, feeling stupid about bridge, my patterns of thought. Parts of this essay are nearly a year old. (The parts with DFW are new). Trying to determine how much of this is just:

  • narcissism — I face problems that everyone faces
  • laziness — I don’t work hard enough, and could overcome these issues more effort
  • improper strategy — I have to accept my problems, but find superior work-around to solve them
  • Impossible to fix

I scheduled it to post (again) then pulled it (again) a week before I saw The End of the Tour and picked up the books.

So you’ll understand why another line from This is Water hit so hard.

Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up
feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

I want to re-iterate, I don’t feel depressed. Maudlin, perhaps. One reason I write about games is that it feels easy. Writing about other issues — I could stare at a blank page for hours and never put words down. I have. Writing on a deadline is one of the most terrifying things I’ve done.

And there is nothing inherently wrong about writing about games, or Baseball, or Harry Potter Fan Fiction, or Movies. Good writing is good writing. I don’t pretend all, or even the majority of my writing, is good. But I’m proud of this blog despite wishing I could get better (and spending some time on the mechanics of the craft). But (unlike Bridge or Chess) I never thought “Well, I will become recognized for being a good writer.” So there’s no pressure. My inner voice has sometimes chided me about writing, but infrequently.  In the movie David Foster Wallace (the character) says something like (Paraphrasing) — “it’s fine, even great that Infinite Jest has become so popular and talked about, but even if it were read by only a handful of people I wouldn’t feel like I’ve wasted years of my life writing it.” I assume that David Foster Wallace (the person) said something similar. That struck me as a remarkably healthy attitude, one I wish to have.

Much of what I’ve written here is ephemeral, but I feel the same way about writing and want to feel the same way about the things my inner critic does nag me about.

I’ve long known about my mental quirks — just as many people take Psychology to try to solve their problems, my interest in Cognitive Science is trying to figure out my patterns of thought. (My interest in Cognitive Biases, Less Wrong, HPMOR are likely influenced the same way). For example, after quitting Chess I discovered studies that some people just don’t have as powerful of “a mind’s eye,” and adjusted my bridge strategy to use more literary memory techniques. I don’t exactly burn the midnight oil keeping up with latest science, but I do pay attention. After all, I’ve been calling myself a stupid piece of shit since I failed to master Chess. I’d like to get over it.

Last year Scott Alexander posted a book review that contains

Unbeknownst to me, over the past decade or so neuroscientists have come up with a real theory of how the brain works – a real unifying framework theory like Darwin’s or Einstein’s – and it’s beautiful and it makes complete sense.

I eagerly read Scott’s post, which is difficult to summarize but says your mind is tries to reconcile top-down predictions against with bottom up sensory data (in a Bayesian framework). It will focus attention, discard data, and modify beliefs to get the best fit. It’s a compelling story (although there are problems).

It felt right (especially the attention focusing and data-ignoring) and explains quite a bit. It provided a framework to handle some (possibly most) of my mental lapses. If you expect to see something, you may see it if the data is only off a bit. (Who hasn’t mistaken a heart for a spade at some point? Just not at the most important tournament of their life….) It’s somewhat comforting.

Sadly, it doesn’t give me any practical advice about my problems, other than not to take bridge too seriously (and general mindfulness).

For all my complaining, my mind is phenomenally sharp. (Another of the reasons I’ve unscheduled versions of this post several times is fear that it reads as a humble-brag). I’ve taken pride over my quick thinking, but then feel ashamed because that’s like taking pride for being tall. Nobody picks their height, and nobody ever said “I thought being dumb seemed like the better choice.”

I can’t say I worked hard at it. It just happened. (I am firmly in the camp that you should praise children for effort, not brains, because people can improve their effort). I’ve developed strategies for maximizing my abilities and hiding my limitations from everyone.

Everyone does. We spend our entire lives working on them.

In terms of raw processing power I was dealt a great hand. I just have trouble focusing it. So, I put myself into projects where my strengths are obvious and my weaknesses are minimized. I spend time “thinking about thinking” because I’ve recognized that I’m good when I can enumerate options and rely on prior analysis, and not nearly so good when I have to do the work ‘at the table.’ (That is true for everyone, of course, but since I have real issues focusing at the table, especially true for me).

For some reason, I don’t mind working through a problem by writing. (Hence this post).

I’m not bad at it, even if I still mumble “Stupid” to myself a few times a session.

One of my bridge partners had a stroke last year.

It affected his game (especially in the first few months of his recovery). His concentration drifted. He got tired quickly. Things you’d expect. Textbook symptoms.

But surprises, too. His bidding became wildly aggressive (he even noted it), and he was not exactly on the low end of the aggression spectrum before. He’d quickly claim the contract when there were obvious plays for overtricks (at matchpoints as well as IMPs).  He’d sometimes notice after the hand (or session). Sometimes not. After a few months of recovery, he’s pretty much back to normal, but I sometimes spot a mistake I think he wouldn’t have made, pre-stroke.

And I have absolutely no problem with that. He’s had a stroke, why would I be annoyed at a lapse? I’m not a monster.

Here’s the first point to this long winded essay: its abundantly clear to me that the stroke is responsible for many of my partner’s mental errors.

I’ve spent 25+ years telling myself “concentrate,” “think clearly,” or “visualize the position in your head,” and not being able to. Telling myself to watch the opening lead and remember it, then forgetting. Falling into the rhythm of the game instead of counting. I spent decades berating myself, and just the last few years wondering … am I just not wired up in a way that lets me get this consistently right?

Is this just the intellectual equivalent of color blindness? There are people with aphasia, autism, who can’t read faces. Am I just missing some component?

I’m beginning to think so.

Sherlock Holmes couldn’t be Sherlock Holmes if he were a friendly guy interested in talking to other people. That’s the literary conceit, anyway … but isn’t it true? I see plenty of people trying to will themselves to be good at something, dedicating years of study to it, and being … mediocre, or worse. They can almost improve, but there are hard limits in many cases. I can’t taste what a super-taster does. That’s just a physical difference.

Ever since grad school I’m haunted, feeling that I’m an intellectual Moses, able to see the promised land but never destined to set foot in it. A lack of focus is fine in High School or College, but in Grad School everyone had my mental power and my inability to focus cost. Hard. I can’t make the cut to true expert…. in pretty much anything. I can get close. I’m not asking to hit the home run in the bottom of the ninth in game seven. I’m the guy toiling in the triple AAA league just hoping to make the big leagues. Crash Davis who hasn’t even achieved 18 days in the show.

“What if I’ve always been wired wrong?” That thought takes the wind out of me. Because if I’m wired wrong it sure looks great from the outside world. If I’m missing one component, I have several others most people lack.

But if I’m missing some block, can’t I just be kinder to myself?

Then I think “That’s an arrogant self-pitying thought, you asshole. You’ve heard lots of praise from people who’ve wished they could trade places with you. Just be better.” And I worry that this feeling (“It’s like colorblindness — unsolvable”) is just wishful thinking. An excuse to not get things right.

If I lost my legs I wouldn’t be surprised that I couldn’t walk (even if I still regretted not being able to). But I want to be able to solve my problem, and if I can I definitely should.

I remember an aphorism that “Sometimes there isn’t a problem to be solved, just facts you have to understand.” But now I’m thinking “Worship your intellect and you will end up feeling stupid” and it’s clearly true. I have. I could have used that advice decades ago. I should be kinder to myself.

Maybe I can find a better strategy to compensate. Perhaps I should meditate. Who knows.

I hope I’d have conquered this one after so many years of trying, across so many domains (not just games), but even trying to not worship my intellect I still naturally want to maximize it.

And now — after spending hours on this essay another quote from This is Water literally woke me up a few mornings ago:

Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the
absolute center of the universe

I’ve seen others’ struggle. Watching BoJack my thought was “Ah, one guy gets it.” Reading HPMOR and the fundamental attribution error and knowing all of this about Cognitive Science and thinking about this since the stroke, and I’m just now entertaining the thought that “Everyone gets it.” (Or, if not everyone, a huge section of the population). And I’m looking back on my essay and re-reading my line about how David Foster Wallace seems self-aware and how that struck me.

Everyone else is self-aware. I’ve known that, of course. (I’m not a monster). But I don’t experience it. It’s the water I swim in. I’ve been struggling with this for decades, and now I wonder just how many people are.

I only noticed that David Foster Wallace was self aware because I can heard it in his voice (technically Jason Segel’s). Even then I had to literally have it spelled out for me in an essay. I hear Wallace … and BoJack  and all of Kotov’s audience and so many other characters who seem more alive than people I deal with because I got a glimpse of their point of view…. struggle with problems they intellectually know how to solve and can’t overcome.

And I see them fail. Kotov didn’t produce a room full of Grandmasters, but his book may have helped us all a bit.

I read David Foster Wallace’s speech about how to live a good life and avoid dying inside before you kill yourself.

But David Foster Wallace killed himself. With all his awareness, his depression wasn’t a problem he could solve.

Before I knew — intellectually — that I wasn’t alone. I’d struggled trying to get my inner critic to quiet down, while still trying to improve, but now I don’t feel alone. That won’t solve my problems, but it makes me feel like I should be kinder to everyone, including myself.

And that’s something.

PS — One of the final reasons I didn’t post this last year is that I felt it would be of no interest to anyone else, which I now see as the exact same lack of empathy as before. You can read This is Water, online.


Written by taogaming

August 12, 2018 at 11:30 am

A rare event

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In the finals of a KO we are playing in the finals. We played our opponents in the first round (a 3-way round robin) and lost to them, but beat the other team to sneak into the next round. (2 of the 3 advance). They are annoyed at having to play us again.

But unlike the first round we are wide awake (since it’s not 10am) and nobody is under the effects of a surgery the day before, so we’re running away with it. I was worried going into the half that we were down 20 IMPs, since all the decisions I made turned out poorly. There’s a game we avoided that needs 2 finesses and a 3-3 break. It makes. We get to a 70% game … trumps rail and it fails. The other team isn’t good enough that I can trust them to be in the “right” game and miss the “wrong” ones.

I needn’t have worried. We’re up by 21 at the half. And in the second half we have only upside hands. The opponents have missed a cold slam. I did go down in 3N when I pick up a 25 point hand that might make with gross misdefense, but there’s just no communication and I think it will be a push. Our defense and declarer play feel solid, better than the opponents will do.

The final hand is something like S:Q98764 H:QTx D:x C:Kxx. Nobody vulnerable.

LHO deals and opens 1NT. Partner passes and RHO bids 2 Diamonds (a transfer to hearts). I could bid 2 Spades to take up space, but there’s not much point. RHO knows the score. LHO will likely pass and RHO will re-open with a double with any invitational hand. I pass. LHO bids 2 Hearts and it gets passed back to me. I could pass, but I think I’ll fight for the partscore. Partner is marked with something, maybe a fair something amount. Worst case is about 8 points. I could still go for a number, but only if I hit a spade stack and even then LHO or RHO may pull with an extra heart.

The opponents haven’t doubled us very aggressively. At matchpoints I think bidding is correct, but IMPs is pushy. I’m risking probably 13 IMPs to win 2-6 (and on a bad day I could go for 18) but I think the win 5 is much more likely, and I’m just feeling it. Hearts are breaking nicely (although I do have some values in hearts). Even if partner has 3 hearts, I can hope for 2 spades. I bid 2 Spades and it goes all pass.

LHO leads the diamond ace, partner has something like S:T2 H:Axx D:QJxxx C:QJx. Nice hand partner. It fits well. Actually, I’m surprised I’m not doubled. RHO had a maximum pass, should realize they need a swing. She should double. But that’s not the problem at hand, I follow to the diamonds and consider the hand.

LHO leads a heart. Well, I’m not going to win the ace, because when I lead a trump if LHO wins he’ll have another heart to lead and get their ruff. May as well lose to the king now. But it goes small — jack and I win the queen. Did LHO actually underlead his heart king? It’s a reasonable shot, but I don’t know if this opponent could find that.

I lead the spade four — I certainly need to pull trumps before attacking clubs and LHO plays the five. I’m about to call for the ten and I stop and think.

If I play the Ten, RHO will win an honor (I assume) and lead a heart through no matter who had the heart king. I’d have to guess whether to play the ten or not.

If spades are 4-1 and RHO has a stiff, then playing the ten only wins if RHO has the stiff 3. And if LHO had AKJ5, wouldn’t he win the jack and clear hearts? expecting to always score the five via ruff? I’m not sure. I think a good player would fly with the jack, but maybe not. Is there a benefit to having the ST in dummy? On some hands keeping a high spade in dummy would matter, but I don’t see it for this hand. Maybe it will create hallucinations in the enemy.

But I think spades are 3-2.

If they are 3-2 I’m always losing three spades. And I’d prefer to lose this one to my LHO to spare myself a guess if he led small from Kx. (Or, I suppose, if he opened an offshape 1NT, but this doesn’t seem their style). And maybe he’ll continue diamonds! I haven’t exactly thought quickly, so everyone knows I have an issue. I call for the deuce …. RHO blinks for a few times and follows with the three.

My plan has worked! (Hopefully trumps aren’t 4-1). And then I realize:

While pulling the first round of trump, I lost a trump trick to the five! With all following! Just like I hoped!

LHO leads the heart king, proving that he could find the heart switch from Kx. But it’s a mistake — he should know I have the heart Ten. (With JTxxx of hearts, RHO should play the Ten, not the Jack). I win the ace and play the spade ten. both opponents follow (RHO started with J3) so I face my hand and concede the remaining high trump and the club ace. Making 3, for +140, winning 6 IMPs on the hand, and getting a fun story.


Written by taogaming

July 23, 2018 at 9:45 pm

Posted in Bridge

Never in a million years…

We are doing reasonably well in a Swiss teams, event. Earlier I held something like:

S:Kxx H:T8 D:Qx C:Jxxxxx

and partner opens 1 Heart. I could bid 1 NT (Semi-forcing) but since I’m playing Polish 1H is capped at 17 HCP (and rarely that strong). So, best to pass right away and prevent partner from jumping with his 15 points or (more likely) bidding 2 Diamonds and then I have to bid 2 hearts. If I’m lucky LHO will double back in and I can bid clubs over 1 Spade.

But LHO passes. Partner wins the opening lead and plays a small heart towards dummy …. Jack … small, pitch.

A 6-0 heart break. Sad trombone.

But we won that match and are sitting down against a Grand Life Master with multiple national championships and his partner (no slouch, either).

I pick up S:9xxxx H:Q D:xxx C:AJ92

Partner opens 1NT. I could pass, but I think I’ll transfer into spades.  If partner super-accepts then I’ll chance the game. If not, I’ll pass and hope that spades is OK. A bit weaker and I’d pass. (Passing 1N isn’t wrong, by any means, but this gives me chance to get into a borderline game and even if there isn’t game 2 Spades is probably as reasonable as 1NT).

I bid 2 Hearts and my LHO (the Grand Life Master) is in there with 3 Diamonds. This gets passed to me. I still don’t want to force to game, but partner doesn’t know if I have any values and may be wishing he could double 3 Diamonds. I double. Partner will likely sit with two spades. LHO passes and partner passes and now RHO goes in the tank. Eventually, he passes.

My partner leads the heart king and RHO says “Never in a million years will you guess my hand” and tables the AKQ8xx of spades. His full hand is

S:AKQ8xx H:xx D:x C:KTxx

The play is brutal and fast. Heart king, heart ruff, diamond to partners king, heart ace (I pitch the deuce of clubs encouraging), club 8 (conventionally, either a singleton or promising one higher card which must be the queen, as I can see the rest), king ace, small club back to partner’s queen, heart ruffed, club jack at which point declarer ruffs high and concedes another high trump.

The full hand


          S: xx H:AKxxx D:AKx C:Qxx

S:-- H:JT9xx D:QJTxxx C:xx    S:AKQ8xx H:xx D:x C:KTxx

         S:97xxx H:Q D:xxx C:AJ9x

The really impressive thing is that everything is so reasonable. East could have overcalled 2 Spades, but decided to wait and see, and must have been shocked beyond belief to hear my transfer into spades. West …. fearing that opponents may be off to the races got in a space eating lead-directing overcall. You can argue that any bid is pushy or poor judgement, but its not totally out of left field. East considered pulling 3D-X to 3 Spades or 3NT, but those have their own problems.

(At the other table East bid 2 Spades, off four undoubled, which is also beyond my ken).

And in the category of “poor opponents” we have the other weird hand of the day.

I pick up S:8xxx H:K D:AQJ98 C:Qxx

Partner opens 1 Heart, I bid 2 Diamonds (not necessarily game forcing), partner bids 2 Hearts, which could be a sixth heart or just waiting without extras. I bid 2 Spades, showing my shape and confirming a game force. (Yes, we might go down in game, but I have an opening hand, so I’m forcing).

Partner bids 4 Diamonds.

I think this is a splinter showing 4 spades and a stiff diamond, (since 3 Diamonds would be totally forcing and set diamonds) but delayed jumps are not alertable, so I don’t alert. I was just a mere game force and I have all my values in diamonds, so I signoff in 4 Spades. Partner thinks for a bit and jumps to 6 Diamonds.

(Now I think partner misbid and was slammish in diamonds). I pass. Thankfully nobody can be accused of “waking up” due to an alert.

LHO leads a club and I am surprised to find myself in a non-hopeless contract.

Dummy has S:KJx H:AQJxxx D:T7xx C:–

Wishing that dummy had my nine of diamonds, I ruff and lead a small diamond to my queen. Perhaps I should lead the diamond Ten, but I think I need a stiff king or Kx onside, since I’ve already ruffed a club. The DT wins against Kxx onside and 3-3 hearts, but losses against stiff King onside (unless hearts are 3-3). I’d really like hearts to be 3-3. I can’t figure out the odds and anyway that’s what I did at the table.

It goes small diamond, jack (keeping my 98 so I can overtake) and LHO wins the diamond king.

But … she starts to think. That’s good. Very good.  She doesn’t have the spade ace and (for her point of view) leading a spade into the spade bidder (who was willing to play in the four spade game) looks like a good way to solve the suit. She may be looking at the spade queen or afraid of finding partner’s spade queen.

She eventually returns a trump and I win in my hand (they break two-two) cash the heart king, ruff a club in dummy and claim when hearts break no worse than 4-2.

Looking at all four hands, LHO could have led her doubleton spade to her partner’s AQ and gotten a ruff and possibly picked up her stiff DK.

Sometimes there is no justice in Bridge.

         S:KJx H:AQJxxx D:T7xx C:--

S:xx H:???? D:Kx C:?????   S:AQxx H:xx D:xx C:A???? (E-W hands approximate)

        S:xxxx H:K C:AQJ98 C:Qxx

Written by taogaming

March 4, 2018 at 7:50 pm

Posted in Bridge

Damn, wish declarer was a point stronger

Played in a swiss, terribly. Got trump squeezed when I could have seen it coming, but I’m not terribly upset by missing it. Later on I’m defending 3N and declarer has had to concede her fourth trick to me (setting up her diamonds).

I have actually been paying attention, and the auction helped. I know the following cards:

           Dummy: S:AJ8xx H:x

Partner S:?? H:Jxx C:x    Me: S:T9xx H:x D:x

           Declarer S:? H:AQ9 D:2 winners

I’m giving partner the HJ, because if he doesn’t have it nothing matters (or if he’s stronger). He can’t have more than that (left) on the auction (one of his spades must be an honor as well, the KQ are still out, but declarer needs an honor for her bid). It’s clear to me that if I return a heart or diamond declarer will run her winners and end up in this position

        Dummy:  S:AJx

Partner: S:(K/Q)x H:J

        Declarer: S:(K/Q) H:9 D:Winner 

No matter what spades are, on the diamond partner is squeezed. If he pitches a heart, that’s it. If he pitches a spade declarer can lead her honor and overtake when partner plays the other honor and the jack is good. (Even if partner had both KQ of spades, he’s squeezed).

Well, nothing to it. Lead a spade. Break communication between the hands and when declarer runs her diamonds partner just pitches his spades.

I lead a spade and declarer plays her stiff Queen and …. partner thinks and plays the king. Hand is over. Declarer wins the ace, pitches her little heart on the spade jack, and claims.

As mistakes go, its a forgivable. (In fact, I made a terrible one just the hand earlier, so partner may have been fuming at that ….)

Only … I wish declarer had been a touch stronger.

If declarer held the spade KING, partner would have had no chance to go wrong.

Written by taogaming

February 25, 2018 at 10:40 pm

Posted in Bridge

A little embarrassing

They have a mentor-mentee system at the local bridge club, and for years I’ve been shocked at who is allowed to mentor. Simply atrocious. So this year I volunteered and had my first mentee game today. She’s a lovely lady from Indonesia and not exactly a novice. (The yenta who arranges the partnerships said she’d played, but using an Indonesian system. This turns out to be — as far as I can tell — basic Precision with some weirdness).

We’re playing simple Standard American bidding with the minimum of agreements (Stayman, Jacoby, Blackwood, Strong jumps, weak 2s and negative doubles) and practically no signals on defense.

Early on I have a few problem hands, because I can’t decide if she’s bidding ‘correctly’ or ‘like a novice.’ On the very first hand I have to decide if her jump to game is a weak preempt or an opening hand. I decide to treat it as a pre-empt (which is what it should be) and miss a slam.

Later on I bid 1 club with a balanced 12 count and the (expert) on my left bids 4 Spades. She bids 4 NT.

I’ve seen very strong partnerships (like a married couple with ~20k master points between them) get into hissing matches as to what 4N means in that situation. I’m firmly in the “game before slam” school of thought … it means you aren’t sure where to go, not Blackwood. There’s an argument that it could be to play. Partner has agreed to play negative doubles, but we defined very little of the card so far, so I have no idea how high we play them. I’m looking at AJxx of spades, so partner could have Kx of spades and mean it to play, but that’s ballsy. (On her part. I have no problem believing my LHO would preempt to the four level on a QT seventh suit non vulnerable).

I know that she knows Blackwood. I also know — from long personal experience — that even some strong players think 4N is always Blackwood. Newer players love having a bid where they know the meaning.

I treat the bid as Blackwood. Wrong! Partner bid 4N to play (with Kx of spades and about 17 HCP).

We get too high, and I apologize, tell her that her bid was fine but that I wasn’t sure what she meant.

We get to another slam off an ace and the trump queen, and the queen is off. No problem there, we just don’t play key card blackwood.

Apart from near-slams, we’re doing fine. One expert makes a matchpoint double, hoping for +200. Partner calmly collects +870 (doubled overtrick). She sometimes chooses an inferior line, but she doesn’t block suits, etc. By about halfway through the game, I realize she is in fact a good ‘novice.’ Every time we play another mentee (or even a player with only a few years under their belt) we do well.

I pick up S:xxx H:xxx D:QTxx C:Qxx. Not much to write home about, unless you like letters involving flat hands lacking controls.

My opponents are a married couple that are acquitances of the family. The husband (an intermediate) had lunch with my grandfather two days ago. He opens 1N and his wife (aggressive, but a better cardplayer) put him into 3N without much thought. Partner leads the three of clubs.

Since this is a teaching game, I note to myself that partner should prefer leading a major if its borderline and as dummy hits I also note that my RHO had her bid. Probably because her husband was declaring.

          Dummy  S:Qx H:JTx D:98xxx C:AKx

Club 3 led                     Me: S:xxx H:xxx D:QTxx C:Qxx

Declarer thinks for a bit, the plays the club ace. He now plays the spade queen, king and ace. I expect a fourth spade (and maybe a fifth) but declarer surprises me with the club jack, partner follows with the deuce and declarer studies that, then calls from the club ace.

I follow but before declarer can call for the diamond I realize I’ve made a mistake. She led the three, then played the deuce. If I trust partner, she started with five clubs.  I’m also kicking myself because I didn’t note the card declarer played at trick one. But if partner is telling the truth then a) declarer’s play is terrible and b) that’s not my problem, but I needed to throw my club queen under the ace.

But I’ve missed my chance. I play a small diamond and declarer’s jack is taken by my partner’s king. She cashes the spade ten and — thankful for the second chance and willing to look silly if I’m wrong — I discard the club queen. I’m pretty sure I’m right. Partner doesn’t play many signals, but fourth best leads she seemed solid with.

Partner notices my discard and quickly puts down the club nine — declarer started with JT tight — and two more clubs.  I have no problems in discarding and we get them another trick for down two.

Everyone is saying my discard was excellent but I quietly inform partner that it should have been done earlier. “If you hadn’t had the high spade, the suit would have blocked.” Dummy has a few words for her husband about his (double plus ungood) line of play.

Partner comes back down to earth later on, and I got a few points of discussion on standard bidding and cardplay. Amazingly, as we’re going over the hands I hear that we scratch in our direction in Flight A (and win B/C outright), with a touch over 50% (the three expert pairs sitting our direction destroying the field, mostly).

More importantly, I’ve avoided anything too embarrassing.

Written by taogaming

February 11, 2018 at 12:54 am

Posted in Bridge

A full weekend of Bridge

means a full weekend of weirdness. We had a day of pairs to knock of the rust to prepare for the North American Open Pairs Texas/Mexico qualifiers. (We did not knock of rust). We then played in the NAOP top flight and had a pretty good morning session and an atrocious afternoon to fall out of the running. Then we paired up with another non-qualifying pair to win the second bracket of the Swiss Teams.

I made my typical number of mistakes most days. In the NAOPs they were brutally punished and in the second bracket, they rarely were (unless the mistake did not require the opponents to do anything, like dropping the wrong card at trick 12).

Among other things:

  • I found a strip squeeze (for down one, of course), then the opponent discarded a suit he was guarding, which made me stop and recount … incorrectly. If everyone plays correctly, I’m off one. Defender plays incorrectly, so I should make; but my recount is wrong  — Down two. Typical.
  • Based on a mis-understanding, I doubled a cold 3N and then a non-cold 4m when they ran.
  • Partner held an all-black hand. S:AKJxxxxxx H:– D:– C:Q9xx.
  • Based on stupidity, I ran when they redoubled 4H. Amazingly, it may be possible to make it despite a 6-0(!) break. (Double dummy it makes, and the play may be railroaded into the right line).
  • You may remember Jeff Goldsmith’s Bridge without Sam columns. Met Sam.
  • Sam was playing a system that makes Polish seem pretty normal, a Blue-club style system except that instead of 1D, 1H and 1S showing 12-16 HCP, it shows 8-12 (in 1st and 2nd seat). Had an interesting hand where I knew everything I needed right away (it helps that I played Blue Club for a dozen sessions) but unfortunately all the information told me that I had a sure fire make if Sam held the club queen and would need a gross misdefense otherwise. (He did not, and they did not). On the other hand we got to a messy 3S instead of defending a non-hope 3H, but managed to make.
  • A deliberate dog walking by partner turned a likely  +620 /+650 into a potential +170/+200 and was rewarded with a double to net +1130.  (At IMPs!) Another hand I had a near game decision, chose to only invite, and was rewarded by being doubled in 3, but that was matchpoints, so just a top.

And finally, a single hand as seen by dummy:

I held a terrible S:xx H:J9x D:JT8xx C:xxx. LHO opened 2S in 3rd seat, partner bid 2N and I passed. The opening lead was a small diamond — jack, queen, discard by partner!

“No diamonds partner?”


“Uh, ok.”

He held S:AQxx H:AQxx D:– C:AQJx and thought the most likely auction after a double would be 3D be 2N (a weakness relay) followed by 3D (which was correct). That would have been the auction. As he said “”My choices were to bid 2N or to double and have to bid 3N.”

If I had 4 hearts and any values (or any 5 hearts), I could still bid after 2N. The only disaster would be if I had exactly four hearts and minimal values, I’d probably pass 2N. Risky, but correct today.


Written by taogaming

January 21, 2018 at 7:42 pm

Posted in Bridge

A missed super-criss-cross squeeze and Some random notes

Interesting bridge hand from today.

Dummy: S:T9xx H:Txx D:KJx C:AJx

Declarer S:AKQ H:AQ9xx D:Ax C:Txx

Contract 4 Hearts with the lead of the spade 7 from West.

Short story — winning, I decided not to take the diamond hook, since it was 50/50 and there may be a stiff spade. So Diamond ace, diamond king, small heart (catering to KJ tight) When the jack appeared without much thought and the queen won, I decided to drop the king and use the HT as an entry, which worked. At this point pleased with the results so far I forget to rectify the count  for a squeeze by ducking a club. I didn’t, and only made five (when spades were 4-2 and nothing particularly good happened).  I made a comment “there must be some Criss-Cross squeeze somewhere” (see link for details). So I was awake and yet brain dead at the same time. Typical.

Later on I realized I messed up even earlier. Given that I am not taking the diamond finesse, better to keep the ace in my hand and keep Criss-Cross positions in all three suits! This also has the benefit when I lose a trump trick that I may not get overruffed in diamonds (rare) or lose my DJ menace (common). Now when the hearts break I can lead a club right away (I need to lead the Jack) and then win the return and draw trumps. Assuming a spade return, I end up with

Dummy S:T9 D:Jx C:A

Hand S:Q D:A C:Tx

There has to be a squeeze here (unless a card is already falling under the ace). Since each suit is blocked, its a kind of super-criss-cross. Assume one player guards spades (Jx) and Diamonds (Qx). I lead the club ace and then it resolves to a criss-cross with spades and diamonds. If I think that one player guards spades and clubs, I lead the diamond ace, and if I think one player guards clubs and diamonds I lead the spade queen. (Of course, if one helpless soul guards all three, they have already been squeezed).

As in any criss cross, declarer must read the position correctly: not likely given that I botched the hand. (And a non-spade return also breaks up the criss-cross in that suit, so I may have to go to a less esoteric line). Still, I don’t think I’ve seen this before, but probably I just never noticed before.

(Update — As Jeff pointed out in the comments, this is all wrong).

I am also resolved to not bid any more grand slams in club games, even if I think it is highly likely. Only one pair bid the correct small slam, so even if the grand made (sigh) I was risking 9 matchpoints to gain 1. The hand was a rock crusher S:AKQJ H:Axx D:AKxx C:Ax.

Also played today — More Jump Drive, and Vast: the Crystal Caverns. Regarding the latter — some good ideas, nice asymmetry between the players, although it sounds like they aren’t well balanced. Good art, somewhere between Groo and The Grizzled. The TaoLing also played Illumat, which I must admit looks wonderfully gothic.

Written by taogaming

December 28, 2017 at 10:58 pm

Posted in Bridge, Session Reports