Source: BridgeWinners

Ideas for tools and methods on how to improve your game when you are not a naturally brilliant bridge player 

Geeske Joel

For someone who dreams of competing at the highest level, I have come to the game very late. To have a reasonable hope of becoming a top competitor in Bridge, you have to start playing as a teenager or in your early twenties – there are very few exceptions to this rule (Hi Tobi  ). I was in my early forties when I started – so about 20 years too late. That does not prevent me from still wanting to become the best bridge player possible under the circumstances. Of course, it helps tremendously if you have a knack for the game, but there is hope that it is not only raw talent that determines your success. In his bookOutliers , Malcolm Gladwell argues that one needs to spend at least 10,000 hours of practice before one can become an expert in anything one chooses to do. David Shenk supports the same notion that talent is overrated and practice makes perfect in his bookThe Genius in All of Us . These two books gave me the motivation to work hard, and while I will never be a World Class expert, I have become somewhat of an expert on how to improve my game with great efficiency (and with great effort I might add  ). Remember, this is one person’s perspective and it might not work the same for you, but it will offer some suggestions.

Before you read on, you might take a minute or two, get a pencil and paper and think about your main goal in Bridge. Goals can range from as general as mine: become as good as possible under the circumstances, to the low key idea of wanting to enjoy the game to its fullest, to a very ambitious and long ranging goal like placing in the top 10 in a national event. Think about where do you want to be 5 years from now, 10 years from now? Whatever your goals are, you will get closer to them by improving your game. Even if you just want to have fun, it is more fun when you make fewer mistakes and place more often. The list of goals is going to be your motivation.

Next, define your weaknesses. Write them down and keep them in mind when looking toward improving your game. We tend to work on what we already feel good about, not what we struggle with. Write down specific areas you want to improve in and how long you think it will take. This will give you a boost whenever you realize you have improved, sometimes even faster than you had anticipated.

Expert Advice

Many Experts will tell you four ways to improve your game:

  • Play a lot
  • Read a lot
  • FOCUS
  • Find the optimal partner(s)

Play a lot!

Yes, you should play a lot. That is why we love this game; we love to play, to compete and to win. When you play, make sure you understand in detail what happened on every hand and what should have happened. Try to talk to people who are much better than you when you do not understand a situation. Learn from your mistakes.
But, just playing a lot is not enough to optimize your improvement curve. Have you ever heard of any sports where you just play during practice – no, there is conditioning, drills, theory etc. How can we transpose the concept of optimized training to Bridge? Here are a few ideas…

Use computer programs for certain aspects of the game.

Some of the best Bridge writers have come out with computer programs to help you work on different skills in Bridge, for example, Eddie Kantar, Mike Lawrence, Marty Bergen etc. or the deals in Bridge Master 2000. I personally find it much more engaging to work with an interactive program than to read a book. I keep a journal of how I am doing in the different programs and when I revisit the same deals after several weeks or month, I can see that hopefully I am getting them right on my first try more often. These nuggets of feeling success are very important in Bridge because improvement is very hard to measure.
Other possibilities are programs like Bridge Baron or Jack. With these I would be more careful how to use them, because you are playing against a computer and not everything the computer does should be taken as optimal and correct. It is easy to dismiss mistakes you make, play fast, re-deal since that hand was no fun etc. I have used them to work on my counting skills in deals – but you have to show a lot of self discipline not to just goof around and keep paying attention.

Use BBO as a teaching tool.

Where you can play by yourself with the computer programs, BBO is most effective when you have a partner. I personally do not like to play with random people against random people. But you can set up a date with your partner and play against known opponents that are your level or better. Afterwards you can look at the record of the game and go over it by yourself or with your partner. BBO is also a great way to practice bidding with your partner at the Partnership Bidding Tables. You can constrain the HCP or distribution to specifically work on a certain aspect of your bidding system.
The most amazing way to use BBO as a learning tool is to play with a teacher or expert friend. Again, either you play against good opponents or you set up a teaching table, where the expert can play 3 hands simultaneously while you only play one. The teacher can screen the deals so that your side buys the contract every time and by switching seats with your “partner” you can be declarer on every deal. Talk about a work out!
I occasionally play in the Match Point Robot Tournaments but again, playing against Robots can be counterproductive. You have to detach yourself from the result and concentrate on what you want to get out of your declarer play. Use it as a tool to force yourself to count out every hand, high card points as well as distribution… It is easy to only try to beat the competitors in finding the weak spots of the robots and beating the system, not really playing the best bridge or trying to practice declarer play!

Play in tournaments

Constantly challenge yourself! Play as much as possible in tournaments, and play up; what you have heard and read about playing up is so true because you learn the most when you play against better competition, in that they make fewer mistakes and therefore you get away with fewer mistakes. Yes, it is very frustrating at times but it can also be very rewarding. Instead of measuring your success in wins, look at how your percentage improves. Make sure you write down hands you did very well on, keep a record of how well you played in a tournament. The record should not just contain wins… but playing a hand well, keeping your concentration over the period of the tournament, playing one session much better than another etc. Again, measuring your improvement is really difficult, so keeping a record will help you see yourself taking steps forward. We tend to concentrate on our mistakes, so find areas of improvement to give yourself a feeling of success that will increase your self-confidence and motivate you to keep on working.

Read a lot!

We all have to read, whether we like it or not. Depending on your skill level, you can select books from various authors on various subjects. Much more knowledgeable people than me have come up with recommendations of which books are best. Force yourself to sit down – look at it as a study project. Most books cannot be read well in transit; set a block of time aside and make notes along the way. The Bridge Bulletin and Bridge World are more suitable to read on the go. I was pretty intimidated by the Bridge World articles in the beginning. I stuck with it… maybe did not read everything or not as closely as one should and over time, I now find myself enjoying it more and more. As in so many areas, perseverance is more important than anything else. Hearing an idea many times, reading a concept over and over again, and seeing a suit combination several times in action will ensure that the next time you are confronted with a problem, you have a suitable solution in your memory bank.

Focus!

Easier said than done! This is an area I have been struggling with a lot. I am confident that everybody could improve their game by probably 25% if we could just FOCUS. I believe that meditation, visualization, and concentration are key factors to keep focus. I am struggling to meditate but I keep working on it. I use the time between sessions to rest and try to clear my mind for the next game. During important events, I try to keep the socialization before the game and between rounds to a minimum. I try to focus my mind on the task ahead and try to clear other thoughts out it.
A lot of players create mantras to refocus them from one board to the next. This helps to let go of the previous board and move on. Not always easy, but a skill that takes every player to a significant higher level. Examples for mantra’s are: Bidding, Points, Distribution, or: just this hand, focus, or: watch those spot cards.
When you think that general mind training might help you out to get sharp or stay sharp for playing Bridge, there is a set of programs by a company called Posit Science . I have used the program InSight.

Find the best possible partner(s)!

Bridge is a partnership game and having the best compatible partner is as important, if not more important, as how good your skills are. Good vibes at the table are tremendously important. You also want to be on the same trajectory in your desire to learn and improve. It actually does not matter so much if one of you is a little better or worse, as long both of you want to work on your game with the same intensity. Of course, if you can find someone you like and enjoy at the table that is clearly a better player than you are – grab her/him and hold on. You might not always have that opportunity, so consider hiring a teacher. I know not everybody can afford this but IF you know of a good teacher (emphasis on teacher, not player) trust me it is money well invested. It does not have to be a world champion or not even a national champion – just an expert that knows how to teach. If you think about the hourly rate of a handyman or a golf or tennis coach, you will realize that Bridge rates are often quite reasonable and it will improve your game.

Additional training tools

I have created my own learning tools with flash cards and notebooks. One little tool I love to use are calendar leaves from old and current desk type calendars with a Bridge problem a day. I keep them everywhere, in my pant pockets, my backpack, next to my bed and in the car. I read them walking the dog, waiting in the doctor’s office, in line at the grocery store and during boring moments at sporting events. I can highly recommend them to you – again you will see maybe in the beginning that you will not get many right, but over time, more often than not, you see the answer after some thought, and boy that is fun!
I found that solving Sudoku puzzles are great to keep your mind focusing on spots. It is not always easy to keep the spot cards in your head and Sudoku is all about spots…. Spotting the numbers that are missing, spotting them where they are in different rows, columns and squares really trains your brain to recognize spots quickly, a great skill playing bridge. It also is different enough from Bridge that it diversifies the training program a little.

System notes

You should have a written copy of your system, not just a convention card. The more situations you and your partner have discussed and have a way to deal with, the fewer bidding disasters you will encounter and the more confident you are that you can describe your hands well to reach the best contract. For example, do you have a meaning for EVERY bid after partner opens 1NT? What does 1NT – 4Spade Suitmean in your system? Do you have follow ups? Do you know what happens when the opponents are interfering? Do you know which conventions in your system are still on? Lots of match points and IMPs are being lost because of bidding misunderstandings.

Once in awhile, play down….

Everybody needs the feeling of elation and finishing first ever so often. While I truly believe you are getting better by playing up, I also believe it is good to play against your former peers once in awhile and hopefully see how much better you have become. Win a Bracket 8 K.O. at the nationals and you will feel great, probably better than when you had a 51% game in the open pairs.

Identify specific short and long term goals

Coming back to what I said in the beginning, make a list of very specific short and long term goals with the expected time span it will take for you to reach those goals. For example, a very short term goal could be to always have count on the crucial suit, that could be either trump or a suit you are trying to set up. Lets say you give yourself 3 months to get to the point when you basically never lose count on that crucial suit anymore. Another totally different goal could be not to be rattled by comments made by the opponents… Get mentally tougher and shut the opponents out of your game. Again, keep track of your progress and enjoy your improvements.

The Challenge Will Never End…

Bridge is a game of frustration and humility. We are never as good as we hope, defeat will always sting more than success will uplift us. BUT, it will never be boring, always challenging and interesting. While it is a four person game, I believe that you can find ways to practice and learn by yourself. I hope this article provides useful suggestions to those of you that are up to the challenge of improving your game.