The Salesman and the Investor

Edgar Kaplan‘s Winning Contract Bridge starts thus:

There are two great families of card games. In one, the objective is to form combinations of cards which have an arbitrary value. In the other family, to which contract bridge belongs, the objective is to win tricks.

What follows is the main point of the book: that in Contract Bridge, bidding is everything.

I guess in a number of ways I belong in my grandparents’ generation. I’m a capitalist, I’m early to bed and to rise, and I really, really like Contract Bridge. And all of this gets in the way of a healthy social life. At least if you say you like Dungeons and Dragons people will do you the courtesy of laughing at you. For Bridge, you most often get blank stares. It’s so unusual these days that it’s almost as if people don’t know how to parse what you’ve just said. So in the extremely likely event that people reading this have no idea what “bidding” is in Contract Bridge, here’s a brief explanation of how the game works.

Everyone is dealt 13 cards, and everyone plays one card per hand until they’re all gone. Each hand involves everyone putting down a card in turn, and the highest card wins. This is called “winning the trick,” and the player who wins leads the next hand, and so on. One constraint on the “highest ranked card wins” rule is that you have to play the suit led. So, if someone puts down the Ace of Spades, and I have a spade in my hand, I have to play it, even if it’s the king and I don’t want to lose it. Now, if I’m out of spades I have the option of playing a “trump,” which is a card from a distinguished suit that automatically outranks all the other suits. So, two of diamonds beats ace of spades – even though aces normally outrank twos and spades normally outrank diamonds – when diamonds are trump.

Well, how do you know when diamonds are trump? This is determined in the bidding. Basically, when a round starts, everyone looks at their hands and takes turns declaring how many tricks they think they can win and with which suit as trump. So a bid of “one club” means I think I can win 7 tricks (you have to win at least 6, since there are 13 total) provided clubs are trump. Whoever wins the bidding round is then obligated to win as many tricks between himself and his partner as he said, and trump is whatever suit he declared (although, there are notrump bids as well).

The scoring system is hugely complicated, so I won’t explain it. The point is simply that the first 13 pages of Kaplan’s book spell out a really convincing argument that accurate bidding is everything in Bridge. It’s a Goldilocks kind of game. Overbidding and not being able to make your contract costs you lots in points. Underbidding – the case where you get the contract (get to set the trump) and make more tricks than you bargained for – Kaplan persuasively argues, can be even more devastating in some ways. Which is what makes Bridge so interesting: it’s not enough just to win, you have to win well. I should clarify that by saying that of course it’s ok “just to win” if you’re the only one who ever wins. But assuming your opponents win some hands (which they typically do because the cards fall as they fall, just as in any card game), there is a huge hidden penalty for underbidding. I found Kaplan’s chapter quite helpful for explaining this point so clearly. I had never properly understood the purpose of the complex scoring system before; now I do.

That point alone accounts, I think, for the difference between Poker and Bridge. Poker, when we get down to it, is a braggart’s game. Certainly there is mathematical skill involved – calculating the odds that your opponents have better hands than you, etc. But the line that separates the mice from the men in Poker is the psychological dimension, and the name of the game is the ability to subtly signal people that you’re better off than you really are. It’s the card game equivalent of lowering your voice and puffing out your chest before a fight. And in that sense, I guess Poker is the entrepreneur’s game, or at least the salesman’s game. If Kaplan is right that everything in Bridge is bidding, then it is the investor’s game. It’s a game that rewards people who can see the exact value of things – rating them neither too high or too low.

Anyone who wishes to point out that these aren’t polar opposites will have gotten the point. No successful businessman is without both skills, and these skills are present in both games to varying degrees. In Poker, of course, being able to see through bullshit is invaluable since some of your highest rakes come from calling an overcomitted bluffer. And in Bridge, of course, you can only score points that count toward games if you win contracts, so there’s something to be said for intimidating your opponents into thinking they can’t go as far as they really can from time to time. My point is simply that Poker emphasizes psychology and Bridge emphasizes valuation. Poker is for salesmen, Bridge for economists. No surprise, I suppose, that Warren Buffet is an avid Bridge player.

The point at the top of the post is a flourish, by the way. I’m not really a regular Bridge player. I’m just currently fascinated with the game and looking for other younger players to take up a club in Bloomington. I don’t know a single other soul who plays.

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