The Trolley Problem

Author: Michael Berkowitz
Date of publish: 05/26/2022
Level: All Levels

I briefly flirted with being a philosophy major in college. Maybe it's more accurate to say I flirted with someone who was a philosophy major. Either way, I enjoyed many of the thought experiments of philosophy. One of my favorites is called the “trolley problem”.

In the trolley problem, you are at the switch of a hypothetical trolley. On the tracks where the trolley is headed are three people tied down Snidely Whiplash style. If you flip the switch, the trolley will instead run over one tied-down person on the alternate tracks. Taking a step back, we think that three people dying is worse and we should flip the switch, but there’s something terrible about making the decision to flip a switch and kill someone, even if its better overall. I would by paralyzed by indecision.

In bridge, we aren’t presented with life and death situations (although it feels that way sometimes), but making the decision to flip the switch and go from one bad outcome to a slightly less bad outcome can still freeze us in place.

This is simultaneously my favorite and least favorite auction in bridge:

  West    North    East    South  
1♠  Pass  2♠  All Pass 




It’s my favorite if I am the 1♠ bidder. It’s my least favorite if I am one of the passers. What is the expected result here? Beating the contract is going to be difficult, and the bidders might have up to 23 or 24 points plus a fit. That means I expect 110 points for the bidders making 2 or maybe 140 for making 3. On a really favorable day 170, with a possible -50 thrown in.

In the pass out seat, I’ll keep this in mind. Bidding something is almost always right IF you are not vulnerable. With

♠ K97  
♥ 43  
♦ AJ32  
♣ Q1083
, I’ll happily make a takeout double. I couldn’t double the first time, but now I know partner is likely to have some values and it’s worth bidding. If I have five bad spades (not good enough to overcall), I might bid 2♠. With some length in the minors, I’ll try 2NT, even if I am not 5-5.

What are the possible results if we balance? Our side might be able to make something. Our side might win the contract and go down 1 or 2 (even 3 sometimes) and beat our score for defending 2♠. Lastly we might push them into 3♠ making or down one. Those are the most common outcomes.

Of course, there’s also some danger. Maybe 10% of the time (probably less) something truly terrible will happen. We’ll get doubled and go down for -300 or -500. It's also possible that they reach a making game. Any score we get that’s 150 or worse is likely to be bad. That’s why vulnerability comes into play. This is a neat addendum to the trolley problem: 10% of the time you press the switch, the trolley derails killing everyone including you. Oy, now I’m confused.

If we are not vulnerable, we can usually afford to go down 2 and do better than our expected outcome. When vulnerable, that math changes as down two is now a catastrophe.

One of the most dangerous words for new players to learn is “sacrifice”. What I’m discussing is NOT a sacrifice. A sacrifice is when you bid a contract expecting to go down. What we’re doing here is bidding a contract that may or may not make. There’s a BIG difference. When you sacrifice, you better be right that A) the opponents were making and B) You won’t go down by more than the value of the opponents’ contract. In general, I advise against worrying about sacrifices other than to say that if you think you might have a chance at making and that the opponents are also likely to be making. That’s a topic for another day.

For now, I want you to think of your job as a duplicate bridge player as to prevent your opponents playing in a fit of 2-of-a-major. Notice I said fit. If only one opponent bids the major, then you don’t need to be as aggressive. 

  West    North    East    South  
1♠   Pass  1NT Pass 
 2♠ Pass   Pass

for example is NOT as clearly a “must balance” position.

If spades are the fit, you can still be aggressive as a balancer, though slightly more cautious as you are forcing to the 3-level.

There are many more ways to make sure that the opponents don’t play in 2-of-a-major, including bidding in the direct seat (1♠--P--2♠--?) as what Marty Bergen calls an “OBAR” bid, meaning that the Opponents Bid and Raised. I sometimes call this "pre-balancing". The partner of the overcaller in all of these situations should not go crazy. The goal was to push the opponents to the 3-level or go down only a little on the 3-level.

Don’t raise partner's balancing or pre-balancing bids unless you want to have partner tie you down on the train tracks next time.