Active Ethics - Bridge and Marriage

Author: Larry Cohen
Date of publish: 03/06/2002
Level: Intermediate

PARTNERSHIP AND MARRIAGE (reprinted with permission from Bridge World magazine)

Which is harder to maintain: A relationship with your spouse or one with your steady bridge partner?

Going on 20 years with David Berkowitz, yet only seven with my wife, I know both very well. Which pairing should I write about? Luckily for me, this is a bridge magazine. Experience tells me that David is thick-skinned, and he won't be hurt by anything that I write.

After 20 years, there isn't much you don't know about your partner. That story in Challenge the Champs, about the time we were walking to a local diner and I wagered a quarter on the whispered proposition that, ‘‘Within the next block, David will start to complain about the length of the walk and will inquire about taxis," was not exaggerated. I know when he will want to eat, nap, get a soda (diet coke with lime), or prefer coffee. I know when he will want to get up from the table to take a break. I know when he will be moody with his wife, Lisa. I know what he will say to the waiter in the restaurant. I know what he will say to our teammates after each set when we compare: If we do moderately, he will state, ‘‘we got killed"; if we do well, he won't say anything. I can predict which snide remarks he will make. I know which boards he will want to discuss.

Most importantly in the practical sense, I know his tendencies at the table. I can tell when he has a problem. This puts "active ethics" to the text, because I may need to bend over backwards to avoid being influenced. It would trouble me if I ever knowingly took advantage of extralegal information (and, believe me, the expert community would notice— whispers and rumors would abound). There is also the thorny issue of how to inform our opponents appropriately. Still, it is the nature of partnership (and marriage) that the longer you are partners, the better you will know each other.

Increasing familiarity provides both additional legal bridge advantages and mounting obligations. The more regular one's partnership, the more important it is always to try to act in uniform tempo. We never intentionally convey unauthorized information, but that requires vigilance; if you want the profits that stem from knowing your partner, you must undertake this additional responsibility. All too often, I encounter shenanigans like this: A player takes action on a very light hand. At his next call, he ‘‘fast-passes," perhaps even has his pass card out before his RHO's call has been completed. This illegally conveys the message of a dead minimum, an obvious no-no; players who do this thereby also broadcast illegally when they act in normal tempo (though "negative inference"). Whatever the details of your hand, you must make obvious calls in uniform tempo (I'd say 2-3 seconds is normal for a routine pass).


Fortunately, most of what I know about David's tendencies is information that I can use to advantage—legally. When he opens a preempt, I can gauge his likely hand-characteristics from position and vulnerability, which to him are crucial factors. He is super sound in second seat at unfavorable. When he jump-overcalls red, he has solid playing strength. As responder to his vulnerable opening preempts, I can bid aggressively toward game. (This is especially noteworthy, because one of my earlier regular partners was Marty Bergen, whose position on color is that it is for children; in a major national championship, Marty once preempted in a suit in which his opponents could make a slam.) When David is white (especially third seat favorable), his preempts are no longer insurable by Lloyds of London; I respond accordingly. He consistently stays in character, which makes it easy for me to do the right thing.

Knowing partner's style can help in many areas. When the opponents open and David overcalls one notrump, he has the goods. With a so-so 15- or 16- count, he prefers to double. Knowing this helps me when I face a close decision as advancer. He likes to open four of- a-major aggressively and is particularly in love with seven-four hands. So when I am in doubt, I pass his opening four-bid. In many instances that he can make a slam-try without bypassing the game-level (e.g., I open two notrump, David transfers to a major then bids four of a minor), he loves to go searching for the magic hand opposite. As his tries in these auctions are sometimes super-optimistic, I accept only with a super-maximum. On our strong-club auctions, David shows a strong tendency to bid where he lives. He will shy away from showing a suit such as five low, or from cooperating with a slam-try when his trumps are weak. With six-four, he will go out of his way (more so than any other expert I know) to get the four-card suit into the auction. When I respond one notrump to his major-suit opening, with a nice 15-count and a six-card major, I know what his reaction will be—an in-tempo bid of a three-card side suit (where others might try a slow, perhaps unethical, two of the long suit or an ugly three of the long suit). Accordingly, I am leery of passing his new-suit rebid. David is an ultra-aggressive balancer. Whenever it is possible to reopen (especially with shortness in their suit), he doubles. When he does, I tread lightly.

On defense, I have a different form of "inside information." David likes to lead aggressively against games and slams, passively against partials; he detests leading from an ace-king against a partscore, where he feels there is no rush to grab tricks and leading the suit may cost a trick or help declarer to place the defense's high cards. (I laugh at this, because I am delighted to be dealt an ace-king to lead.) When signaling, David is extra careful about his low cards; three-seven-eight will often mean something different from three-eight- seven.

A 20-year partnership is similar to a 20-year marriage. Because there is not much that long-time partners don't know about each other, bridge purists argue that the only ‘‘perfect" bridge tournaments are individuals. But don't confuse the advantages of practiced partnership with ‘‘wired" couples you may meet at your local duplicate, with whom a slow bid here, a quick tempo there, a grimace, and a smile all transmit unauthorized information. That kind of partnership chemistry has no place in the game.

Master Solvers' Club Answers

I'm sometimes asked why my MSC answers often differ from my long-time partner's. The answer is simple: We are not clones. In fact, we disagree over many areas of the game. However, in many places we have agreed to disagree. There are numerous situations where I know I would bid Y and David would bid Z. This is of great help at the table, even if our panel answers don't match. I could look at a pair of partnership hands and tell you that we'd reach six hearts, but depending on which partner held which hand, I might predict two significantly different auctions.

Working out the Kinks

How does one go about maximizing the at-the-table benefits from time spent developing a partnership? One way is to learn how to handle your partner during a session; but that is an individual skill—it applies to only one person. Together, the partners must develop an efficient technique for handling their system work away from the table. Just as one spouse might get on the others nerves, a partner can do the same. A good place to begin is to analyze individual trigger points. I'm not prepared to provide a formal definition of this, but some examples from our partnership will give you the idea:

I love to jump to the final contract as soon as possible. On many auctions, I find that the most practical move is to give away nothing further to the opponents. For example, when David opens one spade (Precision, limited by failure to open a big club) and I hold:

?K x x x
?Q J x x x
?K Q
?Q x

I will jump to four spades. Sure, we might have a slam, but only in a bidding contest is that a possibility worth taking into account. In real life, we'll miss a slam one time in 100, while on the other 99 the opponents won't know what to lead or how to defend. Furthermore, my LHO might be forced into an awkward guess at the five level.

Over the years, I have made many of these educated (at least that's what I would call them) leaps. David is more cautious about foreclosing options, and he is infuriated when I take him (and his expert judgment) out of the auction. I know that every time I make a leap for mankind and it turns out poorly, he will disapprove. I know it is coming. In the post-mortem, I am braced for it.

In the last Vanderbilt, with nobody vulnerable, I held:

?A J x
?A Q x x
?A x x
?A J 10

David passed; I opened a strong club, discovered that David had six-plus diamonds and slam interest, and zoomed from the three level to six diamonds. Why do anything else? There was plenty I could have done. I could have used Kickback (four hearts, a key-card ask for diamonds), but such bids allow for positive or negative lead-directing, and any information we exchange potentially helps the defenders. Six was likely to have play, and seven (opposite a passed partner) seemed impossible. David's hand was:

?x x x
?K x x x x x x
?K x

With diamonds two-one, we made 13 tricks. Not surprisingly, David suggested that I should have asked for key cards. He would have shown one keycard and I could ask further. He'd have shown the trump queen (because with 7 cards, that extra length might be just as good) and then, when he showed his two side kings, I would know that he had seven diamonds (because, not vulnerable, he would surely have opened the bidding with king-queen sixth of diamonds and 11 HCP). So, science would have enabled me to bid the grand. Tough nuggies. In a bidding contest, okay; but at the table, I'm sure my approach was right. Note that it is no big deal to miss seven when trumps might break three-zero, especially as our counterparts at the other table stopped in game; it would have been a poor risk-reward proposition for us to play in a grand.

So, with some partners you may need to have thick skin. And whatever thickness is required to cope with your partner, each of us must be ready for idiosyncrasies. For example, David behaves impeccably toward everyone at the table, but I know what snide remarks are likely to come forth when we go over the boards. For example, when he refers to me as a ‘‘genius," that is never good (a genius is one step down from a mastermind). The worst scenarios arise when I don't lead his suit and am wrong. His typical post-mortem comment is: ‘‘If I had bid spades, would you have led a heart?"

I get revenge when he stabs me on defense. I prefer our partnership to treat defensive signals as ‘‘showing." When I encourage spades, I want partner to interpret the meaning of my signal as, ‘‘Larry has strength in spades" rather than, ‘‘Larry wants a spade shift." The difference is significant. I believe in showing what you have and letting partner work out what to do. When David sees that sort of signal, he believes that I am ‘‘directing the defense." In the post-mortem, I must remind him: ‘‘David, I was telling, not asking." Look at this deal:

?K 10 6 2
?Q 10 8 7
?Q 9 8 4
?J 7 5
?9 3
?A K 6
?K 10 5 3 2
  ?A Q 8
?J 2
?Q 10 9 7 2
?J 7 6
  ?9 4 3
?A K 6 5 4
?J 8 5 4


Against South's four hearts, David leads a top diamond (against games he will lead from ace-king). In view of dummy's singleton, we treat the meaning of my card as suit-preference.I have strong spades, so I play the diamond ten. This does not mean,‘‘David—please skewer me by shifting to the spade jack." Rather, it means,‘‘I have spade values." Armed with this information, David can judge that best defense is a trump switch (not the fatal spade jack). If, instead, he had three low clubs, then he might switch to spades. Our system notes have a big bold sentence in the carding section. It says, "Showing that we like a suit does not automatically ask for a DAMAGING PIECING STABBING shift to that suit".

We've had post-mortems about this for many years. Recently, David has come around part of the time—he doesn't stab me as much these days. He wouldn't mind if I called him an old dog, for he has learned new tricks.

Thank You, Partner

In one area, David still needs a nagging spouse. You, dear reader, can be my therapist. All partnerships must learn from their experiences, and there is usually a lot more to learn from a bad experience than a good one. Say we land in a stupid four-spade contract when three notrump is cold. In the post-mortem, I might say, ‘‘I bid three diamonds thinking it was looking for three notrump." David replies,‘‘But I had a routine four-spade bid." That's not the point, dear. In a marriage, the equivalent conversation might be:

Spouse A: ‘‘I closed the door so the bugs couldn't in."

Spouse B: ‘‘Well, you made it hard for me to get into the house."

I want to know for the future what my three-diamond bid meant, so that we can henceforth keep the bugs out. I want our partnership to work that out, so I must say (for example), ‘‘David, I don't care what you had on this deal—I am asking generically about the auction." We have had this type of conversation hundreds of times, but I am still trying to break through. In postmortems, you must be careful to differentiate between the result on a particular deal and the system implications. Maybe when we've been partners for 40 years, we will be able to effectively clear this hurdle.

Summing Up

Meanwhile, I've trained David in the most important area of marital . . . oops, I mean partnership . . . bliss. He doesn't yell at the table. He doesn't even make faces (but he does when he plays with his wife, Lisa—although she deems a slightly raised eyebrow a face). When our partnership started (in the 1980's), David was young and rambunctious. He'd yell and scream at the table. That was unacceptable to me. I told him, ‘‘If you yell at the table, I can't be your partner." If you want your partnership to succeed, you must tell your partner when something bothers you. Realizing that he couldn't instantly reform, we struck a deal: He would be allowed to yell once every six months. Amazingly, he has gone 20 years without a single yell. (He claims to have stockpiled the rights to 40 yells—I disagree, quoting the ‘‘use them or lose them" theory). All things considered, he's been a good partner. (He plays his cards pretty well, too.) Anyway, no marriage is perfect. Will you be able to stay with your partner (choose which kind) for 20 years?


**Footnote: In 2009, Larry Cohen "retired" from big-time bridge (playing only occasionally). This meant the end of the 20-year partnership and David started a new partnership with bridge hall-of-famer, Alan Sontag.