Winning the Loser's Game

Bridge is identical with a law of diminishing returns whittling away the gains from mastery of esoteric squeezes and coups.

Sanjoy Bhattacharyya
Updated: Dec 30, 2011 01:04:50 PM UTC

Sanjoy Bhattacharyya is a Partner at Fortuna Capital, a Mumbai based investment advisory firm. He is an alumnus of Loyola College, Chennai where he pursued Statistics and Mathematics at the undergraduate level and subsequently earned a post-graduate diploma in management from IIM Ahmedabad. He was the erstwhile Chief Investment Officer of HDFC Asset Management Company prior to which he was associated with UBS Warburg. Despite having played competitive bridge for almost 25 years, he remains a keen student of the game and believes it has much in common with investing and statistics. He has a keen interest in psychology and literature apart from his passion for bridge.

As an investment analyst, I am often asked by people about the essence of making superior decisions while creating a portfolio. My constant refrain “cut down your basic errors” is usually not appreciated. Much like investing, minimizing your errors at the table while playing bridge is the best way to improve. In my view, this idea can even be taken a step further – it is possibly the only way!

Intermediate investors attach huge importance to technique – mastering the art of financial statement analysis, delving into the quirks of human behaviour, sharpening their understanding of monetary policy and public finance et al. It is worth recognizing that these skills can only contribute up to a point in achieving investment success. Temperament, common sense and a nose for what’s going on around you are worth a lot more. Bridge is identical with a law of diminishing returns whittling away the gains from mastery of esoteric squeezes and coups. For most social bridge players, not only is this effort truly agonizing but also the single most important reason why they fail to enjoy the game. If you play bridge for fun, the knowledge of knowing how to execute a squeeze without the count is pretty worthless considering you are unlikely to encounter it more frequently than once in 5000 deals. For most of us, being considered the “club expert” or winning money on a regular basis at low stakes rubber bridge is adequate reward for pursuing the game fairly seriously. This is easily achieved by keeping your errors to a minimum and keeping your wits about you.

Human nature is such that we are happy to trumpet our successes but keen to bury our failures. The better you are as a player, the more embarrassing are the mistakes since they bruise the ego like nothing else. But you must accept and admit these lapses to yourself since there can be no improvement if you remain in denial. Each mistake is an opportunity to learn. Extending the logic further, do not neglect the deals where you did well. On a fair number of occasions, your “success” will either be the result of poor play by opponents or conceal the fact that you simply got lucky!

My chief inspiration in putting together this blog is to highlight the litany of errors that have plagued me during the last thirty years and focus on blind spots that seem to get the better of even the finest players. I also intend to celebrate the triumph of logic and skill over dumb luck! Bridge is a game of infinite variety and our behaviour at the table often represents foibles of human character. On occasion, I shall turn the arc-lights on these aberrations in the hope that we will emerge as finer individuals by understanding our limitations. Paying attention to my common failings has certainly helped to improve my game and my sincere hope is that reading about them will help yours.

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