Thursday, October 24, 2013

La comédie humaine

The French novelist Honoré de Balzac has enchanted many years of my life: just read Le Père Goriot, Illusions perdues, Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, La Duchesse de Langeais, César Birotteau, Le Cousin Pons, La Cousine Bette, etc., all astonishing works, riveting novels, worth reading over and over again.

I hear you, I hear you: "Balzac? Not for me! Never ending descriptions, pages and pages of details, I would give up after 30 pages..."

You don't know it yet, but you're with me.

If you give up after 30 pages, isn't it like leaving the bridge table while the cards are being shuffled and dealt? Will you quit bridge because shuffling takes too much time? No. Shuffling the cards is the same thing as reading the first 30 pages of a novel by Balzac.

An expert on Balzac once compared all those descriptions and all those minute details to a spring that you slowly rewind. The spring gets tighter and tighter, and when it gets to the maximum tension, you let go and the reaction just hits you, unavoidable result of an inner necessity.

Bridge is the same: once the cards are shuffled and dealt, there is no more luck. Let us be clear: there is no more luck because the distribution of the cards is now fixed, petrified, and unchangeable.

On any given hand, the good player, anxious for order and harmony, respectful of the environment, will look for this primordial order and try to imagine it.

He will build a hypothesis that will let him make his contract without touching anything, without moving things, without making noise, without even scratching the surface of things. Advocate of ecology, humble before the universe, the good player is like the palaeontologist who, upon discovering the smallest hint of a dinosaur, takes out his little brush and sets about to delicately dust off this huge piece. With utter patience, love and persistence, he dusts, brooms, polishes, washes and reveals the original beauty of the entire structure.

On the other hand, the bad player believes that there is luck, not only during shuffling, but also during play. His postulate is then crystal clear: cards move around during the play. And his experience proves it, day after day: his finesses always fail, he often goes down in cold contracts, gets nailed for 800 and sees the opponents pick up his stiff king. "I'm never lucky," you you hear him complaining to his partner.

In fact, the bad player, by playing without thinking, without counting, without imagining, reintroduces luck where there was none no more. He "modifies" the event, like they say in modern science. His absence of plan, his incoherence, smashes the primordial order, destroys the primary structure that had nothing left to do with luck. It is not surprising that, under these circumstances, the Kings, Queens and Aces seem to change places: the bad player creates anarchy.

By the way, most recent bridge softwares imitate this disorder created by a bad play. With these bridge playing programs, if you don't make the right play, the cards really change places, strongly suggesting the existence of an inner order, of a primordial structure, of an original "necessity", unique and unchangeable, that you need to discover.

You are in 5♣, after LHO overcalled 1, raised to 2 by RHO.

The lead is a small heart.

First question: where are all those hearts? The opponents, with ten of them, were quite tame in the bidding. You call the 10 from dummy, East plays the Jack. What do you know? East probably has AJ of hearts (West did not underlead his Ace).

How many hearts has East? Probably 4. With 5, he would have bid more. West thus has 6 hearts to the King and East has AJxx.

Where is the Ace of diamonds? Again, take out your little brush and continue your dusting: with AJxx in hearts and the Ace of diamond, East would probably have found a cue-bid. Therefore, the Ace of diamond is probably with West.

After ruffing the first heart (did you see far or did you suffer from myopia?), you play a diamond, West plays low and, backing your brooming and dusting, you go up with the King which holds. You play back a diamond and East wins with the Queen.

East thus has AJxx in hearts and Qx in diamonds; West has Kxxxxx in hearts and Axx in diamonds, you know 9 of his cards.

One question immediately jumps out: why did West, with 6 hearts to the King, a raise from his partner and 3 diamonds to the Ace, give up so early? Which weakness has his hand to make him decide to pass?

With a singleton somewhere, he might have bid more. Your little palaeontologist's broom goes back to work and you extrapolate that he probably has 2 spades and 2 clubs. East plays back a heart and you ruff.

You can consider two lines of play: diamonds or spades.

Can you establish dummy's diamonds? First, you have to go to dummy in order to ruff one diamond, and then you have to go back to dummy to enjoy those diamonds; where are your two entries? The first entry could be the 7 of clubs (did you see far or did you suffer from myopia back there? Did you ruff with the 2 and 4 or with the 8 and 9?), placing the Queen with West, and the second entry is the King of clubs (with clubs 2-2).

Let's examine the spades now. Where is the spade King? Probably not with East; that would give him 10 points and, with 4 trumps AJxx, he probably would have made a cue-bid. You are thus practically sure that West has the spade King. And since clubs have to be 2-2 to make your contract (you have to ruff one spade in dummy and then pick up the trumps), West has to be 2632; if you play Ace of spades and another spade, the King will fall and you still will be able to ruff your losing spade in dummy (even if West switches to a trump) and pick up the trumps.

The East-West dinosaurs should therefore look like this:

You play Ace of spades, spade. Like you had visualised, West's doubleton King wins and you make 5C.

At the heart of Le Père Goriot and of La Comédie humaine, we find Vautrin's famous speech (that you did not read because you gave up during the intro) to Rastignac, the young man recently arrived in Paris.

In this piece, Vautrin explains life in society, the lies, the intrigues, the betrayals, the me-myself-and-I rule: "There are no principles, says Vautrin, there are only events; there are no laws, only circumstances."

The superior man is the one who "follows events and circumstances in order to guide them".

The superior bridge player, profoundly political, accepts reality as it is and tries to take advantage of it.

The superior player does not believe in luck, nor in error.

Luck is the science of the bad player, error is the excuse of the incompetent.

The superior player hates mistakes more than he likes luck.

Luck can defeat him, but he believes he will never lose because of a mistake.

In the end, the superior player, emulating gods, plays in order to marvel at his own perfection.

Junkie of the intelligence, the superior player plays to be able to say, like Paul Valéry:

"Day after day, I enjoy the power of my own brain."

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