Life Lessons from the Bridge table
Tihana Brkljacic teaches psychology and bridge at Zagreb university.
I've played bridge my whole adult life. Sometimes I wonder who I would have been had I lived a parallel existence without bridge to shape my character all these years.
Most of my friends are bridge players, most of my travels are for tournaments, most of my free time I spend in activities associated with bridge in one way or another, and even my professional interests are related to the psychology of games. Basically, my cat is the only important part of my life that is bridgeless, but even she was named after
a bridge player. So, obviously I am influenced by bridge more than a regular player. However, I think that playing bridge affects us all, and that there are many valuable lessons we learn by playing bridge, that we can apply to our regular lives. In this article, I will discuss some of the beliefs that bridge can reinforce or enhance in people. I hope it will encourage you to share your thoughts on this topic.
Bridge tournaments have that special power to remove all the differences that exist among players except for the skill itself. If Mr. Doe is known to be the best player in the room, once the tournament starts we don't care less if he is 18 or 80, married or not, a lawyer or a scavenger, a Buddhist or a Christian. Age may be the most obvious, but it also applies to differences in social background, education, culture and so on. We can find some very amusing partnerships or teams consisting of seemingly mismatched people who join together in the game. Bridge has taught me that people engaged in an all-consuming activity will disregard the differences and concentrate on what is important. Therefore, in work, or my private life, I am less concerned about how people who have nothing in common will function. I just try to make the task engaging and challenging, and so far I can confirm that once they really get involved, the differences become irrelevant.
Intelligence is multidimensional.
It’s amazing how regularly people who have been successful in business, academia or life in general, just can’t get past intermediate level in bridge. On the other hand, you probably know players who struggle with the simplest of life challenges, but shine at the table. Bridge shows very clearly what cognitive scientists try to explain: intelligence consists of various domains, and one may excel in some, while being almost hopeless in others. I doubt there is a better example than bridge.
Perfection is overrated.
There are not many areas of human existence where one can experience one’s own incompetence in such a blatant way as is possible at the bridge table. Bridge shows us how incredibly incapable we can be. If we take a lesson from this, we may become a bit less smug and understand and accept our own limitations. Moreover, we become aware that everyone can produce a blunder. In some areas of human existence, it’s easy to find excuses and convince ourselves that we haven’t made that big a lapse, whereas in bridge our mistakes often stare at us unforgivingly without any camouflage whatsoever. By playing bridge we learn to acknowledge, admit and cope with being imperfect. Forgive yourself and apologize to the other(s).
Being risk averse can be risky.
A beginner will sometimes refuse to bid (e.g. overcall, preempt) because they “don’t want to risk”. Very soon, when
opponents land at the best contract and/or partner fails to lead their suit they realise that passing is at least as risky as bidding. In the same manner, people may be reluctant to invest, to change jobs, to leave a relationship, because taking this action may be risky. It is in human nature to believe that being passive and maintaining the status quo is safer than taking action. But, simple, every-day examples from the bridge table teach us that there is no safety in being passive.
(Although they teach you otherwise), luck matters.
When bridge teachers explain how bridge is more fair compared to other (card) games, they will stress that by duplication we manage to control the factor of luck. Aspiring students are often amazed by this newly discovered method and do not question it further. However, while for a beginner it may be a hook, any experienced player will know that luck plays an important, although sometimes disguised role in bridge. Getting a flat board against the weakest pair, getting away with a ridiculous bid or play, or discovering an unfortunate lie of cards when the contract seemed cold. Bridge teaches us that if we do our best we will profit in the long run, but there is no guarantee that it will work in any specific case. Understanding this will help in dealing with real life situations where we felt a sense of injustice and that we deserved better. Bridge teaches us to be sceptical about complete fairness in any life domain, and to appreciate an occasional stroke of luck.
Take one for the team (partner).
We were all in situations when partner or team-mates compensated for our mistakes, and when we did the same for them. Bridge teaches us to trust, to rely on others, to be responsible and to put the common goal in front of personal wishes. If you keep your partner happy you will be happy too. Playing competitive team bridge develops a team player mindset that is so needed and appreciated in both private and professional domains.
Live in the present.
Bridge is a fast game and every ten minutes or so we have to completely switch our thoughts and adjust to a new situation or challenge. Those who dwell on the past will not be able to focus on a current task. Whatever happens, you have to leave it behind, clear your mind and move onto the next board in order to survive. This mantra of many a life coach is brought into sharp focus in bridge and is a valuable lesson to learn: you can’t change the past, so focus on the here and now.
Don’t give up, 20% is better than 0%.
On some boards we just don’t have a chance to make a decent result. We have to accept the fact that our opponents reached the best spot and the most we can hope for are a few matchpoints. But every board counts, and a handful of matchpoints might be all we need to win the tournament. So, when things don’t look bright, in both bridge and life, we have to accept that obstacles are part of life, and that on bad days (hands), even little increments count.
In my opinion, there are three main techniques that need to be developed to play bridge reasonably well: visualization, judging possibility, and stepping into someone else’s shoes. Visualization involves imagining the various layouts possible during bidding and play, judging possibility is necessary to take the correct view of the hand and choose the
best line, while stepping into partner’s and opponents’ shoes may answer the question of why they made a particular bid, or chose this card instead of another one. Carefully analyzing moves and thinking about motives gives us deeper insight into circumstances, and it is equally useful in real life as it is in bridge.
Don’t let negativity consume you.
There are so many things we can learn in bridge that apply to life, I think I could continue to write on this topic forever. In so many ways bridge reflects fairly the challenges, struggles, and relationships we encounter in ordinary life. Even if we do not put a particular effort into this knowledge transfer we may well spontaneously notice how bridge improved the way we think and behave. It is almost as if we have gained clear evidence of a general wisdom that most people are not entitled to.
So, let’s hear your thoughts! What life lessons have you learned from playing bridge?