Enjoyment and Teaching Bridge

We teach bridge in a way that makes it unenjoyable.

Enjoyment: Outcome Vs. Process

When you do something, you can enjoy a good outcome. But you can also enjoy the process. These are two different enjoyments. Suppose you cook something. You enjoy the outcome when you eat the good meal or when guests compliment your cooking. You can enjoy those good outcomes even if you hate the process of cooking. But some people enjoy the process of cooking.

Csikszentmihalyi, the father of what is called flow, was first struck by the sculptor who was completely absorbed in sculpting, then ignored the finished project. The sculptor did not enjoy the outcome -- he did not sell the the statue or use it for decoration. He ignored it once it was finished. Instead, he enjoyed the process of sculpting. Csikszentmihalyi found that people could become absorbed in a craft, sport, game, or whatever, and enjoy the process.

In bridge, the good outcome is winning. But you would not play bridge if you did not also enjoy the process of playing bridge and the process of trying to be the winner.

To perhaps state the obvious, the goal in playing bridge is to have fun. When you teach, the goal is for your students to learn to enjoy bridge. Yes, they will enjoy a good outcome as much as anyone else. But the number of winners at bridge doesn't change, and your students will not continue to learn and play unless they too enjoy the process.

So, your goal in teaching bridge should be foryour students to enjoy the process.

How NOT to Enjoy Process

The fundamental rule of unenjoyment is:

It is no fun to follow instructions

You already knew that. If all you do is following instructions, you won't enjoy assembling things from instructions. You won't enjoy filling out your income tax. Since they have reduced school mostly to following instructions, you won't enjoy school.

So, if you want to make something unenjoyable, all you have to do is reduce it to following instructions. Of course, no one sets out to intentionally make something unenjoyable. But how do we teach bridge?

First, we formulate rules for good bidding and good play. Then we communicate these rules to the beginning bridge player. The student is supposed to memorize the rules and then apply them during the bidding and play. The student has to learn the real rules of bridge, of course, but he or she also is taught a hundred rules of bidding and play. With 5 of a major and 12-21 HCP, open one of a major. With 15-17 HCP and a balanced hand, open 1NT. Second hand low. Cover an honor with an honor. And so on and so on

But, it is no fun to listen to rules, memorize rules, or follow rules. So unless the student somehow ignores what we are teaching, the game of bridge will not be fun. Rreducing the number of rules will help, but it will not solve the underlying problem that students are being taught rules to follow Iif you don't want your student to follow rules, the worst possible strategy is teaching them rules to follow, and only rules to follow.

So, we assume the goal is to play bridge well, even though this is not a good goal. We assume that the best way to play well is to follow rules. Ironically, this is not true either. So, with good intention, we teach rules, minimizing the chance that our students will actually enjoy bridge.

Of course, the main problem is that this is what we do in our educational system, which is why it is such a failure. But we can't do anything about that. You can change how you teach bridge. (And you might change how you play bridge.)

How to Enjoy Process

It if more difficult to say how to enjoy process, and just not teaching rules is the main thing you need to do. But anyway, there is an unconscious computing machine inside you that I call the Inferential System. It is usually responsible for ideas, insights, feelings, wants, and judgments. It does not do memory or following instructions. When you use your Inferential System, and the outcome is good, the process is enjoyable. When you use your Inferential System and the outcome isn't good, your Inferential System learns. When you recall and follow instructions, that is conscious activity, not your Inferential System, and it isn't enjoyable.

If you pay attention, you have feelings as you bid. Frankly, if you had 5 spades and 13 HCP, it would make you anxious to do anything but open 1 Spade. Literally, you want to open 1 Spade, and when you open 1 Spade, you are doing what you want. Or, suppose you open 1NT and your partner invites to game with a bid of 2NT. You can logically and consciously count your points and pass with a minimum and go to 3NT with a maximum. But you also will have feelings, about whether to go to 3NT or not. There might not be good reasons for these feelings, but there could be -- your Inferential System can know and use principles and information that you are not aware of. Anyway, you can decide to go to 3NT just because you want to. If you make it, you will be happy; if you don't, you will learn.

Similarly, when you play a hand, ideas for how to play the hand just pop into your consciousness. On one hand your first thought will be to draw trump; on another hand, drawing trump first might never enter your thinking. Again, these thoughts are coming from your Inferential System, and they are a product of your experience. Or, if you think of two ways to play a hand, you will have a judgment about which method is best. This judgment is also a product of your unconscious Inferential System.

Some people are immune. You can teach them rules, but they will only hear principles and strategies. You are probably immune, or you wouldn't play bridge. But most people are not like you. Most people, if you teach them rules, they will hear rules, and they will follow rules. They will mindlessly follow rules. So, if you are teaching people to play bridge, you should encourage them to do what they want. You should encourage them to use their judgment. You need to explain that bridge is a gambling game, and the best of judgments don't always work out right. You need to explain to them that they are trying to get a feel for bridge. This feeling is an unconscious mental model of how bridge works, which the Inferential System will use to make its judgments, desires, and ideas.

Playing Bridge Well

Irony of ironies, teaching rules doesn't even make good bridge players. I was teaching someone to play bridge. I let her learn to play the hand by herself, but I mistakenly taught her rules of bidding. Later realizing my mistake, I tried to reverse gears and teach her to bid what she wanted. This is was not easy, but I succeeded. I remember one time she asked what it would mean if she bid 3 Spades. I said she should just do what she wanted. She insisted I tell her. Then she insisted I tell her what another bid one mean. Then she looked at me and said, "Now I do what I want."

It is difficult to me to say that she enjoyed the game more, because she already enjoyed it. But her bidding was better! I hadn't expected this, but with hindsight it is easy to explain. When you ask people to follow instructions, you are implicitly telling them not to use their own judgment. When you throw out their judgment, you are throwing out what we call common sense. I know, you are not intentionally telling them to discard their common sense. You don't even want them to do that. But you are not emphasizing their judgment either, are you? To the contrary, you are teaching them rules to follow without using any judgment or any common sense. Sorry, let me try one more time. When you say to open 1 Spade with 5 or more spades and 12-21 HCP, you are teaching them how to play bridge without using judgment or common sense. In fact, you are squeezing out common sense.

The second problem is that rules are difficult to remember, ESPECIALLY IF YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND THEM. Now you might want your bridge students to understand the rules, but you are really teaching them as things to meaninglessly follow without understanding.

The final problem with rules is that if you make the tiniest mistake, you can make a completely ridiculous bid. For example, suppose you learn that over 1 NT, 2 Clubs is Stayman asking for 4 card majors. Then later you open 1 Diamond and your partner responds 1 NT. You have a four-card major so you bid 2 Clubs. This is almost perfectly following the rule, yet it is completely wrong. That bid can't be correct given a deep understanding of the bidding, but again you were not fostering any understanding, you were fostering rules.

So my friend started doing what she wanted. That meant making judgments, so know she was using her common sense and trying to understand. So her bidding was better.

Taking my own advice, I realized that when I tried to bid slams, I was trying to follow rules, not do what I want. I switched to doing what I wanted. I enjoyed slam bidding more, and I became better at it. Then I tried doubling when I wanted to, and my doubling improved.


If you aren't going to teach rules, what are you doing to do?

I have started teaching my daughter, using what I call Open Bridge. I have told her no strategies, techniques, or rules. She has to learn everything herself.

Or you can explain all the rules of bridge and let people sit down and play. I did this once, for as it turn out only one session of learning. The couple that was learning seemed to enjoy the game, and he said he was surprised how easy bridge was. (I bit my tongue and agreed.) Of course they weren't playing well, but if I can remind you, THAT IS NOT THE GOAL. If we could have stayed with it, they would have improved.

The first time I tried to teach bridge, long before I knew anything about flow or process or enjoyment, I was trying to teach my student how to play a hand, and I gave her a simple problem. When she couldn't solve it, so I kept making the problem simpler and simpler, until I was asking her how to play AQJx opposite Kxxx. She didn't know. I asked her to guess. She couldn't guess. I made her try, and she got it wrong.

So I gave up. From then on, I taught her bidding, not play. What happened? First, she enjoyed playing bridge. Second, she seemed better at playing the hand than she was at bidding.

If you are going to teach the rules of bridge, try your best not to frame them as rules. Call them clever strategies. For example, if you have a combined 8 cards in a major suit, 4 of that suit is usually better than 3NT. If you count an Ace as 4, King as 3, Queen as 2, and Jack as 1, then a combined 24 points gives you about a 50% chance for game. It is nice if the opener guarantees a minimum number of points, because then responder can know to jump to game.

In other words, bidding conventions are just useful conventions, agreed on by both people. Or they are ways of communicating. You can do what you want, but if you open 1 Spade your partner will think you have 5 or more spades, and if you open 1 Diamond it is going to be very difficult to convince your partner you have 5 spades. The student can decide which conventions he or she wants to play, and it is even better if the beginning start's inventing conventions.

It is also important to stress that they do what they want, not follow rules.

More Stories

No, I have not taught thousands of people to play, the real number is between 4 and 8. But I know this works. I have a PhD in cognitive psychology and I have thought about flow and enjoyment for many years. But don't trust me, read this and then think for yourself.

One time 1 opened 1 Heart, my father doubled, my mother passed, and it was my wife's turn to bid. She faced the normal beginner's problem: She didn't have many points, and her best suit was hearts. She didn't WANT to bid a 3 card suit. No surprise. As she thought about what to do, my father said that she COULDN'T PASS. My mother explained that she HAD to bid. I thundered, "SHE CAN DO WHAT SHE WANTS." My wife later said she appreciated my support.

So she passed and I was in 1 heart doubled making 3, for lots of points. As coincidence would have it, a few hands later we had essentially the same auction. This time, she WANTED to know what her options were. She was very HAPPY to discover that she could bid a three-card suit without many points. She made the "correct" bid, the best bid, and she was doing what she wanted. She had learned.

It might help you to know that the rules aren't as good as you might trust them to be. One of the cardinal rules of Blackwood is that you do not ask for aces and then stop short of slam because you are missing just one ace. But, as I have learned from beginners, this actual can work well. I suspect that if partner has limited his or her hand, if you are just using HCP, and if slam is borderline, it is a good strategy to ask for aces and stop if you are missingone ace.

Or, my wife has a way of playing a hand, where she starts in on a cross-ruff, then half-way through she changes her mind and draws trumps. This contradicts the rule of formulating a plan at trick one. But it worked more than once for her, so I finally tried it and it worked for me too.


The goal is not to make it easy on beginners. Either they like to think or they don't, and if they don't, bridge is not their card game. So challenge them to think.

The goal is also not to have them learn to be as good as possible as quickly as possible. The fact is, you do not have to teach rules, and it is no fun if they are just following rules. Teach them principles, okay, or strategies, but not rules.

The goal is to have fun. But if you just teach them rules, they are likely to mindlessly follow rules. Then they not only won't enjoy bridge, they also won't be very good at it.