Linda Lee — My personal bridge blog

Sabermetrics and bridge

I am currently reading Moneyball.  I liked the movie and my family was actually subscribers to Bill James abstracts at one point.

The word Sabermetrics comes from the abbreviation SABR, Society for American Baseball Research and the word metrics  which in this context is used to mean the application of statistics and mathematical analysis to a field of study: You may have noticed that the word Sabermetrics could equally apply to bridge if we were only to have an existing Society for American Reserach,  Bridge could use its own SABR. 

Why?  Because bridge is a statistical game and subject to mathematics at least as much as baseball.  Several books have been published on the mathematics of the game of bridge.  The law of total tricks is a form of such analysis as is restricted choice.  Rules like 8 ever and 9 never (when considering whether to finesse a queen or play for the drop) are examples. 

In fact, point count itself is a practical example of analysis and bridge.  The idea was that certain cards are more likely to take tricks than others and therefore should have a higher value than others.  The results were simplified to create the 4-3-2-1 system of counting high cards that bridge players use.  The system of assigning value for length and shortness is similar.

How good is this analysis?  What makes a hand good enough to bid not only when opening but throughout the deal.  Most serious bridge players would say that they apply judgment.  What that really means is that through their personal years of experience as a bridge player they have found that bidding in a certain way works for them.  It is an experience based “rule” and of course differs from person to person.

David Bird and Taf Anthias have recently written a book called Winning Opening Leads.  The authors used a large numbver of deals which matched the bidding and analyzed the results of the leads to create ideas about which leads are most effective.

Over the years others have used coputer simulation of various sorts to work on other related bridge ideas.  But with the advent of good bridge playing programs it is possible to analysize the results if different ideas much more readily than in the past.

Years ago I took a pass at trying to determine which aspect of the game was most important in winning or losing imps at a world championship level.  One of my conclusion was that competing for partscore was a very small factor.  First because often you got a similar result whether you bid on or whether you allowed the opponents to play in their partscore and second because the number of imps exchanged was small in any case.  As it turned out the opening lead was a relatively large factor in winning or losing imps.  (Maybe the game is not ONLY about bidding at the highest levels).

The results would obviously be different in games of lower quality.  Result might also be different at different forms of scoring. 

It seems to me that we ought to spend more time at looking at different aspects of the game from a statistical perspective. 



Richard WilleyJanuary 29th, 2012 at 4:49 pm

Here’s the rub…

1. The area of the game where there is the greatest opportunity for improvement is bidding. Individual players can certainly achieve dramatic improvements in defense and declarer play. However, bidding theory is still very much back in the dark ages.

2. Here in ACBL land, any significant change to bidding systems is banned by administrative fiat. Indeed, we have layers upon layers of bureaucracy designed to make the world safe for sanctioned methods.

3. A lot of players with the right statistical mindset to work on these types of problems quickly grow frustrated fighting the system and go off and work on other problems.

I’ll offer myself as a prime example:

1. I have a graduate degree in game theory
2. Did very well at a bunch of name schools like MIT, Chicago, and Wesleyan
3. Currently work at the MathWorks as the product manager for the statistics system
4. Used to enjoy bridge quite a lot

I have the right skill set to work on these types of problems. However, I (essentially) gave up doing any serious work in this area because anything I came up promptly got banned.

Larry LowellJanuary 29th, 2012 at 5:44 pm

There are lots of things to do in bidding that can be GCC legal. Defensive bidding especially is still in the dark ages. In the past two years The BRIDGE WORLD has many articles on transfers and some of these ideas can be used by the defense. Artificial 1C and 1D opening bids are allowed with conventional responses and follow-ons without restriction for 1C. Canape is allowed. My problem is finding partners that will change their mindset about bidding.

Larry LowellJanuary 29th, 2012 at 5:46 pm


I have the opposite experience of competing for the part score in IMP contests. 5-6 IMP swings are available for making a partial at both tables. Two such results equals a game swing.

LindaJanuary 29th, 2012 at 6:29 pm

I agree that there is a lot to be gained in the auction. I also agree that competitive bidding is in the dark ages. Even if your side has opened the bidding when the opponents come in things get rough. Partnerships are often confused about such simple things as what happenes when opponents double a transfer or blackwood.

But I still think opening lead is a big factor. I might look at a world championship book and see if I can produce some statistics.

It would interesting if you used your skills Richard to identify where imps are won and lost today.

I am not saying that 3 imps aren’t somewhat important. Its just when I went through a world championship book or two I found that the total from the partscore pickups where considerably less than missing a game or getting to the wrong one.

When you talk about the importance of partscore it is episodic. You feel happy when you win imps that way but have you kept personal records that show when and where you typically lose imps.

My experience is that at the very top card play is less of a factor than with lesser players.

Other things to think about might be: how important is it to have a long-term partnership.

Women do worse than men why? Is it cardplay? Is it defence? Do they not have longterm partnership? Are they less agressive in the bidding?

I would like to see people propose questions like this and then think of ways to answer them. Anybody interested?

Steven GaynorJanuary 30th, 2012 at 7:18 pm

If we want a large ACBL (160000+ members) they will not tolerate a lot of psychic bidding and complicated non-standard systems. That is why the powers that be discourage such things. In our area there is a decent regular game that caters to the tournament players and innovators where your systems would be welcome. Perhaps you can find that game in your area or even propose to start or support it.

Personally I like a large bridge organization and am lucky to have an outlet where I can compete against the more experienced players where anything legal goes.

Also, if you want to try your systems out you can play in the NABC+ events at the nationals.

Richard WilleyJanuary 30th, 2012 at 11:34 pm

I have no problem playing the systems I want at my local club or online.

I can’t play them in any ACBL events because the powers that be refuse to sanction any defense to said methods or, alternatively, rule them inherently destructive.

Helen BellFebruary 8th, 2012 at 8:25 pm

One of the most important factors in winning bridge is a regular compatable partner. Another factor is playing regularly at competitive bridge preferably out of your league

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