It was the best of hands, it was the worst of hands | Bleader

It was the best of hands, it was the worst of hands

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The famous glass
  • The famous glass
Assume the best. Assume the worst. Life is about making the right assumptions. This is one of two important lessons the game of bridge has taught me. I'll get to the other later.

How to put it? Be always aware of circumstances. Whether a glass is half full or half empty depends less on your nature than on whether you're filling the glass or drinking from it. So you be the one at the table filling the glasses. Let your opponents empty them. As the evening wears on you'll find yourself making more and more unmakeable slams.

Sorry. That's off point. What I mean is that in bridge, and in life, it is necessary to make appropriate assumptions. The state of your proverbial glass—half full or half empty—should not be contingent on anything so secondary as your disposition. If should not matter whether you're as optimistic as Pangloss or as despairing as the rustic who, when running water was introduced to his village, muttered, “This won’t end wells.”

Sorry again. OK, my point is this: be a genuine optimist or pessimist with your friends when there’s nothing at stake but their friendship; but at the bridge table exploit optimism and pessimism as tactical alternatives.

Let's say you're playing a four-spade contract, and when the dummy is laid down you realize there is absolutely no way you're going to make this contract unless the cards lined up against you are distributed in a very specific way that 99 percent of the time they won't be. No matter. You assume they are and play accordingly. You don't assume they are because you actually think they are—you're no fool—but because you have nothing to lose with this assumption and every once in a while a bid to win.

Likewise, sometimes you see the dummy and realize the bid is virtually a lay-down. But what if one opponent has all the outstanding trump? Or one opponent has a void in clubs? Highly unlikely to be sure, but if that turns out to be the case you're in trouble. So you assume the worst. You take precautions. And you bring in the bid even when the worst happens.

Playing bridge allows us to understand a little better than we might otherwise what some of the great thinkers were getting at. Pascal's Wager becomes clear as day. Wikipedia says of Pascal's Wager that it "charted new territory in probability theory, marked the first formal use of decision theory, and anticipated future philosophies such as existentialism, pragmatism, and voluntarism." I don’t know about any of that, but believing in God because there's no upside to not believing is a lot like assuming what you have to assume to have any hope of bringing in a grand slam despite two missing aces.

Jacques Monod was a Nobel-winning biologist and philosopher of the latter 20th century. In his great book Chance and Necessity he concluded, "Man knows at last that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below; it is for him to choose."

There you go. In Monod's view, not just human life but all life was a chemical accident—which is pretty much the worst thing you can be told if your preference is to think God fashioned human life and later, after he'd refined his skills, he fashioned Americans. I think America has gotten itself in trouble because too many of us refuse to believe Monod could be right. We play a hand that's all but hopeless as though the tricks are sure to come rolling in. And when they don't we blame everything but our premises. Things might work out better if we assumed all is darkness, and the kingdom is ours to make rather than inherit.

I had an opportunity once to ask Monod what he made of the world he lived in. With great flair and equally great plumes of cigarette smoke, he replied, "I am soooo pessimistic. I am so pessimistic I am optimistic."

Optimism needs to be earned. And the way to earn it is to recognize that the situation is as bad as it can possibly be but you're playing your cards appropriately.

As for that other lesson bridge taught me, it came from my Aunt Betty, a cardsharp. My wife and I played a few hands with her once and we noticed the fourth at the table was a little careless with her cards and Aunt Betty was taking full advantage. "Hell, yes, I looked," she told us afterward. "If you don’t want me to see your cards don’t show them to me."

This is an equally important lesson in life, but I can't say bridge is alone in teaching it.

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