Dealing with unforced errors

Tihana follows up on her earlier article 'New year bridge goals'

Thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts last month. Some of you also contacted me privately, and I tried to reply to everyone, but I'd prefer you to leave your comments below, to all others to benefit from the discussion. Most of the resolutions are specific, measurable and attainable, just as they are supposed to be, so I have no doubt you'll stick to them. I tried to help with some suggestions on how to approach your goals and hope you'll find them useful.

Your comments confirmed that players have various bridge ambitions. Some want to improve a specific aspect of their game or reduce mistakes in general, others strive to achieve an extraordinary score and some are resolute in their desire to have fun and good time at the (virtual) table. Although those goals seem rather different, we'd improve performance, results, and also also table atmosphere if we could reduce unforced errors and/or the emotions they evoke.

In bridge, unforced errors (a fancy way to describe blunders) are those that are not the result of the lack of skill, mastery of an opponent, or bad luck. For example, if I don’t know how to execute a double squeeze and therefore fail when trying to do so, it's not an unforced error, it's just a lack of knowledge. Similarly, if I forget that we play transfers over weak two openings, it's not an unforced error, it's just a memory issue (reading system notes once is not really enough, Tihana). Some players would give away a trick or a tempo by making a bizarre lead, but that's more exhibitionist tendencies, than an unforced error.   

On the other hand, when I overlook the possibility that there are only thirteen trumps on a board and try to give my partner a ruff anyway, or I miscount the points and consequently finesse the wrong opponent, those are lovely examples of unforced errors. These mistakes could be prevented if only we'd used our available resources and clearly exposed information. To all of us unforced errors seem like they can easily be avoided;

How could I be so stupid? Did I just base my line of play on the assumption there are two Club Aces on the board? Did I presume the declarer had fourteenth spade and discarded accordingly? Anyone can count to thirteen! My grandma would've found the right switch blindfolded!

While we can live with lack of knowledge and poor memory, we feel ashamed when our intelligence is in question, and unforced errors in bridge have this special power to repeatedly make us feel stupid. There aren't many other situations in life that can do this to us. Facing our own unforced errors is frustrating and horrifying – it seems as though there's something very wrong with our cognition. To make matters worse, others are often extremely interested in revealing the background of our mindless maneuvers.

How could you…? What were you protecting against, 8-6 majors on North?   

On the bright side, no one is immune to the unforced error, and even experts occasionally make them. Actually, every bid and every card is just an opportunity for another blunder. That's why I tell my partners, if I make one or two mistakes per tournament, it only means I managed to avoid a few hundred others. 

Seriously, it seems that unforced errors could mainly be attributed to the natural fluctuations of concentration brought about by a stressful competitive environment. Being aware of those flaws and accepting occasional blunders as a normal part of the game, could help in preventing the “triggering effect” where one unforced error generates more, resulting in a sequence of mistakes on the following boards.

Do not be hard on yourself, just remember that playing bridge requires working with lots of information at the same time, and although the separate pieces are simple, keeping it all together on every single deal is extremely difficult. Imagine going to the shop twenty times in a row to buy ten items each time, and forgetting one;

How could you forget milk? Well, it is my 18th shopping this evening and so far I bought everything.

Would you really be furious with yourself because of that milk? If not, next time you make a silly mistake, just shrug it off, and be proud of all the traps you avoided on the way.

About the Author

Tihana Brkljačić is a psychologist and a bridge player. She teaches psychology and bridge at Zagreb university. She represented Croatia at multiple European championships and at The World Championship (Wuhan cup) in 2022. As a psychologist, her main areas of interest are in quality of life, well-being and communication. Additionally, she studies the psychology of games (focusing on bridge in particular) and consults players on various topics.

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17 comments on “Dealing with unforced errors”

  1. The trick is to not get discouraged with an unforced error since it does have that snowball effect. I had a partner once who had been a baseball announcer and after an error (his or mine), he would say “next pitch”.

  2. On EVERY hand there are a MINIMUM of 4 errors (1 by each player)!! Anything more can be considered "unforced"!

  3. "Nice play, it would have worked if RHO had 12 cards." Is one of the best comments I've heard with regards to unforced errors 😉 It was spot on.

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