Dealing with mistakes

By Rob Barrington

I am a seasoned professional bridge player who has had success playing with and against the best players in the game. How did I become a player that could compete at this level? It’s quite simple, I have made thousands more mistakes than most bridge players have! And, just like other world class players, I continue to make mistakes during almost every session I play. Whether you’re a kitchen table player or a world champion there is one guarantee in this game, you will make mistakes! The very best bridge players handle mistakes very differently (and more productively) than the average player. 

When we make a mistake, especially one that several other people get to witness, it is almost always accompanied by an emotional response. We’ve felt these mistake responses before; embarrassment, shame, guilt, anger at oneself and that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, just to name a few. These feelings are completely normal and only increase with the severity of the mistake. There can be long term benefits to these strong emotional responses. A very strong emotional response creates a vivid memory for your brain to draw on for future aid. However, particularly in the short term, these emotional responses are frequently detrimental. Plato said; “Emotion is the enemy of reason”. This is especially true at the bridge table. It is almost impossible to think clearly about the next bridge hand when you are in the midst of a strong emotional response. I know this from personal experience.

I was playing in the championship flight of the Grand National Teams a few years ago.  We were a solid team and played quite well to make it all the way to the semi-final round. Our matches had been broadcast on vugraph for the past several days and this match would be as well. I was pleasantly surprised by how natural I felt throughout the event. I had played well (certainly far from perfect) and didn’t feel any added pressure under these high level circumstances. We were playing a terrific team out of Las Vegas that included several top pro pairs. Our team would be considered the underdogs at this point. 

After the first set, we had a slim lead after solid play from both sides. The second set against this team was quite different. A couple of boards in I made a particularly awful mistake and for the first time emotions started to creep in for me. How could I do something so stupid? I am so embarrassed! Oh my god!! That just got put out live on vugraph for the entire world to see!! By the time I crawled out of my emotional spiral I had already made another particularly terrible mistake. I was spiraling out of control. It felt like I couldn’t even think my way through a simple card play problem and made at least two more comically bad mistakes in the set. Needless to say, the Vegas team was solidly ahead after this set and even after valiant efforts by my teammates we were not able to make up for this awful set. After the match, I was surprised and humbled by the sheer number of world class players that chose to share similar disaster stories with me. These were some of the best bridge players in the world and each of them had not just one but several sets similar to the one I just experienced! To a person, they all noted that this is a lifelong process and we’re always learning from our mistakes so, keep grinding and learning from these experiences. That’s what the best bridge players do.   

The best bridge players aren’t just the ones that make the fewest mistakes at the table;

  • The best players freely admit that they have made and will continue to make mistakes. They are brutally honest with themselves and don’t deny their shortcomings. In fact, they try to find their leaks and plug them. 
  • The best players will learn from the mistakes that they make. They will seek out other experts’ opinions and engage in productive discussions searching for a better understanding of the game.
  • The best players try to avoid making the same mistakes twice. Much easier said than done especially at the beginning of your “Bridge Journey”. 
  • The best players have the shortest memories. This is possibly the most important skill to develop (and you can develop it). When you’ve made a mistake, you must recognize it and then move on to the next hand. Take a few deep breaths and then get ready to play a brand new deal.

You can practice what the best players preach every time you play. 

  • Always try to do a post-mortem of your games. Look at opportunities for improvement in each deal and don’t forget to celebrate some brilliant plays as well. 
  • Seek advice and guidance from players that you respect. They are almost all willing to help you in your journey and some can be truly amazing mentors.
  • Start to notice how emotions can creep in after a particularly brutal mistake and then recognize that you have to move forward. Take a few deep breaths and try to put that mistake behind you along with the negative emotions that it helped bring forward. You will have plenty of time to experience these emotions again after the game is over.   
  • Try to recognize how emotion can cause leaks in your game and rectify them. (A leak I noticed during my meltdown was that I tended to play more quickly when I was emotional. I have since made an effort to avoid this).

I promise you will get better at all of the above things over time. Because, I hate to break it to you, you are going to continue to make mistakes for as long as you play this game. Which means you are going to get a lot of practice. Recognize your mistakes, learn from them (either now or later) and move on from them as quickly as you possibly can. Another hand is always ready for you, so don’t bring bad thoughts and feelings into a fresh opportunity for success. 

Good luck all.   

Rob Barrington is a professional bridge player and world renowned bridge instructor. He is the founder of and teaches large online courses on that site and through his popular YouTube channel. Rob resides in West Palm Beach, Florida.

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38 comments on “Dealing with mistakes”

  1. I recognize that I need to be more tolerant of mistakes by my partner but even more tolerant of my own as I reserve my main criticisms for these.

  2. Rob Barrington's advice is excellent, but it will not work if you have a partner who constantly criticize your game, but never recognize his own mistakes.
    I had one partner like that, he was an expert player, better but not much better than I was (I am a good advanced player), but his manners were terrible.
    He kept criticizing my play deal after deal, but never recognizing his own mistakes when I pointed them out to him.
    After a couple of months I just stopped playing with him.

  3. What gets me is comments from onlookers who jump in and demand an explanation to your play...IN CASUAL BRIDGE, mind you...when your mistake might have been a matter of opinion, or maybe not, the point being does this person have a right to jump into our online game to criticise? I hate it and they have NO STANDING!! So how to get rid of such irritation?

  4. I made an embarrassing mistake today. The dog wanted out, and I must have touched the 'double' button, instead of the pass button. Needless to say, they made an overtrick. Can I yell at the dog?

    I play with a wonderful partner who teaches me when I make an error. She never says 'you SHOULD' have bid..whatever. She calmly writes 'your bid was....'. I learn and try to do it right the next time. Learning depends on your partner's response to your errors.

  5. One point that you might have made was how important it is to not get abuse from your partner, either by comments or body language, when you do make a mistake. It is much easier to get over that mistake and get on with things if you don’t have a partner who points out what you have done wrong. Obviously it is important to stop playing with those kind of partners and I’m sure the experts would agree!

  6. Robbie, excellent article. I see you have learned a lot over the past 25 years. From a old bridge partner from Syracuse.

  7. I think the article is very good . If you make a mistake, you’ll be careful and not make similar mistakes. Something to learn . Thanks 🙏

  8. That was an educational article which I will remember. It is so true in every way of how we feel when we make a mistake in Bridge and even worse when there are some bad comments made about the mistakes.

  9. It is a brilliant article, so true.. we all make mistakes and get upset afterwards.
    But more upsetting and even hurting is the remarks we sometimes receive from our partner.Today, my partner called me ‘idiot’. I was already sorry for my mistake and on top of it…. We are not machines, let us not forget this especially while playing with foreigners.
    Good luck and have enjoyable bridge tournaments.

  10. This was timely since I made a heinous mistake last night having needed reminding what was the best way to bid a complex hand. It is hard in bridge, because we inflict our mistakes on our partner; and almost want them to make a mistake so that we do not feel so bad about ourself. That surely isn't a winning strategy!

  11. A "Win-Review" was a technique used by our very successful computer company in lieu of the "Postmortem" following a major sale where we won against competition. It was harder to drill down to the root cause of why you won and had enormous positive learning results. It would be interesting for us to use a similar technique and see how it works. The positive connotation is a great start.

  12. A few years ago, as a newly returned player, I was at a sectional and fortunate enough to have Elaine, a very experienced player, as my partner. She said right at the beginning, “No discussion of the hands during the session.” And if we had a few moments and I started talking about a hand, she walked away! Elaine was absolutely right, and I have carried this lesson into all my games including the ones on BBO. It has greatly improved my concentration and my mood. Then we had pleasant discussion after the session.

  13. It's fine to discuss after the game is over if you made the mistake and are asking for a discussion. If your partner or another person did, it's unsolicited advice, which means and can be read as criticism. Save it unless asked.

  14. Dear Rob Barrington, thank you for this wonderful article, which I loved. I have read it a couple of times, and will be saving it for future encouragement. Just what I needed to know to carry on! THANK YOU.

  15. Just made a big goof - you made me feel better knowing that I am not the only one who goofs. Now I can sleep better to-night Thanks a million

  16. Re post mortem: No reason you can't stay online and engage in private chat with your partner. (Or use email, or the phone.)

    Re history: BBO has the history of every game you've played in the past few months. Click the history tab, then click on a specific game. These records are invaluable for port mortems.

    And from the general pedantry department: If you call it a post-ludum (after-game), that avoids the thought of "after death," which is what post mortem means.

  17. Following a mistake. there are a couple of routine strategies, Barrington does not mention. If it is your partner, just shut up. If it is you go on to the next board and do everything normally.

  18. Yes we all make mistakes, but I like to discuss some of them after the session is over without criticizing.

  19. We all make various kinds of mistakes regardless of your bridge level and experience. One issue however on BBO is that we have no way of correcting a bidding error as you would at the bridge table when you pull the wrong card out of the bidding box. On BBO there is no immediate correction like at the bridge table when you pulled the wrong bid out of the box. Don't say adjust your setting to check your bid first...that often fails too in trying to play fast in ACBL game that are Speed Balls or have cut the play time by 3 minutes around which is not approved by the ACBL Laws Of Duplicate Bridge. Thus a Director call when you accidently bid 2S trying to make a transfer when you meant to bid 2H, well I don't think a bunch of hogwash or inquires are warranted in this obvious error of a click of a button you could not correct on BBO, like you could sitting at the bridge table. There are BBO rules which some are hard to digest in comparison to the real life bridge table. The infraction of BBO time not in regulation and the lack of being able to correct an obvious error would be two such examples and many others I have not addressed.

  20. As one of my mentors said “If you aren’t making lots of mistakes, you aren’t playing enough bridge! Thanks-back to the table!

  21. Thank you so much for this brilliant article. I have had a partner who could not distinguish between lack of knowledge and mistakes. This has helped my confidence. Thanks

  22. I make plenty of mistakes but never have the opportunity to go back on the games played and to try and work out how I could have played that better. Could BBO look into a history of games played and a platform to learn from the mistakes.

  23. Great article. When playing BBO I always miss the opportunity to do post-mortem. How could BBO offer a faster easer platform to allow post mortem chats? we can all learn from ths and make then less mistakes

  24. I enjoyed reading that.
    I make mistakes all the time . I try to learn from them. I like to celebrate when I play well.

  25. (Angela) Plussevens on bbo
    As a raw learner I appreciated the leeway RB cuts himself. I don't mind losing but I feel v. uncomfortable vis-a-vis my partner. I hate the feeling of having let someone down.
    I shall remember this article when I get round to playing face-to-face. Thanks, Rob!

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