I think every serious bridge player who wants to improve his or her game needs to find and cultivate a mentor. A mentor should be someone whose opinion you respect, who has your best interests at heart, and, most importantly, someone from whom you can accept constructive criticism without getting your feelings hurt. It does not need to be someone with whom you discuss every hand and every card you play, but someone who will step in when you do something wrong and explain to you what you should have done and why. It needs to be someone to whom you can go with a bidding or play question who will take the time to thoroughly go over what you should have or could have done and why.
My mentor when I was just learning to play (green as a gourd would be an appropriate simile) was Dr. J. Dan Duke, psychology professor at Appalachian State University and director and club president of the Boone (NC) Bridge Club. He is the one who led me through my first days of learning to play the game, and who, later on, explained to me the ins and outs of matchpoint scoring and team play. Whenever something went wrong, I’d go to him and ask his advice. He invariably would want to know why I did what I did, and, often, I could not give an answer because I had no reason. He sternly informed me one day that you always had to have a reason for doing what you do. “Don’t lead a trump on the opening lead because you don’t know what to lead,” he once told me. “Lead a trump because you want to cut down dummy’s ruffling power, or any other lead would likely give up a trick, or whatever other reason. But do have a reason.”
I learned an important lesson from him once about match point play when he and I were playing in a sectional together. I felt so inferior to him (and rightly so) and wanted to “prove myself” by playing a good game. We were playing in one of those two session Open Pairs events that were popular way back when. The top scoring 50% of the field advanced to the championship round and the lower 50% played in the consolations (we called it the “goat pairs”). The final score was the sum of the scores of the two games.
During our first session Dr. Duke and I had a whopping 73% game and were the odds on favorite to win the entire event. Alas, the fates had different ideas in mind! I was the declarer in a 3NT contract and had 9 top tricks and the only legitimate play for a 10th trick was to finesse dummy’s AQ of a suit. If it succeeded, I would make 10 tricks. If it failed, I’d be down several. I was full of myself, imbued with the glow of the 73% game, and feeling invulnerable. I took the finesse. It lost. Down several. We finished 4th overall.
On the way home that night, Dr. Duke asked me why I did what I did and I told him I was playing for a top. “No,” he said, “you were playing for a bottom.” He explained to me that 3NT was an ordinary contract that everyone would be in and everyone would face the 10th trick question. Most everyone would cash their 9 tricks for an average board and I should have joined them. When I protested that “average does not win an event,” he looked at me and said, “Neither does bottom.”
It led to a long discussion over several days, but here is the gist of what I learned from him.
1) Top boards are rarely earned. Most top boards are given to you by the opponents’ misplay, misdefense, or bad bidding. Wait patiently and take the top boards when they are given to you.
2) Sometimes you get “fixed” by the opponents who luck into a contract that no one else is in. There’s nothing you can do about it. No need to whine and moan. It happens to everyone. You can hate it, but you have to accept it.
3) Most bottoms are earned because you gave them away. You misbid, you misplay a hand, you forget to count trump, or something such.
4) You should aim for average on every hand. Try to reach the contract that most people are going to reach with your cards. Take a line of play that is most likely to succeed. Don’t go against the field in your plays without a reason. An example of this is holding K 5 2 in your hand an A J 10 9 in the dummy, most of the field is going to lay down the King and then finish the 10 in dummy. Leading the J from dummy at the first play of the suit and letting is ride is going against the field and playing for a bottom (unless there is some reason you have to believe that that particular play is going to succeed).
Summarizing what he told me: Play for average. Take the tops that are given to you. Don’t give away any bottoms. That still sounds like a recipe for winning bridge to me.