Planet of the Bots

Anyone playing bridge in South Florida beware: The St. Cat’s club in West Palm Beach has a couple of new players named B.B. O’Saint and B.B. O’Catherine who always come in first. They’re not very sociable; they never say anything, never smile or growl, and they don’t even partake of the quite decent lunch that Julie Jawor, the director, puts out every day.

That’s because BBOSaint and BBOCatherine aren’t human. They’re robots that fill in whenever there’s an odd number of pairs, so nobody will have to suffer through a sitout, which everyone hates.

When my partner Christine and I dropped in at the St. Cat’s club last Friday (9-1-2017), the “bots”were needed because there was a half table. Since they’re robots and presumably don’t make mistakes – more on that later – they did come in first with a 62% game. Fortunately for the rest of us mere humans, the bots were not eligible to earn MasterPoints, leaving more for the rest of us. Christine and I had a decent 54% game in a strong field containing several professionals, good enough for .58 MasterPoints, but the day’s highlight was definitely the round when we had to play three boards against the “bots.”

Julie has had the bots in use for about a month and she says acceptance by her regular players has been good. Many people have tried bridge online with BBO and just about everyone wants to see the novelty.

There’s lot of buzz about bots these days. Their use as a remedy for sitouts was first reported in the Bulletin, the monthly magazine of the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL), two months ago at a Center City club in Philadelphia. Coincidentally, when we got home from our “bots” game in West Palm, the mail brought the Bulletin’s latest issue with a graphic of a human playing three robots on the cover under a headline: “Bring on the Bots!” In conjunction with the recent summer Nationals in Toronto, the ACBL sanctioned its first humans vs. bots tournament with MasterPoints being awarded to the winners.

Here’s how it worked: When we got to the sitout table where the “phantom” pair would normally have been, forcing us to twiddle our thumbs for half an hour, we had to go to the front of the room, where Christine and I were placed on chairs some distance apart with the director in the middle – she was there to “proctor” the proceedings and make sure no illegal messages were passed between us. Then we were each given a minipad and a felt-tipped pen to make our bids and choose the cards we wanted to play. We had to double-click to confirm that was really the bid or the play we wanted to make.

We had one bad, one average and one good board against the bots – the bad board was the first one we played against them, when I was trying to familiarize myself with all the different buttons on the screen and in all the excitement, I totally forgot to return my partner’s suit.

All in all, Christine and I did enjoy the experience. It’s the wave of the future, and it may even prevent cheating. The bots can’t groan or shake their heads, cough, or even place cards on the table at a certain angle, some of the shenanigans that have given rise to the recent cheating scandals in the game.

If the robots always make the right decision and play perfectly, how can you get a better-than-average board against them? They’re programmed to make the best decision based on facts known to them from bidding and the leads, but they’re not clairvoyant, and they can’t see all four hands or even their partners’ hands. So they make logical decisions based on what they know from their own hands and from the bidding, but as we all know, sometimes an illogical lead can beat a contract.

(There are all kinds of “illogical” things about the bots. For example, the post-game statistics showed that BBOSaint’s declarer play was better but BBOCatherine’s leads were better – I hope the two of them didn’t argue too much about that on the “hard” drive home.)

When we got a 71% score against them, I bid No-Trump, Christine raised me to Game in 3 No-Trump and I made an overtrick for a plus-630 score. The best North-South should be able to do on the hand is 4 Hearts or 4 Spades for plus-620, so we should have had a top by 10 points – except for the fact that bad defense let a couple of people make an overtrick in 4 Spades. But more amazingly, I should have been Down Two in 3 NT. The wrong opening lead by BBOSaint gave me three extra tricks. Yet, when you look at the hand, you can’t really fault the bot for picking the Jack of Diamonds.

My feat of beating the bots by 3 tricks is definitely worth an entry on the Bridge Burglar blog. My column’s anti-hero, Flustered Flo, will play the role of another South Declarer who played the hands against human opponents and was very glad to have made Game in 4 Spades. She will be chagrined to find out that her nemesis, Smug Sam, bested her by 10 points by making 4 No-Trump – and against the supposedly “perfect” robots, no less.

South Dealer; both sides vulnerable

K J 6
A K 10 9 8 6
8 7
7 4
West East
A 5 10 9 4
J 4 2 7 5 3
J 10 5 4 2 A Q
Q 10 3 K 8 6 5 2
Q 8 7 3 2
K 9 6 3
A J 9

The bidding:

South West North East
1 Pass 2 Pass
3 Pass 4 All Pass

Robots have entered the game of bridge in a big way and many clubs are experimenting with using robots to replace “phantom” pairs and prevent sitouts when an odd number of pairs shows up. Flustered Flo found out that a club near her home was using the bots for sitouts so she drove over there out of curiosity to try it out.

She was glad to see that her nemesis, Smug Sam, had also made the trip there for the same reason. Since the robots always played perfect bridge, she hoped the robots would teach Sam a lesson – Sam wouldn’t be able to intimidate or bluff the robots like he often did with human players.

On the diagrammed hand which Flo played against human opponents, Flo sat South and landed in a makeable 4 Spades contract when her North partner, Loyal Larry, raised her to Game after one round of bidding.

Her West opponent led a small Club, the only unbid suit, to East’s King and Flo’s Ace. She unblocked the dummy by cashing her Queen of Hearts and then led a small trump from her hand. West took the trump Ace right away, got to his East partner’s hand with the Ace of Diamonds and East dutifully returned a Club to West’s Queen. Flo had lost three tricks, a Spade, a Diamond and a Club, but she had the rest with trumps, good Hearts and the King of Diamonds.

“That was a pretty close Game with just 23 high-card points between us,” said Flo to her partner. “Thank you for putting me there. I guess you figured, correctly, that your Heart length ought to count for something extra. I think we’ll get a good score on the board, because not everyone will bid it, certainly at least a tie for a top.”

Flo was sorely disappointed to find out that her score was nowhere near a top. She was even more chagrined that her nemesis Sam, who had also been South, had beaten her by 10 points by bidding 3 No-Trump and making his contract with an overtrick for a plus-430, 10 points better than her 420.

“The hand records say you should have gone down,” Flo said, waving the paper in Sam’s face. “And I see that you played that board against the robots, who are supposed to play perfect defense. Why did you bid No-Trump, which is the wrong contract to be in, and how did you make FOUR?”

“After my partner responded 2 Hearts to my opening Spade bid, I didn’t bid my Diamonds, but I said 2 No-Trump,” said Sam. “Then my partner raised me to 3. The West robot led decided to lead a Diamond, his longest suit. And he led the Jack, which you can hardly blame him for, since he had Jack-10. So it was a logical lead, but it turned out to be fatal.”

“How so?” Flo asked.

“The East robot took the opening trick with the Ace of Diamonds and led back his Queen to my King,” Sam explained. “I took the Queen of Hearts and forced out West’s Ace of Spades. Of course he cashed his good 10 of Diamonds, but when he led another Diamond, my 9 of Diamonds was high and I could get to the dummy to run the Hearts. I had 10 tricks, 6 Hearts, 2 Diamonds, a Club and a Spade.”

“What should he have done to put you down?” Flo asked.

“A Club lead will set the contract, too, but that would have been even more illogical. If he was going to lead a Diamond, leading a low Diamond sets the contract,” said Sam. “After forcing out my King of Diamonds, West then still has his Jack-10 in the suit and runs it when he gets back in with the Ace of Spades. They take five tricks, four Diamonds and the Spade Ace.”

“I thought robots were perfect,” said Flo. “How come they decided to give you a good board?”

“They’re programmed to make the best decisions based on their own hands and what they’ve learned from the bidding,” said Sam, smug as always. “They can’t see all four hands. And I try to give them as little information as I can from my bidding. That’s why I went to No-Trump right away. You can often steal a trick that way, keeping opponents in the dark on what to lead.”

“Even robots?” asked Flo, incredulously.

“Yes, Flo, especially robots.”


  1. J of diamonds is illogical. For that lead to have any value partner needs some values, hence low diamond is clear.

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