An analysis of a joke

The following old joke regularly makes the rounds:

Q: Why is sex like a game of bridge? (Or, why is bridge like sex?)
A: If you have a good hand, you don't need a partner!

As I shall now demonstrate with a few examples, the punch line of this joke betrays a severe misunderstanding of the game of bridge. (Or, at least, a very shallow understanding of the qualities that make the game worth investing much time in....)

To begin, let's recognize that good bidding in bridge has several objectives:

  • Figuring out what you and partner can make together, and bidding enough on that
  • Getting in the way of the opponents' bidding so they can't figure out what they have
  • Telling partner where to focus the attack if the opponents outbid you and you're playing defense (yet without telling the opponents too much, either...)
All these objectives are based on knowing what the bidding language means to your partner: it is a system of clear communication so both can cooperate.

What about "having a good hand"? Take a look at these examples:

A 26-point hand (a hand extraordinarily well-endowed with high cards) opposite a totally worthless hand will have a tough time making nine tricks. And yet, there are plenty of players who will pick up such a hand, open with a forcing bid, and drive to a slam, going set four tricks! Partner's protest, "not tonight, partner" seems not to matter to such a player.

S - 85
H - 643
D - 9532
C - 7643

S - AKJ6
C - QJ

Against competent opponents these two hands together will take only seven or eight tricks with normal breaks, although one of the players has a fantastic hand. The player with all the high cards will be severely tempted to bid too high.

At the other end of the scale, a reasonably normal 14-point hand opposite a well-fitting hand from partner (even with as few as 7 or 8 points) will have no trouble making ten or eleven tricks, maybe even twelve. Points don't take tricks; good fit does. If both partners can agree to a mutually beneficial contract, shazam.

S - QJ643
H - 5
D - KJT852
C - 7

S - AK852
H - A7
D - Q93
C - 963

These two hands will most likely take eleven tricks with either spades or diamonds as trump. Yet one player has only 13 points and the other has 7. And on this same one, the opponents might make eleven or twelve tricks with hearts or clubs as trump. If both partnerships are competent bidders, the bidding will probably be an intense battle here.

The most points at bridge are won when somebody holding only a modest endowment of high cards knows how to bid them well, figuring out accurately when they will help partner or when they won't. As S. J. Simon wrote more than fifty years ago, you have to recognize when you have "a whale of a good hand" and when you don't.

Good communication in the dialogue reveals when something is going to happen, or when it isn't. Each player can express wishes and make some suggestions, but there has to be good consent for many tricks to be taken. If both partners bid competently, knowing "when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em" (as Kenny Rogers sang it), that's far more effective than merely bidding solo what look in isolation like good cards.

So, the punch line could be this, and it might be a better joke:

It's not what you have, so much as what you and your partner do with what you have.

Here's another example:

If partner has:
S - AK754
H - AQJ63
D - none
C - K85
it is far better to have:
S - JT9632
H - 7
D - 8532
C - AQ

(your partnership can make 7 spades, all thirteen tricks)

than to have:
S - J3
H - 74
D - AKQJ73
C - 962

(with normal luck, your partnership might make only seven or eight tricks at spades or diamonds; maybe nine against bad defense)

That is, if you can offer complementary assets where partner wants them to be, rather than useless assets that don't fit partner's needs, the partnership result is dramatically better. The bidding language is designed to communicate this.

The punch line could be:

If you have what your partner wants, you score well together.

And one more example:

Suppose my partner opened the bidding with 2 hearts (playing reasonably disciplined weak 2-bids)...
if I held:
S - AQ85
H - 7
D - KJ52
C - KQ42,
I would pass and expect partner to get set, or barely make it with good luck. There's nothing I can do even though my cards look pretty good in isolation. Partner's bidding has told me that my contribution is not going to be satisfactory this time; I might as well not even take it further than this. Maybe the opponents will bid something, to their own peril.

but if I held:
S - 93
H - KJ753
D - AJ8642
C - none,
I would bid 5 hearts immediately! Maybe partner will make it, or maybe we've just talked the opponents out of bidding and making 6 clubs or 6 spades, or surely at least 4 spades. No matter how good the opponents are, they've got a problem. (If the bidding is already at 5 hearts before the player on my left gets to say anything, the opponents are going to have a rough time figuring out what they've got. They might just pass and lose the good score they could potentially make. Or they might double us when we're making it. Or they might guess wrong and bid too much, and we'll set them on an occasion when we couldn't make 5 hearts anyway.) In any case, we have a terrific chance at obtaining a good score out of whatever the fates have dealt us on this hand. As the Gershwins put it, "Who could ask for anything more?"

A good partner plays a cooperative and honest game, striving for the mutual benefit of the partnership.

So, the punch line could be as follows:

If you have a shapely fit for your partner, say so.

I know, I know, it's certainly possible to pick up a hand where partner's contribution is truly irrelevant.

S - AKQJT98765
H - A
D - A
C - A:
just open the bidding with 7NT and claim. But there's no skill in that; any dolt could get the same score with those cards! What virtue is there in such a hand, other than a momentary thrill?

If your hand is so good that you don't care about partner, it just isn't interesting.

The bridge literature about squeezes, strips, and dummy reversals is too extensive to cite here. Those techniques could also lead to good punch lines.