Momentum Swings

My reading list for this month has included ‘Battling the Best’ by Sartaj Hans which was an IPBA Book of the Year winner a few years ago. The book describes Hans’ journey through the US Nationals and provides a terrific insight into the thinking and play of those at the very top of our game. It also has the following passage which I found quite thought-provoking:

“Often, decisions are based on the average expectancy of success. This translates to ‘judged well’ when it works or ‘took a losing view when it fails’…….It is hard to put an accurate value on momentum. A team that has been on the losing side of two close decisions will rarely play at its best for the next few boards, while a team or pair that got two gifts have a great wind behind their sails.”

In my last article I mentioned the ‘critical point’ in a hand, and this statement reinforces the view that certain decisions, and the outcome from those decisions, can have an enormous effect on the outcome of a match at the bridge table. This is akin to the tennis player who is in a close match, has a couple of key shots in a match that just miss, and all of a sudden, they find their opponent has momentum going their way.

One problem which experienced players face, which lesser players do not, is that the experienced players absolutely know what the outcome on a board ought to have been. They know if a game or slam ought to have been bid or made; whether a contract should have been defeated and so on. So they know how they are tracking in a match and it is hard not to let this knowledge influence your behaviour. We know the mantra about taking one board at a time, but that is easier said than done.

So, what can we as players do to prevent the poor results from decisions which don’t work out from influencing the balance of our match/event? Is there a magic bullet? Sadly no, but there are some tactics you can employ to minimise the damage. In earlier articles I have mentioned the idea of taking a short break when you have had a disaster. A break can be as simple as walking away from the table for a minute to get a drink or go to the bathroom to give you and your partner time to recompose yourselves. This is no different than the tennis player who pauses for a couple of extra breaths, a towel wipe or a racquet change, or the basketball coach that calls a time-out when momentum is going against their team.   

Take this sequence from a recent event in a match which I expected to be close.  The first board out of the slot brought our side to 6NT, and the outcome on the board came down to the lead. At our table West opted for the 8H giving me at South time to set up the clubs. Everyone at the table knew that a spade lead sets the contract, however low from the Q isn’t necessarily a lead that everyone would find against a slam. However, making a slam on the first board because of the choice of lead definitely gives one a little boost.   The full deal is shown below:






♠ Q9843



♣ 985

♠ AJ10



♣ 63





♠ 76



♣ KQJ74





♠ K52



♣ A102

The next board saw our side defending 3NT:

After the following bidding:

W            N             E              S

1NT        P             2D           P

2H           P             3C           P

3NT        All pass

What would you lead against 3nt from this hand?

♠ A763



♣ 3

If you selected a diamond you provided your side with an easy line to defeat 3NT although effectively any lead will defeat the contract provided the diamond switch is found.

Our team-mates tried 5C which made after North started with the AS and didn’t find the diamond switch so it was again a great pickup for our side with the full deal shown below.






♠ K105



♣ AKJ72

♠ A763



♣ 3





♠ Q9842



♣ 104





♠ J



♣ Q9865

These two boards at the start of the match created a huge momentum boost for our side and it seemed for the rest of the match that the wind was behind us as we sailed to a maximum win. Had the opponents managed a pause at this point to break the tempo, a different outcome might have ensued. However, they did not do that and consequently Sartaj’s statement was certainly true for us in this match as several choices the opponents made failed to work.  For example, on this board at our table, East went slowly to try and put their partner in the picture.

W            N             E              S


P             1H           2H*        4H

P             P             4S           P

P             5H           All pass

While at the other table East’s jump to 4S bid left NS with a lack of information about their fit and strength and the doubled contract for one down gave us another 7 imps:

W            N             E              S


P             1H           4S           Dbl

All Pass






♠ 8



♣ 9732

♠ A74



♣ 85





♠ Q9



♣ A6





♠ KJ6532



♣ KQJ104

With so much going right for us, my partner even made an overtrick in 5H on an end-play. Partner described the play thus: “The opening lead was the CK and East had provided a lot of information via his bidding. I won on the table and led a Heart to my hand and breathed a sigh of when East followed. A trump to dummy revealed the 4-1 break and I was able to cash out the red suits submitting East to discard pressure.

He let go 3 clubs and 5 spades, so I threw him in with the C8 and he had to lead back a Spade for the SQ in dummy and 12 tricks.

The choices made in a match might seem valid in isolation, but taken together when considering the way the match was flowing, it is clear that momentum was on our side on this occasion. It was one of those matches where no matter what the opponents did, everything worked for us. At times like these there are usually no actions you can take which will stem the flow. It is important to be philosophical about the loss and go into the next match as a ‘fresh start’.  After all it doesn’t take much for the tide to turn in bridge and next time it might be your side that has momentum going your way.

© First published Australian Bridge: April 2022