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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten

Fair Play or Foul? Cheating Scandals in Bridge

Fair Play or Foul? Cheating Scandals in Bridge - Cathy Chua My friend Cathy has been making diligent attempts to improve my unimpressive bridge skills, and even was kind enough to send me a copy of this book, which she wrote in the early 90s. I'm not enough of a bridge player to appreciate it fully, but it was still very interesting.

I read it at the same time as Woit's Not Even Wrong, and, although they are about completely different subjects, there are some odd parallels. Both of them have been labeled as controversial by their respective communities, despite being enthusiastically supported by some experts, and as a result had trouble finding a publisher. In both cases, criticism from the mainstream has been unprofessional and often at the personal level. You get the impression that both authors hit a nerve. The correspondences go further than that; I would say that the controversy, in both cases, is about the contrast between a wide view and a narrow view. People who choose to adopt a narrow view often become aggressive if it is challenged. Everyone is used to seeing that in religion and politics. The funny thing is that physicists and bridge theorists turn out to react in pretty much the same way.

Continuing, Woit is talking about superstring theory, which he argues is destroying modern physics. People have lost sight of the wide view, that physics should be about understanding the laws of nature. Instead, physicists have become seduced by the admittedly fascinating mathematical structures dreamed up by the string theorists, to the point where they in some cases go so far as to ask whether string theory actually needs to make testable predictions. As Woit argues, when you have reached this point you have stopped doing science. He is disturbed by the fact that, as he sees it, string theory no longer maintains its preeminence by traditional scientific methods, which involve rational comparison of different competing alternative theories. Many string theorists are not even ready to consider that alternatives exist, and become abusive or agitated when the possibility is suggested.

In Fair Play or Foul?, the starting point is the series of scandals that have occurred from time to time in the bridge world, where various top-class players have been accused of passing information to their partners using illegal means. The book argues, I thought persuasively, that the evidence quoted in these cases is generally flimsy. Most often, the accusation is based on a narrow view, under which bridge has to be played according to specific, artificial principles. If a player's decisions cannot be justified in terms of those principles, the inference is that they somehow were cheating. A common example, which is discussed in some detail, is underleading an Ace. Simplifying a little, beginners are told that, when they hold an Ace, and do not know who has the King, it is wrong to lead a small card in that suit, since they may be giving away a free trick; thus, if someone successfully underleads an Ace, they must have acquired information by underhand means. Many deals from top-class play are presented, to show that there can in fact be all sorts of perfectly legitimate reasons for underleading Aces.

The wide view here is that bridge is not just about application of rules, generally designed to pass information to one's partner as efficiently as possible and minimize the probability of giving away free tricks. There are other aspects as well. Sometimes, it is more important to think about the opponents instead, and gamble, hoping to confuse them successfully. Going back to first principles, bridge is a competitive game, where the ultimate goal is to win. That often involves following traditional rules, but the rules nearly always have exceptions. The author, who is also a chessplayer, draws comparisons with unorthodox chess styles. As she points out, Mikhail Tal, World Champion in the early 60s, played what at the time was regarded as unsound, "incorrect" chess, and all sorts of bizarre explanations were given for his success. Modern analysts, in particular Kasparov, have since then concluded that Tal was ahead of his time. "Correctness" is a relative notion. If a move creates difficult problems for the opponent, it can in practice be the strongest alternative, even if it is later possible to show that an objective defense existed.

As you can see, this book made me think. It isn't for everyone; but, if you're interested in finding out what games are really about, I strongly recommend it.