The Laws of the Land (Part 1)

Choices carry consequences – hopefully favorable, but occasionally not. Their import varies widely, sometimes enormously so, depending upon the nature of the matter subject to choice, the ranges of outcomes and their respective probabilities, and the attributes of the outcomes. We make hundreds, if not many thousands, of decisions each and every day at levels of importance high and low and in-between. Many of them are of a sort which fly so well beneath the radar screen that we are not cognizant of our having weighed and acted upon them. One’s morning rise-and-shine routine is a prime example.

In a perfect world, for matters of choice bearing greater gravity, we would always have plenty of time to optimize – to zero in on the one option amongst two or more which carries the highest likelihood of success, however specified. If such utopia does exist, we would need the Hubble Space Telescope to find it.

At the bridge table, the results of one’s elections are not epochal. They do not affect the ozone layer, the shifting of tectonic plates, or the future of civilization. Good thing, too, because one would never, ever feature being placed in a position where dozens of existential decision points, running one right after the other, had to be tackled within the real-time borders of seven minutes.

When we refine experience to achieve expertise and then apply such acquired knowledge and talent appropriately, decisions become that much easier to make and dependably more fruitful. Oftentimes, what is learned in one area of life’s garden of possibilities can find purpose and value in another.

The foregoing serves as preamble to a case in point. The Visit New Jersey website waxes rhapsodic in describing Frenchtown, a quaint, boutique-y burg of about 1,350, hard by the Delaware River, with settlement roots running to well before the Revolutionary War:

The bucolic beauty of this town is so serene, you might think you’ve been transported to the British countryside. Rolling green fields make their way down to lush riverbanks, all perfect for exploring on hikes or bike rides.

My most unusual encounter with bucolic serenity – and the shattering thereof – occurred at the raw pre-dawn hour of 4:30 a.m. as I sped uphill, one-tenth of a mile from exiting the borough, on my way from an overnight stay in Telford, Pennsylvania, to connect with Interstate 78 East toward New York City. Doing 40 in a 25 with nary another soul in sight, I found that I was not alone as a bubble-top cruiser appeared out of nowhere, flashing penetrating swirls of blue and red as its piercing siren seemed to scream pull over, wretch.

Having taken his time to exit the patrol car and sidle up to my driver’s side window, Smokey, pad in hand, greeted me with unexpected cordiality. “Good morning, Sir. Do you know how fast you were going?”

As much of a wag as I can be, I knew that the circumstance did not call for flippancy or frivolity, and yet, despite my best intentions, my response may have come off as mildly impertinent, even though I did deliver it with a smile and a twinkle in my voice. “No, Officer, but I’m sure you do,” quoth I, handing over driver’s license and registration.

“As a matter of fact, yes,” he replied, studiously filling in the citation. “You were doing fourteen over the speed limit, which – you might have noticed from a sign posted just over the bridge back there and the one within plain sight forty feet ahead – is twenty-five.”

“But officer, it’s practically the middle of the night. The streets are empty. What are you doing up at this hour, anyway?”

He lifted his pen for the length of time it took to formulate a reply and pasted a modest smirk on his John Q. Law countenance: “Waiting for you.”

I was so immediately taken with the fellow’s winsomely puckish comeback that my innards ceased churning at the prospect of a mega-fine exceeded only by the increase in insurance premium which ensues from a speeding violation – a blot which remains on one’s record for three years until it ages out.

Except for the faint rustle of leaves in gentle breeze and the melodic chirps of arboreal nestlings making their appetites known, peace reigned as the policeman completed his paperwork. In my gut, anticipatory anxiety began to reassert itself. His work done, John Q. Law proceeded to offer advice, admonition, and reassurance along with the ticket: “Here’s how this works, Sir. You’ll be receiving a notice from municipal court assessing a fine. Pay the fine, and that’s the end of it. Don’t pay the fine, and we notify the State of Connecticut, the violation goes on your record, and you know the rest.” Indeed I did – know the rest and pay the fine.

There were no grey areas in the officer’s binary explication of Do-or-Don’t: dinged if I do or damned if I don’t. Pay the fine or pay big time. No wiggle room. Crystal clear.

I draw on that experience often when faced with a choice ostensibly dictated or strongly informed and influenced by one of the many rules-of-thumb, maxims, devices, and so-called “laws” holding sway within the game of bridge.

Perhaps the first of the golden chestnuts one picks up is the highly memorable alliterative cadence “Eight, Ever. Nine, Never,” cited often by those who apply the rule religiously in finessing for an opponent’s Queen or playing for the drop. Their abiding confidence was such that I took the adage to be gospel. At home, accordingly, I sought its origin in Psalms and Proverbs, but, alas, could find it referenced in neither.

Further research revealed that the prescriptive mnemonic for playing the statistically validated odds to achieve either outcome carries more caveats than – what would my mother say? – “more than you can shake a stick at,” a phrase which first appeared two hundred-plus years ago in the Lancaster [Pennsylvania] Journal.

I learned the hard way that context must be taken into account before one exercises a mantra such as 8E9N. Bridge author and blogger Robert “Bob” MacKinnon, who describes himself as a “retired mathematician,” states the case succinctly: the odds “are appropriate when one is in a state of maximum uncertainty, or if you prefer, in a state of minimum information with regard to the placement of the cards. We do know something about the probable consequences of the dealing of the cards, but the actions at the table are going to tell us a lot more about the particular hand that is being played.”

Quandaries beget offspring. If 8E9N did not meet the test of the Officer Frenchtown’s Crystal Clear Binary Algorithm, I mused, then what was I to make of such newfangled and oldfangled constructions as the Rule of Twenty and The Law of Total Tricks?

(To Be Continued)