I've finished McPherson's book. It was okay -- and that's my final answer. But one thing I read in there stuck with me.
McP was interviewing Jeff Meckstroth, one of the top players in the world. Meckstroth and his partner, Eric Rodwell, are famous for their complicated bidding conventions. The yin/yang of bidding conventions goes (briefly) like this: given that there are a gazillion possible deals, and nearly as many possible legal bidding sequences, how do you and your partner use bids to communicate to each other what's in your hands so that you maximize your chance to make the best score? Some people favor natural bidding -- if you have hearts, you bid hearts; if you have a balanced hand and the right number of points, you bid no trump. Some people favor artificial bids that the partnership understands. The more complicated the series of artificial bids, the more unnatural the convention. More precise bidding can mean better results, but it makes bridge dangerously complicated.
So Meckstroth made the point that the conventions don't matter as much as the partnership does: the partners have to be on the same page. They each have to understand what the other means by each bid.
And Starman -- my husband & partner -- and I aren't there yet.
[Non bridge players can stop reading here and continue below.]
This became apparent this week when we did the "Bidding Box" problems in this months "Bridge Bulletin," the magazine from the ACBL. In one problem, Starman bid a no trump. In response, I had to decide between asking for major suits (Stayman) and telling him that I had five hearts (a Jacoby Transfer). My problem was that I had four spades as well as five hearts, so I really could have been happy in either major. I ended up bidding 2 clubs for Stayman. My reasoning was that Stayman says also "I have 8+ points" which is strongly suggestive of game. It does deny a five card suit in the majors, though.
The other reason I didn't want to do a Jacoby transfer to hearts was that it's a bid designed to get the no trump hand as declarer. This makes sense in general terms because the no trump hand usually has got more points -- 15-17 in our partnership -- and therefore is stronger. But my hand had 14 points, so it was barely weaker and didn't need the transfer for that reason.
So I bid 2 clubs (Stayman), and Starman bids 2 diamonds, which means he doesn't have a four-card major at all. I then bid 3 hearts, and he passes! Aggghhhhhhh! With our point count, we should be in game. If he has three hearts in his hand, we should play 4 hearts. If he has two hearts, we should play in 3 no trump. But he can't pass!
Incidentally, I probably have the edge, logically, on this one because there's an over-arching principle in our bidding: a new suit bid is forcing. I hadn't bid hearts before so he can't pass it. He might want to ("That'll show her!") but he really shouldn't.
[Non bridge players should start reading again.]
The point was, I deviated from the script, and that left Starman uncertain what to do. It turns out there's a convention for precisely my hand. We didn't know it, we certainly don't play it, and anyway the last thing we need is another artificial bid to learn. What we need is to understand each other better. I need to know that he is thinking entirely inside the box -- if I deviate from the script, he's likely not to follow me. He needs to know that not all hands fit inside the box, so if I've deviated from the script there's a reason.
On balance, I was "right" in some respects, but I had the larger lesson to learn. Starman didn't play cards as a child, and he certainly didn't learn bridge as a ten-year-old, as I did. He's learning the game from a very sterile place -- no particular card sense to link onto, and a lot of uncertainty. There is no "playing from the seat of the pants" in his bridge world -- even if I made that more British and replaced "trousers" for "pants" (the latter being underwear in the UK). He has a slender booklet, called a flipper, to help him with bidding, and it's positively dog-eared and falling apart, like a well-loved cuddly toy. I need to hew close to the flipper's logic for our best result as a partnership.
And that's what partnership practice is about.