Anchor Skills

Bob Hamman is the greatest bridge player ever. So what’s his advice for learning how to play bridge?

“Similarly in bridge if you have some baseline to work off you’re dealing with a lesser set of problems. That doesn’t mean you can’t start from scratch, you can. If have an anchor it helps. If you have a few anchors then solving is simplified.”

Think of a sudoku board, says Hamman. The minimum necessary numbers is 17. Typical ‘difficult’ boards will have twice that many. The more numbers the easier the board, but not all numbers are equally helpful. A board full of fives removes fives but leaves a lot of ambiguity.

For bridge, Hamman suggests, start with a game of trick taking (euchre, hearts) rather than a game of bidding. If someone gets tricks first it’s easier to teach bidding.

Ben Horowitz offers a corollary to this: it’s easier to teach an engineer how to be an executive than it is to each an executive to be an engineer.

Hamman was mentioned by Bill Chen (mentioned in Kris‘s newsletter). Chen plays chess and some bridge but he addresses the same idea. When someone tells Chen he’s really smart he says that he’s not really that smart, he just gets math-and math is the best baseline, at least for what Chen does.

There’s a lot of names for this idea: first principles, baselines, anchors, foundations. What’s helpful in this advice is the idea that some fundamental ideas are more helpful than others.

Hamman has played with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Two “regular guys with a bunch of bodyguards.

First principles: story

Imagine a young Ben Folds. He’s walking to piano lessons. He loves the piano but not this particular teacher. It’s snowing. And windy.

There’s a bicycle track through the snow. It’s all Folds sees. It’s snowing and windy.

He sees the track and imagines what happened. The track changes direction, the story changes too. Folds writes:

“I want to laugh at how old-fashioned and easily entertained I must sound to a kid today, who has a lot more seductive electronic shit competing for their attention. But a story is a story, in any era. And the best ones, I’ve always thought, develop from mysteries you want to solve.”

There’s a dichotomy between deep work (Newport) and Against Waldenponding (Rao). We balance on this tightrope each day. Some days more on one end, other days at the other, and some we troop between the two.

Newport wants people to learn first principles, to study things which change slowly. Rao wants people to fit first principles into the world in interesting ways, to prototype, to gather rough consensus and run code. 

Stories are a first principle idea to consider. We run on stories and one way to get better at telling them is through boredom. Folds again:

Related: The 3 Ways to Spend Your Day.