Seligman with Penn students Jimmy Wang (right) and Kendrick Chow, who were on the Penn bridge team that won the Summer Grand Nationals in 2010.



One day when I’m with Seligman he’s playing online with Chris Compton as his partner; he explains that they will also be partners in the Open Pair partner event in the upcoming 2010 World Bridge Series Championship in Philadelphia. “Chris is handicapped by playing with me,” he says, when I ask him to assess their chances. “If he were playing with one of his peers, he could be in the top nine or 10 pairs.”

Seligman and other lesser lights will sometimes sponsor (pay for) another, better player (Compton is a World Grand Master and ACBL Grand Life Master with over 20,000 master points) to partner with them in tournament play—which is allowed because no prize money is awarded in bridge. Asked about his preparation for the match, Seligman repeats some advice from Compton: “‘Success at bridge is only five percent the system you play; 95 percent is actually knowing the systems you play.’”

In bridge, there are systems and conventions ad infinitum, created by players for describing the length (of each suit) and strength (number of points) of a hand. The more systems and conventions partners use, the harder it is to remember them, which is what Compton was warning Seligman about.

Conventions are often named for their creators, and I ask Seligman if he has ever discovered one or if he would he like to see his name attached to one. “I never thought of a convention that was worthy of being a Seligman,” he says. “I’m not nearly good enough. That’s for the high experts.”

Seligman does make a valuable discovery that day, however, as Compton reveals that he has been playing from the backseat of a car, being driven to New Orleans for a tournament by his wife. This technological possibility has never occurred to Seligman before, and he’s suddenly like a kid in a candy store at the prospect. “I will not take short plane rides to an out-of-town lecture or meeting anymore. I will sit in the back of a chauffeur-driven car and play bridge online,” he says. “This will change my life.”



Over his “50, almost 60 years” of bridge playing, Seligman says he has seen “a tremendous change” in the game, trending toward “a science of bridge.” It has become a game of “pinpoint accuracy,” he says. “All the action is in bidding and getting to the right contract.” Old-time bridge players, he says, wouldn’t stand a chance against today’s players.

One evening I sit down for pizza and pasta with Seligman and two young players—Jimmy Wang Gr’14 and Kendrick Chow EAS’13, of the University’s bridge team—before the four of us participate in a game at the Bridge Club of Center City. Seligman had suggested that we meet prior to the evening game so that he and Wang, who will play as partners, can agree on their bidding methods.

Along with teammates Zhiyi Huang Gr’14 and Naijia Guo Gr’14, Wang and Chow represented Penn in the 2010 Summer Grand Nationals in New Orleans, defeating Yale to win the collegiate title. Wang, 20, graduated high school in Beijing at age 15 (“unusual,” he says), and is now a student in Penn’s doctoral program in applied mathematics and computational science. He’s been playing bridge for about five years. Chow, 18, is from San Francisco, started playing in high school, and is a Penn sophomore studying chemical engineering. He is to be my partner—and, therefore, clearly, a good sport.

A number of people at the club recognize Seligman from his accomplishments in psychology, bridge, or both fields, and seem impressed that he is there. There are some very good players at the club, but Wang and Seligman come in first of six North/South pairs, garnering 1.33 Master Points (MPs). Chow and I came in fourth of six East/West pairs (no MPs for us). Afterward Seligman and Wang rehash their hands and do so with total recall.

 

Seligman describes himself as “a natural pessimist and a depressive, but a learned optimist,” applying the psychological techniques he has developed to his own life. It’s perhaps not surprising that he has also brought those techniques to bear on bridge—specifically, in a contest pitting science against intuition in determining the outcome of a tournament. The contest—part prank but also “a serious endeavor,” he says—was dubbed The Hog versus the Scientist.

The Scientist was Seligman and his friend of 40 years and fellow bridge player, Barry Schwartz Gr’71. The Hog was Ron Anderson, “one of the great bridge players,” Seligman says, who “predicted his winners like you do in betting horses. Essentially, he handicapped them based on his knowledge of their game, while we used numbers.” (For the record, Anderson named himself “the Hog,” Schwartz notes.)

In advance of a 1987 world match, Seligman and Schwartz used Seligman’s Attributional Style Questionnaire—the “classic test for determining one’s level of optimism and pessimism,” he says—to predict who the winners and losers would be. They wrote to all the participating bridge players and asked them to fill out the questionnaire in advance and return it to them. They then combined the players’ talent and their level of optimism to make their choices, beating the Hog’s predictions “probably 13 out of 16 matches,” Seligman recalls proudly.

Schwartz, now professor of social theory and social action at Swarthmore College, met Seligman when Schwartz was a graduate student in psychology at Penn. As a bridge player, he says, “Marty is after the bold stroke and is not interested in the run-of-the-mill play. He wants to do something surprising and brilliant.” They were once regular partners, but don’t play as much now. While Schwartz “can hold his own when at the bridge table with Seligman,” he says, “Marty has played more seriously and has gotten better, and I’ve gotten worse.”

 


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