Principle of restricted choice

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In contract bridge, the principle of restricted choice states that "The play of a card which may have been selected as a choice of equal plays increases the chance that the player started with a holding in which his choice was restricted."[1] Crucially, it helps play "in situations which used to be thought of as guesswork."

For example, South leads a low spade, West plays a low one, North plays the queen, East wins with the king. The ace and king are equivalent cards; East's play of the king decreases the probability East holds the ace – and increases the probability West holds the ace. The principle helps other players infer the locations of unobserved equivalent cards such as that spade ace after observing the king. The increase or decrease in probability is an example of Bayesian updating as evidence accumulates and particular applications of restricted choice are similar to the Monty Hall problem.

In many of those situations the rule derived from the principle is to play for split honors. After observing one equivalent card, that is, one should continue play as if two equivalents were split between the opposing players, so that there was no choice about which one to play. Whoever played the first one doesn't have the other one.

When the number of equivalent cards is greater than two, the principle is complicated because their equivalence may not be manifest. When one partner holds Q and 10, say, and the other holds J, it is usually true that those three cards are equivalent but the one who holds two of them does not know it. Restricted choice is always introduced in terms of two touching cards – consecutive ranks in the same suit, such as QJ or KQ – where equivalence is manifest.

If there is no reason to prefer a specific card (for example to signal to partner), a player holding two or more equivalent cards should sometimes randomize their order of play (see the note on Nash equilibrium). The probability calculations in coverage of restricted choice often take uniform randomization for granted but that is problematic.

The principle of restricted choice even applies to an opponent's choice of an opening lead from equivalent suits. See Kelsey & Glauert (1980).


 A J 10 9 6
 8 7 5 4
2-2 Split 3-1 Split 4-0 Split
Table 1
Possible West and East Holdings of KQ32
West East West East West East
KQ 32 KQ3 2 KQ32
K3 Q2 KQ2 3 KQ32
K2 Q3 K32 Q
Q3 K2 Q32 K
Q2 K3 K Q32
32 KQ Q K32
3 KQ2
2 KQ3

Consider the suit combination represented at left. There are four spade cards 8754 in the South (closed hand) and five AJ1096 in the North (dummy, visible to all players). West and East hold the remaining four spades KQ32 in their two closed hands.

Prior to play, 16 different West and East spade holdings or "lies" are possible from the perspective of South. These are listed in Table 1, ordered first by "split" from equal to unequal numbers of cards, then by West's holding from strongest to weakest.

South leads a small spade, West plays the 2 (or 3), dummy North plays the J, and East wins with the K. Later, after winning a side-suit trick, South leads another small spade and West follows low with the 3 (or 2). At this point, with North and East yet to play, the location of only the Q has not been established. South is at a decision point and knows that only two of the original 16 lies remain possible (bolded in Table 1), for West has played both low cards and East the king. At first glance, it may seem that the odds are now even, 1:1, so that South should expect to do equally well with either of the two possible continuations. However, the principle of restricted choice tells us that while both lies of the cards are possible, the probabilities are 2:1 in favour of assuming West holds Q32 and to therefore play the ten.

If East had KQ, he could equally well have played the queen instead of the king. Thus some deals with original lie 32 and KQ would not reach this stage; some would instead reach the parallel stage with K alone missing, South having observed 32 and Q. In contrast, every deal with original lie Q32 and K would reach this stage, for East played the king perforce (without choice, or by "restricted choice").

If East would win the first trick with the king or queen uniformly at random from KQ, then that original lie 32 and KQ would reach this stage half the time and would take the other fork in the road half the time. Thus on the actual sequence of play, the odds are not even but one-half to one, or 1:2. East would retain queen from original KQ about one-third of the time and retain no spades from original K about two-thirds of the time. The principle of restricted choice posits that to finesse by playing the 10 is nearly twice as likely to succeed.

Importantly, this assumes that the defenders have no signaling system, so that the play by west of (say) the 3 followed by the 2 does not signal a doubleton. During the course of many equivalent deals, East with KQ should in theory win the first trick with the king or queen uniformly at random; that is, half each without any pattern.[2]

Further accuracy[edit]

A priori, four outstanding cards "split" as shown in the first two columns of Table 2 below. For example, three cards are together and the fourth is alone, a "3-1 split" with probability 49.74%. To understand the "number of specific lies" refer to the preceding list of all lies in Table 1.

Split Probability
of Split
Number of
specific lies
Probability of
a specific lie
Table 2
Split Probabilities of Four Cards
2-2 40.70% 6 6.78%
3-1 49.74% 8 6.22%
4-0 9.57% 2 4.78%

The last column gives the a priori probability of any specific original holding such as 32 and KQ; that one is represented by row one covering the 2–2 split. The other lie featured in our example play of the spade suit, Q32 and K, is represented by row two covering the 3–1 split.

Thus the table shows that the a priori odds on these two specific lies were not even but slightly in favor of the former, about 6.78 to 6.22 for KQ against K.

What are the odds a posteriori, at the moment of truth in our example play of the spade suit? If East does with KQ win the first trick uniformly at random with the king or the queen – and with K win the first trick with the king, having no choice – the posterior odds are 3.39 to 6.22, a little more than 1:2, in percentage terms a little more than 35% for KQ. To play the ace A from North on the second round should win about 35% while to finesse again with the ten 10 wins about 65%.

The principle of restricted choice is general but this specific probability calculation does suppose East would win with the king from KQ precisely half the time (which is best). If East would win with the king from KQ more or less than half the time, then South wins more or less than 35% by playing the ace. Indeed, if East would win with the king 92% of the time (=6.22/6.78), then South wins 50% by playing the ace and 50% by repeating the finesse. If that is true, however, South wins almost 100% by repeating the finesse after East wins with the queen – for the queen from that East player almost denies the king.

Mathematical theory[edit]

The principle of restricted choice is an application of Bayes' theorem on conditional probability. In the following: Kp represents the condition that the King is played by East in the first trick; KQ represents the condition that East holds KQ and; K represents the condition that East holds K.

The two conditions are as follows:

We assume that when East holds KQ, he plays each 50% of the time and when he holds the K alone, he must play the K. This is represented by the following:

Further, based on the play to trick 1, only two of the original 16 (i.e., a priori) possible holdings shown in Table 1 above remain available for East, each equally possible.

Solving, we find (posteriori) that...

In conclusion, we can say that "after East has played the K on the first round, the probability that East started with the singleton K is twice as probable as that he started with the KQ."

The first two equations are Bayes' theorem, the rest is simple algebra.

Increases and decreases in the probabilities of original lies of the opposing cards, as the play of the hand proceeds, are examples of Bayesian updating as evidence accumulates.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Frey, Richard L.; Truscott, Alan F., eds. (1964). The Official Encyclopedia of Bridge (1st ed.). New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. p. 457. LCCN 64023817. All subsequent editions of the Encyclopedia (up to the 7th in 2011) retain this definition. The original article was written by Jeff Rubens as is indicated by his initials at the end of the article in the 1st edition; the entire article remains the same through all seven editions of the Encyclopedia.
  2. ^ That is should in the sense of Nash equilibrium. The Nash theory implies that opponents are able to observe any patterns and to take advantage of them. The lesson is well-known among bridge experts and its application to plays such as this one is accepted. Concerning the ace-king example of the lead paragraph, Rubens (1964, 457) assumes "East would play his equal honors with equal frequency ... It can be demonstrated that this is, in fact, East's best strategy." See also mixed strategy in suit combinations

Further reading[edit]

  • Kelsey, Hugh; Glauert, Michael (1980). Bridge Odds for Practical Players. Master Bridge Series. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd in association with Peter Crawley. pp. 92–116. ISBN 0-575-02799-1.
  • Frey, Richard L.; Truscott, Alan F., eds. (1964). The Official Encyclopedia of Bridge (1st ed.). New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. p. 381-385. LCCN 64023817. The article on Restricted Choice was originated by Jeff Rubens in the first Encyclopedia (1964 edition). In it and subsequent editions (e.g. on page 381 of the 6th edition), Rubens states that Reese in his book Master Play "unified" the "underlying principles ... first discussed by Alan Truscott in the Contract Bridge Journal"; he does not give a date for the Truscott article.
  • Reese, Terence (1958). The Expert Game. London: Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd. ISBN 0-575-02799-1. Republished in the USA as Master Play. Waltham MA: George Coffin. 1960.

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