Once upon a life: Colm Tóibín

Learning to play bridge with his siblings in the Christmas holidays of 1973 gave Colm Tóibín an appreciation of the value of thinking and strategising. But it also taught him a much more valuable lesson…

Reprinted with the kind permission of Guardian Newspapers

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The value of thinking

In the series of interviews which David Sylvester conducted with Francis Bacon there is a great deal of talk about chance. While Bacon was a gambler and enjoyed roulette, as a painter he was deeply deliberate. In one way he left nothing in his work to chance, but he was acutely conscious nonetheless of the mysterious part chance played in how he moved the brush, manipulated the paint and made decisions about texture and tone. He worked from instinct, he felt that what he achieved was a sort of accident, but yet he did not throw paint at the canvas to see where it might land.

Empty Family, the
by Colm Toibin

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Sylvester compared it to a ball game, to a moment when something beyond you takes over. If you give yourself the luxury of thinking, you are finished. You manage to land a ball in the right place at the right speed by a sort of willed instinct. "It's difficult," Bacon said, "to distinguish between the conscious and the unconscious working, or the instinctive working, whatever you like to call it."

I know this from playing tennis, where thinking can cause the most foolish mistake and yet not thinking can make the game slack. I love the feeling that there is a stroke dictated by pure deliberate instinct. But I don't trust it enough. I am so used to thinking, I keep feeling that thinking will get me somewhere. For example, if I hit my first serve in and then think I would like to do that again, but harder, the result is often a dire double fault.

With writing, thinking is often the enemy of rhythm. You start something because an image, a character, a moment, a scene moves almost of its own accord into rhythm. It seems to want to become a sentence. Most writers know to trust this, not to question it, just to go with it and see where it leads. I remember once meeting someone who had been the teacher of a famously brilliant contemporary novelist and him remarking that the novelist as a student had "no brains at all". It was the lack of brains somehow that allowed the style to break through and be brilliant. Nonetheless, I sometimes read a novel and wonder if it would be better were the novelist to have a good grounding in the higher mathematics or advanced strategic planning or fierce corporate governance. It might somehow help novels to be less of a mess.

I wonder if a morning spent doing mental arithmetic or long division sums might be more useful to novelists than pondering EM Forster or Ronald Firbank. It would make us all more alert to the task in hand, more ready to be decisive and strategic, less ready to trust our instincts.

In December 1973 I came home from college to find that three of my siblings – my two older sisters and my younger brother – were waiting for me desperately, longing for my arrival. I discovered that they wanted me not for my warm personality but because they needed a fourth for bridge. They set about teaching me the game and its elaborate set of rules.

During that holiday and for many weekends afterwards, we played bridge day and night. Within a year we began to travel to congresses in various parts of Ireland and play bridge for two days without looking up. I remember the pure disappointment when the last game would have to be played, and life, in all its dullness, would have to be faced again with no cards in my hand.

I was the worst. My brother, within a few years and for many years afterwards, would play bridge internationally on the Irish senior team. My sisters were good. I remember once in Mullingar in the Irish midlands my failure to declare a four-card major was treated by the others as though it were a flaw in my personality, or a moral disorder, and maybe it was.

In a bridge congress, there is really no such thing as chance. Since every table plays exactly the same hand, you cannot be lucky with the cards you are dealt. You win or lose depending on how you play that hand. And yet sometimes you can have a clear mind, a way of working out a strategy, or sending a signal which works, or you can make a choice which seems like chance, something that might not come so easily again. There is always a feeling too that if you deliberate too much and only calculate, then you can never be a great player.

But you do have to think, you have to know the rules, the odds, you have to remember what cards were played, you have to know elaborate systems and strategies. And there is something glorious about that moment, if you have won the bidding and you must play the two hands, when your partner spreads his or her cards face up on the table for all to see. There is silence now. You have a number of tricks to win. If it's no-trump, you can work out how many you can win; if it's in one of the suits you can work out how many you might lose. Often, your bidding means that you are one certain trick away from making the bid. This means that all play must be directed towards adding that elusive trick. You can test the water to see how the cards are distributed in the enemy's hands. You can work out if it might be worth finessing, or drawing out a suit, or watching for discards or unusual distribution, considering odds and probabilities all the time.

Usually there is only one right way to play. And you know that after the game your strategy will be analysed and whatever you have done wrong will become clear. Sometimes a play that takes a real risk can be effective, but most of the time this is not the case. Thinking, knowing, remembering, strategising, using your brains – all of this will work as nothing else will. Even if thinking in this arena can seem to have a sensuous edge to it, the more precise and sharp it is the better.

So in those few minutes of silence, as everyone waits for you to play the first card from your partner's hand, you had better have your wits about you. You had better make a plan and, within that plan, have a second and third plan ready, depending on how the cards fall. Thus the game becomes not a way of responding to chance or contingency, but preparing a plan, putting it into operation in all its detail, leaving things open only if you have decided they should be left open. It is a game then of watching and implementing.

This became, almost unwittingly, a way of training my mind, a way of allowing thinking closely and fiercely to be deeply enjoyable, more enjoyable than most other things, in fact. And oddly social, and very competitive. And, of course, necessary, because there is no one more despised in the world of bridge, or maybe in the world itself, than a bad or lazy bridge player.

For writing, this training was a godsend. When the rhythm came, you stopped and almost suspected it. Before you made another move, you had to work out a strategy, a way of proceeding which left as little as possible to chance. The rhythm itself was like the bid you had made in bridge – you had to follow it. And the work was governed by the sound the words made even on the silent page. But the work itself did not happen as a result of chance; it happened as a result of deliberation. The strategies you used had to be exact and precise; they could allow for discovery, but they were not themselves a form of discovery– they were a way of completing something which had been prearranged using everything you knew. You also had to make sure that just because you could predict and control the material, the person reading it should be able to do neither. They should not be able to see your crafty hand, or suspect what it held. Thus the game of bridge, which came to me casually, as a way of spending the Christmas holidays in 1973, saved me from becoming a lazy bastard.

Colm Tóibín's second collection of short stories, The Empty Family, is published this month by Viking, £17.99