Santa Barbara’s Bridge Master

UCSB Grad Student Danning Lu Achieves Official Rank After Tournament Win

Credit: ACBL

At age 27, Danning Lu can now call himself a bridge master. The UCSB PhD student accumulated enough masterpoints in March to attain the rank from the American Contract Bridge League, an organization of over 165,000 players, after winning a tournament with his partner Andrew Rowberg.

Lu, a Shanghai native, started playing the card game at age nine but didn’t reach the competitive level until recently. In 2017, Lu came to UCSB to study Mathematics at a propitious moment ― Rowberg, a Materials Science grad student, was in the process of forming a bridge club that came to be known as Overbidders Anonymous. Three years after the group convened and in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Overbidders played their way to the finals of the 2020 Online Collegiate Bridge Championships. A year later, they won the title.

In bridge, each partnership must coordinate their hands to outbid their opponents in a series of rounds known as tricks. Most verbal communication and all physical signaling is forbidden; the only permitted language is expressed by specific terminology and by the cards they play in the initial round of contract-setting. “Different bids and plays have different meanings,” Lu said. “Even if the language is quite standard, you and your partner have a lot of freedom to design the round.”

Craftiness is also an important part of the game, Lu explained. “There is a lot of bluffing your opponents into thinking you’ll do one thing, when actually you don’t even have the cards to carry it out,” he said. But a lot of it comes down to luck. “Taking advantage of what luck comes your way ― that comes with experience,” he said. Lu can certainly make his own luck. “I love to gamble,” he said. “Those gambles don’t always work, but as long as I keep the winning percentage above 50 percent, that’s enough.”

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About halfway through the semifinals of the 2020 collegiate championships, Overbidders was falling far behind Georgia Tech, one of the oldest and most illustrious bridge teams in the country. The UCSB team responded with renewed boldness, pouncing on whatever opportunities they could and wresting back the initiative. “We tried lots of risky things,” Lu reminisced. “During some bids we decided not to communicate about our hands and just jump right into it; the advantage was that our opponents had no idea what we had in mind.” At game’s end, it was the Overbidders who emerged victorious. “Of course we could have failed badly… but taking the risk is better than playing safe, because playing safe would give us no chance of catching up.”

Lu’s aggressive style often confounds and disorients his opponents. But as he plays more games and learns what works and doesn’t work, Lu says that he is now more comfortable with playing conservatively if need be. “There is a lot of knowledge you gather over time, and you can then do a lot more analysis about your hands based on previous games,” he explained.

Time and experience have also affected how Lu approaches the challenge. “I’m quite relaxed now,” he said. “Before, it took a lot of brainpower to think of calculations and plans of action; with experience, all that comes much more naturally.”

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