Tech Life An exploration of the edges of truth


My management team was bickering. Two managers in particular: Leo and Vincent. Both of their projects were fine. Both of their teams were producing, but in any meeting where they were both representing their teams, they just started pushing each other’s buttons. Every meeting on some trivial topic:

Leo: “Vincent, are you on track to ship the tool on Wednesday?”

Vincent: “We’re on schedule.”

Leo: “For Wednesday?”

Vincent: “We’ll hit our schedule.”

Leo: “Wednesday?”

Endless passive aggressive verbal warfare. Two type A personalities who absolutely hated to be told what to do. My 1:1s with each of them were productive meetings and when I brought up the last Leo’n’Vincent battle of the wills, they immediately started pointing at their counterpart: “I really don’t know what his problem is.”

I do. They didn’t trust each other.

On the Topic of Trust

There’s a question out there regarding how close you want to get with your co-workers in your job. There’s a camp out there that employs a policy of “professional distance”. This camp believes it is appropriate to keep those they work with at arm’s length.

The managerial reason here is more concrete than the individual reasoning. Managers are representatives or officers of the company and, as such, may be asked to randomly enforce the will of the business. Who gets laid off? Why doesn’t this person get a raise? How much more does this person get? Profession distance or not, these responsibilities will always give managers an air of otherness.

Here’s my question: do you or do you not want to be the person someone trusts when they need help? Manager or not, do you see the act of someone trusting you as fitting with who you are?

Yes, there’s a line that needs to be drawn between you and your co-workers, but artificially distancing yourself from the people you spend all day every day with seems like a good way to put artificial barriers between yourself the people you need to get your job done.

Is that who you are or who you want to work for?

The topic of trust is where I draw a line in both my personal and management philosophy. My belief is that a team built on trust and respect is vastly more productive and efficient than the one where managers are distant supervisors and co-workers are 9-to-5 people you occasionally see in meetings. You’re not striving to be everyone’s pal; that’s not the goal. The goal is a set of relationships where there is a mutual belief in each other’s reliability, truth, ability, and strengths.

It’s awesome.

And it’s something you can build with a card game.


It’s pronounced how you think. Rhymes with crab. It’s an acronym for a game which, with practice, will knit your team together in unexpected ways. It’s Back Alley Bridge. Here are the rules, but before I explain why this game is a great team building exercise, you need to understand a few of the rules.

BAB isn’t bridge. The game does have a few important similarities. First, it’s a game for four players, involving two teams — the folks facing each other are on the same team and share their score. Second, it’s a trick-based game where the goal is for each team to get as many tricks as possible. A trick is won when each player turns up a card and the highest wins, unless someone plays a trump suit, which, in the case of BAB, is always spades.

Bidding. Also like bridge, BAB has bidding, meaning each team bids how many tricks they think they’re going to get after the cards have been dealt. Scoring is optimized to reward teams who get the number of tricks they bid and heavily punishes those who don’t get their bid. Bidding is a blind team effort — you have no idea what your teammate has in their hand other than what you can infer from their bid.

Decreasing hand count. Unlike bridge, the number of cards each player gets decreases with each hand. Each player gets 13 cards in the first hand, 12 in the second, and so on. Play continues down to a single card and then heads back up to 13. A work-friendly modification I’ve made is to only play every other hand (13-11-9, etc.) This number of hands fits nicely into a lunch hour.

Hail Mary. There are two special bids: Board and Boston. A bid of Board indicates the team is going to take every single trick. A board of Boston indicates the team intends to take the first six. Achieving a Board or Boston can be an impressive feat and is rewarded handsomely from a scoring perspective. Failure results in a scoring beat-down. Both of these special bids allow for wild variances in the score, which can be handy for teams who are falling behind.

Scoring, game play, and other information are in the complete rules. Now, let me explain why I picked this game as a recurring weekly lunch meeting.

In BAB, you talk shit. I’ve landed BAB in three different teams now and in each case, the amount of trash talking that showed up once players became comfortable with the game was impressive. This is a function of my personality, but it’s also a byproduct of any healthy competition amongst bright people. It’s also a sign of a healthy team. I’ll explain.

Trash talking is improvisational critical thinking — it’s the art of building comedy in the moment with only the immediate materials provided. As I’m looking for candidates for my next BAB game, I’m looking for two things: who will be able to talk trash and who needs to receive it?

The art in talking trash is the careful exploration of the edges of truth. When someone effectively lays it down, they say something honest and slightly uncomfortable. The ever-present risk with trash talking is when that line is crossed. It’s that one thing that is said that goes too far and offends, but it’s the presence of that line which makes talking trash so much fun.

It’s these honest and dangerous observations that form the basis of trust. When a co-worker makes a big observation about you and shares it with the other players, you take note – someone is watching. It sounds problematic, but remember, we’re just sitting here playing cards. It’s safe.

In a new BAB game, it takes players time to get used to the trash talking, especially in a situation like Leo and Vincent’s. Adversarial co-workers playing on the same team need to learn to ditch the business for the game. They need to understand there is a relationship outside of the daily work and there’s nothing like a comedic verbal beat-down to remind them to lighten up.

In BAB, you learn things unintentionally. Once you’ve got an established game with regular players who all know the rules, you’ll learn two things: people get better at trash talking with practice, and information travels in unpredictable ways in groups of people.

It goes like this:

  • Player #1: “I bid 3.”
  • Player #2: “I bid 1.”
  • Player #3: “Pass.”
  • Player #4: “Kevin’s quitting. I’m sure of it.”
  • Player #1: “Yeah, I know.”
  • Player #2: “Sucks to be you.”

Out of nowhere, in the middle of the game, you’re suddenly assessing the departure of a co-worker. I see this as a sign of a thriving, healthy BAB game because the team has begun to trust each other more. In the safety of the game, they’re letting the worries of the moment spill onto the table for all to see, which is impressive, since everyone knows that anything on the table at BAB is fair game for talking shit.

In BAB, you’re having work experiences without the work. Relationships need time to bake. Trust doesn’t magically appear; it’s cautiously built over time via shared experience. The majority of these experiences are created during the regular work day and I’m certain there are a great many healthy professional relationships that are defined and maintained in this manner, but I want my teams closer. I’m not suggesting group hugs and voices united singing Kumbaya. I’m looking for each team member to have the opportunity to understand each other slightly more than what they see when they’re at work.

The more you understand how your co-workers tick, the better you’re able to work with them. You’ll stop seeing them as the role, the title, or the keeper of a particular political agenda. They are just… Phillip. And you know what I know about Phillip? He’s the manager who used to wait too long to speak in a meeting. He had plenty to say that mattered, but he used to be too shy to say it.

Two months of trash talking over BAB showed me his reservations, so I learned to pull Phillip into the meeting conversations as quickly as possible. After a few pulls, he started to do it himself. After a few weeks, you couldn’t get him to shut up.

The Second Staff Meeting

The inspiration for the game came from a regularly scheduled bridge game at Netscape, and there’s nothing special about BAB that makes it the perfect lunchtime game. I chose BAB because a team-based game that fits nicely in a lunch hour.

You bet I maneuvered Leo and Vincent onto the same team for weeks on end. There was no magical moment during one game where they suddenly understood each other. Leo and Vincent continued to bicker in meetings, but over time the tone changed from the passive aggressive to the playful talking of trash. They turned competition into something healthy and fun.

In the safe competition that is BAB, you learn not only how to work better together by understanding that winning doesn’t always mean hitting your dates, getting paid, or receiving a promotion. Winning can be a simple, playful thing, “We were awesome as we kicked your ass.”

More importantly, BAB is a regular forum for experiencing that relationships are not defined just by the work we do together, but who we become with each other when we aren’t looking.

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20 Responses

  1. This is a fascinating post, thanks.

    I am an Arab, and Arabs love playing cards. One of the cultural staples of Arab card-playing is a game called (طرنيب, pronounced Tarneed with stress on the T). It’s almost identical to BAB, but only bids of 7 or higher are accepted, and the person who wins the highest bid, gets to call the trump.

    It’s amazing how the game has the same effect even when I play it with my friends. It stengthens friendships and even brings out realities you didn’t know (some people have problems, others have undiscovered connections between each other)…

  2. Virginia 14 years ago

    That is an interesting game. I need to re-read the rules, since, I break all rules I can possibly find and this one will probably be no exception.

    As far as getting close to co-workers. I was of the view that they two domains need to be separate. I wish now that I had kept them somewhat close together. I left a job 2 years ago and I still miss the people that I worked with (the office life anyway.) It was very bizarre work environment, dark humour etc. It was a large government body. If that makes sense.

  3. A couple of what appear to be rules typos:

    1. 5c Once trump is broken, anyone can throw either trump or other suit.

    Do you mean LEAD trump? Throw implies that if someone breaks trump, another player can also play trump on the same hand even if they have the suit that was led. This negates most of the advantage of being short-suited.

    2. 5d The BIG joker is the most powerful card (i.e. the HIGHEST SPADE).

    When thrown, both players on the other team must follow with their

    largest trump card while the partner may lead any spade (if they have


    I suspect this should read “When LED… partner may THROW…”. Otherwise, the other team may have already played their cards.

    3. 6.a.iii adds up the score incorrectly, leading to confusion about going set. I assume that you should not get any points for bidding 4, only go set for the number of tricks by which you missed your bid, i.e. (4 tricks – 2 tricks) x -5 points. This agrees with the -10 point total that you state.

    4. 6.b.iii doesn’t agree with the basic rule of 6.a.iii because you say you go set by the number of tricks you bid, rather than by the number of tricks you missed your bid by. So if I bid BOARD on a 3 trick hand and got 2, I would expect to go set by -10 (double the normal penalty of -5). But this could be a special penalty (6x normal) for bidding BOARD, where you go set by your whole bid, even if you come within one trick of taking your bid.

  4. Jimmy Jacobson 14 years ago

    We have something similar going at our office, but with a weekly ping pong ladder. You can challenge anyone above you on the ladder to a game. You win, you move up to the spot of the person you challenged. What is great is this ladder has software devs, sales guys, marketing and a couple of execs including the CEO in it.

    I seem to gain respect from the sales guys and even the execs that I have played when I beat them and makes design conversations easier and more playful. It’s good to see each other competing outside of the normal rules and structure of work.

  5. Matt Palmer 14 years ago

    Have you considered incorporating a game of BAB into your hiring routine? On the one hand, it could seriously freak out an already stressed candidate, but on the other it lets you see how they respond to “out of left field” requests, how quickly they pick up new “technologies”, and how they communicate and operate as part of a team.

  6. Alex Cornwell 14 years ago

    Games are something big businesses avoid due to their inherent colloquialism. It sucks because competition of this nature is what enables people to work together better when they understand each other on a competitive level like this.

  7. Rules have been clarified thanks to Mark’s feedback. New version uploaded.

  8. “A bid of Board indicates the team is going to take every single bid. A board of Boston indicates…”

    Do you mean a bid of Boston?

  9. Skilldrick 14 years ago

    I wonder how long it will take before the canonical full name of BAB becomes “BAB Ain’t Bridge” …

  10. Interesting how cultures are different. Playing cards is a very serious thing in Switzerland, where talking is forbidden during the rounds, and in between we analyse the faults and praise the brilliant moves. But trash talking?

  11. Duncan 14 years ago

    Hmm. I think in the UK, this sort of conversation would traditionally happen “down the pub”.

  12. I read most of this post scoffing it in my mind as a terribly overwrought approach to something that just needs a little direct confrontation.

    Then you mentioned at the end that Leo and Vincent have lightened up and suddenly my brain went, “Ah, cool.”

  13. Great section on trust … I started in the professional distance camp but have moved away from that camp on all but officer of the company duties. “… a team built on trust and respect is vastly more productive and efficient than the one where managers are distant supervisors and co-workers are 9-to-5 people you occasionally see in meetings.” I could’t agree more and see evidence of this each and every day. I can’t say I’ve tried such a trust building exercise as BAB, but the thought of introducing it is growing on me rapidly.

    I want to comment more, but I’ve recently posted more in-depth thoughts on trust and team building here and more recently here and would appreciate anyones thoughts on what I’ve put together.

  14. Adam Davis 14 years ago

    Has a lot of similarities to Rook and Euchre – both games my wife’s family plays at get-togethers. Lots of bonding during the game, so I can see how this would help.

  15. James 14 years ago

    Did something similar at a former employer except we played Counterstrike. The aim – though I never stated it – was to try and knit disparate teams together. While their code integrated the people often didn’t. I was just a lowly QA dude back then but it was pretty clear when it started that the games run after hours were actually getting people talking during hours. The Dev and QA guys who played formed closer ties, there was less throwing of issues over the fence and we got talking about our work both before and during games (server load time wasn’t great back then). The team integration was better too – problems became shared rather than this or that teams’ issue to deal with.

    Plus we got to waste a couple of managers who ventured into the territory 🙂 There were no boundaries – just talk to someone and you were in or send a mail to the inhouse CStrike list.

    CS isn’t as easy to get the hang of as BAB of course, one of the main blockers I suppose to participation. Plsu you had to be interested in gaming to want to play, but the good thing about working with nerds is that most of them have at least been gamers in the past, if not active currently.

  16. +1 for Euchre as a similar game great for bonding. It is a staple of my family get-togethers.

  17. Mitch 14 years ago

    Similar to what James mentioned, at my last employer we played Capture the Flag Quake. My co-workers and I formed a ‘clan’ and hosted a server where we would play LAN party style over lunch and then take on other, outside clans in matches after hours. Engineers, technicians, and managers were all team mates looking for frags, it was great.

    CTF forces teamwork and an “I got your back” attitude and this mindset carried over directly to our projects.

    Sometimes, names disappeared in emails and we referred to each other by our avatar’s alias.

  18. Malena Vanbelle 14 years ago

    Hey I was looking at Casino Heights. They look pretty good, I’d Check them out.

  19. This brings a tear to my eye and makes my heart flutter.

    I have always believed BAB can tell you a lot about a person. I never focused on the trash talk element, however, but just as a way to identify personalities: the conservative bidder, the risk-taker, the entrepreneur (having pizza delivered during the game and charging per slice), the person that cares only about setting the other team, the one that rubs your failed Boston in your face. I can see how this would be valuable knowledge in the workplace.

  20. Romaine Senn 14 years ago

    Hi. I need to express my gratitude for posting this. Kind regards!