A Bermuda Bowl Retrospective
By: Fred Gitelman
Originally Published in American Contract Bridge League
BULLETIN, January, 1996
I will always remember October of 1995 as a month in which I was able
to realize a dream - to represent Canada in the Bermuda Bowl. I was also
fortunate that the sight of this dream was in Beijing, the capital of the
People's Republic of China. I had read so much in recent years of the great
progress China had made with respect to both bridge and westernization.
I was very eager to see this fascinating country firsthand. As I was to
be the ACBL's youngest (I am 30) and probably least experienced competitor
in these World Championships, I was asked to write a retrospective on this
For several months before the tournament I tried to convince myself
that no matter how well our team did, playing in my first Bermuda Bowl
would be a great experience. My teammates (partner George Mittelman,
Mark Molson-Boris Baran, Eric-Kokish-Joey Silver, Irving
Litvack NPC) did not share these sentiments. Most of them had enjoyed
some success at this level in the past and I got the distinct impression
that if we did not at least make the semi-finals, my teammates would be
Since 1985, Canada has had a relatively easy time qualifying for the
Bermuda Bowl. Unfortunately, since that time, we have never had any success
in this event. I was confident that this year we were fielding our strongest
possible team. We all wanted to show the world that we deserved to be playing
in this event.
There were sixteen teams in the Bermuda Bowl divided into two groups
of eight teams. For the first five days of the tournament, each group played
a complete double round robin of twenty board matches. Each match was scored
according to the WBF's mysterious 30 Victory Point scale. At the end of
the double round robin, the top four teams from each group would qualify
for knockout play.
There were several powerful teams in our group. USA II (Nickell-
Freeman, Hamman-Wolff, Meckstroth-Rodwell, Edgar Kaplan
NPC) have dominated North American bridge over the past three years and
had to be the pre-tournament favourite to win the entire event. Italy qualified
for the Bermuda Bowl by convincingly winning the European Championships
and they would certainly be a force to contend with. The other European
team in our group, Sweden, had lots of international experience and three
strong partnerships. The Brazilian team had several former World Champions
including Chagas-Branco, one of the top pairs in the world. Nobody
was counting out the Chinese team. They had done well in the last Bermuda
Bowl in Chile and had since hired my teammate, Eric Kokish, as their National
Coach. The Chinese took their bridge very seriously and their "home
court advantage" could only be a positive factor. Our group was rounded
out by Egypt and Colombia. These teams were not favourites to qualify,
but both teams were experienced and would be sure to inflict their share
of wounds on the rest of the field. I thought that Canada was slightly
better than even money to qualify for the knockout phase, but I knew we
would have to play well.
The strongest teams in the other group appeared to be the defending
Bermuda Bowl Champions, The Netherlands, along with France, Indonesia,
and USA I (Cayne-Burger, Soloway-Goldman, Lair-Passell).
When it came time to play the first match (vs Egypt), my stomach contained
more than a few butterflies. As soon as I picked up my cards for the first
board, however, everything was OK. The butterflies would not re-surface
for several days. On one early board, Ashraf Sadek doubled George
and me in 5 after we had had a very
strong auction. Ashraf was right as a 4-0 trump break doomed our contract
to down 1. My original feeling appeared to be right, there would be no
easy matches, perhaps no easy boards in this event. We were going to have
to work for every Victory Point. The cards were fairly dull but our team
played solidly at both tables to win the match by 9 IMPs - 17 Victory Points
for Canada and 13 for Egypt.
In our second match we faced the powerful Swedish Team and I learned
a lesson that would prove very valuable for the rest of the week. When
you play 20 boards against a world-class pair (Fallenius-Nilsland,
in this case) it is almost impossible not to have at least a couple of
bad results. Given 20 chances, players of this calibre will almost certainly
find some way to do you in a couple of times. It is important to realize
that these things happen and you cannot really do anything about it. All
you can do is go on to the next board. If you let the opponents' good play
get to you, you will get more bad results - of the self-inflicted variety.
These are the types of bad results you cannot afford. The Swedes played
very well against us, but we did not lose our cool. We earned several plus
positions of our own. Kokish and Silver had a big game at the other table
and the result was an 18-12 VP win for Canada.
I learned another valuable lesson in the third match. Our team played
Colombia, on paper probably the weakest team in our group. George and I
sat out and the rest of our team did not play very well. We lost the match
16-14 VP - a setback. What I learned was the importance of being a good
teammate. I realized that we still might have close to two weeks of bridge
to play and that all of us would have good matches and bad matches. Being
angry or critical of our teammates' performance could serve no constructive
purpose - indeed it might well serve to further throw them off their games.
I knew that when my own inevitable bad set would come, I would desperately
need my teammates' support. It therefore seemed appropriate for me to offer
my support in their time of need. I am certain that this attitude (which
the whole team displayed) was instrumental in our success at this tournament.
We finished the first day of the round robin with 50 VPs, good enough
for fourth place (the final qualifying position). Sweden was in first,
only 5 VPs ahead of us. China and Colombia were about 10 VPs behind us
- a sizable margin on this scale. We were pleased to see Brazil, who we
thought of as one of our major rivals for a qualifying spot, had had a
poor day - only 33 VPs.
The second and third days of the round robin were very much like the
first day. Small wins and small losses (fortunately with more of the former).
We never were above third place and never slipped below fifth. Our last
match on the third day was an 18-12 VP loss to China and we were starting
to feel the pressure. The loss left us tied with Sweden for fourth/fifth
and the Brazilians were coming on strong behind us. Irving Litvack, our
NPC, called a team meeting to discuss a particular bridge incident and
unknowingly rallied his troops.
From that point on the whole team really came together and started playing
our best bridge. Our first match of the fourth day was against front-running
Italy. George and I played against their best pair, Lauria and Versace,
and we could do no wrong. Every bid we made and every card we played turned
to gold. We were in what Zia calls "Heat 1". On one hand I held:
Lauria on my left opened 1NT (13-15). George overcalled a natural 2
and Versace on my right passed. Being in Heat 1, I tried 3NT(!). PASS,
PASS, DOUBLE. I stood my ground. Lauria led the K
and George produced:
On the lie of the cards there was nothing the defense could do to prevent
me from taking 9 tricks. When Brazil's Chagas heard about my actions on
this board he told me I was a lunatic. I was so high on our bridge at this
point that it didn't bother me at all that one of the best players in the
world thought I was crazy - I knew I was right on this particular deal
and that was all that mattered. We got all 25 VPs against Italy - our first
blitz of the event.
After some more small wins and a small loss to USA II we stood in third
place going into the last 2 matches. Sweden and China were ahead of us
and looked likely to qualify. USA II (who had been struggling), Italy,
and Brazil were close behind. The draw worked well for us as we still had
Colombia and Brazil to play, while most of our competition were playing
two matches against each other.
As I sat down to play Colombia in the second last match, the butterflies
returned. A big win would greatly solidify our position, but what if it
wasn't in the cards? In fact, the cards were somewhat flat and most of
the other matches were close. George and I made no mistakes, however, and
more important, we capitalized on all the mistakes that Colombia made.
Molson and Baran were solid at the other table and again we got all 25
available Victory Points.
Going into our last match against Brazil we were still in third place
and even a small loss would likely be enough for us to qualify. Once again
we squeezed everything there was out of a flat set of cards. We held Brazil
to 3 IMPs over 20 boards while scoring 30 IMPs ourselves -- 21-9 in VPs.
Meanwhile, Sweden beat China 16-14. These teams had been first and second
going into the last match, but our nice win against Brazil allowed us to
pass both of them. It was the first time in 5 days that our team had been
in first place, but it was the only time that mattered. Our first place
finish had very relevant consequences on our fortunes for the remainder
of the event.
In the last match, USA II played Italy in a battle that would decide
the fourth qualifier. Italy won small but the 14 VPs that USA II got were
enough for them to edge out Brazil by 2 VPs. Italy finished the round robin
4 VPs behind USA II.
All of the members of USA II expressed deep gratitude to Canada for
pummelling Brazil in the last match and allowing the Americans to qualify.
Nick Nickell and Jeff Meckstroth agreed to sing O Canada at the players
party that evening. Journalists asked us if we had thought about throwing
our match to keep the Americans from qualifying. Our answer was an emphatic
"NO". First, our qualification was not certain. Second, there
were definite advantages to winning the round-robin. Finally, and most
important, our team had previously discussed whether we would ever intentionally
lose a match. We unanimously decided to make it a team policy never to
do that as we found the concept philosophically repugnant.
From my point of view, I was glad the Americans had made it. For one
thing, all of their players were either personal friends or heroes (or
both). Also, it was finally starting to sink in that our team might be
good enough to win the World Championship. Somehow that would not mean
the same thing if we did not have to beat USA II, the best bridge team
in the world (in my opinion), to earn the title.
That evening at the players party, I received one of the most meaningful
compliments of my life. Edgar Kaplan, the NPC of USA II and perhaps the
greatest name in bridge, told me he thought I was a "very good player".
Dick Freeman, who has known Edgar since before I was born, told me that
such compliments from Edgar are extremely rare. If being in the quarter-finals
of the Bermuda Bowl was not enough of a thrill, Edgar's comment was enough
to make this day one that I will always remember.
This was also a great day for my teammate Eric Kokish. Eric re-affirmed
his reputation as the best bridge coach in the world. Eric coached six
of the 32 teams in the Bermuda Bowl and Venice Cup. Five of Eric's teams
made the first cut, Canada, China, Indonesia and The Netherlands in the
Bermuda Bowl as well as China in the Venice Cup.
As our team had the highest VP total in the round robin (including the
other group) we had earned the right to choose our quarter-final opponent
from the four qualifiers in the other group (France, Indonesia, The Netherlands,
and South Africa). Despite the fact that South Africa had played consistently
well in the round-robin, their team had the least international experience
of the four and were thus our choice.
I wasn't particularly nervous at this point as I was confident in how
we were playing and fully expected to win this match. However, the first
board of the quarter-finals was pretty scary. The South Africans overbid
to 7 with K10x opposite A9xxx in
trump. I held QJ doubleton of trump so the silly grand slam was due to
make. Fortunately, George's trump lead gave the declarer a losing option.
He played low from dummy and won my Q
with the A. After long thought,
he finessed the 10 at trick 2 and
the contract was down one. Without a trump lead, the contract would have
made. Molson and Baran bid and made a sensible 6
at the other table getting us off to a 14 IMP lead. The rest of the segment
was all Canada and we led by 49 IMPs after 16 boards.
In the second segment, George and I faced Mansell and Cope,
a very strong young pair. The bridge was excellent at our table and there
were no serious mistakes made. Our teammates had a rough time at the other
table and we lost back 16 IMPs. I remembered what I had learned about being
a good teammate. My bad match seemed like it had to happen soon and I knew
I would need my teammates' support when it did. The least I could do was
offer them mine at this point.
We were ahead by 31 IMPs with 64 boards to play. Unfortunately, fatigue
began to set in for me. I was starting to have trouble concentrating and
I was getting concerned that I would not be able to maintain the level
of intensity that I had had up to this point. I don't know exactly what
was causing me to be so tired. It could have been the stress of the situation
-- or the lack of hamburgers and pizza in China. I always liked Edgar's
theory that young people often get tired from extensive intense bridge
because they have to work harder. Older and more experienced players have
seen so many hands before that many decisions come easy for them. The young
guys have to work out more from first principles - much more mental work.
Our captain decided to rest George and I for the rest of the day. The
team performed very well in our absence and our lead was up to 70 IMPs
with 32 boards to go. We won another 17 IMPs in those 32 boards. The final
score of the match was Canada 272, South Africa 187. We were in the semi-finals!
In the other quarter-finals, Sweden handily beat The Netherlands, while
USA II had a big last segment to finally wrest the lead from Indonesia.
Meanwhile France beat China by just 2 IMPs in a great match that broke
the hearts of the (mainly Chinese) vugraph audience. China did manage to
earn everyone's admiration and respect. They were not even a favourite
to qualify. However, China was consistently good in the round robin and
came very close to knocking out one of the premier bridge countries in
the world. China is certain to be a major bridge power of the 21st century.
Once again Canada got to pick its opponent. This time we picked Sweden
leaving the arch-rivals USA II and France to play each other in the other
semi-final. I made a mental note that our team had already exceeded my
expectations and that any success from here on would be a bonus. I guess
I was trying to prevent myself from getting too disappointed if we lost
this match. I reminded myself that we beat Sweden twice in the round robin.
I tried to forget how impressed I was with how well they played against
For the third and last time of the 1995 Bermuda Bowl, the butterflies
were in my stomach as we started play in the semi- finals. Once again,
as soon as the first board started, everything was OK. Everything came
together for our team in this match. All three of our partnerships were
playing really well and we won each of the first five segments. Before
we had a chance to catch our breath we had an 81 IMP lead with only 16
boards to go. To the credit of the Swedes, they did not go crazy in the
last segment. They won back 20 IMPs through good solid play. Sweden was
a very fine team, and in some other year, it would not surprise me if they
beat us by 60 or so over 96 boards. Not this year, however. Our whole team
was performing and it was going to take a team of giants to stop us. That
is exactly what we would face in the final.
USA II had beaten France by 58 IMPs in the other semi-final. It would
be an all-ACBL final for the World Championship. It is pretty well known
that Hamman-Wolff and Meckstroth-Rodwell have been the best two pairs in
the world for many years. It is less well known what a force Nickell-Freeman
are. Nickell is one of the greatest competitors I know. When he is on his
game (which is virtually all the time) he is as tough an opponent as any
of his superstar teammates. Freeman is simply a superb bridge player who
very rarely makes an error. We knew we would not be in for an easy ride
even when their "third pair" was playing.
As far as I could tell, my level of stress was at an all time low at
this point in the tournament. Perhaps this was because we were not expected
to get this far and we were serious underdogs in the final. I knew that
if we lost the match I would not be devastated. Of course, I very much
wanted to win and if we were to lose, I very much wanted to keep it close.
At the same time, knowing that a Silver Medal in the Bermuda Bowl was our
worst possible outcome was somewhat comforting.
We would play 10 segments of 16 boards each for the Bermuda Bowl. I
kept thinking to myself, "what am I doing here?". My overall
feeling was one of elation, however, not of panic. The pressure was all
on them - we were playing with the house's money now.
George and I played Meckstroth and Rodwell in the first segment. I quickly
learned something about what makes this pair so difficult to play against.
You simply can't afford to make any mistakes. George and I had a bidding
misunderstanding on an early board that turned +800 or so into -800. Fortunately,
we were able to maintain our composure and played tough the rest of the
segment. The net result was a 9 IMP lead for USA II. The Americans picked
up 8 more IMPs in the second segment and 6 more in the third.
The fourth segment was almost all Canada. We faced Meckstroth and Rodwell
while Molson and Baran played Hamman and Wolff at the other table. We were
doing so well that Eric Rodwell had to leave the table to collect his thoughts
halfway through the segment! We continued to do well until the last board
of the segment. On that board I made a stupid defensive mistake to allow
Rodwell to make 5X. I was clearly
very tired as this was the type of error that I almost never make. Molson
and Baran had done very well against Hamman and Wolff and we won back 22
IMPs in this segment. After the first day of the final, USA II led by a
The fifth segment re-enforced what I had learned about Meckwell on the
previous day. I made another error - this time a foolish balance that was
worth -1100. George was understandably upset by this and it affected our
play. We were not sharp for the rest of the segment and Meckwell ate us
alive. Molson and Baran, who had been playing very well, picked a bad time
to have a poor card. We lost 49 IMPs giving USA II a healthy 50 IMP lead.
Of course I felt terrible about how I had played (was Edgar, on vugraph,
revising his opinion of me?). Perhaps my "being a good teammate"
in the early going paid off here as all of my teammates were very supportive.
Joey Silver, in particular, was fabulous. He was able to restore my confidence
with some well judged psychology.
George and I sat out in the sixth segment and our teammates won back
a single IMP - the margin was 49. Unfortunately, we were back in for set
seven, another disaster at the hands of Nick and Dick. On one hand, George
and I reached a laydown slam. Nick cashed an ace, the defense's only possible
trick, and then thought some time about what to play. As there was a small
chance that a ruff was outstanding I did not claim. When Nick finally played
a card, I did not see the card properly and called for the wrong card from
the dummy. I quickly realized what I had done but it was too late - I was
down. To the credit of Nick and Dick, they said they did not want to win
that way, but they suggested that they discuss the matter with their teammates
and NPC. Before they had a chance to do so, the director ruled that I had
made the slam. Although there was no swing on the board it was a very emotional
situation. I was obviously running out of steam and desperately needed
We lost 34 IMPs on this set (to trail by 83). My teammates managed to
win back 8 in the eighth segment leaving the margin at 75. It looked like
the match was over. There were only 32 boards left and 75 IMPs is a lot
- especially against this team.
Our position improved by 8 more IMPs before play started on the second
day. George had forgotten our system and the director's ruling turned an
11 IMP gain into an 8 IMP loss. Canada appealed. In order for us to win
the appeal it was necessary for us to demonstrate what our bidding agreement
actually was. Neither our convention card nor our system notes were complete
in this area so we really did not have any "proof". We resorted
to two unusual techniques in order to get the committee to believe us.
First, we called Eric Rodwell as a witness! Eric had taught me the bid
in question several years ago, and we asked him to tell the committee that
he had taught me this convention as I explained it to my screenmate. Eric
was under no legal obligation to show up and testify "against his
own team". It says a great deal about his character that he was more
interested in getting to the truth of the matter than winning IMPs. The
other unusual tactic we used was that I explained that I was a computer
expert and that I had brought a computer to Beijing. If it was my intention
to deceive the committee about our system, I could have easily fabricated
a new set of system notes that included documentation of the bid in question.
The committee found all of this rather amusing, but decided that George
and I were telling the truth. They adjusted the score so that the board
in question was a push. The lead was now "only" 67.
The ninth 16 board segment was very exciting. George and I got much
the better of Hamman and Wolff while Silver and Kokish more than held their
own against Meckstroth and Rodwell. We won back 41 IMPs! The margin was
only 26 with 16 boards to go. We were back in the match! Hamman and Wolff
showed a great deal of character in this set. They did not play badly (indeed
I cannot imagine this pair playing badly). Every decision they made, however,
was wrong. It was very impressive that they were not visibly affected by
their results as it was obvious to everyone at the table that their huge
lead was slipping away. It made me feel a little bit better about our two
poor sets in the final - if it can happen to Hamman and Wolff you shouldn't
be too embarrassed when it happens to you.
I told our captain that I did not feel up to playing the last set of
16 boards. I went to the vugraph room and saw Molson find the only lead
to beat a vulnerable game on the second board - 13 IMPs to Canada. The
once mighty USA II lead was down to just 13 IMPs! Unfortunately for us,
that is as close as it got. Meckstroth and Rodwell were unstoppable after
that point. When the smoke had cleared, we had lost the Bermuda Bowl Final
by 43 IMPs.
There were some sad Canadian faces when the match was over. Somebody
was stupid enough to tell our players that had they played perfectly over
the last 16 boards, we would have easily won the match. It was, of course,
silly to think of things in those terms. Each member of our team could
have played 44 IMPs better over the 160 board final. For that matter, each
one of the Americans could have played well enough to put the match out
of reach. We all know that bridge is largely a game of mistakes. The ones
at the end always seem to cost the most but the early mistakes are worth
just as much.
A quick reality check told us that our unheralded team had just come
second in the world - better than any Open Canadian team in history. The
team we lost to is the best there is and we made a real match out of it
- we should feel nothing but pride.
At the closing ceremonies when they raised the Canadian flag and played
our national anthem, pride is what we felt.