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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 event.

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 very disappointed.

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 us.

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 single IMP.

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 to sleep.

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.

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