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Coach of the Year
By: Fred Gitelman

Originally Published in Canadian Bridge Canadien, 1995

Montreal's Eric Kokish is well known as a great bridge player, writer, and theorist. Eric also happens to be the world's most successful bridge coach. Under Eric's ongoing coaching program, Holland has become a power in world bridge, winning the Bermuda Bowl in 1993. Language never seems to be a problem for Eric. China and Indonesia, two rising stars of international bridge, have greatly benefited from his coaching methods. Eric has also brought success to Brazil, Chinese Taipei, Ireland, Jamaica, and Japan.

Eric was recently appointed to be Canada's National Bridge Coach. The current Canadian Open, Women, and Junior Teams have had and will continue to have the benefit of Eric's coaching program. In any professional sport, a coach of comparable stature to Eric would be a very wealthy man. There is not a lot of money in bridge coaching, but Eric is paid by the Canadian Bridge Federation for his services. The purpose of this article is to let the members know that they are getting their money's worth.

As a member of the Canadian Open Team, I believe both myself, personally, and my partnership with George Mittelman have benefited greatly from our association with Eric. This association is more than just a player/coach relationship. Eric is also a member of the Open Team (he was appointed Coach well before our team won the 1994 Canadian National Team Championship). Eric's partner is Joey Silver. Mark Molson and Boris Baran make up the other partnership on our team. I think all of my teammates would agree that Eric's coaching has improved our chances of success in the Bermuda Bowl in Beijing this fall.

In December Eric's house was the scene of an intense three day weekend of bridge. Here are some of the things we did:

- Each partnership bid prepared sets of hands and recorded their auctions. At the end of each set, Eric would go over every bid that the partnership made. Eric would constantly bombard us with questions like "What would it mean if he had bid 3 instead?" and "How would you bid with the same hand including the Q?". We also received printed records of the hands and Eric's analysis.

- Each partnership received quizzes to fill out. One of these quizzes consisted of 40 hands that you might consider preempting on. Each player had to write down what bid he would make in first, second, and third position, and at each of the four vulnerabilities. That's 480 questions. After the quizzes were filled out, each set of partners got together and compared their answers. Eric never tried to alter our style as to what hands we preempted on. His emphasis was on each member of the partnership knowing what to expect when the other one preempts.

- We played a practice match against the Junior Team. The hands were pre-dealt by Eric and were taken from historically important bridge matches. After we compared scores (the Open Team narrowly won), Eric handed out records of the deals and his analysis. All of the members of both teams discussed the hands for hours with Eric as moderator.

- We participated in a defensive quiz. Eric had created 20 hands for each partnership to defend. In each hand, we were given the bidding and were instructed to make a specific opening lead. Each deal was set up so that in order to defeat the contract, the partnership had to communicate properly with their carding. A moderator would play the declarer and dummy hands with the benefit of being able to see all four hands. This was one of my favourite deals from the defensive quiz:

I (West) led the 7 (attitude) to the 8, Q and A. Declarer led the 5 at trick two. Would you and your partner get the defense right? George and I did. Dummy's strong trick source in clubs made it too dangerous to consider ducking this trick (it would be declarer's ninth). So I won the A as George followed with the 2. We play Smith Echo and this hand is a perfect advertisement for that convention. George's play of a low spade indicated that he did not like my opening lead (a high spade would say he liked diamonds). Since declarer presumably had the K, I had to play George for the A in order to have a chance to defeat the contract (otherwise declarer has nine top tricks).

It was clearly necessary to get George in to lead a diamond through declarer. If I led the K and another heart to George it would be too late. Declarer's Q would be established as his ninth trick. I eventually figured out to play the 4. George won the A and played back a diamond, leaving declarer without recourse.

Since doing Eric's defensive quiz, I have found myself to be much more aware on defense to the problems my partner might have. I think of every defensive situation as if it were one of Eric's problem hands. I have noticed that it has helped my results. At the recent Tri-Country Playoff in Bermuda, I do not recall a single hand in which George and I had a problem with each other's carding. Eric prepared us very well and, as a result, our defense has become a strength of our partnership. This is rare, especially considering we have only been playing as partners for about four months.

Eric worked us hard that weekend and it was very intense work. Considering that most of my teammates and I are pretty lazy people, it was really something to see all of us work so hard at improving. This is a further tribute to how stimulating and beneficial Eric's exercises are. Eric left us with lots of additional material to work with: more hands to bid, a forcing pass questionnaire, suggested defenses against unusual systems, and much more. We are looking forward to more coaching weekends as the Bermuda Bowl approaches.

Eric later had a coaching weekend with the Canadian Women's Team in Toronto. I attended and played some practice matches against the Women's Team. This weekend was also a big hit. The Women's Team seemed to benefit greatly and they were all enthusiastic about Eric's material and methods.

I strongly believe that if we want Canada to field teams capable of winning at the international level, good coaching is a must. We are very fortunate to have the best coach in the world living in Canada. I hope the Canadian Bridge Federation chooses to continue their association with Eric Kokish.

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