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Becoming a Bridge Player
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This is a multi-part story of the first years of my bridge journey, starting in late 2014. It is the story of the bridge gods always giving me just the encouragement I needed to keep playing. At the end of my first year, I would make the second day of the Blue Ribbons and the North American Swiss.

Unfortunately most of the hands are lost in the mists of time - or more precisely, lost in the mind of a beginner who was lucky to be able to remember a hand at the end of a session, never mind a year or two later - but I found a few that I was able to remember or reconstruct with enough confidence to share.

The start

I had always played games. I was a semi-serious Go player in college (2 dan), won what seemed like a lot of money to a college student counting cards at blackjack, and a little later was a semi-serious poker player (I could consistently beat the low limit games in cardrooms but got pounded when I moved up). For a long time I had wanted to learn to play bridge, but I had never had 3 bridge-playing friends at the same time. Over the course of 20 years I had skimmed a few books, read a few bridge columns, and played a handful of hands (if you can call it that), but I am sure I had learned less than what is taught in a "learn bridge in a day" class.   

Finally my chance to really learn bridge arrived: my friend Cadir Lee hosted a long weekend for a group of friends in Cabo. Cadir played bridge, two of his friends had played some bridge, and they were looking for a fourth who was willing to learn.   

I spent that long weekend late in 2014 learning bridge. I loved it. I loved the problem solving and the logic, but also the partnership aspect and incomplete information. If poker was a game of people played with cards, bridge was more a game of cards played with people.  It had just the right balance for me.

After a bit more practice, Cadir thought I was ready for the bridge club. My first game was early December 2014, the local Tuesday morning 199er. The bridge gods were definitely on my side for the very first hand I declared at the club:

West
J1073
64
7643
1082
Cadir
AK
1053
AJ852
QJ4
East
Q6542
KJ9
Q9
653
Max
98
AQ872
K10
AK97
W
N
E
S
P
1NT
P
4NT
P
6NT
P
P
P
D
6NT South
NS: 0 EW: 0

I think I just didn't notice that I was 5422 and bid 1NT by accident, but having gotten across my strength immediately, we had an easy auction to find a slam that no other 199er pair found. Little did I know that this would be the first in a long line of bridge mistakes that wound up working out well for me. 

We finished with a 63% which was good enough to win, collecting 0.76 masterpoints along the way. I joined the ACBL and an obsession was born.

Dunning-Kruger in full force   

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a phenomenon whereby low-ability individuals overestimate their own competence. The original psychological study that demonstrated the effect was inspired by a bank robber named McArthur Wheeler who, knowing that lemon juice was used as invisible ink, thought that by covering his face in lemon juice he would not be identifiable in security videos.

After my 199er win, we tried a few 499ers with good results. We were ready to venture beyond the club and enter our first tournament. I was ready to play in the big leagues: a Gold Rush event, against opponents who could have up to 750 masterpoints! At the time this seemed like a very serious event, where many of the participants would likely be Life Masters, a title which I found intimidating. Another good finish, 4th overall of 43 tables and first in the under-300 masterpoint strat, we took home 7.88 more masterpoints, and again I was ready to step up the level of competition - or so I thought.  

Well, all the lemon juice in the world wasn't going to make me successful in any kind of open competition. Cadir and I tried the open game at the local club and wound up somewhere in the high 30s. I did a little exploring and discovered that we were playing against a handful of national and world champions. My illusory superiority was no more. In retrospect I think the bridge gods were on my side in those first few limited games, plus Cadir was strong enough to drag just about anyone who could follow suit to a decent result in those games.   

The next 6 months or so were a roller coaster. I had my good days and my bad days. On my good days we could have some decent results. On my bad days awful would be an underbid; even our results in limited games were erratic. Sometimes the juxtaposition was almost comical; at 2015 summer nationals we qualified for day two of the Red Ribbon Pairs. After a poor first session and struggling with exhaustion after a week of nonstop bridge, I had a complete meltdown. In the final session, unable to keep track of when it was my turn to act, never mind which suit to play, we only had 3 boards over 50% and a 29% session, which felt about 28% higher than I deserved.

Monkey wrench

Partway through the year, Cadir, who had been taking some time off full-time work and doing some part-time consulting, joined a startup and had much less availability to play bridge, plunging me into partner panic. Cadir had been a great teacher and partner, and it had also helped build our friendship. He had been more than patient through so many bad days. I knew we would continue to play while he was working, and it was also a chance for me to catch up a bit bridge-wise. But it was a problem.

I needed another partner, but I was still playing far too poorly to expect to be able to attract a decent partner. I decided I would take some lessons while figuring that out, and looked at the website for the local bridge club. Amid the ACBL Accredited Teachers and ABTA Master Teachers, one of the names listed a different type of qualification: World Champion. In notes it said "any level except rank beginner". 

After talking to Debbie Rosenberg, I discovered that her definition of "rank beginner" was a little broader than mine and she politely suggested a little more practice. When we spoke about lessons after a session where we had played against each other, I did get a free mini-lesson on this hand:

Max
K92
KJ
9875
KJ107
Dummy
A1063
A106
42
Q654
Cadir
4
Q98732
AJ10
982
Debbie
QJ875
54
KQ63
A3
W
N
E
S
P
2
2
3
4
P
P
P
D
4 South
NS: 0 EW: 0

I led the K which Debbie ducked. Debbie then won the next heart, and played a diamond to the King. (If Cadir had won this and played a heart, Debbie would have to make a loser-on-loser play of pitching a club just to make 4.) Next Debbie took the winning spade finesse, and drew trump in three rounds ending in dummy.  She then played another diamond; Cadir won the Ace and played another heart. Debbie ruffed and led a low club out of her hand, which I ducked, giving Debbie the overtrick and a top.

Debbie pointed out that on the bidding she almost certainly had the A and I couldn't legitimately get 2 tricks from clubs. She also said that the habit of playing low in second seat smoothly was a good one, and I had done it smoothly enough that had she held Axx she might have considered the anti-percentage play of ducking, being confident the K was with Cadir.

I was still playing some with Cadir, just less than I would have liked, and I took some lessons from Lori Spaeth that helped me along, but my bridge calendar wasn't quite full. Luckily I met Bill Bailey at the bridge club. Bill came out of the same tech world I did and we had a good friend in common. Bill had written Deep Finesse with minimal experience actually playing bridge. He was well ahead of me on the learning curve but he was, like me, trying to learn to play serious bridge well past college age and we got along. We started playing together. Again the bridge gods gave me just what I needed to keep going. Bill was exactly the partner and mentor that I needed, has continued to be a great partner over time, and most importantly, has become a friend. 

Bill was already playing with Debbie. In September, at Bill's recommendation, I finally exited Debbie's definition of "rank beginner," or at least entered "persistent and serious rank beginner who seems to be a decent guy". I gifted Cadir a session with Debbie, and over time a team was born. We all started playing the same system (though it took me time to adopt the various gadgets) and it was nice to have a team where everyone liked each other, could play in any configuration, and could all share the cost of Debbie's coaching.  

My progress continued in fits and starts. A good description of it would be "two steps forward and one step back", but the steps back sometimes felt like three or ten. For the remainder of my first year of playing bridge I was able to accept the setbacks as part of learning something new.

Half right

One memorable hand occurred at a sectional just a few weeks after I started playing with Debbie. I managed to mix up the bidding and create an ethical problem for myself in the very first session I played with her outside the club. As best as I can recall, the auction went:

North
106
3
QJ932
AK976
W
N
E
S
1
2NT
X
3
P
P
X
P
P
?

When the opponents asked about my 2NT bid, Debbie correctly explained that it should be the red suits but that I am a new player and it is possible I bid it incorrectly with the minors. She then bid 3, which was doubled in the passout seat and passed back to me. Well, I might not know how to bid properly, but I did know that when partner has suggested that I bid incorrectly I couldn't allow that to wake me up. It is also possible she has a hand that wants to play 3 opposite my minor two-suiter, so I passed and Debbie went for -1700 non-vul. The whole hand:

West
AJ93
A8
65
QJ832
Max
106
3
QJ932
AK976
East
KQ5
KQJ52
A874
4
Debbie
8742
109764
K10
105
W
N
E
S
1
2NT
X
3
P
P
X
P
P
P
D
3X South
NS: 0 EW: 0

I'd rather get the ethics right and the contract wrong than the other way around, but mixing up that simple auction showed how far I had to go. 

Beginner's luck

A few months later as the end of my first year was nearing, I thought it would be interesting to try a serious event, with no expectation of success. Having won a low-bracket compact knockout (believe it or not they give Blue Ribbons for those, but most sane people use them for the mini-Blues) I asked Debbie about playing in the Blue Ribbons in Denver. I told her that before she said yes she should be prepared to see scores in the 30s and comfortable that an abysmal finish wouldn't reflect poorly on her.  

We did play in the Blue Ribbons, though much to my surprise it took an extra day to deliver the promised scores in the 30s. First day we had a 48/54. I made a lot of mistakes, but Debbie told me there were plenty more mistakes I could have made that I did well to avoid - I think that is her way of encouraging me while being honest, which works for me.

I wish I could remember the play of an interesting hand, but I do remember a scary decision to double our opponents in a partscore on board 22 of the second session: 

Debbie
Q10654
J1086
KQ
A5
Dummy
AK98
7
10874
QJ72
Max
J
A52
A9632
10943
Itabashi
732
KQ943
J5
K86
W
N
E
S
1
P
1NT
P
2
X
P
3
P
P
X
P
P
P
D
3X South
NS: 0 EW: 0

While this was my first NABC+ event and I didn't know very many of our opponents, it was impossible to play regional pairs events on the West Coast without recognizing Mark Itabashi's name - he seemed to win most of them. He may have had 50,000 masterpoints but my side rated to have the majority of points and I had 4 trumps.  I wasn't going to settle for +50 or +100.  X.  We beat them two tricks and +300 was a very good board.

The second day the bridge gods left us to our normal outcome, 39/35. Out of 156 pairs, we placed 155th. When I looked at the last-place pair with their 40,000 masterpoints and 12 national titles and thought about my play, I felt we had gotten lucky to finish as high as 155th that day.

I left the Blue Ribbons elated to have done so much better than I expected, but feeling like I was the only one who didn't know what was going on even at the end of the hand. Far too often discards on trick 10, 11, and 12 were guesses. I might have made it to day two on my first try, but I couldn't expect to get back there without a lot of improvement.

Fresh from that success we entered the North American Swiss. Bill wasn't here, but Cadir's college friend and longtime bridge partner Randal Burns was our fourth. The bridge gods really must have been trying hard to encourage me, because after losing 4 of our first 6 matches, a near blitz in round 7 left us with 75 victory points going into the final match. 

Our draw definitely could have been easier: Michel Bessis and Philippe Cronier at one table, Kryzstof Martens and Michal Kwiecien at the other table. Whatever progress I had made, my competition had certainly come a long way in a year!

We needed a narrow loss to advance to day 2. During the match, a hand came up where the choice between partscore and game wasn't clear to me. Thinking I'd rather lose a small swing than a big one, I bid 3NT. I made it; unfortunately I can't remember the hand to share any details of what I think was a pretty routine hand to play. Cronier and Bessis stopped in partscore at the other table, so the swing we picked up covered most of the loss from a game we dropped elsewhere in the match and we lost by only 4 IMPs. We survived to day 2, where the bridge gods again left us to fend for ourselves and we lost 6 of 8 matches, but if I wasn't completely hooked before Denver Nationals, I certainly was now.

It was an amazing first year of bridge. Despite being warned by this thread, my expectations for myself were definitely growing faster than my skills. The second year was going to be a challenge.

To be continued...

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