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First Time

White beaches, luxury yachts, Miami Vice, Don Johnson, blue eyes; surely that’s what is on the mind of two young German girls travelling to Miami Beach in 1986. Nothing of the sort, try again! Aces, kings and queens, spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs and how to take as many tricks as possible with those came much closer to the truth. Somehow the German Bridge Federation had become convinced of our potential and, who knew, there might be some hope for a future medal. Thus they offered to subsidize Daniela von Arnim's and my trip to Miami in 1986. So off we went to our first World Championship, full of expectations.

On the plane to Miami we met two young chaps from England, a tall and skinny one and a shorter one with glasses. Do bridge players have a natural magnetism to one another? They were on their way to the championships as well, so what more obvious way to pass the time than playing bridge in the back of the plane? Their names were Glynn Liggins and Andrew Robson. Who would have thought that years later they would be famous internationals and Andy together with Tony Forrester would form one of Britain’s premier partnerships that would dominate the tournament scene for a long time. 

My first encounter with American culture was not a success. I had tried to fill in the immigration form for all visitors to the U.S. as diligently as possible, but had left the space for the address during my stay blank. Not out of stubbornness, I simply didn’t know it. Daniela and I had agreed to share an apartment with two friends from Germany, who had already been in Miami for a week’s vacation. They were supposed to pick us up at the airport. What did I care where the apartment was? The immigration officer was not satisfied with this explanation at all; he almost wouldn’t let me into the country. I guess I could have just made up some address, but that would have felt so terribly dishonest. In my mind where I was going to stay was none of his business! In the end he gave me permission to stay for the duration of the championships, and not a single day more, but he was very close to putting me on the next plane back to Germany.

From then on everything was plain sailing. After a 2-hour odyssey our friends Georg Nippgen and Jockel Bitchene had managed to find the entrance to the airport and were now taking us safely to our home for the next two weeks, the Beekman Suites Hotel, 9499 Collins Avenue, Bal Harbour, Florida. There you go, Mr. immigration officer. Miami Beach was just like in the movies and so was the apartment, huge and with walk-in closets. I had never seen one before and I definitely liked them! 

Let the games begin and smell the international tournament air! We kicked off with the Mixed Pairs, which I played with a good friend from Augsburg, Andreas Pawlik, Germany’s by far best-looking bridge-playing ophthalmologist. Once after one of my usual silly mistakes my partner seemed a bit upset. “Don’t you know whom we just played against?” he asked, “That was Eric Rodwell.” I nodded knowingly in reality having no clue. Quite evidently Eric Rodwell was not Don Johnson’s double, so who was he? Two weeks later Eric Rodwell and Jeff Meckstroth became the newly crowned World Pairs Champions. If only I had asked him for an autograph, while I had a chance! I don’t remember that much more about the event. My mistakes were not very memorable, we finished nowhere; still I enjoyed every single minute of it!

The next event was the Rosenblum Teams, where Dany and I teamed up with our friends Hasi Gwinner and Andreas Pawlik and another German pair that was famous for their unreliability. You never knew whether they would show up for a round or not. We got knocked out fairly early and landed in the notorious never-ending Swiss, it would go on and on and on. There were seemingly endless breaks between the matches, but every single match was an exciting adventure for us and every time we sat down at the table again we were determined to win. One round we played against a father-son combination from England. The son could not have been more than 14-15 years old and it appeared his twin brother was playing at the other table. His bridge was very impressive and he clearly also was convinced that Dany and I would be an easy prey. So of course we had to prove that we were not just two giggling girls exchanging boyfriend pictures, it was a matter of the highest prestige. Their last name was Hackett. Who would have thought that 15 years later we would be traveling to Manchester, UK to attend his brother’s wedding to one of our teammates on the German Ladies National team?

Then our teammates became very agitated, “Next round we are going to play against Malcolm Brachman’s team” they whispered excitedly into our ears. Apparently Malcolm Brachman was a well-known sponsor from Texas, who had even won a World Championship. Imagine there was such a thing as bridge professionals getting paid large sums of money for playing bridge; we were marvelling. Actually the match went very well for us, Dany (South) and I (North) sat down against Ron Andersen (East) and Mark Lair (West), and I picked up:

North
A54
87
AQ84
A732
 

to hear the bidding go:

W
N
E
S
1
P
1
P
1NT
P
2
P
2
P
2
P
2NT
P
3NT
P
P
P

Partner didn’t figure to have a lot of high cards, but maybe the diamond layout was favorable for us, so I started with the ace of diamonds. The whole hand turned out to be:

West
K107
K53
K92
K1098
North
A54
87
AQ84
A732
East
QJ86
AQ42
J3
QJ4
South
932
J1096
10765
65
D
 

Dany signalled enthusiastically for a diamond continuation and the queen of diamonds sank the contract. At the other table the opening lead was a low diamond, after which declarer could no longer be prevented from taking 9 tricks.

Next:

West
J105
J7
96
AQ10962
North
A
AK10863
AK10752
East
KQ4
Q54
843
KJ43
South
987632
92
QJ
875
W
N
E
S
3
4
5
P
P
5NT
P
6
P
7
P
7
P
P
P
D
7 South
NS: 0 EW: 0

One way or another they missed this “obvious” grand slam at the other table. Chalk it up to the exuberance of youth.

Time passed quickly and we thoroughly enjoyed life in the international bridge circus. There were always a lot of people around, it was never boring. There was this Frenchman wandering about the lobby telling everybody that wanted to listen and also those who didn’t that he was not playing against two opponents but five. His partner and his teammates were counteracting him all the time as well. They called him “the cigar”, the French also called him “enfant terrible”, his real name was Paul Chemla. Who would have thought that years later, whenever I met him at a tournament, the first thing he would ask me would be: “How are your children?”  And when he came to my home in Copenhagen for dinner he would tell me “If I had a family like yours, I would never play bridge again.”

We were invited to a cocktail party on the luxury yacht of Florida millionaire Diana Holt and met a lot of people again. There was this American guy, who entertained me by telling me his whole life story, while he was constantly jumping up and down and moving from one side to the other. His name was Alan Sontag. How wonderful to have met him, I thought, when I read “The Bridge Bum” months later.

Then the pair game started. Our friend “Schorsch” Nippgen got very upset. “They are cheating”, he declared emphatically, “every time they open one of a major and respond 1NT they alert. And when we ask them what it means they say it is forcing, but then they always turn up with only 3 or 4 high card points.” In 1986 he hadn’t heard of the forcing notrump, but that didn’t prevent him from winning a world championship a few years later. I have since tried not to throw convention names at opponents that come from a different bridge culture describing instead the meaning of the conventional bid.

Meanwhile Dany and I were doing quite well in the Women’s pairs. We qualified for the semifinal and then the final. Only 28 pairs were playing in it and we actually finished 7th. What a thrill, we were in 7th heaven! Was it really all over now and did we really have to go back home to our everyday life? Were we ever going to have so much fun again?

Many championships have followed this first one, and every single one of them has been a new exciting experience. I have been to many countries, gained a lot of insight into other cultures and other peoples’ mentality. But most and best of all I have made a lot of friends, that I get to meet again and again wherever the bridge circus pitches its tents. My first time was an unforgettable experience and every new event adds so much to it that when it’s over I hardly can wait till the next adventure starts.

The above article is an edited version of one I wrote 14 years ago as part of a series to promote the first ever European Open Championships in Menton, France. Since then there have been many other editions of this Championship, which takes place every other year at some beautiful place in Europe. It is a wonderful opportunity for players from all over the world to congregate on European soil and to mix and mingle with one another. There are no playing restrictions by country, everybody can pair or team up with anybody irrespective of what country they are from. Next year’s Championship will be in Montecatini, Italy from June 10th to 24th. Michael Cornell, Ashley Bach, Roy and I have agreed to join forces and are excitedly looking forward to competing together in the Open Team event there. Come join us and be part of the adventure!

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