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Junior Bridge Through the Modern Ages

In the bridge world I am considered a youngster, but I am no longer a “junior” which makes me feel like I am getting old (despite the fact that I get mistaken for one of my high school students regularly). Although I have not taken the road in life to become a serious player, I feel fortunate for my experiences playing junior bridge. During Louisville, as the recent “junior graduates” scored up wins left and right, I felt happy that I could say I knew and played with them before they were “famous”.

All the recent success of the young players got me and my husband Jason (also a recent “junior graduate”) reminiscing and discussing the past “junior generations” and the incredible value of the junior bridge program. This program not only led to a lot of world titles and a talented group of young players, but it also created lifelong friendships and partnerships who have risen to the top.

The first World Junior Bridge Championships was held in 1987, in Amsterdam. This marked the beginning of the junior bridge program as we know it today. Prior to this there were groups of young players playing in college, and trying out the world of duplicate bridge together, but there wasn’t an organized program as we have today.  Although, I have always enjoyed hearing of the groups of stars who played together when they were young. For example, the Mark Feldmans, Chip Martels, and Bart Bramleys of the bridge world who played together when they were young and developed lifelong friendships.

Since the formation of the junior bridge program, I believe there have been two “bridge generations” that have cycled through. Both of these “generations” have been incredibly talented and full of today’s top players. The first modern “generation”of junior bridge includes the players who dominated the 1991 World Junior Bridge Championships in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The winning team contained John Diamond, Brian Platnick, Debbie Rosenberg (Zuckerberg), Martha Katz, Jeff Ferro, and Wayne Stuart. The second-place Canadian team included Geoff Hampson and Fred Gitelman. Brad Moss and Michael Cappeletti Jr. were members of the 4th-place team. The following World Championships in 1993 saw Geoff Hampson, Nick L'Ecuyer, Eric Greco (who also competed in 1995 and 1997), and Geir Helgemo competing. It isn’t too hard to see where this list is heading. Connect the dots and we see the DIAMOND team who recently won the Spingold this past summer, the Rosenblum teams in Philadelphia this fall, and reached the semifinals of the recent Vanderbilt. Pretty amazing to me that this group of top players all competed in junior bridge not that long ago.

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At the first World Championships I attended (as an observer) in Hamilton, Ontario in 1997, I got to watch the likes of Eric Greco, Chris Willenken, Boye Brogeland, Ishmael Del'Monte, Darren Wolpert, and Joel Wooldridge compete. I got to catch the tail end of some of those “first-generation” players as well as witness the new “generation” forming. After this tournament I got the opportunity to start competing in many of the next World Junior Championships myself.

The second “generation” of bridge players that I would group, would be the stars from my “generation”. This “generation” includes the likes of Joel Wooldridge (‘95, ‘97, ‘99, ‘01, ‘03, ‘05), John Hurd (‘99, ‘01, ‘03, ‘05), Kevin Bathurst (‘99, ‘01, ‘03), Kent Mignocchi (‘01, ‘03, ‘05), Joe Grue (‘01, ‘03, ‘05, ‘06, ‘08), John Kranyak (‘01, ‘03, ‘05, ‘06,), Justin Lall (‘05, ‘06, ‘08), Ari Greenberg (‘01, ‘05, ‘06, ‘08), Jason Feldman (‘01, ‘06, ‘08), and Josh Donn (‘06). These impressive players dominated junior bridge like no other country before. Combined they won a Silver medal in 1999, Gold in 2001, Bronze in 2003, Gold in 2005, and Gold in 2006! No other group of juniors has replicated this record. At the same time in Canada we had Gavin Wolpert (‘99, ‘01, ‘03, ‘05) and Vincent Demuy (‘01. ‘03, ‘05) who won the Bronze Medal in 2005 and represented Canada in the Bermuda Bowl. They have also had a great deal of success in NABC events, as well.

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What’s impressive isn’t that there are talented juniors, but that twice there were such large groups of today's high-level players, playing junior bridge together at the same time. How often are junior teams made up of players who are professionals and who have good chances of winning the Open Team Trials? This raises a couple of questions. Does having a few strong juniors help elevate the game of other juniors, thus creating these super groups? Or is it a coincidence that so many talented players were grouped together by age?

I also find it interesting to note the bonds that playing in these junior events has created amongst these players. Competing in tournaments, travelling the world together, and understanding the love we all have for this game has cemented the relationships formed. For example, years later the “first generation” joined up to form one of the dream teams in bridge today (the DIAMOND team). Look at the “second generation” and you see many partnerships and teammates from top teams at the NABC’s. I think competing in these events, attending junior bridge camps, and hanging out at tournaments developed partnerships and teams, but more importantly friendships and life-long bonds (and even a few marriages).

All this junior success I speak of is not simply a North American phenomenon. Look at the young talent coming out of Europe. For example Sjoert Brink and Bas Drijver, Thomas Bessis, Boye Brogeland, Krzysztof Buras, and the amazing female Swedish players, just to name a few. Young players from all over the world are meeting, joining forces at the nationals, and winning!

Part of the reason I wanted to write this article was because I am truly amazed by all the elements that came together to group these talented players at such young ages and allow them to accomplish so much. I am also impressed that these connections have stood the test of time and to see these same teams/partnerships winning today. I also love to see the real happiness these players feel for each other, in the way they root for and support one another. I for one barely left my computer screen last week so I could cheer for my friends I met playing junior bridge (I may have even watched from my classroom, but shh!).

The second reason I wrote this article is to encourage everyone to support Junior Bridge. I know there are people who don’t support the junior bridge program, unfortunately some of whom hold positions of power, and there are others who just don’t think the program is a good use of time and resources. I would like those people to reflect on the benefits of this program. The program has produced top players who bring joy to spectators around the world, represent their countries, win titles, help to put a young fresh face to the game we all love, and continue to give back to the game by encouraging and teaching other young players to follow in their footsteps. Many of these players now teach bridge lessons, play with other young players, mentor young players, coach junior teams, and even start websites for us all to enjoy. Smile

So way to go junior bridge players! Keep winning. Oh and remember, I knew you before you were all champions Smile

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