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Perspective of a Playing Sponsor: I Came to Play

 Leading up to the World Mixed Teams in Orlando, Florida last week, I had few expectations. While I’ve been in and out of the bridge world in a number of ways, I had been a playing sponsor just once before. A couple of years ago, I competed in the USBF trials in an effort to represent the U.S. in the World Mixed Teams in Poland (Bill Pettis, Debbie and Michael Rosenberg, Sally and Kit Woolsey). We lost a close match in the final of that event to the Moss squad (Sylvia Moss, the late Michael Seamon, Sheri Winestock, Brad Moss, Sue Picus, Alex Ornstein).

Both my partner, Bill Pettis, and our playing captain, Beth Palmer (they are married to each other) had health-related incidents in the 6 months prior to this tournament. The health of my friends, Beth and Bill, of course came first. I wasn’t sure if we would be playing at all, and I was psychologically prepared to wash out early if we did play. So, I thought I was psychologically prepared for pretty much anything. While I wanted to play my best, I knew that over 100 teams had entered, and they included some of the best “Mixed” teams in the world. At some point (I think it was right after the qualifying rounds ended) I learned that we had been seeded 12th. I thought that it would be great to get to the Round of 16, but had a secret goal of doing even better – to get to the quarterfinals.

As some people reading this know, I have expressed some views on the WBF which have not been always uniformly positive. I voted in a poll (created by me!) at one point, putting myself in the category of those who originally supported the idea of trying to get bridge into the Olympics (or didn’t give it much thought at all), but, after the huge cheating scandal came to light, and it became clear that players such as Boye Brogeland and others had to engage in herculean efforts to take the initiative to bring it to light, I changed my mind. I felt – and still feel – that as a practical matter, addressing ethics should come before drug-testing.

I somewhat resented the fact that I might face having to pee in a cup in front of someone else at the tournament (few people, I think, would look forward to that prospect). I elected to just not take the one prescription medication I do take rather than submitting a request for an exemption (of course, if I took something absolutely essential such as insulin, I would have submitted the form). I knew, of course, that the forms I signed stated that I wouldn’t engage in political statements while representing my country, and while I often have strong views about politics (my mother was the founding president of the Prince George’s County and Maryland Women’s Political Caucuses in the early 1970’s, plus a delegate pledged to Jimmy Carter at the Democratic Convention in 1976 – I was able to go to Madison Square Garden in New York and watch Carter select Mondale as his vice-president, plus watch Hubert Humphrey give a speech), I tried to put current political issues out of my mind.

Anyway, I thought that I was psychologically prepared. I knew I wasn’t as well prepared in my knowledge of the bridge conventions I was supposed to know, and that is the story of my bridge life, as most of my partners and opponents can tell you (a shout-out to Kevin Barnes for being old-fashioned just like me – when we bid clubs we have clubs, when we bid diamonds, we have diamonds – what’s the problem? Kickback, you said? What’s that??).

What I truly was not prepared for, was the impact of the rule that playing sponsors are required to play only one-third of the boards. Yes, I was vaguely aware of that rule, but I was planning to play one-half of the boards, and didn’t think that would be a big deal. There was a discussion about the qualifying rounds, and that each player only needed to play 3 of the ten rounds. The tentative plan was for my partner and I to play the first and third rounds each of the two days.

We did play those four rounds. However, at this point, I began to realize that most (not all) playing sponsors were playing 3. I also began absorbing the message that there would be a strategy among most of the teams to plan for their playing sponsors to minimize play against certain teams, or rather, not to go in at all in certain of the short knockout matches (28 boards), which would encompass the Round of 64 through the Round of 8 (quarterfinals). It seemed to be in the ether that, if I did play a 4th Round in the qualifying stage, that would give our anchor pair, Debbie and Michael Rosenberg, a chance to rest. It didn’t seem likely that there would be any subsequent chance to sit out. That was fine with them, particularly Michael.

The qualifying rounds were over; we finished 12th. This meant that we (among the top 16 teams) got to pick – in reverse order – a team that had finished lower than 32 to play in the Round of 64. This is when the implications of the fact that I had played 4 rounds of qualifying sank in. We had lost 3 of those 4 rounds (and our team lost one other match as well). You may say – was that that big a deal? Actually, it was, because by the time 11 teams had picked before us, there was absolutely no team left that anyone wanted to pick. We couldn’t decide; we weren’t ready when called upon. One of my teammates commented that we could pick one particular team, but one person on that team might take it personally.

We could no longer delay – we picked the team “Coping with Punch” because we liked their team name – no, not really (although we did like their team name). We hoped that they wouldn’t take offense at our picking them, but even if they did, we reasoned that later we would be on opposite sides of the ocean, so my teammates wouldn’t be as likely to run into them. By the way, they played extremely well, and I believe that that was our closest match – we edged them out by single digits. I really appreciated Simon Cope’s telling me that I played a 3 Heart contract well to make three – although I did see in one of the bulletins that Bill Pollack was in four making four.

So. As the matches and the days went by, and I continued to play 50% of the boards, I obviously was accumulating enough stanzas that I wouldn’t necessarily have to keep on doing that. Along the way, I heard about matches where a sponsor captain had not played at all. My partner and teammates were supportive; they agreed that I would continue playing 50% and we wouldn’t worry about the rules.

At some point, I met a playing sponsor like me who had come to play. This person, I believe, played in 5 of the 10 qualifying rounds, and then 50% of each knockout match until that team was eliminated.

Almost all of my opponents throughout the event were wonderful to play against. There was one exception, where one opponent called the director on me 4 times in one quarter, for no real reason, in my opinion (and there certainly were no rulings in this person’s favor). This was a match where the team captain of the other team sat out completely.

Then, came the semi-finals. The first half of the day was fine. Naturally, we were all happy to be in the semi’s. The disagreement came about who was going to play in the third quarter. That morning, Debbie Rosenberg had indicated that she had to admit she was tired, and she wouldn’t mind sitting out the third quarter (Michael and Debbie were the anchor pair). That was fine with me, but my partner really didn’t want for us to play that quarter. His reasoning was that we had played plenty of stanzas and he stated to me that we probably had about a 75% chance of winning the match if we played the third quarter – but a 95% chance if Michael and Debbie played that quarter. That seemed logical to him, I suppose.

I simply did not feel that I would have truly earned whatever place we did earn, unless I played at least half the time. The thought of the possibility of ending up in the dreaded playoff match for bronze was not alluring, to be sure, but still. However – as must be obvious to anyone reading this – bridge is a partnership game, and I was hurt that my partner didn’t have confidence in us.

 

So, we played the third quarter, the Rosenbergs got to to sit out – and we won the match.

 

Now came the day of the final. I was really feeling on top of the world. We were going to receive either the gold or the silver medal! Who could ask for anything more???

We played the first quarter, and it went pretty well. We got in a tiny bit of time trouble, a director was sent to watch our table, and I got nervous and slopped an overtrick. After a few minutes (not surprisingly – I have sympathy) voices were raised in the Bronze medal match, and that director was redeployed elsewhere (at least for a few minutes).

At the end of the first quarter, we were down by 3 – the score was 23 to 20. I was still feeling great about everything.

Except for the fact that my partner and I disagreed about whether we were going to play the third quarter.

I was really upset. I felt demoralized. Why was my partner trying to get me down? I called him (he was in his room and I was in mine, both watching Vugraph, of course) to tell him that I didn’t want to talk to him. I told him I was upset, and he asked : “Why”? He genuinely did not understand. I told him that I was too upset to talk, so that I was calling him so that he would look at my text messages (ordinarily he might not look at his text messages right away, which is why I called him to make sure that he would look at them right away – because I was too upset to talk).

I texted my partner that maybe I would be sitting down opposite our teammate Bill Cole (I’ve never played with Bill) during the third quarter! I texted that if he (my partner) had a cold (which he had mentioned), and was really that unwell, then maybe we would have to withdraw (which would be a shame).

Or maybe we should just go ahead and play together in the third quarter.

He texted back the following (adjusted for punctuation):

“You have played terrifically. You should be on top of the world. We have played more than the required number of boards. So as a team, do we have a better chance to win with you and I playing instead of Beth and Bill and Michael and Debbie?”

I texted back: “I will talk to Beth. She is the captain.”

I noticed that my partner tried to call me, but I did not pick up.

Now, I began to second-guess myself. I had been so sure about playing 50%. But – was I being selfish? Inflexible? For me, either a gold or a silver medal would be absolutely amazing. But, would my partner and all of my teammates feel the same? No one on our team is a Junior, but my partner (who served in Vietnam) is a bit older than myself. Much as I love the game of bridge, it is not as huge a part of my life as it is theirs. We were certainly complying with the WBF rules.

Was I being a ridiculous playing sponsor who had begun to imagine that she was a world-class expert, just because she had hired a team of great players, and was doing extremely well?

I decided that I would leave it in Beth Palmer’s hands. Thank goodness for Beth! No one could have a more capable captain.

At the end of the second quarter, we had dropped 7 more imps, so were down by a total of 10. I asked Beth Palmer if I could have a word. She said that there wasn’t much time, and that we needed to put in the lineup. She looked a little concerned (probably due to the expression on my face). The two of us stepped away from the rest of the team.

Beth said she thought that I was planning to play the third quarter. I said that I always had been. She said didn’t I think in the long run that I would be happy if I did play the third quarter. I said yes – but I wasn’t sure about sitting down opposite my partner for the third quarter. She said that she was sure that he would be fine to play in the third – but would I?

I said that, when I had texted her that morning to mention that I hoped my partner (her husband) would not suggest that he and I not play the third quarter, that I had thought perhaps she would drop a hint to him not to indicate to me that he thought we should sit out the third quarter.

She said that she had done more than drop a hint – she had told him not to bring it up. But, she said, when he was certain about something it was hard to get him to change his mind (no other woman in the history of the world has ever encountered a man with this characteristic, of course).

So, Beth said that I had 45 minutes and to try to rest and put it out of my mind. I decided to take a short walk. Instead, when I went back to my room to drop off my phone, I had a long, annoying, recorded salespitch message on my hotel phone from the hotel’s vacation club, that I had to listen to in its entirety before deleting (and even then, I had trouble deleting it). So, not much time for a walk – just a short one.

My partner and I played the third quarter, sitting down  against Chris Willenken and Sally Brock.  Our team had some good results and picked up 15. That means that, for the first and third quarters of the final combined, my partner and I were up by 12. And, our four teammates were amazing in the fourth quarter. We won the Gold medal; our story has a “Hollywood” ending.

My main purpose in writing this is to advocate for a change in the WBF rules. While a non-playing captain or a non-playing sponsor is most definitely deserving of respect – and a medal if the team is awarded a medal – a playing member of a team, in my opinion, should be required to play half the boards.

Even if the rule is not changed, I will say this – I feel differently about my experience than I would had I not kept to my plan. While I did revoke on Vugraph during the third quarter of the final, I also got to read in the daily bulletin that: “Where Manfield was on lead to a blind auction she guessed extremely well to lead a low spade.”!!! And, Barry Rigal came up to my partner and me after the match was over, and said that we had set our team up really well for the fourth quarter!!!! That could never have happened if we hadn’t played the third quarter!

I must say a word about my teammate Bill Cole. He believed in me from start to finish, without question. He has done a ton of volunteer work for bridge and commented that he was able to play better without his usual volunteer responsibilities.

Also, I wanted to mention Kit Woolsey. After we teamed up in DC and played in the USBF Trials a couple of years back, and that event was over, he said to me: “I guess you see now that you can play against anyone.” That comment really stayed with me.

As for my partner – I hope we’re all good! With the perspective of a few days, I believe that it’s not so much that he was worried that I would let the team down – but perhaps, concerned that he himself might do so. He had struggled a bit to return to form in bridge since his recent health scare.

He did!  

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