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Tools of the Trade: Secrets to Success

Now that the world championships and the Bridge Winners Challenge Match are over,I thought it would be a nice change of pace to talk about something other than bridge hands. Something far more practical: essentials for playing bridge. I use three special tools every bridge game that are a huge help. Given that I don't see too many others using these tools, I thought I'd share them with you, as they might be just what you need to take your game to the next level. They are, in no particular order:

  1. My card holder
  2. My bridge log book
  3. My lucky pencil

The Card Holder: It's Not Just for LOLs

By card holder, I don't mean convention card holder. I'm talking about a contraption that's used to hold your cards so you don't have to hold them yourselves. You probably see these used at the club by older folks, those who have bad arthritis or are recovering from a stroke. You may also see little kids using them too, because their hands are too small to hold the cards. I'm here to say that they're not just for that demographic -- everyone can benefit!

So why am I using one, do you ask? Maybe you don't care... but I'll tell you anyway. When I first started getting into bridge a couple of years ago I was playing about five times per week. I was also working full time at a job that required lots of typing. I noticed that my left arm was often in pain. I finally realized that it was because of the additional stresses bridge put on my arm. My hands are really small, child-sized, almost. As a result, it's quite difficult for me to hold the cards for a long period of time. I finally decided to get a plastic cardholder at Nationals a couple of years ago, which helped almost immediately. One of my fidgety teammates broke the cardholder the next day, having decided it was the perfect tool for him to fidget with. I purchased a new one and have gone through several more since, so I now have lots of experience to share with those of you who are thinking about giving it a try.

First of all, there are many types of cardholders out there. For my money, the flat plastic one by Ableware is the best one out there (just don't let your fidgety teammate or partner play with it). It's light and compact, and wide enough to sit on your lap. The curved ones are very unstable. The wooden ones are good, but they're heavy, and tend to roll off and land on your foot, which hurts. The plastic one strikes the best balance, in my experience.

Proper card-holder technique is essential. You probably see people putting them on the table, and then putting their cards in the holder. That's definitely not the way to go. On the table, you can't see over the cards. It's really easy to accidentally knock it over, creating lots of embarrassing UI for your partner (and bad AI for your opponents). It's best to rest the card holder on your lap, which has the added advantage of keeping your cards out of sight from prying eyes. After you count your cards, you sort them and put them in your card holder. One important next step is that you MUST make sure that your card distribution now resembles a legitimate shape (e.g., 4-4-3-2 not 4-4-2-2). If not, look behind the cards and find that missing card. Failing that, call the director.

(Note, the hand above is not a real hand, to avoid conveying any unauthorized information.)

People don't realize that your cards are in a card holder, so they'll be surprised and bemused when you start gesticulating with both hands while a hand is being played at the table. "Look ma, no cards!" Of course, the reality is that because you'llbe practicing Keller, you will simply be impassively staring at your lap (where your cards are, of course). But you could gesticulate if you wanted to. In fact, the other day at the club, defending in a three-card ending, I went to play my card after some thought. I happened to have my non-cardholding hand above the table at the same time, and my opponent exclaimed "You don't have enough cards!" When I pointed out that I was using a cardholder, and that this wasn't, in fact, my last card, we all had a good laugh.

One added advantage that is a closely guarded secret: when an opponent or partner gets out of line, you can use the cardholder to gently and surreptitiously whack them on the knee under the table. If they say anything, Zero Tolerance policy being what it is, just act surprised and say "My card holder fell... sorry!"

Perhaps the biggest advantage to using a card holder is that people will think you're a rube when you sit down at their table. Let them think what they want while you perform a triple submarine squeeze.

The Log Book: Collect Years of Data You'll Never Look at Again

Most people get a scoresheet from the desk on which they write their scores. For the past several years, I've been using a logbook, which is a spiral-bound book of scoresheets, with a blank page on the left, and the scoring information on the right. There are many variants of the log book out there, but I really like the one that Mary Boyd makes ( [NB: I am in no way affiliated with her; I just like her product.]

The important thing in a log book is that the paper quality is decent, and that the spiral binding doesn't unwind. There are pockets on the outside for your convention cards, but I use a regular ol' convention card holder for my convention cards, so I can use the Bridge Winners-created convention cards. Instead, I use the front cover for stickers. That way I know which tournaments I attended during the time span the book covers, and the stickers don't clutter up my convention card holder. (Extra credit: can you identify the tournament(s) that the stickers below came from? If so, please let me know because I've forgotten.)

It's nice to have a blank page to the left of the scores where you can write notes and questions for later discussion once the game is over. There is also ample space to record when you beer. Later on, if you decide to, you can go through and analyze all the bad slams you bid over the past several months, or some other aspect of your game you've been wondering about. Of course, you probably won't decide to do that because it's a lot of work, but you could if you wanted to. And you'll be secure in that knowledge.

The Lucky Pencil

Ever since I started playing duplicate, I've been using the same Parker mechanical pencil to record my scores. It uses #3 lead, which is just perfect for scorekeeping: not too soft, and not too hard. The little eraser on it doesn't work well, so I also have to carry a companion drafting eraser, since I do make mistakes beyondthe bidding and the play. Somehow I've managed not to lose this pencil, I don't know how. If I ever lose it, I guess I'll have to stop playing bridge.

Having your own lucky pencil means that you don't have to depend on the N/S pair providing you with writing implements at the table you're visiting. And of course, because it's not just an ordinary pencil, but a lucky one, you achieve better results.

If you want to cultivate your own lucky pencil, it's important that it be a mechanical one, not a wooden one. Wooden ones eventually get used up, but mechanical ones can last forever (as long as you don't lose them). Remember: it's a lucky pencil,not a lucky pencil lead. If you don't have one you already like, go to a stationery store and buy one. Make sure it has a clip on it so you can attach it to something (e.g., your logbook) so you won't lose it. As to how to get the luck added to it, that's my secret. You'll have to figure that one out for yourself.

Those are the tools I take with me to the table every time I play. Perhaps you have some of your own you'd like to share?

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