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Aiming for the Stars


Aim for the stars, and maybe you'll reach the sky.

-- Reinhold Neibuhr

Several months ago, the ACBL Bulletin editors asked me to provide my best tip for players looking to improve their game. I immediately offered my favorite: Bob Hamman’s admonition to “Focus on the hand you are playing”. Alas; my suggestion had already been offered by ... Bob. So, although I do believe focusing to be the most critical action one can adopt at the bridge table, I moved onto my #2 suggestion: “Play against the toughest competition you can find.”

Okay, okay – I can hear the squeals of disbelief all the way here in still-frozen Minnesota. “Play against the toughest competition? How is that supposed to help us win? Sounds more like a recipe for guaranteeing loss!”

No doubt, playing against opponents who are even more schlumpy than yourself heightens the odds that for any given board or match, your side will do better than their side. Yet, you should look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself this question: “What are my ultimate bridge goals?”

If your pleasure is to keep your game at whatever level it may be right now, to not advance and not improve, then competing against mediocre competition – or worse – will suit your needs. Winning any given session will be easier.

Perhaps, however, when you are looking at the person in the mirror, you get this response. “I want to improve my skills. I want to become more knowledgeable overall about bridge. I want to learn how to develop ‘killer instinct’ and be able to beat people who are better than run-of-the-mill.”

If the latter response is the case, then do what you can to search out the most expert opponents you can find. Do you play at the local bridge club? Don’t relegate yourself to games that never have Flight A players in ‘em. Play up. Do you attend sectionals and/or regionals? Do the same there. Enter knock-out events – and if you meet a team who usually wins the event, consider yourself lucky.

Why am I telling you to face folks who rate to beat you on any given hand? Here’s why.

You will learn how to be a better player if you play better opponents. Do they come up with excellent bids that allow them to reach fine contracts you would not? Do they put pressure on you during competitive auctions, and you’re not sure how to cope? Are they able to execute lines of play that you yourself would not have found?

Don’t get upset or frustrated; watch what they are doing and learn! Particularly at the regional or national level, you will find expert players who win a lot – and some who even play bridge professionally. Most of us cannot afford to hire these top pros. Yet, when you play against them, you get an expert lesson for free! Do your best while you are playing. Afterwards, however, study what they did and why – and examine how it worked for them. Next time out – duplicate what those experts did and improve your own game!

Many top players are more than willing to answer a question or two after the game is over. Don’t abuse the privilege – but – ask a couple of questions about a key hand or bid, and learn from those who know how to play the game.

Playing against lesser competition does not afford players anywhere near as much opportunity to learn. It’s also easy to allow poor habits to continue. When you play up, those bad bids and plays cost big time. Nothing like a sharp lesson from good competitors to awaken you to staying focused and playing your best.

Finally, there is one exceptionally strong reason to play against top opponents: once in a while, you can beat them! Do you think experts never make an error or wrong decision? Guess again. Even while winning national titles, players go wrong on any given hand or play. While the odds don’t favor it, sometimes it is “your day.” You and your team play their best; the experts do not. If you want a huge thrill, beat your superiors. But remember – first you have to show up at the table to get the opportunity!

Intermediate/novice (I/N) games are great when you are first starting. If, however, you want to take your game to the next level, aim for the stars. Seek to play against them, have the courage to lose . . . . and ultimately, you will find yourself the player others fear to play!

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