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Playing Up

A while ago, I wrote about my second favorite bridge tip:Play against the toughest competition you can find.

Some were not enamored with my tip.

“I like to win,” they said. “Going to tournaments is a rare event for me; I don’t want to lose right away.” And so on and so forth.

Valid points – and, I might add that few of us bridge players ever like losing. Still, since my early days ‘till now, I remain a faithful proponent of “playing up.” Here is why.


First, the obvious for all of us who have battled against our superiors. You either learn and improve – or get totally creamed. (Sometimes you learn and still get creamed, but – such is life.) If the opponents have a bidding treatment you’ve never seen and you lose a big swing to it – then add it to your convention card. If your counterparts at the other table beat a contract with a defense you didn’t contemplate, study how they figured it out – and place it in your own repertoire. Top players do not get copyrights on their bids and plays. Watching what they do and learning from it is one of the finest ways to improve your own game.

Is it worth sacrificing some matches and pair events to move from someone whom the opponents barely notice to someone they often fear? I say, “Yes.”

Of course, there’s another reason to play up. And, as much as I love improving my own game, this is a special delight: sometimes you beat someone no one (including perhaps yourself) thought that you could conquer.

When I was a newer player, like most, I tried to hide my shaking hands as I sat down to be pulverized by the tough guys. They seemed to know just how to push me around. They seemed to know exactly who had a critical queen. They seemed to know how to block me from reaching my games, and how to take me for a number when partner and I bid too high.

Still, I kept on playing against them. And the more I did, I discovered two things. My game began to improve. Perhaps even more important to enhancing my ability to win, however, I discovered this. Not even the experts got every hand right. Whether it was bidding, declarer play, or defense, sometimes they did not find the prime contract, or the handle on a tough hand, or the decisive opening lead.

Sometimes they simply did something flat out wrong. Sometimes they had a disaster.

The combination of this was powerful. I gained more confidence as my ridiculous errors became fewer, and as I realized I could gain by taking advantage of the times that my opponents erred.

So. How does this play out in Real Life? Well – a 2009 GNT story.

For those not familiar with the format at NABC’s, the GNT begins with a Swiss. For those qualifying, the top 4 teams get to select from the lowest qualifiers whom they wish to play. Note that because of the method of qualification, this is not a true-to-form seeding. In other words, the top four teams may not be the teams who would otherwise be ranked 1-4. And similarly, the bottom teams can include teams who are quite well regarded.

In any case, once the rankings are posted, the selection begins. This grisly process involves the pickers analyzing the bottom teams, judging which team is “worst” and which one they wish to face Day 2. My team had the good fortune to qualify. Yet alas; we were among the “pickees” .

My friend Larry Cohen was on the team most would consider the favorites from the start: Spector, Becker, Berkowitz, Cohen, Meckstroth, and Rodwell. So, as Larry gazed at the teams available for choosing, I attempted to be helpful. “This team has some dead wood,” I offered. “Other than this one player, the rest of the team is weak,” I explained. Larry looked and studied.

Five minutes later, Larry came to deliver the grim news. “We picked you.” Sigh. With names like “Joe Grue” and “Dan Morse” (among others) on the teams available, I might have picked us, too.

Yet, as you are guessing from my telling this tale, the team that was “supposed to win” did not. Indeed; when the smoke cleared after 64 hands, my team (Bob and Cindy Balderson, Carole Miner, Paul Meerschaert, Bill Kent, and moi) had won – and by over 40 IMPS. What a thrill!

Unfortunately, we did lose the next day to Grue & Company – one of the two teams that made it to the finals. Still, nothing could take away the excitement and thrill from beating some of the best players around.

Yes, if you compete against players at your own level – or worse – your odds of winning on any given day are heightened. If, however, you never take a chance and “play up” – you potentially deprive yourself of some of the best that bridge has to offer.

Peg Kaplan is the proverbial "jack of all trades; master of none". When not competing at the bridge table, this Grand Life Master promotes the game she loves as the ACBL's "Roaming Reporter". She also manages several bridge blogs, sells real estate in Minnesota, and loves her pet birdies.

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