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Running The Gauntlet In Poland

Judging from multiple accounts and discussions by observers of the recently concluded World Bridge Games in Wroclaw, Poland on a number of social media,  these Games will go into the annals of World Championships as a championship tainted with scandals, imperfect results and organizational inadequacies. Actual participants of the Games may have returned back home with a different impression and experience, maybe to a certain extent depending on whether they in any way were involved in any of the “scandals” or were affected by any of the inadequacies.

Roy and I were right in the middle of everything. We started out by representing Germany in the Open Team event. Our team had high hopes of surviving the Round Robin of the first week to continue competing in the KO-phase in the second week. Alas, Roy and I underperformed poorly losing a lot of big double-digit swings at our table, and as a result our team failed to make the cut. Our team mates must have been very disappointed. They played well and had every right to expect more from us after our recent successes. But there was no bad sentiment at all and everyone was prepared to battle on merrily in the pair game in the second week instead.

For me one week of pair game is so much more gruelling and demanding than one week of teams. In most contracts every single trick counts, one tiny slip of attention often quickly turns an average board into 10%, and when not playing on a lucky streak even the slightest mistake often gets punished severely. In the 5 days of qualification and semifinal Roy and I didn't play great, but we didn't play badly either. We had our fair share of good luck and qualified comfortably for the 52 pair final.

Then the two-day final started. Having learnt from previous bad experience the organizers now commendably always ensure that participants from the same countries meet one another in the early rounds of such a final. So on day one we played against our own countrymen and most of the other non-Polish competitors. There was no carry-over from the semifinal meaning everyone started from scratch with the same chance of grasping that coveted title. The atmosphere could not have been better. Everybody knew how much was at stake, so battle was fierce but fair. We were lucky and got a few gifts from our opponents. We also made some good decisions in the bidding and the play and finished the day in second place breathing down the neck of one of the two Chinese pairs in the final.

Then on day two of the final the Polish avalanche arrived. Not surprisingly nearly half the field in the final was Polish. After a few rounds already I couldn't help feeling that something had changed and the atmosphere had taken a turn for the worse. I was about to learn that I would have to deal with it for almost the remainder of the day. Our opponents seemed determined to inflict damage on us at all costs, sometimes with means I would consider outside the realm of fairness.

I was wondering what was going on, the atmosphere seemed pesterous and at times almost hostile. Could it possibly be some kind of sexist sentiment? Just thinking about it upset me very much. I felt determined not to let our opponents play mind games with me and developed a new routine for the day. After every session I would go to the result screen to check whether we still were in contention and how much we were behind or ahead. Then I would go outside and walk once or twice around the big lawn in front of the building trying to compose myself. Then a trip to the bathroom and then sit down at our new table a few minutes before game time trying to focus for the remainder of the boards. 40 more boards, 30 more boards, 20 more boards, 10 more boards.

The New Zealanders Michael Cornell and Ashley Bach were having a tremendous day. Still, going into the last two sessions we were 1.5 % ahead. It wasn’t the world, but a nice little cushion. With only 20 boards to go it seemed prudent to be a bit more conservative than usual and try to avoid actions that were either totally against the field or had any risk of turning into a big disaster. I reminded Roy (and myself) of Zia’s advice to us: If you don’t preempt, you will win this event. Luckily there weren’t any opportunities to preempt. The rest of the going conservative approach wasn’t a huge success. I remember especially one board in the last session where a conservative action of mine resulted in a 40% score for us. My normal action would have given us 60% or 90% instead. Still 40% was okay, it wasn’t a disaster. But maybe the lesson to be learnt is that one should never deviate from one’s style. I don’t know.

The rest of the last session went really well for us. We had one bad result, when I lost my concentration as declarer on a board. All the other results were either average plus or simply just great, especially the last two rounds. When we stood up from the table after the last board was finished, both Roy and I felt that we actually might have pulled this one off. One of the tournament directors was standing right next to me studying his cell phone. I looked at him inquiringly. He shrugged his shoulders: “I don’t know, it’s very close. At the moment you are 1 matchpoint behind.” 

Could this really be true? We rushed out of the playing room to the result screen. By now I knew the way. A large crowd was staring at the screen in suspense waiting for the last results to tick in. Bach-Cornell had topped their impressive performance with a huge 74.4% in the last session, unreal! Our last round results hadn’t come in yet. Michael and I compared scores. We had sat in opposite directions, so it wasn’t obvious what the final verdict would be. Michael thought we had won, I thought they had won. After all we needed an average of about 90% in our last two boards to overtake them! Was that possible at all?

Finally a scream! Our two last scores showed up and we were ahead by a whopping 5 matchpoints! But wait, five other results were still pending. Could they make a big enough difference? After a few more suspenseful seconds it was all over. We had held on to a 3 matchpoint advantage and were champions of the world! 

Or so we thought.

Most readers undoubtedly are aware of the events that ensued. There was a lot of heated discussion on Bridgewinners about a by now infamous scoring error and its consequences, especially regarding who should be considered the rightful winner of the event. I have no intentions of starting a new discussion, but I feel certain that it is impossible to know how the event would have ended without that scoring error. You may agree or disagree on that point and you may have differing opinions on what the consequences should be, even if you agree with me on that point. Roy has described in a different article what steps we have taken to achieve what we believe would be an equitable solution to the problem. At the time of this writing I don’t know yet, whether we will succeed.

Following the discussion about the scoring error on Bridgewinners this past week has been painful and depressing for me. There were a lot of insinuations of disingenuous and unethical behavior on our part and our names were dragged through the dirt. The many reasonable voices that tried to discuss the issue in a sensible manner almost seemed to drown in that dirt. I was extremely grateful for my friends that contacted me privately to offer their moral support and I was extremely grateful for all the posters that defended us. 

Besides all the mud casting there was also a lot of finger pointing and apportion of blame for the fiasco. Mistakes are human. We have always made them and we will always make them. In this case several parties including us made mistakes that contributed to the eventual unfortunate outcome. A good friend used to tell me: It’s okay to make a mistake. It’s not okay to make the same mistake twice. So instead of dwelling on who made what mistake and going on and on about why that is unacceptable, let’s instead put our energy in making sure it doesn’t happen again, no matter what mistake was made by whom. 

Ashley Bach and Michael Cornell have been totally exemplary during the whole process. They have expressed that whatever happened was a thing of the past and the only thing that really matters is moving forward. Ashley and Michael, you have my full admiration. True champions!

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