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We Were Cheated

The semi-final match between the NICKELL team and the GORDON team featured some of the most captivating, and exciting bridge that I have ever seen. The margin of this match was in single digits more often than not and featured constant lead changes. Every trick was so important and the tension was palpable through my computer screen. There were, at times, upwards of 7,000 people watching this epic bout that I would liken to seeing two Hall of Fame pitchers dueling it out in the deciding game of the semifinals. Personally, my rooting interests were satisfied by the result of the match, and yet I am so enraged on several different levels by the fact that two boards were pulled.

As a (soon-to-be-former) junior bridge player, I cannot help but feel utterly frustrated by those who constantly pledge their commitment to promoting the game among youth. In what other “sport” would a truly amazing match/game/tournament be shortened because of time constraints? MLB, NBA, NFL executives pray that each game played would be as competitive and thrilling as this match was. Networks that pay obscene prices for the right to air these events dream of overtime and game 7’s because that is what people want to see. Tomorrow’s Lebron James is shooting hoops in the playground, practicing his buzzer beater fall-away jumper just like Michael Jordan against the Utah Jazz. Moments like that one happen only so often and need to be cherished by all because they are what make sports transcend the game itself. And now I look at the game that I have elected to pursue with the same passion and vigor that it takes to make an elite athlete—bridge. I picture myself in Jeff Meckstroth’s chair on board 63 in a close match and deciding whether or not I have 5-level safety, or whether or not to go for the overtrick, or simply fall back on a safety play. This is the moment that I am supposed to dream about, and as I watch this moment unfold on BBO,I suddenly read that the director has pulled a board from the match!

If comparing bridge to sports is not your cup of tea, let's examine a card game that has become a worldwide sensation—poker. In the last decade poker has seen an unprecedented infusion of talented, youthful players to go along with tremendous public following and most importantly, obscene amounts of money. Like it or not, poker is a direct competitor with bridge and yet nobody is aware of it because being a bridge player is such a laughable, perplexing hobby/profession for my generation. Poker draws from the same talent pools and is doing a far better job than bridge. Pulling board 64 from a semi-final match would be the equivalent of jacking up the blinds ahead of schedule at the final table of the WSOP for fear that the event would run too long. To do so would be wholly unfair to the players who have millions of dollars on the line and would undoubtedly be actionable in a court of law.

Bridge does not have the same fan base as the major sports, nor does it offer direct monetary rewards for outcomes of tournaments. What bridge does have are loyal participants who at a minimum shed thousands of dollars for travel, accommodations, and entry fees. Bridge also has extremely wealthy and generous fanatics who spend hundreds of thousands—even millions—of dollars per annum to compete at the highest levels of the game. The Nick Nickells, Mark Gordons, Pierre Zimmermans, Carolyn Lynchs, etc., are few and far between, and if not for their passion the likes of Meckwell, Fantunes, Helgemo-Helness, and Balicki-Zmudzinski would undoubtedly be applying their talents elsewhere.

Now let's look at the precedent set by the decision to shorten this match. Suppose that your team is up 25 IMPs going in to the 4th quarter. Does the threat of boards being pulled not incentivize the players with the lead to play as slowly as possible? While this would certainly be unethical gamesmanship, it would appear that they are perfectly within their rights to do so. Perhaps even a step further, should the client pair not play the 2nd and 4th quarters so as to guarantee that the pro pairs get to play at least all of their boards? This ruling is a dangerous one that opens the door for match manipulation that is subtle and almost impossible to regulate. I am not insinuating that anyone would ever consider doing such a thing, but shortening matches punishes the team that is losing, even though they may not be at fault. Food for thought: Neither of Mark Gordon’s pairs smoke cigarettes and both of Nickell’s pairs do. And while the board was pulled when Gordon had the lead (advantage-Gordon), both of Nickell’s pairs managed smoke breaks during the final quarter.

Leave aside the tactical implications from a ruling like this and I will say it plain and simple: Mark Gordon was cheated by the ACBL. Had Nickell lost the match, he was cheated by the ACBL. As a kibitzer, an ACBL member, a bridge enthusiast, and a participant in the Spingold, I was cheated by the ACBL. The Spingold is not the Fast Pairs, it is not the Wagar, it is not even the Blue Ribbons or GNT’s. The Spingold is an elite competition that displays bridge at its best for the whole world to see. The event does not belong to the ACBL;it belongs to the players, the fans, and to the bridge legends that have made the event what it is. The ACBL is charged with facilitating this event, and they are within their rights to extract monetary benefits from it. What transpired three days ago is a disgrace and needs to be recognized as such so that it may never happen again. I don’t care if it means penalizing teams seeding points, or even charging them extra money to compensate the directors that had to work into their dinner break. A basketball game is 48 minutes long, a tennis match is best of 5 sets, and a Spingold match is 64 deals.

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