The March of Time
I want to ask you a simple question: Is the play of today’s
experts stronger than that of those who have participated in these
great Championships down the years? As a corollary, what progress
have we made in the areas of bridge relating to bidding and play?
In every sport I can think of the level of performance improves
steadily. Faster, higher, stronger. In the vast majority of cases,
a comparison is possible because we have accurate methods of measurement.
Even in those where it is more difficult, such as football, it is
safe to say that the level of technique has improved.
Have you ever stopped to consider what technique is? The obvious
answer is that it is mastering something that can be learned. It
also requires one to have the ability to apply what has been learnt
to situations that arise. For example, every expert understands
the principles of Elimination play, and will usually recognise when
they should be applied. That is technique.
Imagine that I discover a new type of elimination. I will not
be hailed as a great inventor, it is merely the application of technique.
In a lesser sense, my choice of opening lead might be described
as a matter of technique.
Technique in bridge has advanced.
To understand this you have to compare the situation today with
that of some previous contest, say for example one of the matches
from the famous era of Ely Culbertson.
Here is a deal from the ‘Bridge Battle of the Century’
Dealer East. None Vul
ª A K 2
© Q 8
¨ J 7 3
§ K J 8 7 5
ª 7 5
© J 6 5 4 2
¨ Q 10 6 4
§ 10 3
||ª Q 10 9 8 6 4 3
© A 10 7
¨ 9 8
© K 9 3
¨ A K 5 2
§ A Q 9 4 3
In those far off days a jump raise showed a good hand, so you can
see that our thoughts on bidding have changed somewhat. South’s
bid of Four Spades carried no special significance, being designed
to inhibit a spade lead.
It was assumed that a spade or club lead would have defeated the
contract. (East led the ace of hearts out of turn, and in those
days you could call for a lead, so South asked West for a diamond
and was home when dummy’s jack held.)
However, our modern day expert would doubtless overcome either
effort. You win the spade lead, draw trumps and lead a low heart
from the table. East must duck, so you win, discard a heart on the
second spade, ruff a spade, cash the ¨AK
and exit with a heart, forcing East to give a ruff and discard.
(A line of play noticed by a young man called Terence Reese.)
You might argue that Jacoby would have found the winning line and
that one example proves nothing and you could be right. Perhaps
it suggests that the reporters of the day were more accident prone
than the modern generation.
I think we can all accept that today’s players possess far
more technical knowledge that their predecessors – new squeeze
positions are still being discovered, but do they have any edge
I suspect the answer is no. Creativity is not influenced by study
or precedent, it is something the expert may have recourse to when
faced with a difficult problem.
This is a famous modern example:
Hammamet, 1997, Round
Robin Bermuda Bowl
Dealer East - All Vul
ª K 7 5 3
© K 8
¨ K J 9 7 4
§ 3 2
ª 10 4
© Q 3
§ A J 10 9 7 6 5 4
||ª A 9 8
© J 10 6 5 2
¨ A 10 2
§ K 8
ª Q J 6 2
© A 9 7 4
¨ Q 8 6 3
There was an amusing moment during the bidding as when the tray
was pushed back after the Four Club bid Meckstroth smiled and noted
that someone on the other side of the screen had sighed pretty heavily.
As you can see, East was right, as 3NT is stone cold – they
played there in the other room.
Five Clubs looks hopeless, as declarer must surely lose a spade
and two hearts. North led a diamond, and without pause Meckstroth
played dummy’s ten! South won and returned a diamond. Now
declarer could win, discarding a heart and play a heart to the queen
and king. That set up a ruffing finesse position against South’s
ace and in the fullness of time declarer could dispose of his losing
spade. That was good enough to win declarer the first of his IBPA
awards for the best played hand of the year.
It is perhaps easier to be creative during the bidding. Every player
here could surely produce a list of those from his or her own country
that had or has a certain reputation for their use of imagination.
For example, any list of English players would surely include Adam
‘Plum’ Meredith, who had a penchant for psyching in
spades, Irving Rose and John Collings. Of the modern generation,
the name that most readily springs to mind is that of the Swedish
star Peter Fredin. However, I doubt any of the older generation
would come off second best in a discussion on that area of the game.
Bidding theory has advanced dramatically, but is it clear that
the methods of today are better than those of yesteryear? What is
clear is that the modern player has far more weapons at his disposal
– and some might say therefore even more ways to shoot himself
in the foot!
Let me try to draw a more obvious comparison, by comparing two
From the blue corner, Italy, represented by Averelli, Belladonna,
Forquet, Garozzo, Pabis-Ticchi & D’Alelio. In the red
corner, from the USA, Meckstroth, Rodwell, Hamman, Soloway, Freeman
The Italian players are rightly regarded as the greatest team
in the annals of Bridge history. In the last twenty years, the American
team, (originally with Bobby Wolff as Hamman’s partner) have
always been the team to beat. However, although the American’s
have recorded a huge number of victories, they have also been defeated
many times. Does that make them inferior to the great Italians?
What it demonstrates is that there are now many teams that are capable
of defeating anyone, thereby making it much harder for any one team
to dominate as totally as the Blue Team did. Who would be bold enough
at these Championships to say with certainty whom the winners will
Let me try and answer the question I posed at the beginning of
this article. In the last fifty odd years, interest in the Bermuda
Bowl has increased dramatically, the conditions for the players
and spectators (many of the latter following from all around the
World thanks to the power of the Internet) has improved considerably
and there are many more strong players today than there were in
1950. However, the individual player may not have attained a clearly
higher level of proficiency in Bridge.