36th World Team Championships, Monte Carlo, Monaco Monday, 3 November 2003

The March of Time

Mark Horton

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’ in 1931.

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
Bridge deal ª Q 10 9 8 6 4 3
© A 10 7
¨ 9 8
§ 6
  ª J
© K 9 3
¨ A K 5 2
§ A Q 9 4 3

West North East South
Culbertson Lenz Culbertson Jacoby
    Pass 1§
Pass 3§ 3ª 4ª
Pass 5§ Pass 6§
All Pass      

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 in creativity?

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
¨ 5
§ A J 10 9 7 6 5 4
Bridge deal 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
§ Q

West North East South
Meckstroth Helness Rodwell Helgemo
    1© Pass
3§ Pass 3NT Pass
4§ Pass 5§ All Pass

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 legendary teams.
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 & Nickell.

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 be?

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.

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