Ross Taylor

My partner, the perfectionist

I am privileged to have reunited with my partner of yore, Keith Balcombe – a very talented “amateur”, who incidentally won the gold medal at the IOC Grand Prix in Salt Lake City in 2002 and also the Commonwealth Games Gold Medal that same year in Manchester. Those who have played with Keith know that he has an incredibly focussed approach to all hands – treating each one as if it were to win a NABC – which causes the local club patrons a fair amount of exasperation on occasion. That said, he is widely respected and admired locally for his talent and unswerving drive for perfection.

We played in a compact KO this past weekend – a handicapped event – a format I have never entered before – a bit disconcerting to spot the largely capable opponents 9 to 12 imps in a twelve board match I must say.

The following hand was in our victorious semi final match – we were defending a lowly 1NT contract. The dealer opened 1NT strong, and played it there. I led the ace of diamonds, from AKQ8. Here was the layout:



Dealer: South

Vul: NS

Ross Keith
xx 109x
9xx AKxx
AKQ8 6x
KJ8x 9xxx



Keith played his highest diamond under my ace, so I knew he had two or one initially, as declarer followed suit with the nine. Next I cashed the diamond queen, catching the remaining two diamonds from Keith and south.

I switched to the two of hearts. It happens we play 3rd and 5th in the middle of the hand, so Keith knew I had exactly 3. He won the king, and stewed for some time before continuing with a low heart.

Double dummy, we can see a club shift from Keith’s hand would have been perfect at this point, but all things considered, his low heart play seems very reasonable. It maintained communications with me, and we would be well placed to score 7 tricks on defense – unless, as is the case here, declarer had five running spade tricks for his 1NT opening bid.

So of course declarer ran off his spades, and then threw Keith in with the heart queen. Here were the cards as south played the HQ.





Ross Keith
void void
9 Ax
K void
KJ 9x


It was obvious declarer was making his contract now, but rather than simply win his heart and cash the last winner in hearts, Keith could see I would be squeezed by the last heart (a fraternal squeeze I suppose) as I could not protect both the guarded club king and the diamond king. So without much of a pause, Keith ignored his heart winner and switched to a club, ensuring I do not get squeezed and holding declarer to only 1NT making.

We rarely, if ever, comment at the table, but I could not resist saying “Nice play partner”.

Of course, Keith was having none of this praise. Instead, he was berating himself for not shifting to a club at trick 4.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is how very good players think. They play all out on every hand, big and small, and they are tough to beat.

Foiled again

Cruising along in the late stages of a Regional Open Pairs, my partner and I sat down against two earnest ladies competing in the concurrent Flight C event. They were tired and defeatist to be playing us, so we did our best to lift their spirits, feeling rather good about things thus far. The first board out of the box I picked up    void  KQ6432  AJ32  642     in second chair, white versus red.

I opened 1 heart, my LHO bid 2 clubs. Partner bid 3 clubs, RHO bid 3 spades, and I bid 4 hearts. A few seconds later, partner placed me in 6 hearts, and the lead was the ace of clubs.


Ross’s partner


East followed suit painlessly, and west continued with the club king. I ruffed in dummy, and prepared to lean forward to claim. However, east over ruffed the dummy with the heart ten, and I could feel the heat rising inexorably at the back of my neck.

Being an ‘expert’, I immediately looked for salvation for the post mortem, and did some rapid mental calculations to determine if it is higher percentage to ruff with the ace of hearts (hoping trumps are not 3-0, but avoiding an 8-1 club split). I wasn’t thinking too clearly, but my gut told me my play was defensible – albeit laughable. Truth is, I had not seriously considered these issues at trick one. (shame on me, but one would expect a more exuberant action than a quiet 2 clubs from AKQ10xxxx)

“It was my only hope partner, sorry I didn’t lead your suit”, said west.

My partner made a noble effort to keep a straight face, and we scored up 0.5 on a twelve top.

On the companion board, this same lady sitting west found herself in 7 hearts on the following layout. (hands rotated)


Dealer: north

Vul: N-S

her partner  
Ross’s pard Ross
10863 9752
852 97
QJ85 K64
105 Q764
  our heroine  


She made short work of this hand. She won the trump lead, drew trumps, ran the spades, and hooked the club jack at trick twelve to bring home the grand slam.

This time we scored a complete zero. Most pairs bid the small slam. Those who ventured into 7 hearts all went down. They took the “expert line” of cashing two rounds of trumps then trying to ruff a club in dummy.

” Well done partner!” said dummy.

“Thanks, it was on a finesse.”

These boards brought us back to the pack as we headed to the last round. This time we were playing against the defending champions. The first board was flat, but the final board of the event was a cracker.


Dealer: west

Vul: N-S

Defending champ #2  
Ross’s partner Ross
KQJ xxxx
AKxxx QJxxx
xxxx Q10
x Qx
  Defending champ #1  


Partner opened 1 heart in first chair, and north said double. I jumped to 4 hearts, which came back to north who perhaps rued not bidding 2 clubs at his first turn. He could now have made a reasonably comfortable double. Instead, he bid a discomfited double, and was charmed to hear his partner bid 5 clubs! All passed.

Partner led the heart ace, and shifted to the spade king. Declarer ducked the spade, playing the nine from hand. Partner next played the jack of spades, won in dummy with the ace.

Declarer peeled off six rounds of clubs, coming down to:




West East
Q x
void Q
xxx Q10
void void


My partner had been forced to throw away all his hearts and finally his fourth diamond on the run of the clubs, the pressure coming to bear on his spade honour and diamond length. Had declarer begun with Qx of hearts, I suspect the ending would have been rather pretty. (west squeezed in three suits)

Still, this declarer was no slouch. He decided from the discards that I had begun with 4-5-2-2 shape, and my partner (west) with 3-5-4-1 shape. The odds clearly favored the diamond queen in my partner’s hand. But that would not help south. If he finessed partner for the diamond queen, he would not be able to get back to his hand to enjoy the long diamond.

So he backed up his card reading, and played for his only legitimate hope. He played the diamond king from dummy, followed by the jack, picking off my Q10 doubleton offside! Making five, and no matchpoints for us once again.

As you might expect, our score did not stand up at the end. 3 zeroes in the final four boards will do that to you.

But I was genuinely thrilled to catch up with the two C flight ladies at the recap sheets, and shared their joy as they discovered they had won their event. From foibles come rewards.

Post mortem

The two ladies’ slam hands reminded me of one of my all time favorite hands from thirty years ago, playing with a very elderly lady admirer at the local club one night. She opened 3 spades vulnerable versus not, in first chair, and I held something like           void   Kxxx  xxxx   xxxxx.

My right hand opponent said double. (I noticed they were playing the dreaded Fishbein convention – a curse to all aggressive preemptors, as doubles of 3 level preempts are for penalties.)

With fear and sympathy in my heart for my poor partner, I passed and awaited the carnage.

God bless her, she had eight solid spades and out, but with a doubleton heart. The heart ace was onside and she chalked up her doubled contract (with 13 combined HCP) in ten seconds flat !

3 cheers for Mr. Smith

Many players use some version of the Smith echo against no trump contracts. Some even use it against suit contracts too. Today’s hand was much easier for the defenders who use (reverse) Smith echo, but at the other table, there was no such tool. South bid up to 3NT after some interference from the opponents.


West North East South
  1 club     3 clubs   pass      
3 spades Dble pass 3NT
pass pass pass  


East’s 3 club bid was explained as a form of Michaels, showing both majors. The lead was a low spade from the king, and the layout was as follows:


Dealer: north

Vul: none

West East
Kxx J1098x
10x AK9xx
K9xxx 10xx
xxx void


In the closed room, the auction was similar, and the lead was identical. Declarer won the ace of spades in dummy, east playing the jack, and led a heart toward his jack at trick 2. East won the king, as his partner gave count. East agonized over whether to continue the assault on spades, or to attack dummy’s entry to the long clubs. After much thought, a diamond hit the table, and south scampered home with nine tricks.

In the open room, declarer also played a heart from dummy at trick 2. (yes I am aware south just has to take a diamond hook for nine tricks, but that didn’t happen)

As east rose with the heart king, west followed with his lowest heart – which in reverse smith parlance, meant he favored a spade return. Presumably, if west had the club queen guarded and a suitable holding in diamonds, he may have warned off the spade suit.

Thus, east placed the spade jack on the table. South could still make his contract – if he could divine the spade layout. He could duck this spade and the next one, and he would be home free.

South did duck the first spade, but could contain himself no more when yet another spade hit the felt. He covered with his queen which suited west just fine. Down 2 was the swift end to the hand.

Smith practitioners all have their own horror stories with the convention. Even here, east was hoping his partner had not begun with a singleton heart – because if he did – that was no signal – that was just partner following suit !

I am not saying Smith echo is the panacea for all difficult defensive decisions vs NT, but it helps more than it hurts, of this I am confident.

Have you discussed this?

There’s nothing sweeter than a well bid pair of hands to a laydown grand slam. With today’s hand, my partner bid 5NT in a KCB auction, diamonds being the trump suit. Looking at the undisclosed spade king, I had to choose (a) revert back to 6 diamonds (I am not interested in a grand slam partner) or (b) go past the safety level of 6 diamonds and bid 6 spades (showing specific kings), or (c) decide my hand warranted a grand slam acceptance, and then I could simply jump to 7 diamonds. Here was the layout :





The auction unfolded thusly, with three clubs being a forcing raise in diamonds:

West     North          East      South
      1 diamond
pass 3 clubs pass 3 diamonds
pass 3 spades pass 4 hearts
pass 4 no trump pass 5 spades
pass 5 no trump pass your bid?


I chickened out. In a trusting, well oiled partnership, I think my hand should simply bid 6 spades and let partner decide if that is what he needs. Here, I was not playing with my regular partner, and I saw all kinds of reasons not to press forth. The dreaded 4441 shape; the apparent lack of tricks; etc. etc.

Naturally, the grand is ice cold. Partner had the right idea, but I lacked the cojones. Perhaps not surprisingly, 6 diamonds making 7 was a push, and the opportunity was lost at both tables.

So the question for all serious partnerships here is if you are allowed/expected to go past six of your trump suit when asked for specific kings. Are you allowed to exercise your own judgment or not?

If he wants better certainty, or share the blame if the grand is wrong (!), he could have bid 6 clubs over my 5 spades blackwood response. Would I then be up to bidding 7 diamonds? I should be, since that sequence, to my way of thinking, focuses my attention solely on my club holding.

Alternatively, the auction may have been more successful had North continued the cue bidding sequence. Over 4 hearts, had he bid 5 clubs, I would understand my hand is too good to sign off in 5 diamonds. I can give him a five spade cue bid.

At that point, he can try six clubs, or he can bid 5NT grand slam force. Neither sequence offers him the comfort his actual sequence did. Except however his sequence failed to consider we may have an unfillable hole in the club suit.

Just shuffle your cards and pick an opening lead

Playing a KO final match, I picked up A98xxxx  x  x  AJ8x. No one vul, my RHO opened 1 diamond in first chair. I said 1 spade. My LHO said 2 diamonds, and Keith chirped two hearts. He would have at most two spades for this action, the way we play.

RHO no longer wanted to share the auction with us, leaping to five diamonds.

All I can say is the combination of it being only 9.30 AM in the morning, the second board of the match, and wanting to make my call in tempo, I placed the double card on the table.

It was an ethical masterpiece, but otherwise the height of foolishness.

Normally in this sort of auction, one would have a pretty good idea what to lead, but I don’t think it’s so obvious here. Which card would you choose for your opening salvo?

I chose the spade ace, which was without question the absolute worse selection in my hand. See what happened:




West East
A98xxxx Qx
x QJ10xxx
x Qx
AJ8x K9x


Not only was the spade ace ruffed at trick one, but this lead also enabled three spade tricks (!) for declarer, since partner’s queen fell on dummy’s king shortly after. Two doubled overticks thank you very much, and minus 750 was scratched bleakly onto my score card.

A heroic low club lead is not necessary, although it does work brilliantly. A mundane heart lead will eventually lead to down 1, as will a trump lead.

A low spade lead is plain weird, but will most likely be effective, assuming declarer reasonably plays the jack from dummy at trick one.

Bottom line is I should have passed five diamonds, and not pulled the trigger. Then I should have shuffled up my cards and let the caddy pick one as the opening lead. As long as she avoided one of my two black aces, the contract would go down. That’s an 84% chance of a random selection being successful!

Not so fast – part II

I take my hat off to players who routinely win matchpoint tournaments – such a difficult game to excel in repeatedly. Imp play is preferred, and the objectives are often much simpler. Just make your contract if you are declarer, and if you are defending, go all out in search of the layout required to beat the contract. Pretty simple stuff.

Today’s hand’s outcome may have been justified in a pairs tournaments, but at imps, the contract was there for the taking.


Dealer: south

Vul: both

West East
KJ9xx Ax
void Qxxx
Q108xxx 9
Jx 10xxxxx


South opened the bidding one heart, west overcalled 1 spade. North cuebid 2 hearts, and south jumped to 3NT. West was done bidding, and north converted the final contract to 4 hearts.

The opening lead was a diamond, won in south’s hand with the jack. The heart ace revealed the bad trump split, as west pitched a sneaky spade.

Given this hand as a problem, a majority of capable players would routinely chalk up ten tricks now. But at the table, there is no warning there is danger afoot – it’s your job to anticipate bad breaks, and make your contract regardless.

South cashed the club king at trick 3, and travelled to the diamond king in order to run the trump ten through east. However, the hand quickly collapsed when east ruffed the diamond king, and underled his spade ace (in case declarer had KJx(x) of spades).

West won the first spade, led back another diamond for yet another ruff, and the rot was well and truly set for south – down 1.

Of course, south should have taken an easy route to ten tricks simply by overtaking the club king with the dummy’s ace, and then running the heart ten. However, the presence of the club king was illusory and distracting, and the price was a vulnerable game bonus out the window.

Not so fast – part I

Expert players make contracts that lesser players go down in. Often the available information, or task at hand, is not beyond the reach of the average player – but a moment’s haste, a lifetime’s regret, as they say. Today’s south reached a very normal 4 hearts at imps, and ten tricks were well within her grasp.


Dealer: north

Vul: north south

West East
K6 Q9xxx
x AQx
KQxx 9xxx
9xxxxx 8


North opened the bidding 1NT, and south found herself in 4 hearts in short order. The lead was a club spot, won in dummy with the ace.

South played the diamond ace, and ruffed a diamond. Then she ran the heart jack around to east’s queen. East placed the spade queen on the table.

South continued on in auto pilot fashion. She won the spade ace in dummy, and played the heart king. East placed a low spade on the table, and her partner quickly won the king and played another club back for east to ruff. Down 1, and a shocked reaction from south.

To be sure, east made a nice play, creating the entry to her partner’s hand, but south simply self destructed on this hand. At trick one she could see she could afford to lose two trump tricks and a spade.

The only way she could go down is if another trump trick was lost. So play the hand on that basis, and maximize your chances. Even the play at trick one and two was not necessary, but not fatal. Failing to duck the spade – a trick she was destined to lose anyway, is what caused the cold contract to go down.

An interview with John Carruthers

Personally, I really enjoy reading interviews of top bridge personalities, and The Bridge World’s recent spreads on Dick Freeman and Zia have whetted my appetite for more. With the fabled and successful Toronto Easter regional tournament being held this week, we decided to spice up the daily bulletins with an indepth interview with one of our own – John Carruthers (JC).

John is well known as a contributing author of the world championship bridge books, MSC panelist, and the editor of Ontario’s The Kibitzer, but perhaps some of us in Canada are unaware of his rich legacy and contributions to the game of bridge. John himself has conducted and published many interviews over the years, and we thought it was high time the tables were turned and we all got a chance to learn and know more about JC. 

Love of the game

How much of what you do is from love of the game, versus giving back to the game?

I love bridge and it has given me a lot, best of which is Katie. Much of what I do for the game is both a labor of love and giving something back. For example, in the two years running up to the World Junior Championship, I worked so hard it was like having two full-time jobs. The writing and editing I do now is similar, although I get reimbursed almost enough to cover my bridge expenses.

How about a list of regular partners you have had over the years?

I’ve had almost as many bridge partners as the number of times Eric Murray has heard the Italian National Anthem at World Championships! My first partners were at Mt. Allison University – Karl Hicks was the most notable. Upon graduation, I came to Toronto and played regularly with Doug Robinson, Mike Hennessey, David Deaves and Bruce Ferguson.

John Guoba was my first serious partner, followed by David Lindop, Ted Horning, Drew Cannell, Joey Silver and PO Sundelin. I’ve also played a lot with Danny Gerstman, Allan Graves, Eric Murray, and Howard Weinstein. During the 1970s and 1980s there was a group of us who all played together in every lineup: Guoba, Gerstman, Gord Chapman, Marty Kirr, John Gowdy, Michael Roche and others.

When you go to the Nationals, which pairs do you not want to sit down against in a team game and why?

That’s an interesting question. I always like to play against the best pairs and am always eager to play with the match on the line – to me that is the most fun. I love to play against Hamman-Wolff (or Hamman playing with Soloway (now deceased) or Zia), Meckwell, Balicki-Zmudzinski, Sontag-Weichsel, Duboin-Sementa, Versace-Lauria and Fantoni-Nunes. Of course, sometimes, these wishes are for naught as these pairs did not get to be the best in the world by losing to the likes of me very often, but I love the challenge and over the years I’ve held my own against them.

And for a pairs game?

Ah, in a pairs game it’s different. There you might play against one or two top pairs per session, a bunch of average pairs and some not-so-good pairs. There it’s a question of taking advantage of and creating opportunities. Ted Horning was great at that aspect of the game. But I’d still rather play in the Cavendish, the Blue Ribbon or the LM Pairs than a lesser event.

Are you a student of the game John? Do you have a large bridge library? Do you read everything you can get your hands on – or do you dwell on your books and magazines from the past?

I am a student of the game. I have a large bridge library which includes every world championship book ever produced. I have a lifetime subscription to The Bridge World, and at one time or another I subscribed to Bridge, International Popular Bridge Monthly, Bridge Today, Popular Bridge, Australian Bridge, NZ Bridge, South African Bridge Bulletin, Bridz (Poland), Dansk Bridge (Denmark) and a few others. As editor of the Kibitzer and the IBPA Bulletin I receive a lot of review copies of current titles, especially as I am on the jury of the Master Point Press Book of the Year award.

Do you still enjoy the debate and discussion post mortems as much as when you were younger or are you more interested in just playing?

I’ve gone through three phases in my bridge career in which one aspect of the game has been more important than the others: (1) problem solving, (2) winning and (3) sociability. I’ve been in phase 3 for about 25 years now, and strangely, it has not adversely affected the other two aspects, and perhaps they are even more successful. So, yes, I still enjoy the post mortems and the sociability of bridge, I just can’t stay awake until 2:00 a.m. to partake any longer.

Do you have any tips?

I have two simple tips, the first for the player who wants to improve: count, count, count; and the second for the player who aspires to play successfully internationally: read, read, read. 

On Canadian Bridge

Let’s talk about Canadian bridge. What do we have to do to breathe life back into our upper echelons?

Frankly, I’m not sure we can, given the current state of affairs. As it is now, if a young person (let’s take Gavin Wolpert as an example) wants to be a bridge professional, the USA is the place to be, and Gavin has thus decamped to Florida. There is no reason for a person such as Gavin to stay in Canada if he wants to make a career out of bridge. While we might bemoan that state of affairs, unless some big sponsorship comes along, this is not going to change.

Since I came back I see the CNTC final is still a tough event, but you can basically enter right into the National Final now. Talk to me about the caliber of play there as opposed to say 15-25 years ago – and to what extent are the changes being reflected on the international stage?

I don’t see any difference in the caliber of play from today to say, the 1980s. Canada has had arguably two great teams, Murray-Kehela, Sheardown-Elliott and Silver-Kokish, Molson-Baran, Gitelman-Mittelman. Apart from those two teams, the rest of us have been, in general, of average-plus international standard. Think about it this way: one or more of those players has been involved in every medal Canada has won in open world competition.

Would we put together better teams if sponsorship seeped into our upper players’ ranks? Or is there another answer?

Yes, we would. Currently, for example, the U.S. Trials take place at about the same time as the CNTC. Eric Kokish goes there to coach the Nickell team. I think we might entice Eric Kokish back as a player rather than as coach of the Nickell team if heavy sponsorship were involved. Would Eric not make any team in the CNTC better for his presence? Yes, he would.

Nick Nickell is a very generous and sensible person – he would still keep Kokish as a coach even if Eric played in the CNTC.

There is no other answer – money is the only answer. Gitelman and Hampson have a pretty good gig with John Diamond in the USA at the moment – it would take a large amount of money to entice them back to Canada.

How about if serious money were thrown at training the CNTC winners to assist them in preparing for the world stage? (I know there is some of that now, but ….)

Money thrown at training is not enough. We need to keep our best players as well as train them. If in 1995 we’d thrown serious money at training our top-level players and kept them in Canada (of that group, Molson and Gitelman left for the USA, and Kokish has de facto emigrated as well; Mittelman, Baran and Silver remain), perhaps we’d have done better internationally since. Geoff Hampson declined to play on that team since he was already planning to move to the States.

I suppose more money might convince some of the good players to take representing Canada more seriously – that is, to prepare better. But we are essentially amateurs, with careers, families, other commitments. The top bridge players need to make bridge their career to succeed at the top.

Do you think a pairs trials (like the USA used to do in the 60’s) would be a good thing?

I used to have strong feelings about team and pairs trials. I’m pretty indifferent to it now. I don’t think a pairs trials would improve Canada’s chances and might hurt them. Pairs trials are a bit of a lottery unless you have a tremendous depth of talent, as only the USA has. The USA is the only country that could afford to have pairs trials and anoint the top three winners as their team. Some countries do have pairs trials now, but the captain or a committee then reviews the results and chooses the team (Sweden for example).

Do you think having a Butler scored pairs contest during the CNTC would liven up the event?

We currently have an IMP Pairs event, which is not much different than a Butler Pairs. IMP Pairs is the bridge event which most depends on luck and Butler Pairs is not much different. Everything depends on who you play against on which boards. I’ve played well in a team event and scored average in the Butler rankings and played hopelessly and come second. It’s near useless as an indicator and could actually hurt some teams.

Do you think prize money would attract a better turnout?

Not really, unless it was a huge amount. 

On playing overseas

You like to travel abroad and play in international events. Which ones are your favorites, and why?

Wow, that’s really difficult to say. I love to go to the NEC in Yokohama and I’d definitely go to the Yeh Bros. Cup if I’m invited again. When the Forbo Teams was alive in The Netherlands it was a fantastic event – good hospitality, great competition, friendly people. All those events offer high-quality competition. In general, the hospitality in Asia is unsurpassed, especially in Indonesia.

When I coached the Pakistan Team, I stayed with one of the players and was basically treated like a king. My friend has his own chef, a Bangladeshi, who is a fantastic cook, and he loves to cook for me because he can spice up the food more than he normally can for the family. I’d go back there any time. Katie and I stayed with Subhash Gupta and his family in India and that was especially great. I’d much prefer to go to a tournament in Europe, Australia or Asia than to an NABC. 

On Junior Bridge

You have been very active in supporting Junior bridge in Canada in years past. Some of those players have fled the coop, and now make a living in USA playing bridge. Any regrets?

Not personally. My junior teams have had some success, with a silver medal in Ann Arbor in 1991 and a fourth in Bali in 1995. Of course, I had the best pair in the event in 1991, with Gitelman and Hampson on the Canadian team. Do I regret they now vie for U.S. representation, and not for Canadian representation? Sure, I’d love to see Canada win a world team championship, and if that meant having a team of ex-pats like Fred and Geoff, Billy Cohen and Bruce Ferguson, that would be fine with me.

Canada has been supplying the USA with top bridge players from the days of Doug Drury, Agnes Gordon and Hugh Ross. It’s the same with our comedians, singers and actors – there is simply more money to be made south of the border.

How is our junior program today? How about in other countries – and if it is strong elsewhere, why not here? What are they doing different?

We have a very weak junior program compared to the top countries. For example, Poland’s Junior Championships annually have over 100 pairs competing and they are divided into six age groups. Indonesia has taught about 40,000 school children bridge in a very well-developed program. Many countries have funding from the National Olympic Committees and many have state or national programs in their schools.

Everything in North America is hit-or-miss by comparison. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett set aside a million dollars about five years ago for teaching bridge to kids – that money is not yet spent. That alone should tell you how our youth program is doing.

I just read a report from the UK on the UK junior trials, won finally by Scotland after many years of trying. Is bridge alive and well in the UK or are all countries suffering the same problem we are of an aging membership?

That was the Junior Camrose, the so-called Home Internationals among England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland. Bridge is flourishing in Europe, where it is finally becoming less elitist – the average age of a Polish Bridge Union member is 42, for example; the average age of an ACBL member is reported to be 65 years old. (Editor’s note – that is a hugely important statistic!)

Scotland is in a bit of a unique position – some of their top players also leave the country for greener pastures, some to England, and some, like Michael Rosenberg and Barnet Shenkin, to the USA.

While membership has dropped in the ACBL, membership elsewhere has risen: Australia has a population less than Canada’s, but over 30,000 members. Holland and France have about 100,000 members each. The crown for the highest per-capita membership belongs to Iceland, with a population of about 350,000 and over 3000 members. It’s the only country in the world where you can get into a taxi and the driver says to you, “You hold…”

Some other countries are suffering as well, but not to the same extent. 

On Seniors Bridge

Let’s talk about Seniors bridge – seems there is some pretty tall timber playing in these events – it’s like watching the senior golf tour and seeing all your favorite players from not so long ago duke it out.

Yeah, and it’s kind of fun. When PO Sundelin and I won the Senior Knockout at the Boston NABC, the field included Mike Passell, Mark Lair, Fred Hamilton, Billy Eisenberg and Bobby Wolff, among others. In the World Senior Championships we’ve played against those guys and Marcelo and Pedro Branco, the Indonesians, the Italians and so on. Those guys can still all play.

But is it necessary? Are seniors at a disadvantage to “youth” at top level bridge? Look at guys like Bob Hamman – he’s 75 or so and I don’t see him in the Senior games.

Bob Hamman is one of a kind. He first represented the USA at the 1964 Olympiad and he won the Bermuda Bowl in 2009. As long as he’s winning Bermuda Bowls (and Spingolds, Vanderbilts and Reisingers) why would he play Seniors events?

They are lesser events after all. However, I can’t see that senior bridge hurts any other aspect of the game. We do need to get bridge into the schools and teach the kids, however. As a contrast to bridge in North America, the US Chess Federation is still increasing its membership. Isn’t that a clue that we’re doing something wrong? It has more members now than when Bobby Fischer was winning the World Championship.

Or is the senior strata a reasonable marketing move by the WBF, ACBL et al to maintain interest in the game as the membership gets older, or is it something else?

Yes, I think that’s not far from the truth. In the case of the WBF, they love those big entry fees.

When I left the game, Shoe, Boris, you, Joey, Marty, Arno, George etc. were all at the top of your games and representing Canada in the Big Show. And many of you still compete for that – is this just to get two bites at the apple?

Sure. We all still play in the CNTC – we love the game, we love the competition. But…we also love to travel, to compete in world championships, to visit with our friends from all over the world. If a seniors event is the only way we can do that (as in Brazil), why not?

Had your team won the CNTC in 2009 (2nd) and it did win the seniors’ trials, what would you have done in Sao Paolo? Presumably the main event.

Absolutely! Last year, however, was a very unique situation for Joey Silver and me. We had a team entered in the CNTC (with Roy Hughes-David Turner, Nader Hanna-Jim Green) and no team entered in the CSTC. We lost in the final of the CNTC. Had we lost earlier Joey and I were going to play the Seniors with the Bowmans from Ottawa.

When we kept winning, we suggested the Bowmans form another team, which they did. Meanwhile, the Senior Team of Baran-Schoenborn, Kirr-Hobart, Gowdy-Mittelman fell through when George could not play for personal reasons. So the team replaced Gowdy-Mittelman with Joey and me. 

Had we lost the quarterfinal or the semifinal of the CNTC we’d have then have been allowed to play on our new team in the senior event. But we kept winning in the CNTC until the final hurdle and were then added to the winning senior team after the event.

On money and bridge

Do you ever play money tournaments such as they have regularly in Europe? How do they compare to ACBL masterpoint land? Is that game transferable to North America?

Every tournament I’ve been to overseas is a “money” tournament in that they offer cash prizes to high finishers. It’s been tried here a couple of times without much success, the latest by Billy Jean King’s ex-husband, Larry King, who was mainly responsible for elevating women’s tennis to the lofty status it now enjoys. One success the ACBL has had is in selling master points as a valued commodity.

Do you ever/often play in the Cavendish? Do you like this sort of event?

I have only played in the Cavendish once, with Ted Horning, a couple of years before he died. I really enjoyed it, absolutely the best field I’d ever played in. We did ok, winning a session award and coming 4th in the teams, so we covered expenses. In general, though, it is a very expensive proposition, with an entry fee of $2800 and a minimum buy-in of $12,500 for the auction pool, you can count on it costing $10,000 per person for the week, with no guarantee of any return.

Would professionalism in North America impede or assist the development of a money tour here?

I think the way professionalism currently works here, a pro tour would not be successful unless a big sponsor with deep pockets were found. Look at it from the pro’s point of view. He can make a decent living at Regionals and Nationals without risking his own cash and he gets paid regardless of how successful he is. The top pros make hundreds of thousands a year  – why risk that for the piddling amounts that would be available from returning entry fees to the winners of cash tournaments (absent sponsorship).

Naturally, a guy like Stevie Weinstein, who has won the Cavendish Invitational six times and come second once, might have a different opinion.

Is there as much professionalism in other countries as there is in the USA? Do the pros make the same kind of money?

To my knowledge, with the exception of the Lavazza (Italy) and Zimmermann (France) teams, there are no other comparable sponsors to those in the USA such as Nick Nickell, Rose Meltzer, Jimmy Cayne, Carolyn Lynch and Roy Welland. That’s why you see so many foreign stars gravitating to U.S. shores.

However, some countries such as China and Indonesia have full-time bridge professionals, with their government being their sponsor. They have a similar status to that of Olympic athletes – bridge is their full-time job. This paid off for China when their women won the Venice Cup in Brazil. The Indonesian Open and Senior Teams have both come second in World Championships. I believe almost any other country could do the same

What about the poker/bridge pro. Are there many of them in the game today? Do you talk to them to understand their views on the two games and how they coexist for these players?

There are certainly more of them now than previously with poker’s high profile. I think Steve Zolotow was the first bridge player to make a success of poker (at least at the tournament level) – he has won a World Series bracelet and has a second-place finish in an NABC. Earlier than that, Ozzie Jacoby was a pretty good poker player. Stevie Weinstein, of the huge Cavendish success, has also won a $700,000 poker tournament. There are others who’ve had lesser success than those two.

I used to play poker when I was younger, but once I started to play bridge, there was no comparison – bridge is simply a more interesting game. Poker is interesting for the money involved, no other reason. The money is the attraction for poker, for sure. That and the fact that anyone can understand what’s going on, unfortunately is not the case with bridge.

The game has evolved at the highest levels in the USA. Now the top 16 teams (at least) in the major team events are all sponsored. Many of the top pros lament they can never play on the same teams together, yet it is their revenue. So these events have become a place for pros to peddle their wares, and not necessarily a showcase of the world’s best teams.

Well, it would be difficult to say that Meckwell and Hamman-Zia do not currently play on the world’s best bridge team with Nick Nickell-Ralph Katz, especially after they accounted for the Italians in the last Bermuda Bowl.

The Italians were also a sponsored team, but Madame Lavazza does not play in the important events. I suppose if you replaced Nickell-Katz with say, Sontag-Berkowitz or Levin-Weinstein, the team might be improved slightly, but you can’t do better than winning a World Championship.

And, I have not heard any top-level pros voice that complaint for some years now. 

Outside of bridge

John, you retired from business four years ago, and is it safe to say most of your time is devoted to bridge playing and writing?

Yes, it is. Part of the reason I opted for early retirement is so many opportunities in bridge were coming my way and I just did not have the time to devote to work any more. I tried unsuccessfully to get them to decommission me (and thus pay me a huge severance) but it was no dice – “We have work for you as long as you like!” Of course, bridge has kept me from perfecting my golf game. (You’d know that was a joke had you ever played golf with me.) 

Also any life accomplishments you would like to share, or a précis of your life outside of bridge.

Outside bridge, my most important accomplishment is convincing Katie Thorpe to be my life mate for the past 36 years. I’ve co-authored 2 books: “Creating Effective Manuals” (1984) with Jean d’Agenais and “Ex-Etiquette” (1988) with Audrey Grant and Paula Prociuk. Additionally, I’ve had articles published on computer imaging software, bridge, gambling, baseball and project management. (I was a project manager in a previous life.) 

Also, share any personal information you want

I have one brother who lives in Atlanta, and Katie and I have nieces and nephews (and grand-nieces and grand-nephews) in Toronto, Paris (Ontario) and Atlanta who we are delighted to take with us on our bridge trips all over the world. My brother is very proud of the fact that his current girlfriend is younger than his eldest daughter (his daughters are not nearly as impressed with this as he is). I love both dogs and cats, and Katie and I currently have 3 cats (Justine, Balthazar and Clea – unfortunately, Mountolive was killed a little while ago). I’ve lived in England, the USA, Sweden and Canada and played bridge in about two dozen countries. 

How do you explain the allure of the game to your non playing friends and family? We spend our hard earned money and recreation time in pursuit of what exactly?

I tell them I get to travel all over the world (sometimes on someone else’s nickel) and that wherever Katie and I go, we can call someone up and say “Let’s go out to dinner,” “How about a game of golf (or bridge).” And the game itself is endlessly fascinating and new.

You have a forum here John – a chance for people to find out more about you and also gain insights into expert bridge. What would you like to talk about?

Enough about bridge! I’d like to talk about the Shakespeare authorship controversy. I do have interests outside bridge, and this is one of them. It is one of the great mysteries of the past millenium. 

There is no doubt the man from Stratford is not the author of the Shakespeare canon – he was uneducated, left nothing written in his own hand (indeed probably could not even write), owned no books, never left England, knew nothing about the court of Queen Elizabeth, spoke no language other than English, and knew no law or possessed any of the other specialized knowledge evidenced by the writer of the plays.

Whoever wrote the plays travelled widely on the continent, especially in France and Italy, could read Greek, Latin, Italian, and French, knew the law, knew military and naval strategy, knew English, French and Italian history, had read the Greek and Latin classics (sometimes in the original as they’d not yet been translated), was familiar with the queen’s court (and that of France) and perhaps most tellingly, could address the royalty and titled classes of England as an equal. 

No commoner would dare do that in that age. The only evidence that the man from Stratford was the author of the Shakespeare canon was his name on the first folio, placed there by Ben Jonson some eight years after the Stratford man’s death. 

So who did write the plays and poems? The most popular candidates are Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Edward de Vere (the Earl of Oxford), William Stanley (the Earl of Darby), Mary Sidney (the Countess of Pembroke), Roger Manners (The

Earl of Rutland). Others even less likely, such as Queen Elizabeth herself, have been proposed. Various group theories have been propounded as well. A recent book, “The Truth Will Out” proposes Henry Neville, descendant of royalty, Oxford graduate, proficient linguist and onetime Ambassador to France, quite convincingly, I might add.

Whatever your beliefs, it is a great mystery, and I love a great mystery. 

John’s bridge playing accomplishments

Canadian Championships

CNTC 1st – 1983, 1987, 1999, and 2005 – I’ve come second more times than I wish to remember

COPC 1st – 1990

CSTC 1st – 2007


Master Mixed BAM Teams 1st 1991

Senior Swiss Teams 1st 2008

Senior KO Teams 1st 2008


Forbo Invitational Teams 1st (Netherlands) 2000

International Invitational Teams 1st (Netherlands) 2001

Represented Canada in World Championships (Player)

1978, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1994, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2009

NPC (Open, Juniors, Women)

1985, 1989, 1991, 1991, (both women and juniors), 1992, 1993, 1995, 2003, 2006


Pakistan’s Bermuda Bowl team in 2007


-Chairman and Chief organizer, 1997 World Junior Championships in Hamilton

-Served on both Unit 166 and CBF Boards

-2 terms on ACBL Hall of Fame Committee

-Currently Chair of CBF Hall of Fame Committee

Writing and Editing

-Editor of Kibitzer since 2003 (and for 5 years in the 1980s)

-Editor of the International Bridge Press Association Bulletin since 2002

-Conductor of Marks & Comments (an MSC-like feature in “Bridge’ magazine, the UK version of The Bridge World, since 2008

-Author of Transnational Teams and Senior Teams sections of the annual World Championship books for 4 of last 5 years

-Daily Bulletin editor at Bermuda Regional

-Daily Bulletin editor at South American Championships

John, thank you very much for sharing with us. Enjoy the rest of your journey! 

PS John’s responses covered a lot of interesting ground here – please feel free to add your thoughts to  a particular comment if you have more to say




It’s your play – second solution

Sitting West, no one vul, you hold 542  J875  KJ2  1065, and hear your opponents bid up to 6 clubs on the following auction:


South West North East
    Pass Pass
1C Pass 1H Pass
2S Pass 3C Pass
3H Pass 4D Pass
5C Pass 6C Pass
Pass Pass    


And you choose to lead……?

As it happens, the opponents were both in the dark as to the strength of West’s 3C bid, so no help there. I received several email responses to this problem – some led a trump; others led a low diamond; a couple even led a heart (!) speculating partner might be void in hearts but fearful of doubling 6C lest the opponents run back to a makeable 6H.

Here was the whole layout :



Dealer: North

Vul: None

West East
432 J10765
J875 K10
KJ2 8543
1065 A9


North bid one for the road, for no discernible reason I can see. Still, on this particular layout, no lead beats the contract against best declarer play. 

I thought  a diamond lead was marked, for many reasons. It may establish the setting trick if partner has the queen; it may induce declarer to eschew a diamond finesse at trick one – and find out later that the hearts are not breaking; and it attacks dummy’s entry to the heart suit.

The prescient heart lead will force declarer into double finessing the diamond suit, and pitching his heart loser on the diamond Ace. Win the heart ace; diamond to the ten; spade to the ace; diamond to the queen; ace of diamonds. Now a club off the dummy. Best defense is for East to duck the first club play. South ruffs a spade in the dummy and leads another club and the defense is powerless – no uppercut possible.

Alas, even if you lead a low diamond, declarer still has not much hope but to double hook the diamonds – he is off the club ace for sure, and must avoid losing any tricks in the red suits.

It’s your play – first solution

Playing in a KO teams semi final, you find yourself with two back to back defensive problems, early in the match. Here is the first hand. Sitting South, holding K1075 10 AJ AJ9642, a spirited auction propels the opponents to no man’s land in 5 hearts.


The auction was (they are red, we are not) 


North East South West
Pass Pass 1C Dble
Pass 1H 1S 4H
4S Pass Pass 5H
Pass Pass Pass  


You guess to lead the spade 7, third from an even number. Dummy is : 




The spade is ducked to declarer’s jack, partner playing the three. Declarer now leads the diamond 6 from hand. You rise with the Ace, partner playing the deuce. It’s your play. 

I guess people are reluctant to post solutions to this kind of quiz, though I did receive several emails. The winning (and only) defense is to win the Ace of diamonds; cash the Ace of clubs (partner plays the ten) and then play another club. This second club uppercuts the dummy. The full layout was :


Dealer: North

Vul: EW

West   East
AQ9 J6
AKQ82 9543
K1083 Q6
7 KQ853


Note North’s gutsy bid of 4S, giving his side a chance to go plus, when West took the bait and bid up to 5H. Should this defense be found?

Well, there must be a reason declarer did not simply draw trumps – a paucity of hand entries – seems to indicate North has the Jack of hearts – likely three hearts, since with a 5-5 fit, declarer could safely draw trumps in almost any scenario.

So North has Jxx of hearts, four or five spades (likely four as the deuce is missing at trick one), and his diamond deuce at trick two would indicate holding five of them – assuming it’s an honest count card. Ergo, North has likely at most one club. Besides, if this is not the layout, how do you propose to beat this contract?

I think the declarer had a blind spot – which often happens when the long trumps are in dummy. He can count five hearts, three spades (by repeating the finesse); a diamond, a diamond ruff in hand, and a club trick after the Ace is knocked out.

Declarer should simply win the spade jack; finesse the spade queen; cash three hearts, and play a club, knocking out the ace. Q.E.D.