TRYING TO RESTORE CREDIBILITY
Quite often a relatively unimportant event may trigger a positive turn which, to some, may affect their specialized world. On this possible full sea on which we are afloat, we must take the current when it serves, or instead — continue to veer far off course.
In this case, the specialized world is the game of worldwide tournament bridge and the full sea is the just completed Team Trials to determine who represents the USA in the upcoming Bermuda Bowl, to be held in Sao Paulo, Brazil the end of August, through the middle of September, 2009. The USA, because of its mighty tradition in bridge and its uncanny depth of very top players is the only country in the World Bridge Federation (WBF) to be granted two teams. In the recently completed Open Team Trials, held in White Plains, NY, the Steve Robinson Team came from almost nowhere to dominate the event and finish First, an unlikely upset which has not happened often during the Trials History.
The second team which qualified, however is the prime subject of this discussion and it is the tried and true Nick Nickell team (composed of two professional pairs) by every standard, four of the very best players in the entire world. Further, one duo is probably considered the best partnership in the universe and the second newly formed pair heading toward eventually challenging for that hallowed reputation. The third pair, Nick Nickell and Dick Freeman are a very good pair and have been the namesake for this dominant team for around 18 years.
Nick, the President of Kelso & Co., an ultra successful leverage buyout firm located in New York City, also serves as the sponsor of the team seeing to it that his teammates are happy — providing the financial support necessary to enable his group to think only about how to play bridge in the most effective world class manner. It needs to be added that Nick is one of the most respected members of the bridge community, being highly ethical and conducts himself in as close to a perfect manner as possible. Not long ago he was asked by the current WBF President, Jose Damiani of Paris, France, to succeed him as President of the WBF, but Nick declined because accepting would take far too much time out of his already crammed schedule not to mention his devotion to his family. It would not be a stretch for me to suggest that Nick is revered in the Bridge World as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates (coincidentally both enthusiastic bridge players) are in the Financial World.
Having said the above, it is time to get into the nitty-gritty issues at hand.
The Nickell team, having been granted a bye into the semifinal round of the Trials by virtue of their year long, excellent qualifying performance, lost their first match sending them into the repechage (an opportunity for a losing team to get back into the event) which is used to determine the Second USA team. They then won their next two matches which led to them playing in the Finals of the repechage and creating a rematch between them and the Fleisher team, the team that beat them in their opening match.
Dick Freeman, Nick’s partner, who was suffering from pancreatitis was too sick to continue playing and departed for home. This left the Nickell team with only five players and Nick without his favorite partner. Their team then decided to play only four in the final. Nick had in the past played often with Bob Hamman, one of the front four players, but their team decided that their best chance was to continue to play the original two partnerships in the Finals.
That did not bode well for the upstart Fleisher team and although the match was virtually tied at the end of 60 boards (out of the total of 90 to be played) the Nickell team broke it open and wound up winning handily.
Now to the problems caused by the sudden change of team composition.
Bridge is not like other professional games where in team sports, teams have many more players on their team than are required to be on the field during the actual playing. In the NBA, each team has twelve, although only five at a time are on the court; in Major League Baseball each team has 25 active players — although only nine are on the field at a time; and in Football each team has 50+ although only eleven are legally allowed on the gridiron at any one time.
All substitutions are at the behest of the Coach or Manager. In bridge, most teams have three partnerships (even though only two are playing at any one time), because of the lack of spectator interest (which in turn denies TV coverage, the source of most of the rather large amounts of money associated with the major sports). It has caused sponsorship in bridge to be created consisting of two expert pairs and usually the third pair is composed of an experienced top player who plays with the sponsor. In effect, the sponsor buys his or her way onto a particular team, in order to play the required number of boards to be eligible to be declared part of the group in the event of emerging triumphantly.
Now to the rub ……………….
Sponsorship serves as an enabling mechanism to bridge pairs who soon find out that in order to compete effectively, they must devote more time than expected to develop and hopefully keep their partnership world-class. For club games, followed up-the-line by sectional, regional and then national games, no one should care much about who plays with whom or, for that matter, who eventually wins. Although all of the above events are hotly contested and very competitive, the country’s bridge reputation and nationalistic feelings matter not. Sure, there are many foreign (usually top-class sponsored) players who come to our three annual Nationals to compete, but in those events no one looks on the competitive side as crucial similar to foreign players in the major TV sports who join US teams as full fledged players. However, when the WBF puts on their annual world tournament similar to the Davis Cup (Tennis), Ryder Cup (Golf), America’s Cup (Yachting) or the various Olympiads — competitive blood runs hot and we, like other countries around the world, all strongly pull for our home country.
In world bridge, very simply, we do not send our very best three partnerships. Usually, with a few exceptions, every team represented, whether it is the Open Division, Women’s Division or even the Senior Division, showcase many players of less than world-class stature who have earned the right to represent their country (almost always accompanied by two World Class partnerships).
While Nick is partnered by Dick and together are way above average for a sponsor and his partner, there are many sponsors who are way down the list in ability and frankly should not be remotely considered to be trusted to play well enough to have a decent chance to win, nor, of course, even to have deserved the honor to represent our great country. It is imperative for our administrative heads to have at heart the best interest of fielding a USA winning team. In those other sports mentioned, at least to me, and currently illustrated by the Ryder Cup, it is extremely competitive with our best golfers bonding and going out as a team in search of making the USA proud and defeating their worthy European opponents.
After all — what are world sports all about (symbolic in our Olympiad competition, and for more years than many of us have been alive), except rooting for one’s home country and hoping for glorious victories from our world class individuals and teams. For that matter, when we are glued to our seats watching the Olympics on TV, isn’t it inspiring to watch gold medal winners whether or not it is one’s home country or not? Is that not one of the thrills of living in this day and age of seeing who is supreme at what he or she does?
World competition should be about superlatives!!!!
With all of the above in mind — you may ask, what is the problem and, if so, what is the solution?
First of all, our administrators (in charge of the team selection process and the validation of our players) CANNOT have a conflict of interest. Being a sponsor, per se, is a conflict since being a sponsor may well entail writing and enforcing the rules for lesser than world class players still being in the running for international team selection.
Professional players should also not be in on the selection and validation part of the process since their mere relationship with their own sponsors (plus possible ones on the horizon) is too much to overcome. Obviously, there are quite a few on the periphery of both taboos and must be ruled off-limits. Our current USBF BOD is unfortunately made up of almost exclusively these classes of people with only one or two exceptions. What happens reminds everyone who knows, just how awful the current political process has become. Being part of the tabooed majority is a real power move by the individual doing it. He or she not only rule for himself or herself, but becomes a good person for almost everyone in the process to know and with whom to cultivate a friendship.
What, then, is a possible solution? How about setting up a Commissioners Office where all topical conversations and actions are always clearly transparent! Open votes and no secrets! The primary objective for international selection and play is to create as good a team for the USA as can be selected while at the same time doing everything possible to fund the event and provide the necessary props (coach, logistics, training procedures and TLC) to give our teams the tools to be as good as they can be, keeping in mind that the players are not starting from ground zero … far from it.
Some of our better players would no doubt drop out claiming poverty. If so, what have we really lost? The good news is that everyone worth their salt will want to play for the USA which has always been, at least for me (and I’d be surprised if not for everyone), the thrill of a lifetime. Also the right amount of pressure will be brought to bear, by making each individual responsible for his/her own actions which, no doubt, will be his/her resume for future championships.
Younger players will get better much more quickly since our attention should always concentrate on our youth. They require experience to be the great players of our coming generation — seeking out a compatible partner of their choice. It is time that the zoo becomes run by a well intentioned wise, animal-loving zookeeper rather than turning it over to the resident mammals.
The decision made here will have a powerful affect on the game in the future. I caution those who may be optimistic to not expect miracles. Most leopards do not change their spots and politicians, at least to me, are even more predictable than leopards. What we should all hope for is eventual change, but in order to have a chance for that to happen most of the readers must be unabashed to join in with their comments, suggestions and involvement in a timely fashion before any irreversible decisions are made. We should all want what is best for bridge!
Before closing, I would appreciate your attention to the pertinence of the following……..
1. Selecting the best team possible to join with the winning Robinson team to complete the roster of our two teams. Keep in mind that the team which defeated Fleisher in the USA2 final was significantly different from their proposed team for Brazil.
2. Keep in mind that the Nickell team did not try and mitigate the playing circumstances after Freeman’s departure, by having Nickell play with Hamman (a former partnership) at least some, trying to validate Nick’s presence on the current team.
3. Consider the very unlucky plight the Fleisher team had to overcome, through no fault of their own, playing straight through against two of the best partnerships and four of the best players in the world. Caveat #2 above may have served to reduce the advantage the Nickell team had accrued, to which many may think that they did not deserve.
4. The strong character, table ethics, and behavior of both Nick and Dick should be given every possible positive consideration. Just knowing who they are — would immediately preclude any of what happened being thought of as bogus. Not so with many others.
5. Above all — whatever happens will automatically create an important PRECEDENT which will not go away.
6. Regardless of any other relevant factors, those who are totally indoctrinated with the theory ONCE A TEAM — ALWAYS A TEAM should urge them to reinstate Nick and Dick.
7. Seek candid responses from the professionals how they would feel playing without their sponsor (should that be the Committee’s ruling) and how this decision will affect U. S. bridge over the next large number of years.
8. Administrative decisions often have much more meaning than the playing results of any competition. The goal here is to make not only the players have confidence in what is being done for them and with them, but face the reality that all the caring bridge players in the ACBL who help fund the teams, have at least some stake in what will be done.
9. Let objectivity rule and we’ll all be happy with the result. Deny it and we will forever be in a political hand tying morass.
Real life politics takes many shapes and forms such like in bridge when a person in the important decision making process seeks to be a future Captain or Coach of a certain team or teams. If one thinks that doesn’t influence his decision on where he distributes the largess, there is a well-known bridge I would like to sell you.