BRIDGE: The Qualifying Round from Hell

The 2007 Spring NABC was in St. Louis.  After the qualifying round of the Open Swiss on the last Saturday, my friend Rick Kaye came to me to tell me a story about the terrible pairings he had gotten that day.  I told him the below story and he has been telling me that I should write it up ever since.  So, in order to make Rick happy…

I was playing with Curt Soloff with Steve Stewart and Larry Weatherholt.  We entered the National Open Swiss on the final Saturday of the tournament with high hopes of qualifying for the final the next day.  This would essentially involve finishing above average after eight rounds of eight board matches.

For those of you unfamiliar with a Swiss event, the match-ups for the first round are assigned randomly.  After that for each subsequent round, the first place team is matched with the next lowest ranked team that they haven’t already played.  Then the highest ranked remaining team gets the same process, and so on until every team has a new assignment.  Thus, in each round you are generally playing a team that has close to the same record as your own.  Theoretically, if you lose a match, you should get an easier team in the next match and conversely, if you win a match, you should get a tougher team in the next round.  But as often happens when theory meets practice, actual results can vary.

We sat down for the first round with unfamiliar opponents at our table.  So, I took a glance at our teammates’ table and saw Nagy Kamel and Greg Hinze, each of whom has a national championship, as the opponents there.  Not a great first round matchup, but it could have been worse.  Unfortunately, we lost.

This certainly wasn’t crippling.  Losing the first round is often called the “soft underbelly” strategy, in that you should be facing easier opponents than the leaders for the rest of the event with the hope that you will overtake them at the end.  “Soft Underbelly” was not how I would have described our next opponents.  At our table, we welcomed Claudio Nunes and Fulvio Fantunes, many time world champions from Italy.  As expected, we lost this match as well.

Typically in a Swiss event the stratification has started after two rounds.  The best teams are at or near the top.  The teams that are pretenders are sinking towards the bottom.  So, at 0-2, you don’t expect to find Steve Garner and Howard Weinstein, multiple-time national champions and, subsequent to this event, world silver medalist, coming to your table.  But that is what happened in St. Louis.  This match we also lost, but only because Curt and I bid to a 6♣ contract that failed on a 4-1 trump break that wasn’t bid at the other table.  (The pair that didn’t bid the slam apologized to us for winning the match that way.)

Of course, the story continues.  In the fourth round, we met a team led by professional player Gene Simpson.  Not quite the level of the teams we had been facing, but not what you want when you are 0-3.  Nonetheless, we did manage to win this match and headed into the dinner break thinking that we had to find smoother sailing in the evening session.

After replenishing ourselves and a pep-talk, we were back at the table.  However, our luck was still out as our opponents for this match were Kevin Bathurst and Aaron Silverstein, two of the young stars in bridge.  And, just to prove that, we suffered a blitz at their hands.

So, could it get worse?  Oh, yes.  What would you think if your team was 1-4 with a victory point total in the low 30’s, and you found that your sixth round opponents were Sontag-Bates and Helness-Helgemo?  I can tell you that my thoughts were something like, “you have got to be kidding me”.

That appeared to be the end of it.  In the final two rounds, we got teams that were unknowns to me and just as out of hope for qualifying as we were.  Thus, it was this frame of mind that I had when Rick came up to me to tell me about the “horrible” luck his team had in pairings.  I recounted everything above to him and he did agree that he had no sympathy coming from me.

On the final Sunday of the nationals, those teams that do not qualify for the finals of the National Open Swiss often play in a regionally rated event known by the endearing nickname, the “Loser Swiss”.  It’s a big event with good teams, but some of the pressure is off as the “good” teams are all in the finals of the national event – except in St. Louis.  When we sat down to play the first round, the reigning Open Pair World Champions, Fu and Zhou from China, were our opponents.  It was a long weekend.


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