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Advice on Playing Against Better Teams (Aug/Sep 2005)


I asked my expert panel the following question: What advice would you give to a quartet of up-and-coming bridge players who are about to play a 24-board Regional knockout match against a team that obviously has more experience and more talent?

Point No. 1: Go in with a positive attitude.

The following is good advice from some ladies who have done very well.

Rose Meltzer: My advice is simple, having been there, done that: When you know you're up against a stronger, more experienced team of expert, talented players, go in, sit down and don't do anything foolish!!! I've learned trying to operate against a stronger team doesn't work (works better at matchpoints), try not to be intimidated, just go in and play your best. My biggest hint is attitude...say to yourself, "I'm good and I'm going to win this match". I can say that as much as I want. After all, I'm blonde!

Jill Meyers: I would tell them that they have to think they are going to win, to act with confidence and that they own the table, that everyone makes mistakes and there is no reason the other team won't make mistakes against them, but most important not to get attached to the outcome, to learn regardless of the outcome. And Have Fun! Also, everyone else is rooting for them against the favorites.

Lynn Deas: I would advise them just to sit there and see what happens. The pressure is on the good team to win, as that is what is expected, and quite often things go wrong and they start pushing and things happen. Also once you start doing weird things you are not familiar with, situations occur and then you don't know what to do. I feel strongly that matches are lost not won.

Point No. 2: Donít be intimidated.

Chip Martel: Mostly to not be intimidated and just try to play your best game. You will win now and then or more depending on your and the opponentsí skills. You will learn how to play against a good team, and may impress your more experienced opponents. In close cases itís probably right to choose the swingier action, but don't go off your normal game. Wild swinging will be more likely to lose on the occasions when you are luckier or better on that day and would win otherwise.

George Jacobs: Tell them that they need to be mentally UP for the match and be thinking about how, when it is over, they hope the other team congratulates them on their surprisingly easy win. Tell them that no one on the other team can or will avoid making mistakes. Their job is to hold out a basket in which to collect all these mistakes.

Marty Bergen: Don't be intimidated and be willing to take slightly abnormal actions. Any team can be beaten in a 24-board match.

David Berkowitz: Donít change the way you bid or play. Keep your composure. No talking; certainly no post-mortems. If you have the opportunity to take a reasonable off percentage chance early, do it.

Steve Bloom: Good teams beat themselves. True up-and-comers should simply play their best, and try to learn from the stars. If they do not give much away, they will win a surprising number of short KO matches.

Grant Baze---Knockout matches are lost, not won. These guys will make enough mistakes to lose the match -- if you don't make more mistakes. Never be afraid.

As a simple illustration: In the U.S. team trials, a world class pair had two bidding mixups against us early on -- they doubled a partscore that could have made (one player thought the double was takeout, the other penalty), and played in a redoubled partscore in a 3-2 fit.

Bridge is not like physical sports. A good, amateur basketball team would have no chance against five Shaqs. If you spot your opponents ten inches and 100 pounds, you cannot compete. But a good, amateur bridge team can beat four pros simply by minimizing their own errors. Bridge is a game of mistakes. To paraphrase Bob Hamman, the very best play poorly, and the rest of us are awful.

Zeke Jabbour: I would tell them: Make them beat your best game. Forget stealing; forget heroics. Barry Crane made a living off would-be heroes. Don't try to win it; try not to lose it. Hit ground strokes. Don't be intimidated or distracted; stay focused. If you play your best, you will be hard to beat--especially if They don't play Their best. Sometimes they don't. That's when you must take what's given you. You Can win, but you must at all times stay convinced that you Can win. Focus on that. 

Bill Pollack: 1) Just sit back, be focused, convince yourselves that "you can beat these guys," hope for the better of the luck, and hang in there!

2) Take a few small chances -- nothing extreme: a close penalty double, a dangerous lead, a slightly anti-percentage action. No psyches, craziness, or random events -- that won't help you learn, and it's "not bridge".

3) Show no fear!

4) When 1-3 don't work, remember that you can't learn how to win big events before learning how to lose them.

Bob Hamman: As they say in football. The opponents put their pants on one leg at a time. Play hard with the assumption that if you play to the best of your abilities, the problem becomes the opponentsí problem.

Kit Woolsey: Simply play their normal best game -- don't try to do anything unusual.

Bart Bramley: The way to graduate from "up-and-coming" to "been-there-done-that" is to act like you've done it before, even if you haven't. If you play a wild style you may annoy the opponents by landing a few shots, but they will relax while they wait for your strategy to unravel.  You have a better chance by showing them that you know how to play; nothing unnerves experienced players more than to see their unknown opponents refusing to roll over.

Don't kowtow to the opposition. Don't discuss bad boards with partner or the opponents. If you want to ask questions about "what would They have done," wait until after the match. Don't mope after a bad result. Being a tough opponent is something that everyone can do. It is a psychological skill, not a technical skill, and you can practice it every time you play.

Point No. 3: If you get a bad result, forget it and play the next hand.

Larry Cohen: Aside from the "usual" strategies that are well known, I would select this item to focus on: You will have some bad results. How you react to them is crucial. Anyone can play well when things are going right. It is how you react to adversity that is key. When you get your inevitable bad boards you have to shrug them off and dig in for the next board. Don't argue with partner, don't get discouraged, just clear your mind and focus on the next deal.

Mel Colchamiro: Two not to be violated rules for the up and coming team: (1) At the table, No Talking. (2) If you win 12 IMPs on a board, move on--play the next one. If you lose 12 IMPs on a board, move on--play the next one.

Ralph Katz: Play your best and don't let your first mistake turn into two or three mistakes. Even if the other team is better you can still outplay them. If you lose, let it be because the other team played great.

Point No. 4: Enjoy the experience.

David Bird: Play your normal game and enjoy the experience. Do not allow yourself to be rushed. It is a hopeless tactic to deliberately play against the odds, hoping to gain a swing. The most likely result is that you will throw away IMPs needlessly and perhaps kill off a good card from your teammates. Even if your opponents do play better than you, there is enough luck in bridge to give you a chance of winning, provided you do not throw points away.

Point No. 5: Learn from the experience.

Karen Allison: I would tell them that no one expects them to win so they should relax and enjoy the experience. The pressure is on the better team.

Bobby Wolff---Above all, be loose. Depending somewhat on the personalities of the particular teams, but generally do not try and match the intensity of the favored team since that requires experience and might result in nervousness by the lesser team, which could lend to much seriousness and lead to mind lapses.

Don't be too impressed with the other team's credentials. All teams are subject to bad matches and that, plus playing up to one's ability, are both ways to win.

It is easier said than done, but regard the match as a learning experience and afterwards, if possible, have a formal team critique and go over every hand (should be easy in a 24-board match). Whatever happens, it is almost sure to realize that all the losing team needed to have done was play sounder, more intelligent bridge, to have won. This could be a forerunner to this team's development and lead to a strong and powerful run as they improve.

Winning is always nice and keeps us playing, but until a team can go belly to belly with a good team and finish with a deserving win, that team will not have the confidence to be a consistent winner.

Steve Beatty: Know your goal for the match. Are you trying to improve or are you just trying to win? If you just want to win, I have no comments. If you are trying to improve:

Make your normal bids, declarer plays, and defensive plays. Since you don't get enough opportunities to compare yourselves to experienced players, you want to take every opportunity to compare your skill level to theirs rather than your ability to mix-it-up in an attempt to compensate for being out-gunned. After the match, review your bids and plays to theirs and, if you do not know why they made certain different decisions, ask them in a courteous manner to explain their logic.

Point No. 6: Play your style of bridge.

Fred Hamilton: I would recommend that they play their normal game and let their style and system do the work. After all there is a lot of random luck in bridge and the better team has good and bad days. Changing your system or style is the wrong thing to do. Just go play your game, it will often be enough!

Mike Becker: One way to beat superior opposition is to play your own game -- do what you do best. That means not playing methods you are unfamiliar with and not taking what you consider anti-percentage actions. A "B" team can beat an "A" team when the A team plays sub-par and/or the B team plays well. Also, sometimes problems come up that you find easy to solve, that others, (playing different methods, or evaluating their hands differently), have problems with.  Swings are created by doing what you think is normal because everyone has a different opinion of what normal is. 

There was a hand where Kit Woolsey, all Vulnerable, held Kxxx KQQxxQJxx and doubled an opening 2 bid. He went for -1700. At the other table, I, his teammate, in second seat held Jx AJ10xxxxxxxx and passed, eventually scoring up 660, so the team lost 14 IMPs. Woolsey thought I should have opened 2 , as his opponent had, and thought it automatic for him to double. I thought he should have passed 2 and believed it automatic for me to pass. If world champs can do this, it's easy to beat them. They make mistakes. Just sit there and do your own thing.

Point No. 7: If the opponents play quickly, slow down. Donít let them tempo you. They have more experience. Take about four seconds for every play.

Point No. 8: Look for opportunities to create swings.

Kerry Sanborn: I would explain to them the general philosophy, which a good team would follow against their weaker one. I would tell them to take some anti-percentage actions if they can recognize them. If a vulnerable game looks close, don't bid it, because the "good" team will do so. This is a chance to pick up a swing when things might not be breaking too well. It might be a winning action sometimes to play the preemptor for a random queen, since that could easily produce a swing if it works. I also would tell them not to get caught up in the opponent's tempo and any gamesmanship.

Take some slight risks. A slight risk could be taking a slightly inferior percentage play. If you have AJx opposite K108xx in a suit, the percentage play is to play the Ace and then lead the Jack. This will pick up Q9xx. Slightly anti-percentage is to lead the King and finesse for the Queen by leading through the Ace-Jack. Another situation is if you know somehow that a suit is 4-3 and youíre missing the queen. It is percentage to play the four-card holder for the Queen. Again, itís slightly anti-percentage to play the three-card holder for the Queen. But this anti-percentage play should only be done in normal contracts. If you are in an unusual contract, then make the percentage play. You could also take a shot by making a different opening lead against a 1NT Ė 3NT auction: Lead a heart holding Ax xxxxxxQ10xxx.    

Sue Picus: 1.Hang tough - don't let a bad board or two affect your judgment. When a board is over, it is over.

2. Go for swings - play a different NT range, etc.

3. Don't let them steal -- double when you think they are going down.

Barry Rigal: Use a different no-trump range and a different preempting style -- maybe Acol 2, an intermediate type of two-bid, which is strong and forcing for one round. Or strong jump overcalls. I just played a match where I took a finesse with nine trumps in an attempt to create a swing -- any time you get the chance to make a swing for which you are only a minor underdog makes sense.

Kathie Wei-Sender: If I were on the weak team, I would bid a lot of slams that have a less than 50% chance of making. The only way you can beat a better team is with some luck for you and some bad luck for the better team.

Joe Kivel: If you play the way they do, they'll beat you nine out of ten times. To win, take reasonable, but alternative lines of play Ė e.g., play A10x opposite KJ9xx, by leading the Jack or nine and letting it run. Don't go crazy. Also remember in a 24-board match, you can win with two disasters, if your other boards are good. So, don't panic.

Marinesa Letizia: Bid all close vulnerable games.

Eddie Kantar: Don't be afraid to bid your close games and don't be afraid to double if you think they are stealing.

Jeff Rubens: Decide in advance whether to treat it as a valuable learning experience (play one's best on every deal and analyze the results) or an attempt to maximize the chance of winning (liven up the proceedings within reason).

Henry Bethe: Assuming the opponents were a known quantity, my advice would depend on the proclivities of the pair in the same direction. If the pair was known to be very aggressive, say Meckwellian, I would suggest that they be conservative in the bidding and hope that the cards lie badly for thin games and slams. If the pair is conservative a la Kaplan and Kay then bid-em-up. Hope that the 25% games and the 40% slams come home.

I would also suggest that when there are choices of lines of play in normal contracts, take the slightly inferior one. For example, if you need to pick up AKJ6 opposite 5432 for no losers, cash the AK -- your opponent will take the finesse at the other table. Don't take vastly inferior lines, but look for chances to differentiate your result from the other table when the difference is small.

Curtis Cheek: Psychological: Believe you can win. Before every hand tell yourself: Intensity and Focus.

Strategic: Hope that the hands are normal such that a couple of "burn" boards might swing the match. You are not trying to score 100 IMPs of swings, just 25 or so in selected spots. Don't overextend yourself. It's highly unlikely you can survive even two serious accidents. Your best chance to win IMPs without substantial downside risk (e.g., crazy preempting or slam bidding) is in Choice-of-Games decisions. Look to play 3NT rather than four-of-a-major when both hands are balanced. Partner opens 1NT, and you have ten HCPs and 5332 shape -- Bid 3NT.  

Tactics: Try to conceal the nature of your hand and overbid slightly when you can. Raise one-of-a-major to four-of-a-major whenever the strength of your hand is in the 10-14 point range and you hold four trumps. This will combine several elements you're looking for: concealment, aggressive game bidding, conservative slam bidding (let your opponents bid the close slams - there is no easier way to win free IMPs).

Note: I would consider it unethical to recommend any sort of psyching as an implicit agreement would necessarily be formed.

Conclusion:

All this is good advice. The teams that I play on are usually reasonably good. Do I win all my matches? Not even close. Just like football, bridge teams lose when they make turnovers. Teams also lose when they are unlucky. Going down in a slam when trumps are 4-0 costs 26 IMPs. If any team played perfectly, they would seldom lose. So sit down, play your best game, have a good attitude and you too will beat the name teams.