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Italian Open Trials: Building up a Team

Posted on 23 December 2013

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Paolo Enrico Garrisi 03In this article I’ll deal with a question that often causes troubles and complaints: the way to build up a national team. Should it be a selection by tourneys (trials), or by Coach’s picking out?

1937. Budapest. Seventeen European teams and an American one played in the second world championships in Budapest in the summer of 1937. Even Italy went to Hungary, getting fourth; the Italian Federation had been founded just in that year; its very first name was Associazione Italiana Bridge (ABI). The final was won by Austria over the Culbertsons’ American team. Both teams had been picked by their captains, Paul Stern and Ely Culbertson.

Alan Truscott wrote much later, in 1987, that the Americans could have won lining up another team, the Four Aces (David Bruce called Burnstine, Howard Schenken, Merwyn Maier, B. Jay Becker). They were stronger, in fact, partly because Ely and Josephine Culbertson were divorcing and had poured their conjugal crisis onto the playing table.

But it is doubtful that, in 1937, there was a team capable of defeating Austria. It was a sextet of very strong players: Karl Von Bluhdorn, Hans Jellinek, Karl Schneider (the inventor of UDCA carding, called “The Magician”), Edward Frischauer, Walter Herbert and Udo von Meissl; they played an innovative system devised by Paul Stern himself, the 2nd edition of Vienna System. Later, Eugenio Chiaradia took parts of the Austrian system for his Neapolitan Club.

1963-1965. Great Britain. The British team for the 1963 European championship in Baden Baden, Germany, was chosen by a panel of selectors. In team trials called for by the committee, the squad for Baden Baden would be made up of two pairs from the winning team and one from the runners up. Winners were, in order of pairing, Terence Reese, Jeremy Flint, Boris Schapiro, Ralph Swimer; runners-up were Kenneth Konstam, Louis Tarlo, Maurice Harrison Gray, Adam Hiron. The first three names of both teams were great champions; the fourth ones were not. Konstam-Tarlo also made a strong partnership, but Harrison Gray was an old experienced champion capable of winning even pairing up with Mrs. Guggenheim (a character of S.J. Simon’s classic “Why You Lose at Bridge”).

The selectors picked three of the four winners and three runners-up, dropping Swimer and Hiron. The outcome was positive (Great Britain won), but the way was wrong; the trials selection had become a somewhat arbitrary decision, and anyway a selection wasn’t really necessary to recognize those six as the strongest British players.

Two year later, the same British committee had to send a team to 1965’s Bermuda Bowl in Argentina; the winners at Baden Baden did well in 1964’s Olympiad, losing only to Italy, the winner. Their decision to hold a pairs trial seems odd, but there was a problem of partnership; Reese no longer wanted to play with Schapiro but with Jeremy Flint, the partner with whom he was developing the Little Major, a new system wholly artificial that Schapiro didn’t like. In the Little Major, 1♣ and 1 showed respectively hearts and spades, but the suit could be even by three cards; 1 meant very strong or very weak (20+ or 3-6 HCPs); 1♠ stood for minors. Therefore Schapiro was without any natural partner in that team.

The 3 pairs who qualified, out of 10, were Reese-Flint, Schapiro-Konstam, and Swimer with Albert Rose. The committee had to take the first two and could select another pair, not necessarily the third; they, instead, and without asking the players, decided to create a new pair: Rose and Harrison Gray. Thus the injustice again fell upon Swimer.

Again the committee had made the same mistake, in fact undoing what its own rules had required. After sharp arguments – Rose had refused to go – Swimer was “rescued” as non-playing captain, but this time the things didn’t go any well. The initial project was to alternate partners: Reese-Flint against Italians, and Reese-Schapiro against Argentina and, or, against the USA; this because Reese wanted to play the Little Major against the strongest team. But Swimer decided that the partner of Reese had always to be Schapiro. The rest of this story is known: when it happened that the Americans alleged Reese and Schapiro of cheating, Swimer, whose captainship had poor motivation and little authority, wasn’t able to defend his teammates.

1949-1957. Italy. The birth of the Blue Team. The Italian matter of trials is quite complex; it needs an early starting to better explain the crisis – 1963, 1964, and 1970 – which were less or more directly caused by trials, or which suggested that trials were better.

The first Italy’s participation to an international post-war event was the 1949’s European championship; that team had been selected by team trials; the winners were Dussoni, Mazzitelli, Chiaradia, Ricci, Siniscalco, Zeuli. The last four had won the 1949 Italian championship and would have won 1950’s as well; they were Neapolitan and already played the Chiaradia’s Neapolitan Club; the system was born in 1944. At Europeans the team placed fifth; first was Great Britain over Sweden.

In 1950 the Italian federation stated that the national team would have picked out by a coach, and elected Enzo Boscaro of Genoa. To 1950’s European championship, held in Brighton, went Baroni, Franco, Gallo, Socci, Siniscalco, Zeuli, and Boscaro as np captain. Again fifth; again Great Britain won over Sweden. Note that Franco was Mario, not the more famous Arturo; in 1948 Mario Franco and his partner Michele Jovine invented the MarMic (so called from MARio & MIChele), the first Weak Opening System (WOS), also called Strong Pass. In late sixties the Polish Lukasz Slawinski developed and improved it.

In 1951 Carl’Alberto Perroux of Modena became captain; Italy won the European championship, held in Venice, with Eugenio Chiaradia, Pietro Forquet, Mario Franco, Paolo Baroni, Augusto Ricci and Guglielmo Siniscalco. Some months later that team was beaten by the Americans in the Bermuda Bowl 2nd edition, played in Naples. The next year Perroux was elected president of federation and left the captainship to Paolo Baroni; he took charge again in 1954, and again left in 1955 in favour of Paolo Valenti. Perrox came back as captain in 1956, and would hold the position until the retirement of Blue Team, in 1969. Italy won the 1956’s European championship, held in Stockholm, and again challenged the Americans, winning her first Bermuda Bowl at New York in 1957. The players were four Neapolitans – Eugenio Chiaradia, Mimmo D’Alelio, Pietro Fourquet, Guglielmo Siniscalco – and two Romans, Giorgio Belladonna and Walter Avarelli.

1961. Buenos Aires. The arrival of Garozzo. In 1961 Guglielmo Siniscalco, Forquet’s partner, withdrew because work commitments, and this happened two weeks only before leaving for Buenos Aires and the Bermuda Bowl. Here it must be said that American systems weren’t as specialized as the Italians, nor as the other Europeans’: They still thought that strong players must necessarily make strong pairs. Perroux well knew that the strength of Italians was the strength of the partnerships, thus dropped the orphan Forquet – who underwent the replacement without complaints – and phoned Benito Bianchi of Leghorn, asking him to enter with his partner Giovanbattista Brogi. Bianchi accepted enthusiastically, but asked who had to exit and why. When Bianchi learnt that Forquet had to be excluded, he refused to enter. Find any partner for Forquet, said Bianchi, or even don’t call anyone. These five are enough, but don’t wear down the Team. Thus Perroux kept Forquet and called another Neapolitan, Benito Garozzo; a very lucky outcome from a serious problem.

1963. Saint Vincent. The Italian crisis. In 1962 Chiaradia went in Brazil to teach bridge, and this had to break up his partnership. D’Alelio, his natural partner, moved to Rome and started to play Roman Club with Belladonna and Avarelli. When Chiaradia went back, Perroux decided to make two threesomes: Chiaradia-Forquet-Garozzo, bidding Neapolitan Club, and Belladonna-D’Alelio-Avarelli, bidding Roman Club.

In March of 1963 another problem arose: Avarelli withdrew, also because work (none of the Blue Team was professional player). The happy ending of 1961’s single replacement suggested the same way, and Camillo Pabis Ticci, of Florence, entered without his partner Giuseppe Messina. The threesome Firenze-Roma was good, the Neapolitans too, but this time it needed something more: the Americans had a terrific pair, Howard Schenken and Peter Leventritt, who played a specific and well-built system, the Big Club.

At 1963’s Bermuda Bowl held at Saint Vincent’s (Valle D’Aosta, Italia), both Italy and USA destroyed France and Argentina while trying to destroy each other. After the sixth of eight stanzas, with still 32 deals to play, the USA were leading 21 IMPs; not a mountain, but what was impressive was their determination to fight on every card, to not yield a crump not soaked by blood. The salvation for Italy had to come from John Gerber, the USA captain. Schenken and Leventritt argued about a hand, thus he had the unhappy idea of splitting the pair; in the following stanza Schenken had to play with Nail. The result was 44-5 for Italians; in the last stanza Schenken-Leventritt came back, but the momentum had gone; Italy won the match +19.

1964. New York. The Trials of Perroux. In order to understand why Carl’Alberto Perroux decided to make trials for the 1964 Olympiad, we must try to view the situation as it appeared then. The Blue Team was undoubtedly the strongest in the world, but was not yet recognized as the granitic colossus we now know it was, and Perroux was concerned for the future, moreover after the fright of Saint Vincent, when the Americans had already grabbed the Bowl. In addition, there were other strong players who were champing at the bit to join the team, and some were strong indeed: We have already mentioned Bianchi, Brogi, Messina, Franco, Jovine…

What’s more, Avarelli, who had withdrawn in 1963, came back just few months later; therefore Italy had seven champions for three pairs, to say nothing the others in the backstage. Thus Perroux decided trials.

The Italian Trials, by pairs, took place in March 1964. Winners were Belladonna-Avarelli; second Pabis Ticci-D’Alelio. And what about Fourquet-Garozzo? Only fifth. Thus one of the three strongest pairs of all time, at least according to Time Magazine in 1997, didn’t overcome the Italian Trials. Fortunately for Italy, Perroux had reserved the right to pick out a pair, thus they were saved. Eugenio Chiaradia didn’t play trials; he couldn’t or wouldn’t, and, anyway, he no longer had a partner; the 1963’s Bermuda Bowl, that victory, was his last participation with an Italian national team.

In the following six year, until his retirement, Perroux never dared make trials.

2010-2012. Versace and Sbarigia’s viewpoints. Laura Camponeschi, founder of Neapolitan Club, interviewed Alfredo Versace (October 2010), and Silvio Sbarigia (March 2012), about trials. Versace responded when the team Monaco hadn’t yet been enriched by foreign players, then Italy had four pairs: Lauria-Versace, Bocchi-Madala, Duboin-Sementa were in the team; Fulvio Fantoni and Claudio Nunes had been excluded in the spring of 2010.

Versace: I’m for the trials. I wouldn’t pick up not even Lauria-Versace, but I would make a selection for all. This also for to revive the bridge out the group of the “four” pairs. The trials would give room to the young players and, maybe, the opportunity to find more sponsors. The sponsors in Italy are less than in U.S, but the sponsors could be attracted even so, giving the chance to play trials… (Full interview >>)

The matter of youth and the need of enlarging the field also were in a statement issued by Perroux in 1964; the purpose of enticing sponsors is in the statement issued by the today Federal President Gianni Medugno. (Read here >>)

Sbarigia [about open category]. In Italy there are in theory four world-class pairs, but in practice only three because Nunes-Fantoni are playing for Monaco at the moment. Our three best pairs are four players of the Lavazza team (Bocchi- Madala, Sementa- Duboin) and Lauria-Versace. [...] In Italy we have three pairs who are way ahead of all others. Their expertise and achievements give them the right to play for Italy in this important competition. Organizing trials is a waste of time and money. It is only winking at average players’ hopes. Trials are a good idea where there are at least five or six high-level pairs, as it is in the U.S., France, or Poland. If many pairs have the same expertise level, trials are mandatory.  (Full interview >>)

Thus Versace and Sbarigia are both for trials, but the former thinks in terms of general principles, whereas the latter thinks that in Italy, now, trials are absolutely useless.

The American way. The United States is the most powerful country; they do not have four pairs as great as the Italians, but just under the first step there are a lot of players who, sooner or later, could become very strong. America has two teams for the Bermuda Bowl, selected by three stages.

The first stage is the procedure which assigns teams the seeding points to USA1 trials; it weighs the rank of the players and the results in the three main team events played at National American Bridge Championship, that is Vanderbilt, Spingold, and Reisinger trophies. The results are worth less if are obtained with foreign players in the team.

The second stage, the so-called USA1 trials, is a knock-out event where the strongest teams have the lower numbers, and the pairing is between the lower and the higher numbers, as 1-16; 2-15, 3-14, etc. This is insurance against the danger that great teams would massacre each other at once, and the survivor being defeated by misfortune against a weak team.

The third stage, USA2 trials, has the same format; it gathers the teams which had already contested in USA1 trials and failed to qualify.

All this machinery ensures that the two USA teams are always strong, but does not guarantee that they are the strongest. I have already said that in 1964 one of the three all-time greatest pairs quoted by Time Magazine, Forquet-Garozzo, didn’t qualify in Italian trials; the other two pairs quoted by the magazine were Hamman-Wolff and Rodwell-Meckstroth. Now: Bob Hamman, Eric Rodwell and Jeff Meckstroth won the 2009 Bermuda Bowl (and 2003’s, and many others before), but didn’t qualify, nor in 2011 – won by The Netherlands – neither in 2013, won by Italy.

1970. Stockholm. When Hamman-Lawrence played Roman Club. The 1970 Bermuda Bowl was the first one after the withdrawal of the Blue Team, the legendary squad captained by Carl’Alberto Perroux that had won eleven straight titles and two out of three Olympiads. In 1970 Italy still had a good second team, the 1969 European champions (with Giorgio Belladonna), who even got the third place in 1970: Renato Mondolfo, Oscar Bellentani, Cesare Bresciani, Benito Bianchi, Giuseppe Messina; but the Federation thought that trials would have begotten a better team. The results were the following: the European champions refused to make trials; other strong players didn’t participate lest, had they won the trials, they might suffer a humiliating defeat in Stockholm; other players, still less strong, didn’t fear to be humiliated and played trials, won it and went to be humiliated, fifth amongst five teams.

At Stockholm the Americans of Ira Corn were so strong – the Dallas Aces was a team born to beat the Blue Team – that they won the final against China one stanza in advance; in the last meaningless thirty-two boards Giorgio Belladonna, went as a journalist, invited Bob Hamman and Mike Lawrence to play Roman Club, and they smartly did.

The Player, the Pair, the Team. In this last paragraph I’m dealing with two questions; the first is: Which trials, by pairs or by teams? The response is by teams. Bridge results depend on statistical factors, as the best technique and the win might diverge each other; let’s now suppose that in a pair tourney each of the three leading pairs have 80 per cent chance to take one of the first three places; this percentage is probably too high in a field as fiercely competitive as Italy’s, but let it be. It ensues that the chance of all three pairs getting the first three places is 51 per cent; this percentage diminishes even more if one pair would get a top and the other a zero in one of the three direct matches. In the long run the three best pairs would always come out, but bridge is not as rich as football; its championships, and its trials, cannot last a year. This explains the fifth place of Forquet-Garozzo in 1964’s pair trials, and why it weren’t unforeseeable, after all.

The second question is: whatsoever way we walk, team trials or picking out, what are we concretely accomplishing for? It look obvious to say that we are seeking six strong players for three harmonized pairs, but really is this enough in order to have the best team? It is not. A team is more than players and pairs; it’s strength lay in what the British call “chemistry” and we Italian call “amalgama”: the confidence of each player in his teammates. It is not necessary that they were pleasant nor friend each other; only it needs that, when the fatigue tempts into yielding, everyone could think: “my teammates are withstanding”, and draw from this certainty the strength to endure.

An example of such a team is the Italian one that lately won the Bermuda Bowl (Lauria, Versace, Bocchi, Madala, Duboin, Sementa), but allow me to report what I wrote about the team Bridge24 (Kalita, Nowosadzki, Jagniewski, Gawell), and its surprising victory in this year’s Spingold:

“…A team might be stronger than the sum of its pairs’ strength. The general rule can be said as follows: when the human being make team, and when the people trust each other, the strength of the team is superior than its parts. The history doesn’t lack of examples of this, but standing in the field of games it is worthwhile to remember what was happening in chess, an individual game, in the sixties and seventies: Hungary, with good players but never world champion as individuals – Bilek, Csom, Forintos, Portish, Ribli, Sax – was withstanding, and often winning, against the giants of Soviet Union: Spassky, Tal, Petrosian, Karpov, Korchnoi, and the others…”.

The players – this is the conclusion – might be very strong and might make very strong pairs, but it is the team and the way it has been built up that can transform them in a winning unit.

 ***

Paolo Enrico Garrisi

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