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John Carruthers: Bridge & Golf

Posted on 04 December 2011

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Bridge and golf have many similarities, not least of which are the unique patterns of concentration each requires for expertise. Golfers need to concentrate for a short span on each shot, say 45 seconds 70 times per round for the best professionals. Bridge players need to concentrate for longer periods of time with shorter breaks in between. A round of golf takes about the same amount of time as a pairs session (or a 32-board teams segment) of bridge. One more similarity between the two games (this one rather amusing) is the commentary.

For years, American golf pundits assessed the U.S. Ryder Cup team as heavy favourites against their European counterparts before each contest. After the Euros won the Cup six of eight times beginning in 1995, the American golf media became dimly aware that perhaps they weren’t such heavy favourites after all. They (the experts) had become victims of a numbers game. They saw that, for example, the U.S. might have 10 of the top 20 players in the world whereas the Euros might have only three (things are different today!). They saw that the U.S. had won 20 majors to the Euros two. They saw that the U.S. players had won 60 PGA Tour events to the Euros’ 10. They looked at a #1-ranked player facing #50 and saw no contest. What they failed to realise is that the actual difference between #1 and #50 might be half a stroke per round (or less than 1%). Thus their shock when #1 lost to #50 was misplaced. Even more ridiculously, they actually seemed to believe that it was an upset when a #40 player beat a #20 player.

Much more important than any of those numbers was which player was ‘in form’. We have reached a similar state of affairs in bridge, especially in events such as the Spingold and Vanderbilt. In those events, as in, for example, the World Match Play in golf, every team (player) has a seed number. So, in theory, a team with a #20 seed that beats a #10 has engineered an upset. Nothing could be further from the truth, however.

 Look at this year’s Vanderbilt, where any of the top 16 teams could win the event and no one would be in the least surprised. Could the Fleisher team (#7), which won the 2010 USBF Trials to be USA1 in the upcoming Bermuda Bowl, and containing Levin-Weinstein, winners of the World Open Pairs in 2010 and first and second in the last two Cavendish Invitationals, and by any measure the hottest pair in the world, beating any higher-seeded team be considered an upset? Be that all as it may, The Bridge World also fell victim to the numbers game, calling #41 Kang over #23 Gordon ‘a bigger upset’ (than its previous win over #24 Jansma) and calling #21 Grue’s win over #4 Cayne ‘a big upset’. Firstly, the Kang team was a bit of an unknown quantity in the U.S. before Louisville, so perhaps more caution was required. Secondly, the Grue team’s “front four” consisted of Grue and Cheek, one of the best pairs in America and Del’Monte-Bakhshi, two of the best players in Australia and England respectively. While it is true that Duboin-Sementa and Lauria-Versace would be on everybody’s “top 10 pairs in the world” list, in our view, it can hardly be considered a big upset to lose to that foursome. Perhaps over a 160-board Bermuda Bowl final, but not over a 64-board Vanderbilt match.


John Carruthers

(IBPA Bullettin No. 560  )


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