Ménage à trois: A joint interview to Norberto Bocchi and Alfredo Versace run by Laura Camponeschi. After coming back from Sanya’s World Championships, Alfredo Versace and Norberto Bocchi have agreed to release an interview to Neapolitan Club. Their purpose is to send a message about the future of the bridge world, but they could not avoid questions around the future of the Italian Blue Team. The following interview has been recorded during a Conference call between Roma and Barcellona three days ago.
Camponeschi: Welcome back from Sanya. We are here to chat about the latest World Championships: the organisation has raised a lot of complaints (about costs, location, advertisements, sponsors). What did not work?
Versace: I honestly think this was one of the least successful bridge events in history. Firstly, the location: Sanya is difficult to reach, far away for most players and very expensive. Teams without a big sponsor, like mine or Norberto’s, could not take part. I remember that 400 teams took part to the Ronseblum in Lille. In Sanya only 120 open teams participated, and only 28 women teams. A real fiasco! But these numbers are understable if we consider the costs: around 1000/1200 euros for the flights, the 3 available hotels cost 200 dollars a day, everything was expensive, from eating to a pair of flip flops, which I paid 40 euros! How can a player without a spnsor spend 5000 euros to spend a week in Sanya? This event was an anti-bridge advertisement. The WBF found an important sponsor, Red Bull, which named the competition, but it is not clear what the sponsor was for. In other words: where did the money from the sponsor go?
A sponsor should make a championship more accessible, and invite junior teams. Apart from travel and accommodation costs, one needs to add the subscription costs: 1200 dollars for mixed teams and 600 dollars for the pairs. Players without sponsors cannot afford this. So, I stress again, the message coming out of this situation is that only players with rich sponsors can play. This is a transnational bridge championship: it should be the place where everyone goes to meet the champions. Expert players enjoy these events because they have an opportunity to meet the world champions. It should have been an event open to anyone, but it has not been.
Bocchi: I can only agree with Alfredo. I have no complaints about China as a host, but rather about Sanya. Beijing and Shanghai, for instance, are easier to get to and offer a wider choice of accommodation options. Sanya is an island and there are only luxury hotels, it was impossible to choose a different type of accommodation. Restaurants were expensive, too. A coffee was between 7 and 8 euros in our hotel. Professionals, paid by sponsors, are less concerned by trip costs, but these prices do not match with a promotion strategy for the game of bridge. Bridge should be a sport open to anyone, and not a business opportunity for few. I hope that the WBF will find even more sponsors, but that these sponsors operate to promote bridge, i.e. to save players money and to make the game more popular.
Versace: I would like to say more about the sponsor. The WBF chose this location because Red Bull is Chinese. But what was the point of having this and other sponsors, if costs were prohibitive for most players? All European countries with a strong bridge tradition (Italy, Netherlands, France) fielded very few teams: Italy did not even field a Women or Senior team…NBOs have struggled to send their representatives and this is a serious issue that needs to be addressed.
Camponeschi: Were there other issues?
Versace: I think even those who were not in Sanya noticed that the internet connection was not good. I also think it is appalling that the right to broadcast the finals was given to OurGame, an experimental platform which did not work properly and left many spectators disappointed. Since the internet connection was gappy, the update of results has been less than prompt. Add to this our own personal inconvenience caused by not having internet.
Bocchi: So there are big sponsors who pay, such as OurGame and Red Bull, but nothing works, costs are high, players do not enjoy any benefits or economical incentives…Just to give you an example, there was not even one photocopier to print copies of the system files.
Camponeschi: Given the low numbers, were these real World Championships?
Versace: To strengthen Norberto’s point, note that the three best team fought for the qualifying spot in the last round. The second favourite, my team (Cayne), was basically already out; the third favourite (Nickell) had to win big to get in and the favourite team (Monaco) was going to be eliminated had they lost 10 points. This shows that 7-board rounds produce random results. We can play with this format, but let’s not call it a world championship…You see, if you play 7-board rounds for only two days, anything could happen and you only have this opportunity to get into the knock out stage. And we need to add that in a knock out match, even though with less hands than in the Rosenblum, the strongest teams win. I here take the opportunity to congratulate Mazurkiewicz team, who deserved to win and in particular to Michal Klukowski, whom I think is the youngest player to have ever won this trophy.
Camponeschi: What led the WBF to introduce the new shorter playing format?
Versace: I do not know, but I think that organisers should ask experienced players before deciding on the format. Norberto, myself and others have been playing for many years: we know a thing or two about the game and we could contribute with suggestions about formats, locations and the whole organisation. My rationale for taking part in this interview is to make a plea. Next year we are going to play the European Championships in the Arctic Circle, in Tromso (Norway), which is considered one of the three most expensive cities in Europe. Who would want to go to the Arctic Circle to spend 20 euros for a drink? I am sad to see that bridge is becoming a sport for professionals only.
Camponeschi: Alfredo, you have touched on a point very close to Norberto’s heart. He has been suggesting creating a trade union for bridge players, in other words he has been calling for players’ opinion to be acknowledged more by the WBF when making decisions about formats and playing venues.
Bocchi: We are never asked anything on these matters. This is why years ago I suggested to create a players’ trade union, to raise concerns about these issues. What we ask is to be able to give advice and I think our expertise will be useful to the EBL and WBF. We would like to take part in the decision making processes, for the greater good of bridge, whereas at the moment decisions are taken without asking us. Our goal is to organise events where 250 teams are going to sign up, to have fun without spending a fortune. Additionally, if there were enough teams taking part, this would generate enough income to invite junior teams. We need to rethink bridge, because in the current circumstances, it will die. Alfredo and I had our careers, we need to think about the youngsters and about a true development strategy for bridge.
Camponeschi: What about you, Alfredo, what do you suggest to improve the current situation?
Versace: I suggest we go back to holding these competitions where they used to be. The previous four editions of the Rosenblum have been held in Verona, Lille, Montreal and Philadelphia, which are cities with the capacity to welcome any number of teams and anyone: players, organisers and friends. Additionally, if sponsors are available, let’s use them to facilitate players’ participation, all players’: even those who finally get the opportunity to challenge the champions. If we keep raising the costs, we will end up with 30 teams. I would like to stress again that this is a plea for bridge. Norberto and I do not struggle to find sponsors, because we are professionals. I am talking about those who could not go to Sanya. Maybe in the past the organisation used to be better. Too many mistakes have been made lately. Let me bring in the Italian Bridge Federation (FIGB) who organised Rome’s tournament (a beautiful location) at the same time as Sanya’s championships: for this reason many strong players could not attend the latter.
Camponeschi: The next World Championships will be held in Chennai, in India…
Bocchi: this is a different matter, because these are national championships, where only selected teams can take part. When a tournament is not transnational, the location is a lesser issue. On the contrary, the purpose of the Rosenblum is to encourage as many players as possible to participate.
Versace: I think organising tournaments in remote locations always has a counterproductive effect. Additionally, transnational events run in parallel to the World Championships.
Camponeschi: As you know, Italy did not qualify to the next Bermuda Bowl in Chennai. Alfredo, Norberto: will you nonetheless play in the transnational event?
Versace: I am not even thinking about it. For once, we will watch the matches on VuGraph!
Bocchi: Playing in the transnational whilst others play the Bermuda Bowl feels like being a poor child looking at a toys’ shop window.
Versace: Indeed! I only played in the parallel transnational once: it felt like peeking through the keyhole.
Camponeschi: Whose fault is it that the Blue Team will not be taking part to the next Bermuda Bowl?
Versace: It certainly is Alfredo’s fault, because he did not manage to qualify. But it is also Norberto’s fault, a little bit, because he did not come to help the team qualify. So we are both responsible, but I am more at fault than him.
Bocchi: It is not my fault or Alfredo’s. Us players do not count much, as decisions are made elsewhere. Since I took part in the European trials with Lavazza’s team, I could not swap to another sponsor (Angelini): it would be inconsistent and unprofessional. The FIGB did not create the conditions for us to play together.
Versace: I would like to add something here. I do not think it is the end of the world if we miss one World Championship. It has happened to many strong players: for instance even Meckstroth and Rodwell missed some World Championships and overall they have won more than we have. I am inevitably sorry not to take part in the most fascinating and exciting bridge competition, the Bermuda Bowl. But let’s not tear our hair out! I will need to find something to do in those days, not to suffer too much…
Camponeschi: Something to do? I think you’ll be hired as commentators, no?
Versace: Yes, if no one buys the right to broadcast the matches and then does not show them…
Camponeschi: Norberto’s presence leads me to ask another question to Alfredo: you have surely read the letter where Bocchi, Duboin and Madala announce that they are not available to be selected for the next European trials. What is you reaction, Alfredo?
Versace: I want to think it is a joke. I was really sorry to read this: I cannot think of a future where the Blue Team does not encompass Norberto, Giorgino or Agustin. Together we won a lot, it is so painful to hear this news that I do not want to believe it is true. For the greater good of Italian bridge, let me think that this is a joke.
Bocchi: it is like when a husband is told his wife cheated on him… The husband does not want to believe it, but more often than not it is true.
Versace: Norberto and I have been knowing each other for many years, we have played for 5 years as a partnership and for 25 years in the same national team… I still want to believe that it is a joke.
Bocchi: But it is not…
Camponeschi: Alfredo, can you confirm that your friend and team mate Mustafa Cem Tokay has applied for Italian residence?
Versace: Yes I can confirm that Tokay will soon become an Italian resident. He is my team mate in Angelini’s team and a good friend: we are all happy about his decision, also because he is a talented young player who can still improve a lot.
Camponeschi: Will Tokay be able to represent Italy in the next European Championships?
Versace: Certainly. As it happened to Madala, it could happen to Tokay.
Bocchi: You see? Someone is already stealing our place. Resigning is the right decision [laughs, author’s note]
[English edition by Laura Cecilia Porro for Neapolitan Club and NewInBridge]